New Year’s Resolution #zero waste

Striving for Zero Waste: One Davis Family’s Resolution

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the concept of Zero Waste, but I remember being intrigued by the idea. A little internet research on the topic lead me to an article in Sunset Magazine about the Johnsons, a  family living in Mill Valley, who manages to only generates about 2 handfuls of trash a year.  Béa Johnson’s blog documents how they have achieved this seemingly impossible feat and after reading it left me to wonder,  could my family do the same?  Truth be told, it seems unlikely. Organized, self-disciplined, and the willingness to sacrifice convenience for a greater for a higher cause, characteristics that seem essential in accomplish this goal, are not ones most often used to describe me. After coming to terms with this fact, I asked myself,  should the likely failure of achieving zero waste stop me from trying to achieve this goal? The answer, I’ve decided, to that question is no.  So while my family’s new years resolution of generating zero waste might not be a realistic one, I believe attempting to do so will have a significant and positive impact on my home, on my community and on the world, making it worth the effort even if the goal is not achieved.

When trying to reach any seemingly impossible goal the best strategy seems to be breaking the process down into manageable pieces.  I turned to Béa Johnson’s writings on how to live a zero waste life for advice on how I should get started. Her recommendation is to start with these basic tenets. Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. Below are some of the ways my family is  addressing these tenets as we live our day to day life here in Davis. I hope in sharing them I will educate and encourage others to join us on the path to zero waste.

Refuse:  Bea’s advice “refuse what you don’t need”.   Unwanted mail is the first thing in this category I’ve decided to tackle. My “junk mail” is largely composed of catalogs, credit card applications, and solicitations from charities that I’ve previously donated to.

To reduce the number of unwanted catalogs we receive I went to this website, where I created a free account, that allows me to opt out of receiving unwanted catalogs.

I learned how to stop receiving prescreened offers of credit  by visiting the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information website which  directed me to this website where I was able to opt-out of the lists used by companies who offer credit.

To figure out a way to stop receiving solicitations by mail from charitable donations I visited this website: which laid out steps I could take to decrease the number of mailings I receive from these types of organizations.

Reduce: Béa Johnson recommends “reduce what we do need by donating or selling anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for us to live comfortably.”  While this approach seems extreme I think the concept is worth contemplating, and while doing so I realized that all the unnecessary stuff my family owns,  seemingly to make our lives more convienant, have had the opposite effect.  As I mentioned organizational skills are not a strong suit, so getting rid of stuff we are not using leaves fewer things for me to organize and keep tack of, making it easier to find the things we need.  By donating some of the unnecessary and unused objects in our home I hope to simplify our lives while making resources available to those looking to buy second hand.

Reuse:  While many objects can be used, my initial focus is going to be on bringing my own reusable bags to the grocery store.

Soon the city of Davis’ single-use bag ordinance will be put into place. This ordinance bans the distribution of single-use carryout plastic bags and requires merchants to charge a 10 cent fee for paper bags. The fee is designed to encourage consumers to bring their own bags, or request that fewer be used to transport their purchases. This strategy has worked effectively in other communities and I’m confident Davis will see similar results when this ordinance goes into effect.

Like many I have the best intentions when it comes to bringing my own bags. The problem I face is that I often forget to, or I make an impromptu stop at the store and don’t have my bags with me. To address this I’ve purchased some nylon bags, that can roll into a built in pocket when not being used, making them small enough to fit into my purse. I also acquired some small cloth and mesh bags to use for produce. (I can also use these bags for the pastries I sometime purchase at my favorite coffee shop, to go with the latte, that I’ll have them pour into my reusable mug,  when I manage to remember that as well.)

Recycle: To better educate myself on the city’s recycling policies I visited the City of Davis’ Recycling Program website at: I was surprised to learn how many things can be recycled, ( a lot of which my family was frequently throwing into the trash)These items include many plastic food containers, shampoo and laundry detergent containers, dvd’s, and children’s plastic toys. I encourage anyone who is interested to visit the site to learn more about what can and can’t be recycled, and how to properly depose of potential hazardous materials.

Another great resource that combines recycling and reusing is Freecycle whose official mission is “to build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources & eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community”.

