Photo via BeZero.org
A years’ worth of trash fitting in a mason jar. Taking reusables everywhere you go, and refusing to create more waste than is necessary. Say hello to zero waste living.
Despite its name, zero waste living is not entirely waste-free, but instead aims to create as little waste as possible while living in a world that values convenience, ease, and consumption.
Andrea Sanders is well acquainted with the United States’ fascination with and love for consuming and all things convenient. Initially an environmental educator, then meditation and yoga teacher, Andrea is the woman responsible for Be Zero, a non-profit based in Boulder, Colorado, dedicated to raising awareness of and providing education about living minimally, and creating as little waste as we can.
Sanders grew up in Florida, the child of a family who valued the environment. She began volunteering at her local aquarium and considered herself an environmental activist. Her focus at the time: endangered species, deforestation, and other natural-world-specific matters.
It wasn’t until she was 26 and stumbled across Bea Johnson’s blog, Zero Waste Home, that Sanders began to consider her own lifestyle and the impact it had.
She says, “I’d never connected the environment to my actions and what I was actually doing. It didn’t really click for me until halfway through my career at the Central Florida Zoo…”
“I never really thought about how my consumerism was that related. When that happened, I started to see environmental work in a totally different light; basically what has happened is that we’ve lost value in the things that we use—the materials we use, the communities we live in…we’ve devalued materials over the course of a few decades.”
Sanders’ simple approach to wasting less is powerful. Rather than standing on a soapbox and preaching the evils of having more than you need, or insisting that everyone immediately trade their large homes for tiny apartments or swap their gas-guzzlers for electric cars, Sanders lives by example. Her entrance into zero waste education came from her own friends’ interest.
Living in Central Florida when she began her zero waste journey, Sanders had few resources, and did what she could, including using thrift stores when possible, and even creating her own composting bin, which she kept in a box beneath her kitchen sink. “Friends would come over, and they would go, “What’s this compost? Can I see it? I want to see the worms!” so I started teaching my friends. And I was still teaching at the zoo, so I would take that out to the zoo and show people how to do a worm compost.”
Her dedication to zero waste living was fitting, in that one of the things she attributes to the rise of consumerism and disposables is a lack of resourcefulness—like, say, composting your own food in a bin under the sink while living in Florida heat.
Disconnection and Its Role in Consumerism
Sanders also attributes a disconnection from ownership as one of the reasons for the rise of convenience products and the throw-away mindset. As part of her mission at Be Zero, she works to instill “these core strategies: simplicity, understanding your wants and needs, not getting more than you need, converting disposables to renewables, and community and consumer power. You can apply these things to kids, to pets, to your office, to traveling, to your home.”
Her message is a refreshing one. When pets, children, and even travel come into the picture, living without waste can seem impossible. Sanders urges people to do what they can, rather than becoming discouraged.
“Just think about loving the things you have, think about where they come from. It doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a deal, but I feel like when I tell people that, something clicks, and they think about all of that stuff in a different way, maybe.”
“It’s not about trash as much as it is about putting value back into the things we use. When you have value in the things you use and you take ownership of them, it kind of ripples out into everything else… we don’t live in a zero-waste economy; we live in a linear economy. So as dreamy as we want to imagine it, it doesn’t exist.”
“Trash is going to happen, there isn’t a solution for everything, and it just is what it is right now. Our global infrastructure is based on “extract and dispose. With that in mind, all we can do is drastically reduce our waste—even if we don’t live in a zero-waste economy, we can have a zero-waste mindset, or a circular mindset.”
Tackling the Issue of Pets, Comparison, and Having Limited Resources
Living in a small town, having children, and having pets can all provide excellent excuses for people to forego the possibility of zero-waste living altogether. However, Sanders encourages the addition of simple, straightforward swaps to start out, which can eventually morph into greater change and drastically reduced waste.
“I try to get people to come at it from an economic standpoint… The little common things—the low-hanging fruits—are bringing your own coffee cup, and bringing your own utensils. I always have my own tiny kit—I don’t take tons of stuff with me when I’m out, I just try to avoid the common disposable things we see: utensils, cups (coffee cups are the worst; I always have my Keep Cup, which is super easy)—swaps like: don’t use paper towels. So I think just those kinds of things—refusing straws when you’re in restaurants—these little things start to build habits. And it starts to give people the process of turning an action to habit and it becomes a normal thing. I always tell people to refuse first.”
