The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 7

Last updated on January 6, 2024.

Hanging Shirts in Ombre order, from reds on left, oranges center, and yellows on right.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.

One of the best ways to fight fast fashion and textile waste is to make your existing wardrobe last longer. We can do this by washing our clothes less, but better, and by repairing and mending. “According to the EPA, for every 2 million tons of textiles we keep in circulation and out of landfills, we can reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 1 million cars off the road,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “In fact, reusing a ton of textiles saves twice as much carbon as recycling a ton of plastic, one of the most commonly recycled materials.”1

But what else can we do?

Stop Shopping!

“Today’s rapid cycle of production, buying, and disposal of clothing impairs our ability to feel satisfied and connected with our wardrobes. It’s time for a new, slower approach to repairing clothes and to cherishing what we have.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!2

Stop shopping. Or at least shop much less. Since most of us overbuy, we should buy less clothing going forward.

You don’t have to be a minimalist, but you don’t need closets and dressers and shelves overflowing with clothing. You can’t possibly wear all of it. Calculate how much clothing you need by how often you do laundry. For most people, this is one or two week’s worth. Then, account for the few special pieces you need – a black dress or a suit, or maybe you wear uniforms to work – it will be unique for everyone. Own only the amount of workout clothing you actually work out in. Don’t keep clothes that don’t fit (unless you regularly fluctuate in sizes). Limit excess of all types of clothing.

Subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, clothing represents who we are or the person we want others to perceive us as. Wear the clothing that makes you feel good. But fight against the influence of advertising, trends, and fast fashion sales. As Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis wrote, “[Fashion] preys on our insecurities and our increasingly short attention spans. We are prone to a barrage of fashion images –  on social media, on television, on billboards, in the press – begging us, taunting us to indulge in what one executive described as ‘temporary treasure.'”3 Be selective and intentional about the pieces you purchase.

“Volume is what gave birth to sweatshops. Volume is what makes fast fashion so profitable. Volume is what’s stuffing our closets. Volume is what’s rotting in our landfills.” -Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis4

Women's outfit lying on white background: white blouse, blue jeans, red and white striped t-shirt, and red shoes.
Photo by Junko Nakase on Unsplash.

We Can Spend Our Money Differently

“The number one reason we buy what we don’t wear is because it’s on sale or it’s so cheap that we’re willing to overlook flaws.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet5 

Don’t buy a $5 shirt because it is cheap. Buy a shirt because it feels good on your body. Embrace slow fashion, which is the idea that a thoughtful and intentional wardrobe greatly reduces environmental impact. It is the opposite of excessive production, overcomplicated supply chains, and mindless consumption.

“Most of our clothes are bought on impulse; we’re buying items without wider thought of how they fit into our lives or our wardrobes.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet6 

Buy Quality, Not Quantity

Buy more classic pieces and less trendy items. This will allow you to mix and match more easily and allow you to wear your clothes much, much longer. Buy fewer, higher-quality pieces and buy second-hand when possible. In The Conscious Closet, Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that you should be skeptical of cheap and heavily discounted items. She says to try everything on because it takes more time and hassle to return an item than to just try it on in the first place. Buy one or two quality pieces at a time instead of trying to revamp your whole closet in one shopping trip. Plan ahead, and hold out for those great items instead of settling for items that are just okay.7 

“Consumption has accelerated to such a furious pace that most of us don’t thoroughly consider what we purchase.” -Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend8

Cline offered these tips to identify quality clothing items:

Study the sewing and construction details of your own clothes that have lasted a long time. Look at your grandmother’s clothing or at clothes in vintage shops, as clothes made decades ago were not meant to be thrown away.

Check out a variety of brands and stores.

Look at men’s clothes, which are typically made better than women’s.