Freecycle works like a free Craiglist, you go online and post any items that you no longer want but think someone else might find useful. I’ve found this service particularly useful for large or bulky objects I don’t want to lug to the thrift store. My experience has been that I post an item, and within hours, and sometime minutes,  I’ve arranged for someone to pick it up. So far I have found new homes for numerous items including a rocking chair, kid’s water table, tomato cages, and 200+ used file folders, and have met a lot of my Davis neighbors in the process.

Rot: Or basically, “Compost anything that can be composted”. Composting presents a huge challenge for us, mostly because the amount of food scrapes generated by my family is more then we are able to effectively compost. Plus I’ve never seem to be able to get the ratio of wet to dry materials correct, or achieve the optimal temperate for the process to work correctly.

There is a solution on the horizon for those of us wishing to divert our food scraps from the landfill but are, like me, composting challenged. It comes in the form of the green waste containerization program that the city of Davis is now contemplating. Moving from the open yard waste colloction system that the city currently uses, to a containerization program, would allow for the addition of food scraps and other compostable materials, potentially diverting about 30% of household waste from the landfill to a composting facility. (Council will be deciding on this issue later this year, and I encourage anyone who supports this effort to contact their council members and let them know).

I have no illusions that a year from now I will be writing an article saying that in 2014 my family only generated 2 handfuls of trash.  I’m hoping I will be able to say that my family significantly reduced the amount of trash we were responsible for sending to the landfill, and that we’ve learned new ways and our implementing new strategies to reach the seemingly impossible goal of zero waste. Here are some great resources for anyone wishing to join us in this endeavor.

A Weeks Worth of Waste

It’s been six months since my family has taken on the challenge to reduce the amount of waste we generate- it’s probably more accurate to say that it been 6 months since I decided we were going to take on this challenge-my family has been kind enough to humor and support me in this effort.

Now that summer is here and I have a little more free time I decided to do something I’ve been thinking about for a while -conduct a personal waste inventory.

“ A what”? My husband asked with a slight look of concern on his face asked when I brought up the idea. I explained that I wanted to track every piece of waste we generated in a weeks time, which included everything that went in the trash or recycling bins. So like the good sport he is, he got a pad of paper and a pen and placed it on the counter near our waste receptacles.

As a side note, we compost our food scraps, and since I am not a detail orientated person anyway I decided trying to document all of our food waste would result in me becoming overwhelmed with the process and quitting within 24 hours. (I did track any non-food scrap material that got put into the compost pile).

Thanks to the comprehensive curbside recycling program offered in Davis there are very few items that we found we had to put into the garbage instead of the recycling bin. In the week we tracked my family of four threw away 27 individual pieces of garbage.

A majority of these items were non-rigid plastic food packaging, aka plastic bags or wrappers. The other items included some foam from our couch, the dogs summer project is apparently to systematically shred this piece of furniture, a broken pottery bowl that my son made, this fell victim to the dogs tail rather then his teeth, a useless by design one and half inch marker that somehow ended up in our house, a bread tie, a deodorant container, and empty heartworm medication tab.

Because we compost we are able to divert a lot of waste that would otherwise end up in garbage, including all of our food scraps. This week we also composted 7 paper towels, 3 cardboard blackberry containers, and 2 paper plates from when the kids got pizza at the pool, a paper bread bag, and 7 Popsicle sticks.

When I first encountered the idea of Zero Waste I made the assumption that as long as something wasn’t going in the trash it didn’t count against my zero waste effort. What I’ve come to learn is that while recycling is a much better alternative to the garbage can, it is not always a great one, especially in when it comes to plastic.

Plastic is often “down-cycled”. When materials like glass, aluminum, or paper are recycled they are made into products that can be recycled again and again. This is not usually the case with plastic since its quality degrades every time it is recycled. So very few of the plastic containers collected for recycling are actually made into similar or recyclable products again, plus not all the plastic that heads to the recycling center actually gets recycled. If there is not a market for it ends up in a landfill or an incinerator.

For these and other reasons I’ve made a serious attempt over the past 6 months to reduce my purchases of items that come in plastic. Honestly this has been my biggest challenge, plastic seems to be everywhere and in almost everything.

