by Arden Igleheart
Graciela Vidal’s coworkers knew she was a bit of a tree-hugger. Last Wednesday, they learned she was more than just that.
“My story from Fox 13 aired on the news while I was at work,” Vidal said. “And a lot of people I work with knew that I was vegan and I was all about the environment but I guess they didn’t realize how far I go on a daily basis. When they saw my story, they were like ‘You really do all that?’”
Vidal, 37, lives a Zero Waste lifestyle. This means she tries to produce no trash in her daily life. Each month, all of her and her son’s trash can fit in a large mason jar. Vidal makes her own deodorant, toothpaste, face toner and house-cleaning products to avoid buying them in plastic packaging. At the grocery store, she fills her own containers in the bulk section and buys almost exclusively unpackaged produce.
“They just looked at me like I was some alien or something,” Vidal said.
Zero Waste is an internet sensation. A search for #zerowaste on Instagram returns almost 1.5 million posts. Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, has over 168,000 Instagram followers. Lauren Singer, a Zero Waste advocate, has a TED Talk with over 1.7 million views on YouTube. Vidal believes more and more people in Tampa are choosing to live this way due to its exposure on social media and a growing concern about plastic pollution.
Beth Terry, anti-plastic activist and author of My Plastic-Free Life, said the problem of plastic pollution is getting more and more awareness.
“The essential theme of Earth Day this year was plastic pollution, which as far as I know has never been done before,” Terry said. “And then National Geographic devoted an entire issue to plastic pollution and they have a three-year campaign to fund research.”
However, going trash-free to save the world is easier said than done.
Claire Breeden, a junior entrepreneurship and economics major, heard about Zero Waste on Instagram. She transitioned to a Zero Waste lifestyle this past summer.
“It’s kind of something that you always have to be prepared for,” Breeden said. “If you’re just out and about and you’re like ‘Oh I really want to pick up something’ but you don’t have a container with you or you’re like ‘Oh I want coffee but I don’t have my cup with me.’ You have to form habits.”
To reduce her trash, Breeden makes her own deodorant and dry shampoo out of readily found ingredients like cornstarch. Like Vidal, Breeden buys primarily unpackaged and bulk foods. She drops off her compost at the Sustainable Living Project, a community garden in Seminole Heights.
Some of the hardest things to find without wasteful packaging are berries and tofu, Breeden said. Over the summer, she got sick and tried to use a handkerchief, but it got old. She ended up using regular – disposable – tissues.
Buying reusable containers can be expensive, but Breeden said she’s saved money by going Zero Waste. Making deodorant and dry shampoo is easy and inexpensive, she said. Buying her non-perishables in bulk means most weeks fruits and vegetables are the only groceries she buys.
Ally Marter, a junior environmental science major and president of Roots and Shoots, tried Zero Waste at the beginning of 2017, the second semester of her freshman year. Marter and her friend who goes to a different university attempted to go Zero Waste for all of 2017. That January, instead of taking a gradual approach, Marter dove right into it.
Living on-campus at the time, Marter couldn’t control her food waste, but she made the decision to only eat at the cafeteria, because the other eateries on campus serve food in disposable containers. She started making her own toothpaste, which she still does, by mixing coconut oil and baking soda. She refused straws at restaurants.
Marter and her friend collected any trash that they did create and took pictures and documented the amounts in a Google Doc. Marter produced a small wastebasket of trash each month.
After three months, Marter quit, as she felt guilty every time she accidentally used plastic.
“I was trying to figure out all these ways to wrap Christmas presents because I didn’t want to use tape,” Marter said. “And that was fun to an extent but unless you find a super easy reusable method obsessing about little things like that for a really long time is not sustainable.”
Zulema Ramos, a senior philosophy major, started transitioning to Zero Waste around a year ago, taking a gradual approach. Ramos wraps presents using old T-shirts as well as boxes people on campus have thrown away. “I’m one of those weirdos; I’ll pick through the trash. I wash my hands after,” Ramos said.
Ramos does feel guilty using single-use plastic, but it doesn’t make Ramos want to quit.
“I mentally see a sea turtle choking on plastic every time,” Ramos said.
Vidal used to feel guilty when she used plastic, but she doesn’t anymore. Because single-use plastic is omnipresent, it’s impossible to produce no trash, according to Vidal.
“I call it getting plastic-ambushed. You don’t know how something is going to come, so you can’t beat yourself up,” Vidal said, recalling how even nice restaurants will sometimes bring her plastic containers for condiments.
Vidal, who lives with her eight-year-old son in South Tampa, first heard about Zero Waste from online blogs about two and a half years ago. She had just watched a few documentaries about plastic pollution.
“I thought I was doing my part: recycling, using my own shopping bag, those little things,” Vidal said. “I thought ‘I know what I’m doing here; I’m saving the Earth’ but then watching the devastation of the animals and the earth and the climate change I realized that I need to do something more than just take my own bag to the grocery store.”
It took Vidal about about six months to transition to where she is now. In the meantime, she started Zero Waste Tampa Bay as a Meetup group. She since has transitioned it away from a Meetup group and it now conducts workshops with individuals and small businesses such as Blue Sage Eco Boutique in Seminole Heights. Vidal encourages her students to start with small changes, such as bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.
So will Zero Waste last, or will it die like so many internet fads before it?
According to Marter, Zero Waste will last because it’s more than just a trend. It has real values behind it.
“Because of the current ecological disaster we’re faced with, we have to accept it as a part of our culture and make it a part of our daily lives,” Marter said.
Beyond individual choices, the next step for the Zero Waste movement might be to prompt a change in American government and business.
Marter wants to see more recycling and compost bins in Tampa, and Roots and Shoots is trying to educate students about what they can and can’t recycle.
Ramos said they would like to see corporations shift to biodegradable plastics made out of cassava or cornhusks. But if you want a company to change, Ramos said, you can’t give them money. Ramos likes to tell people, “You vote with your dollar.”
Arden Igleheart can be reached at email@example.com