I Tried to Reduce My Trash by 50%—Here's What Happened

Welcome to I Tried It Month, where we'll be publishing a new fashion, beauty, or wellness article every day in January that features a first-person account of shaking up an old habit, pushing beyond a comfort zone, or simply trying something new. Follow along for 31 days of storytelling, including everything from going without a cellphone for 40 days to trying the polarizing low-rise pants trend.

Name: Jacqueline Lee, Photo Editor

What did you try?

I tried to completely cut out plastic and reduce my household trash by 50%.

Why did you want to try it?

I think, like a lot of THE/THIRTY readers, I've become really conscious over the last few years about the detrimental effect our trash has on the environment, especially plastic pollution in the ocean, and I'd like to start taking control of my part of that.

What do you hope to learn or accomplish through this?

My hope is to make some significant and lasting changes to my everyday life. For that to be maintainable, I have to search out effective and affordable alternatives that also look pretty on my shelves.

How much trash do you normally accumulate in a week?

I've been gradually swapping things like cleaning products and laundry for more sustainable options, like buying concentrates or getting refills, but our house of two adults and two cats still creates a lot of trash in a week. We are lucky to have a curbside recycling program in our neighborhood, which means it's fairly easy to recycle the majority of glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum, but we still have products that are not recyclable or compostable. I really want to eliminate those from our life.

What do you think will be a challenge for you? 

I think groceries will be the hardest area to cut down packaging on, especially with the pandemic meaning most stores have closed their refill dry goods sections. Oh, and giving up takeout is going to hurt!

What do you think will be easy?

I'm hoping some updates to my bath and shower routine will make some easy changes.

What are you looking forward to most in this challenge?

I'm really excited to try out shampoo and conditioner bars!

These are some of the things I've found that really help so far.

I use this to clean pretty much every surface in my house, and this concentrated refill bottle has lasted for months and is recyclable.

Dr. Bronner's uses recycled and recyclable packaging, so I use this soap to fill up all my hand soap dispensers and dishwashing liquid bottles.

I switched to this just before Christmas when I had run out of detergent and had too many grocery bags to carry home already. It lasts just as long as a normal detergent bottle but is about one-third of the plastic.

I love these all-natural scrubber sponges from Public Goods. It took me ages to find a kitchen sponge that wasn’t wrapped in plastic packaging.

If you just make one change, this is the one I would recommend.

Here's what happened:

How much trash did you accumulate?

I was able to cut out plastics for the week (except for one cheat item), but we still had lots of recycling and compostable trash.

What was the hardest part of this challenge?

Resisting takeout after a busy day of work was about as much of a struggle as I expected!

What was the easiest part? 

Switching out my shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel plastic bottles for bars that came wrapped in paper was such an easy change with the added plus that my bathroom permanently smells of lemongrass now.

What were some surprising things you learned? 

I was really surprised by how much of our weekly rubbish was recyclable. When I checked on our local council's website, it had good and clear guidance on what to recycle. I also had no idea TerraCycle partnered with so many brands on mail-back recycling. It also has a new initiative called the Loop, where you lease the packaging of the product and return it for refills. Another thing I learned about recycling is that plastic has a limited recycle life, but glass and aluminum retain their integrity much longer, so they're much better choices of packaging to go for.

Are there any tricks that you picked up along the way? 

I discovered so many cute products to help work a sustainable lifestyle. There's a lot more choice than I was expecting.

What would you do differently next time? 

I definitely made some real progress toward a 100% no-trash sustainable lifestyle. I think the only thing I would change up if I did this again next week is to hire myself a personal chef.

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to try it? 

If you wanted to try this at home, try—every time you finish with a product, be it a toothbrush or a scrubbing brush—taking a look for an alternative replacement that is refillable, recyclable, or biodegradable and comes without excess packaging rather than setting a time limit on yourself. I was definitely excited by the choices in sustainable solutions compared to even just a year ago.

Here are some of the tricks I learned and products I used.

For the Shower

There are so many great options for shampoo, cleanser, shower, and conditioner bars right now, and I would definitely recommend this change to everyone. Safety razors are another easy swap that worked for me.

For Groceries

Some aspects of grocery shopping were definitely a challenge. Unpackaged fresh veggies from the farmers market or store was my first step. Then, getting fish and meat from the counter wrapped in paper helped cut back on a lot of plastic and cling wrap. I managed to find a local cheese delicatessen that wrapped the cheese in wax paper for me, and then, I made my own bread. Local is definitely the way to go for dry goods and household care. Companies like Precycle in Brooklyn and the Waste Less Shop in L.A. offer really great refill services. All in, getting groceries was definitely the most time-consuming part of trying to reduce my trash, and I'm not convinced I would cook so much in a normal week, but it was the area where I cut out the most waste.

For Dental Care

Last year, I switched my single-use toothbrush for one with replaceable bristles and a solar-power battery charger, and I'm trying a toothpaste that comes in a recyclable aluminum tube. I haven't tried toothpaste tabs yet, but THE/THIRTY team is definitely a fan.

I've cut back on the daily coffee-shop run since we aren't able to bring in reusable cups right now. I switched to buying fresh ground coffee from my local shop to make at home. A lot of grocery store coffee is packaged in nonrecyclable materials, so it's worth searching out some reliable sustainable brands.

More Sustainably Packaged Choices