Quality includes good fabric, construction, fit, and a warranty. Usually the better the guarantee or warranty, the better the quality. “Nudie Jeans, a sustainable denim brand, offers free repairs on jeans for life, for example. Patagonia offers repairs, replacements, or refunds for damaged products or if the product simply doesn’t live up to expectations.” Other brands offer repairs within one or two years of purchase.9 

“Quality clothing is made to last, wear well, and look good over time.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Conscious Closet10 

Beware of Outlets and Off-Price Stores

There has been a drop in quality at factory outlets since the 2000s. These stores used to sell name-brand items with slight defects and imperfections, or overstock. But now most outlet stores have a special line of lower quality items, made just for those stores. It is the same for off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx, Ross Dress for Less, Marshalls, etc. These stores carry clothing without hems, fabrics that shed fibers in your hands when you touch them, and no regularity in sizing.

“Off-price stores and outlets were once a reliable way to land well-made and name-brand products at a discount, but no longer. Today, many sell a lot of factory rejects or canceled orders – the products that should have never made it to a store in the first place…[they are] manufactured exclusively for these stores and [are] intentionally mislabeled as discounted.” -Elizabeth L. Cline11

Circular clothing racks of shirts, organized by color.
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay.

Buy from Responsible Brands

Research which brands are ethical and sustainable, or follow sustainable fashion writers like Elizabeth L. Cline to get the information. Or look for brands that use recycled textiles to make new clothing, such as Patagonia and Osom Brand.

Focus on what is most important to you. Sophie Benson, author of Sustainable Wardrobe, wrote, “Just as style is personal, so too are our moral drivers. For instance, I’m vegan, therefore I wouldn’t buy new leather. You might appreciate the longevity of leather but want to ensure it’s vegetable-tanned. One person might want to do their best to keep clothes in circulation by shopping exclusively secondhand via charity shops, another might be dead set on supporting independent brands who manufacture small batches at every opportunity. The better you understand your own principles and priorities, the easier it becomes to know whether a brand or product lives up to them.”12

Affordability

Sometimes buying higher quality or ethical/sustainable means the monetary cost is higher. Conscious fashion brands are mainly independent startups and smaller companies.13 So those companies have a higher overhead because they use responsibly sourced fabrics, little or no chemicals, and pay proper wages to workers. See Additional Resources below for a few brands that have good labor standards and sustainable practices, as well as an article on sustainable brands by budget.

But affordability is an issue. While it’s easy to say ‘just buy higher quality pieces’ or ‘purchase from sustainable fashion companies,” the reality of that is often difficult. What author Leah Thomas calls ‘the elephant in the room’: not everyone can affordably access sustainable clothing. Sustainable clothing often costs far more than the $10 shirt at H&M. Thomas argues that many sustainable fashion brands also do not offer plus-sized clothing even though over 60% of American women wear a size 14 or larger.14

Second hand shop clothing racks, lots of colorful article with a black short sleeved top on a headless mannequin in the foreground.
Image by Daniel Kapelrud from Pixabay.

Second-Hand Clothing

Affordability is why second-hand clothing is key: you can find higher-quality pieces without paying the high retail price. There are thousands of thrift stores, yard sales, and second-hand shops everywhere, as well as online stores.

Buying second-hand is always better for the environment and much more affordable.

There are also consignment shops in most areas. Just search “consignment near me” on the internet. These shops can vary from children’s clothing to boutique clothing to upscale women’s wear. Items at consignment shops have been inspected and vetted more thoroughly than items at thrift stores, and are sometimes cleaned or repaired before being sold.15

Used clothing is also all over the internet. Sites like eBay, Poshmark, The RealReal, Mercari, ThreadUp, and OfferUp are just a few places where you can find any type of clothing you want.*

Red-haired woman shopping at a thrift store, looking through clothing racks with other items in background, such as hats and framed art. Yellow tint to photo.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Stop ‘Wardrobing’

‘Wardrobing’ refers to buying the same item in multiple sizes when shopping online, and returning the ones that don’t fit. Now, it would help if companies would standardize sizes, especially in women’s clothes. But try using the size charts and measurement guides on clothing sites when they are offered.