This start is simple and clear: Instead of immediately throwing out any plastic or disposable items, or running out to purchase the latest “zero waste gear,” Sanders encourages simply using what you have, and refusing to accept any disposables when they are offered. She embodies this in her own life, admitting, “I just did whatever I could with the little amount of money I had. I remember I bought my first pressure cooker for $12… I still have it today.”
For pets, Sanders encourages using plastic-free bags for quick clean-ups, and getting creative, via cooking your dog’s food yourself, choosing a sustainable dog food company with compostable bags, or even just utilizing your local pet store’s bulk treats section.
On Women and Zero Waste
Despite her infectious optimism, not every aspect of zero-waste living has been a smooth or easy ride. Sanders can become discouraged by the prevalence of waste and disposable products, and has encountered sexism in the workplace. She recalled one moment, in particular, and acknowledged the absence of men in most zero-waste workshops and classes.
“When I was just starting to bring Be Zero out to the public… I was telling people what I did, and a man was across from me, just sort of smiling and shaking his head, and as soon as I was done with my introduction, he went, ‘Oh, real good—I guess you don’t have kids,’ and he just laughed me off. He was very rude, and his behavior was like, ‘Oh, this girl’s a joke.’ That was the one moment where I think I just noticed that, as a woman, it was like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. How adorable.’ But when it was his turn, I had to respect him.”
“ …That was one moment when I first started and I didn’t have the voice enough yet to speak up, but since then, I have noticed that we don’t have a lot of men that are as interested, and they think that this is more a girls’ thing, because it has a lot to do with the home and buying things for your house or your kids. So they kind of feel like it’s not for them. There are a handful of men that come, but it’s mostly women that are engaged.”
“My husband is totally different, though—he’s like our little spokesperson for it and he’s awesome, but I think of that one instance and then just notice that typically more women follow me, more women come to our workshops, and I get more women that want to talk to me about this than men.”
Speaking for a moment on women and their role in the world, Sanders spoke to the zero waste movement and its direct (or indirect) impact on women as a whole. “I think with this movement, it’s really about showing this collective value system. What are we putting value and are we putting value in women? We’re a women-run non-profit and so it can empower us.
“I think it gives people power to act and go, “No, this is what we should do. I am an empowered consumer, I am an empowered woman—I can do this,” and not worry about what other people think and what their judgments might be. I typically shrug a lot of that off and keep going forward. I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine, but I know what I want to do, I know how I want things to look, and I don’t care if I go against the typical way to run a non-profit. I want to make sure that this is getting across to as many people without labels or boxes. I want to make this for everyone.”
Be Zero Going Forward
Being based on Colorado and having some funding constraints, most of Be Zero’s workshops, classes, and events are held in Boulder. Sanders, however, hopes and plans for more for the non-profit—in particular, expanding the current ambassador program.
“We have an ambassador-volunteer program and we have 40 volunteers all across the United States and internationally, as well. It’s just a network of people who are on the same page, who want to share Be Zero’s mission… I would love to have Be Zero communities in every major city in the U.S., where these kinds of conversations can take hold even more, and we have the funding for them to do more in their community, giving them the resources and tools to do cleanups, and more. One of the things I really want to do is get more people who are scientists, or who are product engineers, or who work for major recycling companies, to come and educate our ambassadors. We want to grow that into an education program where they can be facilitators and keep sharing our message.”
Anyone can take part in the zero waste movement. It doesn’t require a massive overhaul of everything you own, nor does it require drastically altering every lifestyle habit you’ve developed over the course of your life. Instead, Sanders encourages small changes.
She shared this simple message: “Just do what you can. Don’t worry about doing all the things, don’t worry about what the next person isn’t doing; being a quiet activist, sometimes, is the best thing, because we’re all watching each other, we’re all looking, so you’re planting seeds of inspiration everywhere you go, just by bringing your own cup, or just by bringing a straw, and that person who might be your best friend or a stranger on the street, you never know when that seed you planted will sprout. So don’t ever be discouraged. Just do your thing, do what you believe in, and I think when you do that with compassion and love, it will sprout and grow.”
My sincere thanks to Andrea Sanders for taking the time to share her mission at Be Zero with us. If you’d like to learn more about her incredible work and how you can get involved, visit www.bezero.org or visit Sanders’ Instagram, @bezerowastegirl.