Thinking about reducing plastic waste in your life? Here’s how one U.S. PIRG member cut her waste in half

 "It's freeing to not be constantly wanting more and better stuff."

 As a working mom with three young kids and her own business to run, Rachel, a member of U.S. PIRG, is no doubt busy. But through small changes over time, she’s been able to dramatically reduce the waste her family produces—cutting her family’s waste in half. 

We asked Rachel to tell us more about her journey, so we could share it with other members. Here’s her story:

What compelled you to reduce your personal trash output? What inspires you?

I signed up for a plastic-free challenge, put on by Eco Action Arlington, in my community without even really understanding why I should try to stop using plastic. I was disgusted by the amount of trash I produced, most of it single-use plastic. I learned that plastic never decomposes. It just breaks into smaller and smaller microscopic pieces and ends up in our oceans and our food supply… It sounds silly, but while I’m concerned about the environment, I hadn’t really made the connection that I should change my own consumption habits until taking part in that challenge. It’s empowering to be able to make a small, tangible change.

Now that I’ve made some changes, I’m inspired by people asking me for help, like the woman who stopped me in the grocery store asking how to bring your own jars for bulk spices and peanut butter, or my friends who took a picture of my plastic-free swaps cheat sheet on my fridge.

What has changed about your daily life since these changes?

I have almost completely weaned myself off of Amazon. I have three kids under the age of five and I own my own business, so I’m busy. If you had told me a few months ago that I could do without Amazon in my life, I would have never believed you. Now, if I need to buy something, I get it secondhand from Nextdoor, Mercari, or OfferUp. My wardrobe has actually improved because I buy my clothes from TheRealReal, which is an online designer consignment store.

I used to shop at stores where most things are packaged in plastic. Now, I get my groceries from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Orchard Country Produce, and shop in the bulk bins at Mom’s Organic Market. At home, I store food in glass containers, silicone bags and beeswax wraps.

For the bathroom, I get toilet paper from Who Gives A Crap because it is made from bamboo and delivered without plastic. I also switched from using plastic bottles to bar soap and even shampoo bars.

All of the joy I get from consuming things, I’ve channeled into finding amazing reusable, secondhand and zero-waste alternatives.

The biggest benefit, though, is that my mentality has shifted. I learned that while recycling is better than a landfill, reducing my consumption overall and eliminating single-use items is simply easier and better for the environment. I’ve become really motivated to consume less, and it’s freeing to not be constantly wanting more and better stuff.

How does it feel to have reduced your trash by this much?

I have become a lot more aware of what I consume and the trail of garbage I leave behind me. It feels good to have cut down on my personal trash legacy, but it has also created a huge need in my life for stores and brands that are more mindful about packaging. A zero-waste shop in my community would be amazing.

It also feels great that my four-year-old is learning to avoid trash. She specifically requested that her birthday party goody bags be free of trash. We haven’t solved that one yet!

What, if any, were barriers to you making these changes? How did you overcome them?

Takeout and junk mail are now the biggest sources of trash I produce. Catalog Choice helps me opt out of junk mail, but the junk mail battle is an uphill battle. My family used to order takeout a few times a week and we’ve reduced it to one day a week, but that day is a sad trash day. I would love to have a reusable takeout container service in our area one day.

I also struggled to find a waste-free alternative to dishwashing liquid that you use for handwashing dishes. Then, I read that in France they used to use these huge blocks of Savon De Marseille soap that sit on the countertop. You rub the dish scrubby directly on the block of soap. It’s one of my favorite swaps because it’s easier on your hands and so much more beautiful on the countertop.

For others who want to make similar changes in their lives, where would you recommend they start?

Consider any one item that you routinely buy—a favorite food, bathroom product or cleaning supply—and switch to a zero waste alternative. Then, think of all the future trash you will save on that one item over the course of the rest of your life.

Is there anything you wish you’d known that you’ve learned since cutting your trash by 50 percent?

I was completely surprised by how easy it is to cut down on trash. Once I swapped a single-use item out for a reusable alternative, I never had to think about buying that thing again.