The reason is that returned clothing sometimes gets landfilled. “Reverse logistics -which includes things like opening returned packages, inspecting returned items, steaming or cleaning them, adding them back into the system and repackaging them – can be time-consuming and costly, so many brands simply cut their losses and dispose of returned items. In the US, 2.3 billion kilograms (5 billion pounds) in weight of returned goods ends up in landfill each year, creating 15 million tonnes of carbon emissions.”16 This is a poor practice that companies should be barred from, but let’s do what we can to reduce returns in the meantime.

Build a Capsule Wardrobe

A capsule wardrobe is a curated but versatile wardrobe. As Elizabeth L. Cline wrote, “What defines a capsule wardrobe is not its smallness but the versatility and intentionality of its contents.17

Courtney Carver’s Project 333 is a great capsule wardrobe plan! It embraces minimalism and stress reduction, while fighting fast fashion and supporting sustainability.

“You get to wear your favorite things every day.” -Courtney Carver18

Renting

Renting is another viable solution. According to Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, the average professional woman spends $3,000 or more per year on buying clothing. “Renting fashion could change the entire shape of the apparel industry. Imagine if that $3,000-a-year clothing budget was spent on renting instead of buying. Fewer clothes would be made, and what is out there could be circulated more, tossed less.” Rent the Runway is a well-known example.19 See Additional Resources below for an article covering several rental subscription services.

Rack of formal gowns in multiple colors, with sparkles and sequins.
Photo by form PxHere.

Consume Less

We need companies to produce less clothing, and we need to consume less. What changes can you make to reduce clothing waste?

So slow down, buy less, buy natural, buy better, buy second-hand. You’ll save money, time, and the environment. Please share and subscribe, and thank you for reading!

“If I had to give one piece of advice on what turned my wardrobe into a Slow Fashion wardrobe, I’d say ‘pause.’ If we could just pause our shopping habits, slow down our consumption, and pay attention to the clothes we bring into our homes, we’d collectively make a huge shift.” –Katrina Rodabaugh, Make Thrift Mend20

Wooden clothing rack with clothes in whites, reds, pinks and turquoises, with a shorter black empty clothing rack in front of it with hangers. Background wall is hunter green.
Photo by EVG Kowalievska on Pexels.

 

Additional Resources:

Here are a few conscious brands and related articles:

Eileen Fisher: Eileen Fisher produces 25% in the US and has living wages as part of its code of conduct.21 Their Renew program is a take-back and resell program. “Three-fourths of [the] garments are reconditioned with treatments like overdyeing with pomegranate or safflower to camouflage stains and embroidering with traditional Japanese Boro and sashiko stitching, which can hide, or highlight, tears and moth holes.”22*

Article, “The Pain of Progress: Our Renew Program Reaches 2 Million Garments,” by Kris Herndon, Eileen Fisher Journal, April 10, 2023.

Patagonia is a company that follows high standards for production, labor, employment, and environmental concerns. The company also buys, repairs, and resells its own brand of clothing and accessories.*

Reformation:  They are actively working toward a living wage for its Los Angeles workers. 23 Their “goal is to source 100% of our fabrics from recycled, regenerative, or renewable materials by 2025.”*

Elizabeth Suzann: This is a Nashville-based slow fashion brand that uses responsible materials and pays double the minimum wage in Tennessee.24*

Article, ” 99 Sustainable Fashion Brands By Budget (2023),” The Good Trade, October 3, 2023.

Article, “Thinking About Fashion Rentals? Consider These 7 Services,” by Alexis Bennett Parker, Vogue, January 12, 2023.

Article, “How To Thrift-Flip Your Wedding Dress,” canvasbridal.com, accessed January 6, 2024.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention them.

Footnotes:

Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents

Laundry basket with clothes on a coffee table, couch and sleeping cat in background, warm lighting.
Photo by Sean Freese on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

If you read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets, then it won’t surprise you that commercial laundry detergents also often contain harmful, toxic ingredients. The chemicals and fragrances are harmful to the human body as well as the environment. Additionally, many detergents come in some form of plastic container, whether it’s a bottle, plastic bag, or “pod.”

