Your Zero Waste Questions, Answered (Invitation to an Interview with La Nature)

I was invited by Hayley of La Nature, a zero waste store based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a Q&A on zero waste living! This was a great opportunity to answer some questions from the community about barriers to low impact living and how people at different stages of their journey can get started. Read more below!

This Q&A is reposted from the La Nature blog.

Belinda Chiu, creator of sustainability blog A Healthy Blueprint, is an expert when it comes to practicing a healthy and waste-free lifestyle. The road to zero waste can be a long one, but for most, it begins with small, easy to manage steps.

We asked La Nature’s customers to submit their questions about sustainable practices for us pass on to Belinda, as well as some of our own. Read her answers below to learn more about making the switch and how to navigate some of the most common challenges associated with waste-free living. And don’t forget to follow Belinda’s Instagram for more tips!

Q: For a generation not used to shopping zero waste, the lifestyle change can seem daunting. What are some of the easiest “starter” items they can be recommended to make the transition smooth?

The EASIEST starter items I would say is a reusable water bottle and bag. I almost never leave home without my water bottle and bag. In fact, I bet everyone already has a few reusable bottles and bags accumulated over the years from conferences, events, or from work that are waiting to be used. I make it easier for myself by sticking one folded tote in my most-used backpacks or purses so I’m never without it, and I try to leave a reusable bottle somewhere visible so I don’t forget to bring it when I leave the house.Some other starter items I’d recommend are a reusable utensil set (which you can make from utensils in your kitchen for free), a reusable straw if you typically use them for beverages, bar soaps in your bathroom and kitchen, and of course reusable cloth masks since we’re doing this interview during a pandemic!

Q: When considering which clothing to buy, how do you determine whether or not a company is properly adhering to waste-minimizing practices? What kinds of things do you look for?

I actually haven’t been in a fast fashion store in a while! I wouldn’t call myself fashion-forward so I don’t keep up with the latest clothing brands who are all for sustainability, but I will say that I was impressed with Girlfriend Collective’s website and had purchased a pair of their leggings (made from recycled plastic water bottles) a year or two ago and liked that they shared a sustainability report detailing how many water bottles were diverted from landfill, how many pounds of CO2 was prevented, and how much energy was saved. If more companies showed some form of transparency regarding their production and waste customers can make more informed decisions.I don’t add many pieces to my closet these days, but when I do I tend to browse on thredUP, an online thrift store, that way I’m doing my part to give secondhand items another life 🙂 Another thing I would recommend is if you can, try to look for clothing that’s made with one material rather than mixed (which can make it difficult to recycle).

Q: There seems to be confusion on composting certain items, wherein the product manufacturer marks it as compostable, but most centers won’t accept it. What kinds of things generally won’t be taken at compost centers, despite the label?

This gets tricky…it really depends on where your organic waste is ending up! For example, if you’re dropping off your food scraps at a community garden, they may have rules like no cooked food, meat, dairy, fish, or bones. This is to minimize any issues with pests and rodents! If you have a service where your scraps are going to an industrial composting facility, they may be able to accommodate these items. A best practice in general is to always check and ask questions–whether you are dropping off scraps at a local site, if you have a service or are participating with a program. When it comes to compostables, there’s inconsistency around what the green bags and serviceware are made of, and I’ve even heard that some of these compostable bowls had PFAS (also known as a forever chemical which is bad for us and the environment) in them! If you think about the lack of clarity around the materials used to make the materials, and the potential for contaminating what would end up becoming finished compost, it’s no surprise that composting facilities would rather play it safe and not accept them.

Q: For folks that are out and about for most of the day, what are ways they can stay sustainable even when away from home?

Bring your reusable bottle and utensils (and maybe even a takeout container)! My mom always gets upset with me because a lot of the time if I forget to bring my water bottle I will just dehydrate until I find a fountain or get back home. Now I’ve cut myself some slack and will buy something if I’m in dire need, but I will hold onto the empty container until I find the right place to recycle or dispose of it.I remember when I went upstate and ordered takeout, I was able to get my food packaged in my stainless steel container and I felt SO good about eliminating waste for that meal. When you go out to restaurants, you can try to remember to decline your straw if you don’t need it, and bring a container for leftovers if you tend to order larger meals, too.

Q: Some items seem to be impossible to substitute, such as the plastic containers holding essential vitamins or OTC meds. Is there any solution to get around things like these?

This is another toughie! I personally think the supplement industry gets people to spend SO much money unnecessarily, and much of the vitamins we need can be obtained from seeking a balanced diet. If we ate more fruit and veggies, and asked our doctors what other foods could help make up for deficiencies, we could avoid buying 15 different vitamin bottles. I do recognize though that not everyone has consistent access to fresh food anytime they want based on what exists in their built environments which needs to change. Sometimes prescription medicines are essential, and what I do for my prescriptions is I will ask to get my medicine ordered in 3-month supplies so all of it will come in one bottle instead of monthly. We actually have bags full of orange prescription bottles that we’ve collected from my family members that is just sitting at home until we figure out what to do with them. In the meantime I’ve sometimes used these bottles as propagation vessels for my plants, for saving seeds for gardening, and I know other folks have used them for holding onto their jewelry! You can also check out this website to see potential solutions for your bottles.

Q: This idea comes from one of our Instagram followers: “the biggest barrier to entry for zero waste living is the cost.” Can you share any thoughts you have about this sentiment?

Mainstream media can portray the zero waste aesthetic as intimidating for a lot of people. We often see companies and marketing campaigns show the latest products that customers “need” to buy in order to practice a zero waste lifestyle, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth! When I grew up, I saw my grandparents and my parents practice sustainability without many of the products we see advertised. I think for them it might not have been for the environment, but more about ways we could save money and prioritize other essentials like making sure everyone was fed and that the lights were on at home.Instead of feeling the urge to buy everything that is advertised to us, I would encourage us to assess what we have at home and only think about purchasing things as they need to be replaced. Additionally, we can be resourceful like our parents and grandparents by saving items we’ve already bought for reuse opportunities or getting creative by finding other use cases for things we already have around the house.