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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Rise and Fall of the Zero-Waste Trash Jar

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Almost a decade ago, Kathryn Kellogg started storing all of her trash—every receipt, sticker, wrapper, and anything else she couldn’t recycle or compost—in a 16-ounce mason jar. The idea was to save money and avoid generating garbage by adopting zero-waste practices: bringing canvas bags to the grocery store, for example, or making her own beauty products. All of this could be done without putting her infractions on display, of course, but the jar offered Kellogg an extra form of accountability—especially since she decided to share it with her numerous Instagram followers.

“I thought, let’s just try and reduce as much trash as possible and have fun making my own products,” said Kellogg, who runs the blog and Instagram account Going Zero Waste. “Can I make my own crackers? Yes, I can. Can I make my own burger buns? Yes, I can. Cleaning products? Sure can.”

The result was strangely beautiful. Photos of Kellogg’s jar (of which there are several) offered an archeological glimpse into the zero-waste lifestyle. In one image from a year into the experiment, a green twist tie peeks from behind an eco-thrift tag for a $0.25 miscellaneous item; from another view of the melange, a pop of primary color from a balloon fragment or wrapper.

Those types of images, blurring the line between ascetic and aesthetic in a Marie Kondo, minimalist kind of way, caught on, helping to catapult the “trash jar” into a symbol of the zero-waste movement of the 2010s. Trash jars inspired dozens of profiles in outlets like New York Magazine, The Washington Post, and CBS. Entire zero-waste brands sprang up around them, such as Package Free Shop.

But then came the backlash—or, rather, a gradual falling out of favor. A few years in, people who were inspired to adopt zero-waste practices because of the trash-jar trend began renouncing it as exclusionary and unrealistic. They argued that focusing on the jar sapped energy from more systemic actions they could take to address plastic pollution. Some likened it to extreme dieting, calling it the “skinny supermodel of zero waste.”

While the trash jar remains an emblem of the zero-waste movement, it’s lost much of its cultural cachet. Today, in 2023, many sustainability influencers are relieved to have entered into a softer, more forgiving era of the zero-waste movement—one that recognizes the impossibility of “zero” and welcomes a spectrum of waste-reduction efforts. Some have pioneered alternate slogans, like “low-impact,” “low-waste,” and #ZeroWasteIRL.

Sabs Katz, an influencer who runs the Instagram account Sustainable Sabs, identifies much more with those newer slogans. While the trash-jar trend helped introduce many people to the concepts behind zero-waste, she thinks of it as an evolutionary step in our understanding of greener living. Deemphasizing the trash jar feels “less elitist,” she said. “If we want to bring in as many people as possible, then why would we want to build a movement that you have to be perfect to be in?”

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Trash jar or no, the zero-waste movement is a response to one of the United States’ signature problems: our reckless consumption of stuff. The average American generates nearly 5 pounds of waste per day—largely from food, but also from paper, plastics, glass, metal, clothes, and other materials. Only about 30 percent of this gets recycled or composted. Another 12 percent is burned to generate energy. Almost all the rest—about 50 percent of waste generation, or about 132 million metric tons per year—goes to landfills.

“You start to look at your trash and you’re like, ‘How do I have so much? Where’s the trash going?’” said Jhánneu Roberts, a sustainability influencer whose social media accounts use just her first name. 

That mindfulness plays prominently in the story of all the influencers Grist spoke with, although several also described financial reasons for cutting back on their consumption. (Zero-waste is a money-saver!) In general, they were fed up with throwaway culture: knickknacks flying off shelves wrapped in unnecessary packaging, plastic bags and cutlery designed to be used for mere seconds before being discarded. 

The origins of the trash jar are up for debate, but one of the early pioneers of the concept was Bea Johnson, an influencer based in Marin County, California, who’s been called the “mother of the zero-waste lifestyle” and the “priestess of waste-free living.” Under the username Zero Waste Home—also the title of her book—she’s been documenting her family’s trash jar since at least 2014. “Own less + waste less = live more,” read one of her posts from that year, just a few months before she shared a photo of her family’s annual collection of jar trash set against a fluffy white blanket. Her jar made several more appearances over the years, sandwiched between photos of upcycled jewelry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lots of elegant interior design. 