Homemade or DIY laundry detergents sound like a great alternative, but in practice, I have not found that to be the case. My conclusion is that while I cannot recommend a specific brand or set of ingredients, I can tell you what to avoid. Following are my findings.

DIY Laundry Detergents

Various ingredients in boxes and bottles with a Kirk's Castille bar of soap and a measuring cup with soap shavings.
Photo by Kim F on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

The photo above is not my own but still a familiar scene. I have tried many homemade DIY laundry detergent recipes from bloggers, authors, and environmentalists. Most homemade laundry detergents combine baking soda, washing soda, and/or borax, as well as a cleaning agent, typically grated bar soap. I even tried buying laundry bar soap that you dissolve in water and then use as a liquid detergent. But all had poor results. Our clothes either had an odor or what looked like grease stains on them. Our clothing, towels, and sheets just weren’t getting…clean.

Close-up of a laundry bar, brown with white speckles.
Laundry bar. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Laundry bar dissolving in a white bucket of water.
The laundry bar dissolving in a reused white bucket. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Then I discovered that soap residue can actually trap dirt and oils in textiles. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, advises against DIY laundry detergents. “Most homemade laundry detergent is really laundry soap, which can clog your washing machine, void the warranty, and ruin your clothes.”1 The soap doesn’t come out because modern washing machine agitators are not as tough on clothing as older machines were. According to Kellogg, a true laundry detergent does not contain fats and oils.2

Soap Nuts

Green glass dish with decorative edge featuring orange and green flowers, soap nuts piled on the dish.
Photo by Khadija Dawn Carryl on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Soapnuts, which are actually berries, are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Nepal. The husks, or shell, of the fruit “contains plant saponin, a completely natural and gentle soap that has been used for centuries to clean skin and clothes. Saponin works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water and creating a lather that lifts dirt and grease…this is just one example of how nature offers many solutions for…plastic-free living,” wrote Sanda Ann Harris, author of Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living.3 Soapnuts are compostable after use, so they create no waste.

I tried these, excitedly! I followed instructions from myplasticfreelife.com that said to boil the soapnuts into a liquid, and then use the liquid as laundry detergent.

Soapnuts boiling in a pot of water.
Soapnuts cooking in a pot. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also tried putting them straight into the washing machine. But they didn’t work great all of the time, and I often had to rewash my clothes. Kathryn Kellogg wrote that she also does not recommend soap nuts. “Both of these items contain saponin or soap. The soap will cause buildup on fabric, preventing it from being absorbent, and the residue can cause skin irritation. Historically, people used soap to clean their clothes, but they washed their clothes by hand. The agitation process was harsh enough for the soap to wash clean. Our modern machines aren’t as rigorous so the soap clings to the fabric.”4 

Angled photo of laundry detergent bottles on a store shelf, Ajax and Fab brands most visible.
Photo by Pixel Drip on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Commercial Laundry Detergents

Over the years I have tried all manner of commercial laundry detergents, both powdered and liquid. Powders don’t seem to dissolve well unless I use hot water, and I wash almost everything in cold water. Liquids work better, but their quality runs the gamut. I still don’t have a single brand that I can recommend or that I even buy consistently. But I can tell you what to avoid in detergents.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic blue laundry detergent or fabric softener bottle, lying in a sand dune.
Photo by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Almost all liquid detergents come in plastic bottles. Also, liquid laundry detergents are 60 to 90 percent water! This means we are shipping huge amounts of water in plastic jugs all across the country, which creates more carbon emissions. This seems wasteful!

Worse, even though most laundry jugs are ‘recyclable,’ they don’t often actually get recycled. Humans have only recycled 9% of plastics ever created. Brands like Seventh Generation use 80% recycled plastic in their bottles. While they are also recyclable, there’s no guarantee the bottle will get recycled. It’s best practice to stay away from bottles if you can.

In Part 11 of my Packaging Series, you can read about brands that use different types of packaging, and even some that offer refillable options.

