Life Without Litter: How to Begin a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • An RT documentary chronicles how correspondent James Brown seeks to reduce the waste he personally generates over a two-week period
  • After a trip to the grocery store, Brown sees he has already collected a lot of trash, yet has not cooked anything
  • Since personal grooming products come packaged in plastic that produce waste, Brown explores making his own toothpaste, shampoo and clothing detergent
  • After a second shopping trip with greater litter awareness, Brown is able to cook his first "waste-free meal" – broccoli cream soup
  • After two weeks, Brown reduces his litter significantly but learns from his eco-activist friend that he has more to learn about recycling

It is easy to ignore the problem of litter. We "throw out" our waste and once a week the trash collector comes and takes it all away. Since it is out of sight, we seldom question where it goes or realize the waste is not really gone at all. It’s simply been relocated to landfills and incinerators.

The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day and Americans dispose of an astounding 60 million water bottles daily, which is nearly 700 per minute.

Of course, food giants and huge retailers need to stop putting the onus and blame for excessive trash on consumers when they are the ones creating it. They need to dramatically reduce their wasteful packaging of plastic bottles, plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers.

Consumers can put pressure on these trash producers, be it Coca-Cola or their local grocery stores, restaurants and dry cleaners. A new RT documentary, “Life Without Litter,” chronicles the efforts of correspondent James Brown to reduce the individual waste he generates every day over a two-week period, with the goal of a zero-waste lifestyle.

While Brown, who lives in Moscow, does not arrive at the desirable zero waste state, he is able to greatly reduce his litter production by educating himself, being more conscious about his consumption and thinking ahead before buying or using wasteful products.

The Challenges of Recycling in Russia

Like other countries, Russia is awash in packaged food that creates waste, as well as ubiquitous advertising that exhorts people to crave and buy such foods. But unlike some other countries, Russia has few places to recycle the waste, says Brown.

In fact, the co-op where he and his wife live has one refuse bin for both non-recyclable and recyclable waste. Ironically, the documentary shows a sign near a garbage collection area that does not segregate recyclable items that says "Love Your Clean City." Recycling in Russia is "still in its infancy," he says.1

At the start of Brown's two-week waste reduction challenge, the documentary follows him throughout his day as he collects the waste he generates. At work, we see him use plastic cups and plastic plates that he would normally throw out but now collects.

After work, Brown goes shopping at the grocery store and shows viewers how much litter he has already accumulated, even though he has not cooked anything yet. As he looks over a pile of trash from a single day's activities, he muses over the short usefulness of these items, compared to their long life as garbage.

Brown is keenly aware of the plastic pollution caused by grooming and household cleaning products. While he doesn't want to add to the mountains of plastic trash that individual use creates, neither does he want to give up cleanliness for himself and his home.

Grooming Products Made Without Waste

To investigate how he can replace cleaning and grooming products that produce waste with low or zero waste products, Brown watches a video of tips by Lauren Singer that includes a demonstration of toothpaste made with coconut oil, baking soda and essential oils. A Women in the World article about Singer, who lives a zero-waste lifestyle, notes that:2

"… her lifestyle changes have enabled her to fit all of her trash from the past four years into a single 16-ounce mason jar. As an environmental studies major, Singer said she looked into her refrigerator one day when she had a realization: 'Every single thing in there was packaged in plastic,' said Singer. 'I was like, ‘Wow, I’m just as bad.’ I was protesting against the oil and gas industry, but supporting them as a consumer' ...

According to Singer, a trash-free lifestyle is much easier to achieve, and cheaper to afford, than people realize. 'I’m eating healthier, saving a ton of money, and I’ve become more of a minimalist,' said Singer. 'I absolutely love this lifestyle. I see no future of living any other way.'"

Brown also tries using homemade, no-waste shampoo made from apple vinegar, which he says seems to work satisfactorily, at least on the first day. He also tries washing his clothes in water made from boiled beans. He says he has found a place in Moscow that uses mustard powder to clean dishes.

Mindful Shopping Is Just the Beginning

As Brown continues his zero waste experiment, he returns to the grocery store, this time carrying his own bags. He is pleased to discover that the food sellers will gladly deposit the items in his bags rather than in the store's pre-packaging.

Nevertheless, Brown still encounters waste he cannot avoid. In fact, he says, the only products he wanted to buy that he could find unpackaged were leeks, parsley and a pineapple. After his mindful shopping, Brown is able to cook his first "waste-free meal" — broccoli cream soup.

Brown is pleased that the waste he and his wife produce in one week has gone from five bags to two bags. However, when he invites his friend and eco-activist Sergey Dorkin over to his apartment to analyze the trash, he gets disappointing news. Some of what Brown thinks can be recycled, can't.