The beer I bought I bought at the Farmers Market came in a plastic cup, so do the fruit icy that my kids get, which also come with a plastic spoon. Most berries that I find in the grocery store come in plastic containers; this week we recycled 2 strawberries, a blueberry, and a black berry container. Then there are my son’s favorite yogurt 4 containers of which we recycled this week.

For all of my efforts to avoid plastic it still made up the greatest percentage of items my family discarded this week.

In January I took a few steps to limit the amount of unwanted mail we received in the form of unwanted catalogs and credit card offers. I registered at, a website that allows me to opt of catalogs and a website allowed me to opt out of prescreen credit card offers Since doing so I’ve noticed a huge decrease in the amount of mail we receive and thus a huge decrease in amount of materials that were going straight from our mailbox into the recycling container.

That being said we still receive unwanted mail in the form of local advertising and flyers. But like with plastic most of paper recycling this week was in the form of product packaging.

Tracking my family’s waste for a week, while a little tedious, ended up being an educational and worthwhile exercise. It made us more conscious and aware of the waste we were generating, where this waste came from, and where it was ending up.

In closing I’d like to thank the city’s Conservation Coordinator Jennifer Gilbert for being such a great resource when I have had questions about our recycling program. I’ve also found the answers to a lot of my waste questions at the city’s website:

If you would like to follow my families Zero Waste efforts please check out my blog

Water Stations- Are they really the best options?

My first response this past Friday when my family and I arrived at Community Park to watch the fireworks and spotted an Aero Pure Water Station was to think what a great idea. The water trailer provided 8-self fill stations that, according to their website, had enough water to fill 4,000 half liter sport bottles. At first this seemed to me  a great environmentally friendly alternative to disposable water bottles.

But something about it just didn’t sit right with me, and it took me almost 24 hours to realize exactly what it was, which is this:  How and when did we get to the point where the environmentally friendly option for providing water become loading it into a trailer and hauling it 40 miles to place that already has access to perfectly safe drinking water? 

I tried to think back to when I was my kids age and remember how I managed to stay hydrated without access to single use plastic bottles or water trailer filling stations. If I’m remembering correctly I think it may have involved water fountains or just not having water available at every moment. When did this change and how did get to the point where American’s used 50 billion plastic water bottles last year?  And why, when we have access to safe public drinking water, are people willing to spend up to 1000 times more for bottled water?

One of the top reasons people give for drinking bottled water instead of tap water is that they believe it is safer. In reality this is not true.  

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which carried out a four-year review of the bottled water industry, concluded “there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle, it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap.”  

In a lot of ways bottled water is less regulated then tap water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets the standard for tap water, requires that municipalities have their water tested every year by a third party certified laboratory and that the tests be made available to the public.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates bottled water.  Because it regulates bottled water as food it cannot require certified lab testing or violation reporting. The FDA does not require bottled water companies to disclose to consumers where the water came from, how it has been treated or what contaminants it contains.  Furthermore  FDA rules do not apply to water packaged and sold within the same state. 

Bottled water started to become popular in the U.S. in 1977 when Perrier was introduced to urban areas. It remained a niche product until the early 90’s when bottles made from PET plastic, which was lightweight, cheap and clear became available. It was at this time that Coke and Pepsi got into the business of selling water. Ironically Coke’s water, Dasani, and Pepsi’s water, Aquafina, the number one and two bestselling brands originate from municipal supplies. 

Many blame the marketing efforts of these two companies for the sharp increase in popularity of bottled water. They are reported to have spent tens of million of dollars on advertising pushing their product as a safer, tastier, purer alternative to tap. 

When I was 10, my daughters age now, I did not carry a water bottle around with me every where I went. My mom did not pack one in my lunch and I didn’t take one to summer camp. I don’t remember this being an issue. If I was thirsty in public, I drank from a water fountain-an option that has become decreasingly unavailable over the past 20 years. 

I would like to see us get back to place where the environmentally friendly option for providing “free” water at public events is one that does not require it to be shipped in a truck 40 miles, but instead comes from clean, well maintained, functional water fountains.  No bottle-resuable or not-required. 