Toxic Ingredients

There are lots of chemicals in most commercial laundry detergents. Those scents are a combination of hundreds of chemicals, many that scientists have linked to illness and disease.

Person pouring laundry detergent into a washing machine, from a blue laundry detergent bottle.
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Phthalates

These are in the fragrances of detergents, so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell good. They are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they interfere with our hormone systems and fertility. They are associated with rashes, asthma, allergies, learning and behavioral difficulties in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These are not regulated because companies use the term “fragrance” in the ingredients list under the guise of propriety.

Surfactants

Many laundry detergents use surfactants like petroleum distillate or naphtha because they boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents. However, they can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, nervous system problems, hormone disruption, and sometimes cancer. Many are also toxic to aquatic life. Other surfactants include quaternium-15, diethanolamine, nonlphenol ethoxylate, and linear alkyl benzene sulfonates.5

Phenol is one more surfactant that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system. “Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching.”6

The European Union (EU) and Canada banned Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), but they are allowed in the U.S. These are also endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer. They can lead to extreme aquatic toxicity in the environment.

1,4-dioxane 

This is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that is always present in trace amounts when ethoxylated surfactants are used because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct. “1,4-dioxane is never listed on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient, but there are some easy tricks to avoid it. Ethoxylated surfactants usually follow a few naming conventions. If the ingredient ends in “-eth”, such as laureth-6 or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ceteareth or steareth, it’s ethoxylated.”7 Sodium lauryl sulfate is another one to steer clear of. 1,4-dioxane is also a common water contaminant.

Phosphates & EDTA

Manufacturers use Phosphates and EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) “to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing.” These chemicals cause environmental damage, especially in waterways. They also cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems.8 Phosphate-free products are important to help reduce eutrophication, a process that causes algae to grow uncontrollably and cause the death of all life in bodies of water.

Others

Companies use Formaldehyde as a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent. It can irritate the eyes and lungs and is a suspected carcinogen.9

Dyes cause allergies and rashes, almost all are endocrine disruptors, and many are carcinogens.10

Benzyl acetate is toxic to skin, the nervous system, the kidneys,11 and has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Dichlorobenzene is a water contaminant and has a highly toxic effect on aquatic life. They are carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Laundry Pods

Single Laundry pod, orange, white, and blue liquid detergent in a plastic sealed pod.
Photo by Erik Binggeser on Unsplash.

Laundry detergent pods are purely convenience items. They contain concentrated amounts of detergent encapsulated in a “dissolvable” pod made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA or PVOH). PVA is a synthetic, petroleum-based polymeric plastic. When marketers say it “dissolves” in water, they mean that the plastic breaks down into smaller plastic particles, called microplastics. The microplastics are discharged as part of the wastewater, then enter our water systems, and eventually end up in our bodies.

“Dissolvable” detergent sheets

I tried laundry detergent eco sheets because they are indeed free of huge plastic bottles. While I’ve always been leery of laundry pods because they feel like plastic, I assumed these were different. However, I discovered that these also contain PVA (polyvinyl alcohol).

Again, PVA is a plastic, and while it is designed to dissolve, that doesn’t mean it disappears. A study cited by the company Blueland “suggests that over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and our soil after it dissolves in laundry and dishwashing machines, flows through wastewater and ultimately back into our environment.”12

In fact, in November 2022, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a large group of other nonprofit organizations filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to readdress PVA and its effects. “This petition requests that the EPA conduct requisite human and environmental health and safety testing for Polyvinyl Alcohol, also known as  PVA or PVOH as it is used in consumer-packaged goods, with particular attention to the use of PVA in laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and sheets. The petition also requests that until such testing is completed, the EPA remove polyvinyl alcohol from its Safer Choice Program in order to curb plastic pollution.”13 Unfortunately, the EPA denied those requests.14

Avoid any laundry pods or dissolvable sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

White washing machine with blue clothing in, door open.
Image by taraghb from Pixabay.

