Lifestyle speaks louder than words

3 August 2013

How one person’s choices affects others — my revealing waste habits

A current trend in society is the quantified self, capturing data about our daily lives such as diet, sleeping patterns and exercise routines to better understand our habits and improve our quality of life. As a part of my master’s research project, which was dedicated to understanding the invisible urban waste infrastructure, I began exploring the quantified self through the lens of waste. What if we could track our waste habits to better understand our lifestyle choices?

This concept began to take shape in the form of a trash diary, where I began documenting each item of waste I generated. Capturing an image prior to placing an item into the trash created an amazing visual reference of the trash I produced daily and quickly showed how oblivious I was to the enormous amount of waste I generate regularly.

Thinking about the consequences for the environment, I decided to see if it would be possible to produce absolutely no waste at all. Could I continue my normal routine and not generate any waste? And so my personal challenge to live a zero-waste lifestyle began.

Throughout my daily routine, I began to avoid anything that would generate waste. The initial challenge started with food. A typical trip to the grocery yielded an endless supply of packaged food and individually wrapped items, which I avoided by heading to the local farmers market on a regular basis. Pasta, by far the largest part of my diet, was produced from scratch. I discontinued my weekend edition of The New York Times and started carrying a kitchen towel, a fork, a knife and a dinner plate around.

While shopping, I carefully scrutinized each item to avoid purchasing any that were not absolutely essential to my existence. Instead of shopping at typical department stores, I began searching the city for second-hand shops and looking at local online ads. I was always able to find a used item instead of buying something new.

After several weeks of learning the zero-waste ropes, the lifestyle became habit and much easier to manage, although the goal of absolute zero-waste was elusive. Receipts were nearly impossible to avoid. Despite the number of times I asked the baker not to put the loaf of bread into a brown bag, it still happened. A trip to the movie theater produced a ticket. The butcher was happy to place meat in my personal container but understandably unwilling to not use wax paper. To some extent, I had expected these experiences. Yet I was prepared to do what was necessary to avoid waste production.

The ripple effect

As this lifestyle continued to progress, I began to encounter situations that I had not expected. These situations were unique and unexpected, because they were situations in which my lifestyle began to impact those around me. This lifestyle choice was something that I had personally taken on without expecting involvement from anyone other than myself. The assumption that my lifestyle choices would not impact those around me was completely wrong.

My first experience was purchasing a sandwich from a nearby fast food restaurant. As I approached the counter to choose a pre-made sandwich from the glass case, I asked the employee if they would just place the sandwich in my hand directly without any packaging. With my hand outstretched over the glass case, the employee began to look at me with curiosity. After asking a second time, a long silence ensued. Finally, a woman in line next to me spoke up and told the employee it was okay to give me the sandwich in hand, because I was “going green.” Her permission and explanation provided the necessary encouragement for the employee to hand me the unwrapped sandwich.

It was then that I realized this lifestyle change was not going to be something individual. Inevitably, I was going to find myself in situations where I would need to explain and display my new lifestyle. I had not anticipated this and became somewhat anxious about being a lone person living this way. Throughout this first period of anxiety, I began sharing the lifestyle less and trying to conceal it as much as possible for fear of public embarrassment.

On another occasion, I found myself at dinner with a group of classmates. As dinner was served, I began to use my own towel instead of the paper napkins provided, as I typically did. My classmates, however, became very curious about my lifestyle, and the interrogation began. The initial questions were easily answered by explaining my toolkit of utensils, shopping habits and eating habits, but the group refused to stop there. They started to dig further and began to ask questions regarding hygiene. Though a bit more complicated, I began to explain various homemade solutions and local stores that sell self-server soaps and shampoos. It was then that someone asked a question for which I was completely unprepared, “Do you use condoms?”

Never had I thought that during this experience of trying to avoid waste that I would be publicly confronted about my beliefs. I had spoken tremendously about my approach toward environmental sustainability and the research I was conducting, but never had I received such a direct and personal question, as a result of my new lifestyle. I quickly found myself at the center of attention and in the midst of a long silence, as everyone waited with curiosity for an answer.

While I was contemplating a response, a friend at the table, seeing my hesitation, quickly spoke up in defense. He deflected the question by asserting my good character and the impropriety of the question. In the moment, I was relieved to not have to answer the question directly.

Only afterward I began to realize the impact of my lifestyle and my silence. Despite having said nothing, it had been clear to my classmates that my values have led me to make a different choice regarding sexual relationships before marriage. And seeing someone else within the group willing to speak up for this choice gave me a great deal of encouragement.

What it means to live beliefs

Though this incident was the most challenging, it helped me to understand the importance and impact of sharing my lifestyle and beliefs, preparing me for other similar occasions. Over the course of four months, while I lived a zero-waste lifestyle, other occasions again offered the opportunity to share more about my lifestyle, as well as my beliefs in general, which I felt encouraged to do. After the presentation of my research and the zero-waste lifestyle, many people applauded my approach, not only because of the subject of reducing waste but because of the dedication and commitment to this lifestyle.

Though my thesis project has concluded, various aspects of my zero-waste lifestyle have moved forward with a few variations. In regard to packaged foods, avoiding them at all costs has proven to be only moderately challenging and therefore has continued. I still never leave home without the zero-waste toolkit and always go the extra two blocks to the baker instead of buying bread in a plastic bag. Buying new items has somewhat resumed, as each new item must go through a thorough analysis of overall importance, projected disposal date, material composition, and an examination of where this product will finally end its lifecycle.

Ultimately choosing to live this lifestyle leads to situations I never could have anticipated, and though difficult in the moment, it taught me a great deal about what it means to live a certain set of beliefs.

It will forever be challenging to live our beliefs and lifestyles to the fullest, especially when we find ourselves alone. This should not, however, overshadow the fact that our lifestyles and beliefs do impact those around us. They have the tremendous potential to spread new ideas, change perspectives and build stronger relationships. Whether it’s a lifestyle aimed at reducing waste, living healthy or sharing beliefs, it is important to remain steadfast during the challenging moments and be fearless in sharing it with others.

By Nicholas Johnson

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