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A few years ago, Vancouverites Grant Baldwin and Jen Rustemeyer decided to take on a daunting 365-day challenge. The rules: give up consumerism, and produce zero waste.
The couple competed to see who would end up with less garbage at the end of the year, allowing themselves to buy only food and other necessities. They captured every step of their year-long experience on a blog, and on-screen in an award-winning documentary, The Clean Bin Project (2010).
“At first, I just thought that we’d save a lot of money,” says Jen, describing her reaction when Grant came to her with the idea.
“Then, it really became all about garbage, and it turned into this great passion.”
During the challenge, Jen and Grant realized how a large portion of waste reduction really starts from the point of purchase. Going without new material goods—like electronics, housewares and beauty products—helped cut out a lot of the excess garbage. And when it came to the essentials, like food, the pair came up with a kind of “packaging hierarchy” to make better shopping decisions.
“No packaging is the best, paper is the second best, glass is the third, and plastic is off limits. We didn’t buy anything in plastic during that year,” Jen explains.
“We also didn’t buy individually wrapped portions of things, even if they were wrapped in paper. We just thought, that’s a waste of packaging, and we’d rather buy things in bulk.”
It wasn’t until she and Grant started really paying attention that they realized how difficult it was to get past typical consumer habits, especially at restaurants and grocery stores. They would bring their own containers for take-out dinners or to use at the deli counter. They got strange looks when they asked for no toothpicks in a sandwich, or no straw in a drink. And a montage in the film emphasizes the signature line at a grocery check-out: “I don’t need a bag.”
“We thought that the project should have a specific rule: ‘If you forget your bags, too bad.’ You have to figure out how to carry your groceries home without a plastic bag. So, we’d use our shirt or whatever,” Jen recalls.
Refusing to use plastic shopping bags is one good way to cut out excess waste in your household. But Jen says if she could tell viewers to do just one thing to reduce their garbage, it would be to make sure food and organics get composted.
“I think composting is absolutely number one, because it’s 30 to 50 percent of your garbage. You’re going to cut [your garbage] almost in half if
you start composting,” she says.
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