Powdered Detergents

Two Meliora cardboard and metal containers, lavender laundry powder at left (white and purple lable), and oxygen brightener at right (blue and white label).
Meliora powdered detergents, shipped plastic-free! Photo by Marie Cullis.

In general, I have trouble getting our clothes clean with laundry powder in our washing machine. I’m not sure if this is because I wash everything in cold water, or if we have hard water, or just an old washing machine. So when I do wash something in warm or hot water, I use Meliora laundry powder. I also use this laundry powder for all of my handwashing. I ordered the refillable containers on my first order, and the refills arrive in a recyclable brown paper bag. These products do not contain toxic ingredients or fragrances, and the company lists all of their ingredients on the packaging and its website. I recommend this brand (I do not get paid to write that nor am I an affiliate of the company).

Protecting Your Health & the Environment

While this may all seem overcomplicated, it doesn’t have to be. Just do your best. Steering clear of toxic ingredients and avoiding plastic are the goals. Avoid using chlorine bleach and “brighteners” as these are strong chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment. Find a solution that works for you and stick with that. Sometimes it takes a while.

Feel free to comment on what works for you! I’d love for you to share. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Discussing Plastics, Paper Towels, and the Journey to Living Thoughtfully with Eve O. Schaub, author of Year of No Garbage

Underwater image of fish swimming near floating plastic trash.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash.

After reading the new book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Eve O. Schaub. She was fun to speak with and very passionate about the subject matter. I loved the way our conversation flowed between funny and serious.

Seriously, she’s great to talk to. She’s very relatable, enthusiastic, and extremely knowledgeable. She explains complex matters in an honest and open way. We’ve all experienced conundrums with garbage and recycling at times, some of which have no resolution. She makes the reader understand that we aren’t alone in this. Plus, the book is quite an entertaining story!

The Beginning

Schaub has written three books within this paradigm: Year of No Sugar, Year of No Clutter, and Year of No Garbage. I wanted to know how it all started and how it transpired from No Sugar to No Clutter to No Garbage. She had seen an online talk by a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, who associates sugar with many of the most common western diseases. “I was captivated by this. I mean, I’m not in the habit of sitting around and watching 90-minute medical lectures,” she laughed. But she found that his findings made so much sense. “It was like I had been given a new pair of glasses. I saw the world in a completely different way.” Schaub decided to make this a writing project. “What could be more important than the health of our families and the food that we put on our table?”

What would it take to eliminate sugar? Schaub thought that it couldn’t be that hard, so she convinced her family to live for one year without consuming added sugar, with a few exceptions. She drew inspiration from authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who created a set of rules for a specific period and then reported on it. As she would come to find out, it is actually very difficult to eliminate sugar because it’s in everything.

After finishing her first book, Schaub said Year of No Clutter felt like a very natural next project. She stated it was more of a personal project for her because the root of the clutter in her home was her. “As the self-confessed polar opposite of Marie Kondo, I spent a year confronting my inner hoarder and wrote a book.”1 This journey led to the idea of Year of No Garbage.

Large, full yellow dumpster with all kinds of trash and debris.
Image by Nathan Copley from Pixabay.

No Garbage

The idea of garbage and what happens to it had captivated Schaub since childhood. Trash is a given thing in our culture, and most people never give it a second thought. “Trash is like weeds. Right? Weeds are only plants that are in the wrong place…that’s the same with trash. There’s no such thing as trash, it’s just whatever we say it is. It’s in the wrong place, it’s inconvenient, we don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

What’s more impressive is Schaub did this during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many actually found it significantly harder to have less trash that year than any other, her family managed to do it by following a pre-established set of rules. She said it was a good distraction during a time when we were forced to slow down, and she felt it provided a good opportunity to reset and rethink.

“I kept trying to remind myself that the very fact that trying to live without garbage is super difficult—and at times virtually impossible—was the whole darned point: if it were easy there wouldn’t be much to write about, and everyone would probably already be doing it, and the earth would be a happier, less trashy, more equitable, less cancer-filled, less disaster-prone place. The End.”2

Trash symbol, outline of person in white paint throwing paper in a trash receptacle, black background.
Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash.

