By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
April Dickinson ate with her hands. She was dining out with her family and forgot to bring her personal set of reusable utensils. Refusing to use the disposable utensils at the restaurant, Dickinson improvised. As a member of the Seattle Zero Waste (SZW) group, a growing community of 1,800 like-minded people who are passionate about reducing waste, Dickinson is committed to less-waste and more-sustainable living.
“Zero waste,” a lifestyle movement devoted to reducing consumption and generating less trash, was popularized by Bea Johnson, a native of France living in California. Johnson is the author of the book “Zero Waste Home” and is considered a pioneer of the movement. The New York Times called her the “high priestess of waste-free living” — her family of four generates a jar of trash in a year.
Dickinson, a Seattle native who lives in Shoreline, said her trash “doesn’t fit in a cute little jar.”
Since beginning her zero-waste journey, Dickinson’s family of four downsized from using Seattle Public Utilities’ standard size 32-gallon container to their current micro 12-gallon one. She is okay that her family may never reach trash-jar status.
“We aim to live in balance with our planet and its people, and we are making progress toward that goal,” said Dickinson.
Ed Humes wrote in his book “Garbology” that America’s trash output is 7.1 pounds per person per day, 365 days a year. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but creates 25 percent of the waste. Gone are the era when things were repaired, not replaced. Goods now are produced to be disposable. Consumption drives the market.
Garbage becomes the measure of economic success, but with an environmental cost.
According to National Geographic, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch “spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan.” The debris accumulates because much of it is non-biodegradable plastic. They do break down into tiny bits of microplastics, making a cloudy soup, which is fed to the marine life. The food chain moves up and into our system.
In 2016, after seeing an episode of the CNN documentary series “Inside Man,” Dickinson embarked on a waste less mission for her family. The episode, “United States of Trash” by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame brought an awareness of the waste stream to Dickinson.
“What happens to the trash?” asked Dickinson. “It doesn’t just disappear.”
The U.S. spends more money on waste management than anything else, wrote Humes in “Garbology.” Humes advocates materials-management instead of waste-management.
“The system is messed up that we have to create a whole infrastructure to deal with throwaways,” Dickinson mused.
A mother of two boys, 7 and 3, Dickinson works part-time at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. She said her partner is less enthusiastic about her cause but is supportive. To begin her journey, she conducted an audit of her family’s trash, looking to see where she could reduce.
Now she shops bulk and brings her own containers, even for take-outs. She uses a coffee bag until it’s torn, then patches the hole to extend its lifespan.
No plastic for her. Single-use plastic is a sin to zero-wasters. In fact, single use anything is a sin.
Dickinson’s mission to reduce waste often feels at odds with her Chinese mom’s priority of getting the best deal and not wasting money. But she makes her own produce bags to go along with the jars she saved. She plans meals so she doesn’t waste food. And she said her family is actually eating better and spending less.
“Consumption is the root of the problem,” says Dickinson. She flinched at the thought of being complicit. A member of a Buy Nothing group, she loves the idea of a circular economy in which there is a balance between human needs and planetary boundaries.
Elly Trinh is also seeking a balance between the two. A friend said Trinh “works hard in being eco-effective.” Trinh is a member of both SZW and Zero Waste Saigon in Vietnam. Trinh’s interest in the waste stream started when she was a young girl growing up in Vietnam. At family outings she would collect and take home the trash to throw away. But she realizes now that there is no “away.” The trash was just being moved.
Zero Waste Saigon is comprised of locals and expats living in Vietnam. Trinh said the group recently did a flash mob where they queued up with their own containers and straws at a bubble tea shop in Saigon.
After getting a degree in business at Seattle University, Trinh worked in the corporate world for three months and hated it. She wanted to combine her business and skills to pursue a career in sustainability. Meanwhile, she accepted a job with a caterer.
Her first day on the catering job at a golf tournament, her first task was to dispose of a tray of 25 muffins.
“It was tough because they were perfectly good muffins. It was so wasteful.” She took a bite from each one before she trashed them.
Trinh said, “There is money in marketing to entice people to buy, buy, buy.” Product designs are often flawed and made not to be reusable, unlike in nature. The more we throw away, the more we need to buy. Consumption also plays into the psychology of human behavior that life appears to be better when one can indulge in convenience.”
Drying on Adelia Yee’s counter-top are plastic bags that she has washed and will re-use. She doesn’t mind the inconvenience of cleaning them. Although a new comer to the SZW group, Yee, a Seattleite and a central operations manager at the University of Washington, began washing and reusing plastic bags 20 years ago.
“I am Chinese. It is against my nature to throw perfectly reusable bags away,” says Yee. “Besides, the environment is going to hell in a handbasket”
While in her 20s,’ Yee wrote to an airline admonishing the company for not using recyclable cups. She also once wrote on a comment card at Red Robin telling the restaurant not to give out plastic straws. That’s when plastic straws were still legal.
Since joining the SZW group, Yee mindfully shops to avoid buying, as much as possible, items wrapped in plastic. Like Dickinson, Yee also prides herself as an active member of the Buy Nothing group, where members post items and give them away for free. She proudly showed off a beautiful dining room set she got from her Buy Nothing group.
“Behavior change to consume less takes time,” says Trinh. “It’s better to have a million people to do zero-waste imperfectly than several to do it perfectly.”
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.