Abby K. Cannon is a registered dietitian and attorney.
At any given moment, I have five things tucked into my handbag: a stainless steel water bottle, bamboo silverware, a glass jar, a tea towel, and a canvas tote bag. That also means I haven’t carried a clutch in two years. My garbage can fills up about once a month. You’ll never see me grab a paper napkin with my lunch—the tea towel serves that purpose (and, yes, replaces tissues too). And I would almost rather die of thirst before purchasing a plastic water bottle.
How did I get here? In 2015, I left my job as an attorney and returned to school to become a dietitian. I planned to uncover the “secret” to health, to discover that “one thing” that would miraculously transform me into the vibrant, glowing, healthiest version of myself.
Many claim to have found that “one thing” that completely changed their lives: Turmeric! Probiotics! Paleo! Searching for answers in my nutrition textbooks, I did not expect that I’d find my “one thing” in Lauren Singer’s “Why I Live a Zero-Waste Life” TED Talk, in which she describes how she went from producing the average amount of waste to producing practically no waste at all. And no, she didn’t move into a tent in the woods. She did it all while living her “normal” life in New York City.
Environmental issues were part of my upbringing. My family composted food scraps and recycled diligently, and my dad rode his bike to work 14 miles round-trip to reduce his carbon footprint. I constantly picked up garbage that my friends littered. I even started a Go Green award in my sorority in college. Acutely aware that my lifestyle and everyday choices impacted the environment, I thought that I was doing great.
Then, I saw Lauren’s TED Talk. It blew my mind. I had no idea that I could be doing so much more—and relatively easily. I quietly made small changes. I bought reusable bags for my lunch, carried a fork to school to avoid plastic ones, and brought containers for takeout. If I forgot my fork or container, I forgave myself and, albeit reluctantly, used the non-reusable versions—no big deal.
For me, though, the real turning point came in November 2016. The results of the presidential elections shook me. I felt this overwhelming sense of helplessness. As a woman, I saw my rights being threatened. As an environmentalist, I saw institutions and programs I cared about being stripped of their federal funding. I was looking for someone to tell me what I could do right now to make a difference. Waiting for the next election and hoping for change scared me.
When no one had the answers I wanted, I took a look at my own life. I felt hypocritical—I deeply believed in protecting the environment, but not all my actions supported that. How could I complain about cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency when I bought takeout and coffee in non-recyclable containers? How could I complain about others when there was so much more that I could do? Even though I cut down on my waste somewhat, I still had a long way to go. On November 9, 2016, I made an oath to myself to reduce my waste in every possible and feasible way.
With this commitment came a new sense of empowerment. My “one thing” changed everything.
What amazes me now is how this mindset shift didn’t just affect how much waste I produced—it drastically improved my diet, naturally leading me to make the healthiest food choices. I avoided foods that came in plastic packaging. In the supermarket, I found fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes (foods that comprise a healthy diet) without packaging.
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I learned that plastic produce bags are unnecessary; avocados, bananas, apples, and even leafy greens can withstand the trip from shopping cart to home without that added layer of protection. The bulk section of the supermarket became my favorite spot. I looked at the options with wide eyes. The staples of my healthy diet looked so good naked. Only recently, my patient husband finally broke down and asked, “Abby, the bulk section offers the same selection every week. Do you have to stand there for 15 minutes staring every time we shop?” (I love him dearly but exclaimed, “YES!”)
Processed, packaged foods, with their seductive marketing, no longer tempt me. When buying packaged items, I opt for canned goods (with BPA-free lining) or items sold in glass or cardboard over ones in plastic or non-recyclable materials. I also research packaged products fully before purchasing to ensure that I support the companies that produce them, their values, and their practices. I save all the glass jars that spices, nut butter, jam, etc. come in and reuse them for meal prep, leftovers, and take out. Overall, I buy fewer and fewer packaged items, which helps me reduce waste and—bonus—save money! I map out my route to the markets I shop to cut down on my travel time. (An energy-efficient car is definitely my next large purchase!)
Waste reduction isn’t exactly the sexiest topic to talk about, but people are intrigued and excited when they observe my new practices. When I fill up my containers at the deli counter, invariably those behind me on line ask what I am doing. I’ve even received positive feedback when I document the practical ways that I reduce my waste on Instagram. My friends are always looking for ways to encourage themselves to eat more healthfully, and I can’t think of a better one—one that’s environmentally conscious to boot.
Am I perfect? No. I’m not zero-waste either. That’s far too overwhelming for me (and I drive my husband crazy enough). There are far worse things he can do than purchase a plastic electric toothbrush wrapped in plastic packaging! I’m not in the business of judging how much waste you produce.
Interested in borrowing some of my hacks? While it’s easy to focus on the obstacles, I advise that you start by observing your habits and identify a “green” swap that will not really affect your life much in the grand scheme. Do you really need a plastic straw in your water glass at a restaurant? I have managed to identify the keys ways in which I was creating waste and eliminate them without turning my life upside down.
So yes, my bag is always heavy and makes me feel a little Mary Poppins. But my stainless steel Klean Kanteen water bottle ensures that I’ll never need to use a plastic water bottle or disposable cup. My Ancolie glass jars are the perfect size for packed lunches, take out, and leftovers, and even a large cup of coffee on a particularly sleepy day. My To-Go-Ware bamboo silverware is light and durable, and using it makes me feel quite fancy. I do receive some weird looks when I whip out my Kakaw Designs tea towel to clean up a spill or when my Euphebe tote bag is not big enough and I leave a store juggling everything in my arms. This might seem extreme to you, but it is just my new normal. And it can be yours too. Start small and before long, you will be hooked!