If "organic waste," usually food, is present, the refuse centers says it is not clean enough for recycling, says Dorkin. Plastic bags that have paper stickers cannot be recycled because the paper "will clog the material when crushed."

And finally, while plastic food dishes made of material marked with the resin identification code 2 or 4 are OK to recycle, when plastic is attached to metal foil or composite material, as is often the case with food containers, it cannot be recycled. Sadly, only about 70% of what Brown thinks is recyclable actually is. As it turns out, recycling is not as simple as just separating the plastics.

Better Disposal Methods Are Needed

“Life Without Litter” shows that it is very difficult to completely eliminate the waste we produce in the way Lauren Singer and others have miraculously done.

More education is needed about what is recyclable and more accessible recycling collection centers are necessary, especially for items like plastic bags. However, we can start the process by realizing that when we throw garbage "out," it is not really "out" at all. It’s simply relocated to landfills and incinerators.

Landfills sound more environmental than "dumps," but they are hardly the answer to our waste problems and the tremendous amount of waste produced every day. In the 1970s there were 20,000 landfills in the U.S.; by 1986 there were 6,034 active sites.3 In 1997, the U.S. had 3,091 active landfills and over 10,000 old municipal landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.4

In a continuing downward trend of active landfills, in 2009 there were 1,908 in the U.S.,5 as Waste 360 predicted would happen, due to regulations the EPA instituted in 1991. Newer rules implemented by the EPA in 2019 indicate there are now approximately 1,900 landfills6 in the U.S., due to closures of many landfills across the country.

However, even though there are fewer active landfills, that doesn’t mean trash accumulation is also going down: For example, New York City now sends its trash to the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania,7 so whatever New York “saves” from its now-closed landfills is actually being shipped out of state.

Since many municipal landfills accept hazardous waste, they are dangerous. Their "leachate" or water, which contains pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, contaminates ground and surface water when the plastic landfill liners and pipes break down. Fortunately, EPA rules implemented in 2017 address leachates with new restrictions and regulations covering how the leachates are handled, collected and removed.8

While these rules also address air emissions, the plain fact remains that landfills also produce hazardous air emissions. Incinerators are equally as dangerous, emitting toxic materials like dioxins, mercury and cadmium and air particulate pollution.

Other Important Sources of Waste

When discussing litter and waste, the world also needs to address "clothes pollution" — clothing produced so cheaply it ends up being viewed as disposable. Electronic products and appliances are also considered disposable these days, and thrown out rather than repaired.

To demonstrate the contribution of excessive clothing to pollution, Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, an English chef, celebrity and environmental activist, dumped a pile of 10,000 clothing items in the middle of a shopping mall.9

The crowd that gathered was asked how long it would take for Britain to dispose of that amount of clothing. While people in the crowd guessed "one week" or "several days," the correct answer is 10 minutes! Fearnley-Whittingstall said:10

"We're binning more than £150m worth of clothes every year in the UK, and they end up being incinerated or buried in landfill. Chucking away clothes at this current rate is clearly an environmental disaster."

Finally, let's not forget the pollution generated during the holidays. Season’s greeting cards alone could stack a football field 10 stories high, and enough gift ribbon is thrown away to tie a bow around the Earth.11 Too bad ribbon and cards are not generally regifted. Gifts themselves also tend to have excessive packaging.

How You Reduce Your Personal Waste

There are signs the world is waking up to the waste problem, however. In 2019, 187 countries added plastic to the Basel Convention treaty that governs the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another.12

As you can see in “Life Without Litter” it is possible to greatly reduce the volume of garbage we generate through education, conscientious purchasing and planning ahead. Here are a few more tips:

Reduce your plastic use — If at all possible, avoid products made from or packaged in plastic. Here are a few ideas: Use reusable shopping bags for groceries. Bring your own mug for coffee and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water.

Store foods in the freezer in glass mason jars as opposed to plastic bags. Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning. Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can. These are just a few ideas — I'm sure you can think of more.

Recycle/repurpose what you can — Recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, especially ones that are not available in anything other than plastic. This includes giving your clothes or gently used household items to charities and frequenting second-hand stores instead of buying new things. Make use of online sites like Freecycle.org that allow you to give products you no longer need away to others instead of throwing them away.

Choose reusable over single-use — This includes nondisposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, glass bottles for your beverages, cloth grocery bags, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, and using an old T-shirt or rags in lieu of paper towels.

Compost your food scraps and yard waste — A simple bin in your backyard can greatly cut down on your landfill contributions while rewarding you with a natural fertilizer for your soil.

Support legislation — Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community; take a leadership role with your company, school and neighborhood.

Be innovative — If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless, and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.

Assist recovery — Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products, and participate in "plastic drives" for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.