Another influencer, Lauren Singer of the blog and Instagram account Trash Is for Tossers, went viral around the same time after she delivered a TED Talk featuring her trash jar. In 2016, she told CNN that her four-year experiment had helped her save over 6,000 pounds of trash compared to the average American.

“It wasn’t just this hippy-dippy community,” said Lily Cameron, an influencer and author who runs the Instagram account Wild Minimalist, commenting on the trash jar trend. It was decidedly chic. “You could still have this very beautiful, fulfilling, joyful lifestyle without constantly buying things and creating all this waste in the process.”

Zero Waste Home inspired Cameron to try out her own trash jar. She called it “the status symbol” of being in the zero-waste community. Others described it as “the gold star everyone was looking toward,” or the “absolute best, purest form” of zero-waste.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that most jar influencers were women, who tend to handle more household tasks, like grocery shopping, than men. Women are also more likely to embrace environmental causes, while men tend to view habits like bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store as gay or emasculating.

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Keeping a trash jar, like most domestic work, wasn’t as effortless as it looked. At one point, Kellogg got so caught up in trying to embody the Platonic ideal of zero-waste that she was schlepping heavy glass jars on epic, three-hour-long public transit journeys—involving a ferry, a train, and a subway—just to get to a co-op with a decent bulk section. She’d save those little stickers that you use to mark bulk items’ product codes so she could use them again next time. And she’d forgo foods that weren’t sold in a package-free format. 

“I didn’t eat blueberries for two years,” she said, even though they’re her favorite food. “It was definitely stressful.” In 2017, she finally called it quits. She now uses her old trash jar as a bookend.

Other jar keepers kept getting into situations where they couldn’t control their waste generation. What to do with broken glass, unwanted gifts wrapped in plastic, or trash left behind by visiting friends and family? What about a spouse’s trash? Some people would go for weeks without creating waste, only to find themselves with a single, very large or oddly shaped piece of trash that would certainly not fit into a Mason jar.

Sabs Katz, for example, was doing well with her trash jar until she ordered a new mattress and it arrived wrapped in plastic. (She didn’t feel comfortable buying one secondhand.) “So, that [plastic] was obviously not going to fit in my trash jar,” she said. It became just one of many exceptions that made the trash jar start to seem “really silly.”

“I was trying to do it where I could,” Katz said, “but it felt so unattainable.” Others feared that their trash jar missteps would undermine their credibility as influencers—but so would not keeping a trash jar at all, since they were such an emblem of the movement.

All that pressure occasionally led to irrational behavior. One influencer said she heard about people stocking up on “bulk” tortilla chips from the Whole Foods hot bar—as if they didn’t come out of a plastic bag just minutes before. Others reported widespread “wishcycling,” a practice where people cross their fingers and throw items that probably can’t be recycled into the blue bin—just in case. Cameron said she’s heard other social media personalities talk about burying banana peels in planters at the airport, rather than throw them in the garbage.

“I get that you want to create zero waste,” she said, “but does the airport know that? That’s a little too far for me.”

One criticism of the zero-waste movement in general is that it’s too individualistic: It has tended to hone in on lifestyle changes as opposed to challenging the systemic factors that keep single-use products in play. Bulk foods, for example, may still be shipped to supermarkets in disposable plastic containers, or on pallets wrapped in unnecessary plastic. And even the most diligent zero-wasters are unlikely to make a dent in petrochemical companies’ plans to nearly triple plastic production by 2060—a scenario that would not only cause 44 million metric tons of aquatic pollution every year, but also exacerbate climate change, since plastic is made from fossil fuels.

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A trash jar can amplify that personal focus, since keeping one requires such extreme attentiveness to one’s consumption patterns. 

Kellogg says it’s simply not worth putting all your energy into a trash jar if it leaves no bandwidth for chipping away at some of those bigger, system-level problems. Sure, shopping zero-waste might support a reuse-centric grocery store, but obsessing over the plastic zip ties used to cinch a bag of bulk kidney beans? Not so much.

When Kellogg quit her trash jar, she used her extra time and energy to serve on her city’s beautification commission, a group dedicated to reducing trash and litter generation. She generated a little more garbage herself, but she now had the capacity to help organize a citywide trash cleanup event and a dump day, a way for locals to responsibly dispose of bulky items.