Single Use Plastic Bag Ban Comes to Davis

There are many reasons why after attending UC Davis my husband and I made the decision to settle in Davis and raise our family here. Among them is because we enjoyed living in a community that shared our values-especially in terms of environmental conservation.

These values were reflected in our city council decision last November to adopt a single-use carryout bag ordinance, which is designed to decrease the distribution of single-use carry out bags.  The ordinance that will go into effect July 1 prohibits retailers from distributing single use plastic bags at the point of sale. It also requires that stores  charge a minimum of 10 cents for each paper or reusable carryout bag.

This ordinance is part of a larger plan that the city adopted in December 2011 when it passed a Zero Waste Resolution that expressed the desire of the City of Davis to conserve resources, reduce GHG emissions, and reduce waste, litter, and pollution.

Davis is one of many municipalities that have adopted similar single bag use ordinances in an attempt to reduce their use.

In 2007 San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in large grocery stores. They expanded the ban in 2012 to include all retail stores. Since that time 109 jurisdictions in California have adopted single use bags ordinances including Los Angeles, which in January of this year became the largest U.S. city to ban plastic bags.

While California leads this trend cities and counties across the country are adopting similar ordinances including those in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington.  Currently more than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans or fees.

An ordinance similar to the one adopted in Davis may soon be enacted in all of  California. Earlier this year, after three unsuccessful attempts to regulate single-use carry-out grocery bags,  a deal was reached in the California legislature on a bill that would ban single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, liquor stores, and pharmacies state-wide by 2016.

While it seems hard to imagine a time without them, the plastic grocery bag has a relatively short history.  They were invented in 1965 and first introduced to the U.S. in 1976 as an alternative to paper.  It was not until the late 1980’s that plastic bag usage equaled that of paper bags.  By the mid 1990’s about 80% of all grocery bags were plastic and that number would hit 90% by 2012.

Plastic bags have some advantages over paper. Compared to paper grocery bags, plastic bag production uses 40 percent less energy, they generate 80 percent less solid waste, and produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions. They are also cheaper to manufacture.  But they come with problems. Due to their expansive and lightweight characteristics, single use plastic bags are easily carried by wind, and end up entangled in brush and trees, tossed along freeways, and caught on fences.

Studies have found plastic accounts for up to 90 percent of trash in California’s lakes and waterways, and single-use disposable plastic bags make up a large portion of the litter.  The state, along with its cities and counties, spend an estimated $34 million to $107 million annually to manage plastic bag litter. In 2013, Sacramento reported that its materials recovery facility shuts down six times a day to remove plastic from the machines. In 2010 the Yolo County Landfill reports spending  about $34,000 picking up plastic bags, representing about 1,815 man-hours.

In California approximately 24 billion plastic bags end up in landfills every year. While recycling is an option doing so proves to be a challenge. Few curbside recycling programs accept plastic bag because of problems with them jamming the processing machines. Though California has mandated that plastic bag recycling drop-off bins be made available at supermarkets and large retail stores it is estimated that only between 1 and 3 percent of bags are recycled.

Reports suggest that ordinances regulating single-use bags have had an effect. In San Jose, the city’s bag ban has reduced plastic bag litter 89 percent in storm drain systems, 60 percent in creeks and rivers and 59 percent in streets and neighborhoods.

Plastic bag purchases by retailers have reportedly fallen from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012.

As I finish the piece my husband, who for the record has consistently used canvas grocery bags for years, came home from an impromptu  grocery store trip with his purchases in yes, plastic bags.

The conversation that followed was similar to ones I’ve heard, (and engaged in), through out our community in regards to the single-use bag ordinance over the past several months.

When I asked why he opted for plastic bags, his response was,  “It’s not the plastic bags that are the problem, its the improper disposal of them.” He went on to mention that we needed plastic bags anyway to clean-up after the 70 lb labradoodle who occupies our home.

Both good points and ones I think are worth addressing. While I agree that improper disposal of plastic bag is a large part of the problem it’ not the entire one. Tremendous resources go into making these bags that are meant, by design to be used for minutes, and the fact of the matter is that while some of these bags are being reused and recycled, a significant number of aren’t, if they were we wouldn’t not see the environmental problems described in this piece.

