Cut waste, one small step at a time: Q&A with Sarah Atkinson from Zerology

The Zero Waste movement is having a moment. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I post a lot about trash and recycling. Waste is of course not the only environmental problem of our time, but I find it easily resonating with people because it is so visible (vs something like climate change). What is more, it’s that we really can reduce the amount of waste with just a little effort and thought, and see the change right away.

This is why I’m so excited to introduce you to Sarah Atkinson, whom I met at a zero waste workshop she hosted. A recent transplant from California, Sarah is already taking root in Boston with her awesome workshops – the first of which was covered in the Boston Globe magazine (read: a big deal!) I hope you enjoy our conversation. (Most images in this post are from Sarah and her friend Claire’s Instagram page Zerology!)

Q: First of all, for the uninitiated – what is zero waste (or low waste), and why should anybody care?

A: Zero waste to me means avoiding what can be avoided, it means being conscious and aware, it means consuming less, it means changing the system we currently have – cradle to grave – to a system where waste is not an inevitability nor an external cost of how we consume – cradle to cradle.

An illustration of cradle-to-grave (linear) vs cradle-to-cradle (circular). Image credit: Circular Flanders.

I don’t love the term zero waste because I think it feels overwhelming in a world where waste is impossible to avoid. When talking to the “uninitiated” i.e. a friend who hasn’t thought about their waste before, I like to talk about it as a “reimagining of the way we consume”. In the long-term, I hope to work with producers to also reimagine how we produce goods so that waste is not even a part of the lifecycle of our products – that is when we will reach zero-waste.

People should care about waste because it affects all of us: humans, plants, animals, etc. Waste is just the manifestation of an inefficient system that is over using our valuable & non-renewable resources that will at some point be gone. If we wish to continue to “grow” and advance as a species we must address our issue of waste.

Plastic waste is polluting our oceans, poisoning delicate ecosystems that support us by supplying us with food. Waste is being incinerated and adding carcinogens to our air. Waste that ends up in the landfill is rendering valuable land unusable for decades, while often polluting ground water, which we drink. And all of this is happening while we continue to extract natural resources like oil. This is a social justice issue just as much as it is an environmental justice issue, so no matter what matters to you, this is something you should care about.

Q: Tell us about yourself, and what inspired you to start living a low waste lifestyle?

I am 25-years-old and a graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in Environmental Sciences. I have always been interested in the interplay of humans and natural ecosystems, and wish to spend my life working to find a balance that supports the health of all beings now and in the future. The long-term impacts of waste on the health of our planet, ecosystems, natural resources, and bodies is what drew me to be interested in a low waste lifestyle.

I have thought a lot about the type of impact I want to have on the world in my lifetime, and sadly my landfilled/incinerated waste will outlive me, my kids, their kids, and beyond. I don’t want that to be my legacy, and I don’t like the widespread effects that my waste might have on other humans presently and in the future, so I decided it was time to make a change, and in doing so I decided to try to inspire others to join me by posting on social media, chatting with friends, and hosting workshops!

Q: Since going low waste, what lessons have you learned?

A: I’ve learned that walking out the door to do my monthly grocery shopping and thinking “I’m not going to buy anything in plastic this trip” is a recipe for disaster. That was one of my first shopping trips after deciding to go low waste and I remember roaming around the store almost in tears because so few of my favorite foods had “low waste” packaged alternatives. I came home with half the groceries that I needed and a few plastic packaged items because I was so overwhelmed that I had to leave. I learned that I don’t need to be perfect (i.e. 100% zero waste) to be making a HUGE difference in the waste my partner and I consume. I also learned that these changes are HARD and take a lot of research, planning, and clear expectation setting.

Q: Say more, what was hardest initially and what are still some of your biggest challenges?

A: Grocery shopping is still challenging at times although it’s gotten much better. I still buy the occasional “splurge” item in plastic – like chocolate peanut butter cups. It’s hard to deny yourself things that you love – so don’t!

I tried out some homemade deodorant…that was a bust. I still use my “Every Man Jack” deodorant (yes I use men’s deodorant) probably 60% of the time, but on days where I am less active I use my homemade stuff and enjoy my more natural scent… (Yue: jumping in here for a sec – deodorant to me is SUCH an American thing – I grew up in China not knowing a soul who used deodorant. We are human, we sweat! Ok, end of rant.)

Catching people before they give me bags at stores, this has been challenging. I learned that I have to be 100% on it because it’s the default for all cashiers to put purchased items in bags. When I get a pastry with my coffee I always have to tell them not to put it in a bag – why would I need a bag? It’ll be in my face before I reach the corner!

Q: Do you have tips and resources for people looking to live a more waste-conscious life?

A: Here’s a list of easy swaps that you can make to go low-waste: https://www.zerologywaste.com/zero-waste-resources

This list was compiled by some awesome workshop attendees at my most recent workshop at Cambridge Naturals! (Shimmy* she is talking about meee, obv) Also check out the Boston Resources page for local places to buy items low waste.

Bonus tip: do your research! It’s great to make changes but not all “obvious” changes are more sustainable. For example, Massachusetts is currently not able to recycle glass, so if you are switching to buying more items in glass remember that when you recycle those containers they may not actually be getting recycled. So, instead reuse your containers or look for alternatives in tin/aluminum or paper/cardboard!

Q: Have you tried to bring friends and family on board, and have you been successful?

A: YES! I have had a few friends from high school and college message me that since I’ve been posting they have started trying to reduce their waste as well! It’s really empowering to hear that other people are empowered by my posts and shares on social media and in person.

My partner Evan has also been incredibly supportive of the change. He even said to me last week when we were in a small market that all he could see was all the packaging around him in the store and how he didn’t feel good about buying anything in plastic packaging anymore. He’s also very interested in environmental issues so this was an easy transition for him, but there were a few things that took him time to get used to – like DIY toothpaste, he still hasn’t fully transitioned to that.

Q: Beyond waste, what are some of other practices that you engage in to lower your environmental footprint?

A: My partner and I share a car when we go camping or on road trips, but otherwise when staying local we both use bikes to get around.

We eat mostly vegetarian to avoid the carbon footprint and overuse of resources caused by conventional animal agriculture. When we do eat meat, we support local meat producers/farmers as much as possible, both when cooking in or dining out.

We also buy 70% of the things we need (household items like pots/pans, clothes, etc.) at thrift stores like Boomerang or Goodwill. Generally, we are thoughtful about what we buy and what we need, and try to support local producers and high-quality products when possible – without breaking our bank accounts!

Q: Where can we follow your work? Do you have upcoming workshops?

A: Workshops are in the making! I am planning a zero waste grocery store tour for late June, time and location TBD, but you can follow me on instagram @sarahrosebeara or @zerologywaste for workshop updates, tips and tricks on being a conscious consumer, and more! Plus check out our website zerologywaste.com for local resources and easy swaps for your low waste lifestyle.

Are you inspired? I definitely am! Be sure to follow Sarah online and join her for a workshop if you are local!