“I also tried to work on a Styrofoam ban, but that got nixed,” she said, laughing. “Not everything you do is going to succeed.”

Kellogg is a bit of an outlier; serving in local government isn’t for everyone, and she said it’s certainly not a prerequisite to becoming a good zero-waster. But many share her view that waste reduction can feel empty—even consumeristic—unless it’s paired with something bigger. 

April Dickinson, a zero-waste influencer and longtime trash-jar skeptic, says she’s often been turned off by the array of products meant to facilitate a zero-waste lifestyle. “I engaged with the zero-waste community less when I saw that it was falling into the more capitalistic mindset,” she said. “There’s like 47 brands of bamboo toothbrushes now, and 11 billion metal straws, all different colors and sizes.” 

Instead, she tries to show how zero-waste practices can represent an alternative way of relating with the natural world and with other people. If we treat everyday objects as disposable, she said, by extension, we might also be more likely to treat people as disposable, with less empathy for those who are incarcerated or otherwise marginalized. She often highlights the human impact of waste, which can create air pollution and leach hazardous chemicals into the groundwater of low-income communities and communities of color.

Too few people within the zero-waste movement engage with these issues, she said—in particular some of the “trash-jar people,” who are “just hell-bent on not putting trash into their own jar.”

Over the past several years, a newfound appreciation for imperfection has opened up space for many who might otherwise have felt intimidated by the zero-waste movement. 

In 2018, sustainability influencer Immy Lucas of the blog and Instagram account Sustainably Vegan ditched the “zero-waste” label and instead began advocating for what she called the “low-impact movement” (which is not an exercise routine, although proponents of the phrase do have to vie for airspace with #LowImpact workout posts on Instagram). The philosophy emphasizes waste reduction rather than elimination, as well as sustainable lifestyle choices that go beyond waste—like diet and travel. Since then, a host of influencers have embraced the phrase, including Low-Waste Lucy, Taylor Pfromer, and Sarah Robertson Barnes

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This trend accelerated during the pandemic, which marked a sort of turning point for many zero-waste influencers. The response to COVID-19 made going waste-free even more difficult: Although later research showed that the coronavirus isn’t transmitted through surface contact or food contamination, supermarkets across the country closed their bulk sections and delayed plastic bag bans. Restaurants stopped accepting reusable mugs and dishes

“It was really hard to avoid plastic, or try to be low-waste,” said Cindy Villaseñor, an influencer who runs the Instagram account and blog Cero Waste Cindy (using the Spanish word for “zero”). Villaseñor said she’s never aimed for zero-waste perfection—she never went through a trash-jar phase—but even her more relaxed standards had to be loosened during the Covid lockdowns. As it turns out, that laid-back attitude served her well and has stuck around. She now enjoys a broader selection of produce, for example, and is more forgiving of herself when she can’t get a particular item without packaging.

It’s about “trying the best you can with what you’ve got,” she said.

Dickinson takes a similar approach using the hashtag #ZeroWasteIRL, or zero-waste in real life. Her Instagram account, Zero Waste Dork, describes her as the “sole zero-waster in a family of four” and emphasizes the importance of compromise. One post shows a grocery haul with mostly bulk items like granola, Brussels sprouts, and clementines brought home in reusable cloth bags—but there’s also boxed fusilli pasta, a prepackaged bottle of lotion, and some cheddar wrapped in plastic.

“I offer this transparent view of our routine to show that each #ZeroWaste journey is unique and every experience belongs in the movement,” the caption reads.

For those who want to embark on a similar journey of their own, the consensus from zero-waste experts is to skip the trash jar, start with one low-waste practice, and take baby steps. Dickinson, who was inspired by the trash jar years ago but never adopted one herself, says that first step could be something as simple as getting a smaller trash can. A few years ago, she managed to transition her family to her city’s smallest municipal garbage bin, a big win in her book. 

“Sometimes we don’t even fill that up,” she said. “I think honoring and celebrating that is important for any family.”

This story is part of the Grist arts and culture series Remember When, a weeklong exploration of what happened to the climate solutions that once clogged our social feeds.

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