While I believe that individuals through their personal choices are capable of effecting change, I also believe that some problems are significant enough that they need to addressed on a larger scale.

The problems resulting in the wide-spread use of plastic bags-from their manufacturing to their disposal-is in my opinion ones that can only be solved through the legislation of their use.

It is for this reason that support our city councils decisions to ban the use of plastic bags and mandate that business charge and retain a 10 cent fee for paper bags and I want to thank our businesses for efforts they have undertaken to comply with this new regulation.

Get those reusable bags ready, and when all else fails, ask yourself, do I really I need a bag for that?




Celebrate Davis! Zero Waste

About 10,000 people are expected to gather at Community Park next Thursday to attend Celebrate Davis! an event sponsored by the Davis Chamber of Commerce that features over 100 food and vendor booths, live music, a family fun zone, and ends with a fireworks display.

As someone who is striving to reduce that amount of waste I’m responsible for generating I was excited to learn that this year the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Davis are teaming up to help make Celebrate Davis! A Zero Waste Event.

For starters, organizers are requesting that food vendors use recyclable –or even better- compostable serving ware and to avoid using expanded polystyrene containers (Styrofoam) and individual packages of condiments.

Business’ and organizations are also being asked to limit their giveaways to environmentally friendly options like reusable bags, pencils made from recycled paper, or seed packets.

In order to help participants maximize their waste diversion waste stations will be set up through out Community Park.

Each station will have 3 bins. One for recycling, one for compostable materials, and one for trash.

Trying to figure out which container something like your corndog stick should go into can be confusing. To address this all three bins will have signs attached to them with graphics that detail what types of items should be placed in which bin. A roving bin monitor will also be present to help answer questions like, “Is this disposable fork the compostable kind or the recyclable kind?”

Here is a preview of the choices participants will have and some cliff notes about what should go where:

RECYCLING BIN:  This bin is for all plastic, aluminum, and glass. Davis Waste Removal accepts all rigid plastic for recycling. This includes, plastic cups, plastic utensils, plastic bowls and plates, straws, and beverage lids.

Glass bottles and aluminum foil, cans, and trays can be placed in this bin.

COMPOSTING: A large amount of the waste generated at big events like Celebrate Davis can be composted. Besides food waste -including meat and diary- virtually anything derived from plants or animals can added to the composting bin. This includes paper plates, cups and napkins, other food soiled paper, paper towels, milk cartons, pizza boxes, waxed cardboard, popsicle and yes even your corn dog stick.

LANDFILL: There are some items that cannot be recycled or composted that will need to be sent to the landfill, these include diapers, Mylar bags (shiny bags)- the kind that chips and candy bars come in, and juice or milk boxes.

While recycling is a good alternative to the landfill my ultimate goal is to eliminate the use of single use products when ever possible.

So, besides making sure that any waste I generate ends up in the correct bin, I’m also looking for ways to reduce the amount of waste I’ll ultimately need to sort.

My plan includes bringing our own usable water bottles, and if I’m really organized our own plates, utensils, and napkins.

An easier way of reducing waste, that requires little effort, is accessing the need for disposable items that are offered to me and turning down anything that isn’t necessary.

For instance, do I need that drink holder, those extra napkins, that lid and straw for my lemonade, that cardboard tray or bag to carry my food? Turning down the items I find unnecessary is a simple way of reducing my waste and the best part is, no remembering or pre-planning is required.

While working to reduce waste on a small scale I’m happy to see diversion efforts, like the ones planned for Celebrate Davis, happening on such a large one. These efforts not only result in waste reduction at the events themselves but they also serve as a valuable public outreach and educational tool and the Chamber hopes that their efforts with this event can serve as model for future large special events in the City of Davis.

For all these reasons I want to thank the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Davis for the work they have put into making Celebrate Davis a Zero Waste Event.

I’m looking forward to spending the evening enjoying the food, fun, and festivities, and at end of it hopefully I will remember to bring in and wash those plates, utensils and napkins.


Celebrate Davis! will take place Thursday May 15  from 5:30-10:00 PM at Community Park. 


