Lauren Singer on Embracing the “Awkward” Aspects of a Zero-Waste Lifestyle
“Anybody who sees a problem in the world and decides to do something about it is a badass,” environmental powerhouse Lauren Singer told InStyle. “Anyone who seeks to solve a problem, improve the world, [and] use their power as an individual to make a positive impact, that’s a badass.”
By those terms, she has more than earned the title herself. As the founder of the blog Trash is for Tossers, as well as the CEO and founder of the sustainable-goods company Package Free, Singer has devoted herself to showcasing how living a more conscious, waste-free life can begin with individual accountability.
“I look at zero-waste from the point of an individual, so that means I as a person don’t send any trash to landfill,” Singer said during a recent Zoom interview. “I do compost, and I do recycle, but as a last resort because it’s very energy-, chemical-, and water-intensive.” The average American, she points out, produces around 4.4 pounds of trash a day, more than people in any other nation, and while cutting that amount down to zero might seem daunting, Singer whole-heartedly believes it’s worth it: “By making simple changes, even a few small changes to reduce your waste, if everybody did that, it would have such a positive impact,” she added.
The effects of human pollution on the environment are growing more dire by the day, and young people around the world are mobilizing to hold governments and companies accountable. One hundred companies globally are responsible for 71% of toxic emissions, and activists and politicians alike are pushing for the Green New Deal and other policies that would expedite the fight against the climate crisis on a national level.
For her part, Singer is focused on individual sustainability, which includes being a conscious consumer and prioritizing goods that leave a minimal footprint on the environment. A born nature-lover, she was awakened to the concepts of environmental and social justice when she first read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson; the exposé, first published in the New Yorker in 1962, focused on the way pesticides like DDT wreaked havoc on the environment.
“That’s really what started me on my sustainability path,” Singer, who studied at New York University, said. But while she was in college, most of her classes couldn’t hold her attention — “I was in and out of daydreaming,” she admitted — but her environmental science class proved the exception. “It’s what made me feel the most excited,” she added. “It’s what I wanted to talk to people about, what I wanted to throw out of me.”
That class, she said, “was also my first introduction into the idea of doing things that make you happy and make you light up as opposed to doing things people tell you to do. And I think listening to my gut and pursuing that was really what led me to do all of the things that I’m doing today.”
Now that includes running Package Free, which is a one-stop shop for low- and no-waste products that serve as environmental-friendly replacements for items we take for granted every day. Instead of single-use plastic wrap or aluminum foil, the shop sells reusable beeswax sheets and silicone bags; most products forego plastic for more sustainable resources, like bamboo. Singer also founded Simply Co., which produces vegan and environmentally-friendly laundry detergent, after readers of her blog expressed interest in the products she was making from home.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing at all,” she said of the venture, which catalyzed when she quit her job and started a Kickstarter to fund the business. “I went on a road trip, and [the Kickstarter] was funded in 24 hours,” Singer said. “I basically woke up in the Pacific Northwest and was like, well, I guess I have a company now and I have to make product.”
But her efforts haven’t always been so, well, simple. She’s also had to stand her ground against uncomfortable moments with people who might not be as ready to change their own lifestyles. “This thing happens when you start talking about sustainability where, even though I’m not necessarily judging anyone or criticizing, it’s by learning about how I live, people are automatically predisposed to start judging themselves,” she said. “And it can cause these conversations that might feel awkward or confusing to people.” She hopes that shops like Package Free, as well as her blog, can make incremental change feel “really approachable and safe and not overwhelming.”
And as the coronavirus pandemic has forced tens of millions out of work, many Americans are rethinking their consumer footprints. Retail is down significantly, and plenty of people are finding ways to maximize what they have, from leftovers to home goods. “This is week five for me of work-from-home in quarantine,” Singer said, “and I’ve had to release a lot of control, like so many people in this time. We don’t have control of where we can go, who we can see, how we run our companies.” But she hopes that the hobbies some people have picked up as coping mechanisms — including cooking and, yes, that sourdough bread-baking frenzy — stay with us after social distancing has eased.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘When you’re no longer able to change a situation, you’re challenged to change yourself,’” she said (conjuring the late psychologist Viktor Frankl’s work Man’s Search for Meaning). And if you’re able to effect change on both levels, why wouldn’t you?