Talking Trash

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Once a month, over the past year, a picture of a glass jar containing miscellaneous discarded items has shown up on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. This is Heather Benek’s trash jar. I was intrigued by this idea, so I decided to ask about it. “It’s a pretty common thing in the zero-waste community,” Benek told me. “It’s just a way of having self-accountability.”

Benek grew up in an environmentally-aware family who produced much of their own food and bought in bulk, but two years ago she decided to go a step further and embrace the zero-waste movement. “I started intentionally reducing waste two years ago, but the trash jar started in January,” Benek said.

Over the last year she has collected roughly a quart of garbage in her jar every month. Considering that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of solid waste per day, this is an impressive achievement. Most months she produces about a quart of garbage, but some months the jar has been fuller than others. Benek relocated to Pittsburgh a few months ago and almost filled a gallon jar at that point. When travelling she tends to eat more protein bars and use tea bags, both of which contain non-recyclable packaging. “When I’m home I eat package-free snacks and use loose-leaf tea.”

Zero-waste living is a challenge, but it is one that Benek has managed to turn into a game. She has developed strict shopping rules. “I’m becoming very mindful and considering the impact of the item and what its end of life will be,” Benek said. “I think about who is going to outlive this experience, this item or me?”

The top of the list is to forego packaging as much as possible. This means buying in bulk using her own, refillable containers, although bulk items still come in packaging initially. The plastic foot-print is just shared among more consumers. Benek looks for cardboard, paper, or recyclable packaging, or preferably none at all. One example is a body bar that can be used from head to toe. She buys many things, especially clothing, second-hand in thrift and consignment shops, and eschews online purchases because of over-packaging.

Package-free stores are beginning to open in some larger cities, but Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to have one yet. “There are some places that carry bulk goods and supplies with instructions on end of life care,” Benek said. “They also carry more durable, “old-fashioned” things like stainless steel vegetable peelers and safety razors.”

The one problem Benek runs into is with books. It’s so easy and convenient to buy books online with a click of a mouse, but they come covered in plastic or layers of cardboard. “I make myself wait to see if I can find the book locally or used,” Benek said. “If I hold out on items, I often find I don’t care if I have them anymore.”

The utensils and packaging that come with take-out food are another huge waste producer in America. Benek gets around this by carrying a glass, pint Mason jar, a set of reusable bamboo utensils and her own napkin at all times. She uses her own fork, knife and spoon instead of disposable plastic ones, and takes left-overs home in the glass jar. She has found a few restaurants that will package to-go items in her jar, but some balk at the practice citing health department regulations.

“It’s all about mindfulness,” Benek said. “What is the reaction to my actions?” Benek is a health and wellness coach and sees clients in Pittsburgh and Erie for healing and energy work. She can be contacted through her website, heatherbenek.com.

 

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