Bring Our Own: Beyond the Bag

One of the first steps my family took when attempting to reduce the amount of waste we generate is bringing our own bags when going grocery shopping. My husband does that bulk of the shopping on the weekend and has consistently been bringing usable bags on these trips for the past few years.

My shopping habits are less consistent and more spontaneous, and I often found myself, despite my best intentions bagless when I would make an impromptu grocery store run. Or I’d find myself at the check-out being asked if I wanted paper or plastic only to realize that while I remembered to put my reusable bags in the car, I had forgotten the vital step of bringing them into the store.

To address my short term memory challenges, I decided to purchased a few nylon reusable bags that fold into a built in pocket. These sacs are useful because they are light weight and easily fit into my purse, where I have taken to keeping a few.

When I felt like, for the most I had the BYOB thing down, I decided to think about other situations where bringing my own could cut down on waste generation. 

Bring My Own Coffee Mug: This I’ve been doing on and off since college, so it didn’t require a huge lifestyle change. Remembering to bring the mug with me is a challenge, but I’ve gotten myself in the habit of grabbing it whenever I head out the door in case I decide I need a latte to make it through the afternoon.  If I forgot my mug and have time to linger I’ve learned that most cafes in Davis will provide my caffeine delivery system in a “for here” cup if I ask. 

Bringing My Own Water Bottle: I’ll be frank here, I hate the taste of Davis water. In the past we have bought bottled water to avoid having to drink from the tap.  Unhappy with amount of plastic waste we were generating through this practice my husband, as an anniversary present a few years ago, installed a reverse osmosis filter to our kitchen sink.

A reverse osmosis system works by pushing water through a semi-permeable membrane that blocks particles larger than water molecules, thus removing the salts and minerals that give Davis water it’s unique taste. A surprise taste test given to me by my husband after installation demonstrated that I could easily tell the the difference between the filtered and unfiltered water. Now instead of buying bottle water, sometimes at twice the cost of gas, we keep our fridge stocked with a carafes of flavorless filtered water.

While my home hydration issues had been addressed I often found myself continuing to buy plastic water bottles when I was out and about. I’ve come to realize that buying water in plastic bottles is wasteful in ways that go beyond the container it comes in.  Energy is needed and used to fill the bottles with water at the factory, move it by truck, train, ship, or air freight to the stores where it sold, where it is often refrigerated.

Instead of continuing to contribute to this wasteful practice,  I made a commitment to no longer purchase water in single use plastic containers.  Instead I purchased every member of my family a stainless steel water bottle. I’ve tried to get in the habit of filling up my bottle at home with filtered water and bringing it with me. If I forget I use the negative reinforcement of being forced to drink “Davis water” from the water fountain as incentive to remember it the next time. 

Bringing My Own Utensils:  One of the question I hear most often from my kids when I pick them from school is, can we stop for frozen yogurt on the way home?  For such occasions I’ve stocked up on spoons that I purchased for 10 cents a piece at the SPCA thrift store which we use instead of disposable plastic ones. (I’d like to give Cultive Yogurt a shout out for giving a 10% discount for those who bring their own spoon. )

I also purchased some similarly  priced forks for when I stop at the salad bar at Nugget for lunch, or when we head to Picnic in the Park at the Farmers Market. They are a great alternative to disposable flatware and at 10 cents a piece I’m not to concerned if they don’t make it back home after being sent off to school in my kids lunch bags.

Bringing Our Own has been one of the bigger challenges we have tackled in our attempts to reduce waste. As anyone who has unexpectedly dropped by my house, or had that misfortune of riding in minivan can attest to, organizational skills are not my strong suit. I consider myself lucky if I can find my keys and remember my phone when I’m rushing out the door, much less my reusable bags, water bottle, coffee mug, and utensils. Needless to say,  I still end up drinking my coffee from disposable a coffee cup, and my kids still end up using plastic spoons for to eat their frozen yogurt half the time.  But instead of feeling guilty about the times I forget my bags, mugs, and utensils, I’ve tried to focus on ways to help me remember, even if that means I sometimes visit a public water fountain for a sip of some “Davis” water.