Plastics

Plastics are the hardest type of garbage to deal with, and there’s so much of it. Schaub acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to avoid buying food without plastic packaging. “You’d have to live in a cave and grow all your own food in the ground, and drink from a stream. I mean, that’s how hard it is…That’s how ingrained it is.” But if we know this, we can work to turn off the plastic tap and think about ways to use less.

Most people don’t realize that plastic is made from oil and chemicals. Big Oil is openly planning to triple its plastic production by 2050. “And they’re proud of it!” Schaub exclaimed. “Do we need three times the amount of plastic in our lives than we already have now?! No, I don’t think anybody thinks that. But they are looking for new markets. They’re trying to increase profits, especially in the wake of people buying [and] turning to electric cars, for example. They’re going to be selling less oil in other departments because of environmental initiatives.” Capitalism drives everything in our culture, and Big Oil is one of the most aggressive industries. Those are the forces we are up against, she said.

“The plastic waste crisis is horrible, but it’s not your fault. It is the fault of forces that are beyond each individual person’s control. This is corporations. This is Big Oil.”

She mentioned that personal responsibility is not the sole solution, but that awareness is the key. Films such as The Story of Plastic, which highlights the global problem of the people whose lives are negatively affected by our waste; videos of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose; and images of dead albatross with stomachs full of plastics are disturbing. But they are powerful because they raise awareness.

Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll.
Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic in its stomach at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll. March 31, 2015. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0 US).

Recycling

Single-stream recycling is a lie, especially when it comes to plastic, the author acknowledged. Knowing that the plastic recycling rate is only 5% is crushing, because people try so hard to do it properly and follow the rules. Yet, most plastic is landfilled. “Every other material has a place to go and has a way to break down. Or be made into something new.” Schaub said that after five decades of recycling, “five percent is the best we can do?!? That’s shocking.”

Single-stream (curbside) recycling often collects plastics with RIC numbers 1-7. But most of those (#3-7) are not recycled and end up in developing countries. “If I know that my plastic is being shipped to Malaysia and Myanmar and Thailand, I’m going to be hesitant to put it in recycling at all because I know that that’s the system in place,” she explained. “These are our plastics that are being shipped across the sea to litter the landscapes of developing nations that do not have the infrastructure to deal with it. You literally have children playing in our waste plastic. And the list of countries is long…these people are living in our trash plastic…this is an environmental justice issue. This is racism.” We have the impression that we are doing a wonderful thing when we put plastic in the recycling bin instead of the landfill, but that is unfortunately sometimes false.

“In the name of recycling, countries around the world are suffering.”

Smiling child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola.
Child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola. Photo by etoile on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC-BY 2.0).

The Role of Corporations and Industries

I asked Schaub: “How do we get these corporations to do the right thing? Because at every turn, like you talk about in your book, they’re looking for a new stream of revenue. How do we get them to stop?” Schaub responded, “Well, they won’t stop, because financially, it doesn’t make sense for them to stop. So we can’t really turn to the corporations too much. I mean, we can try.” But they are always going to put profits first. For example, Coca-Cola has been making environmental promises for decades. But they don’t actually fulfill those promises, “because there’s no sheriff in town,” she said. There are no entities that make sure companies fulfill their promises when it comes to plastic and other environmental endeavors.

“We need more transparency…we need to have a sheriff.”

Schaub observed that industries often put the responsibility on the consumer, in that we shouldn’t buy those things, or that we don’t recycle properly. But it is the industry that should be making better products. “There are a lot of parallels between plastic and sugar, actually. It all comes down to something that’s cheap and it’s easy and it’s convenient and that’s why it’s everywhere, in the case of both of those things…The industry does not have an incentive to do better.” There is an illusion of choice for the consumer as well. There may be 30 types of bread at the supermarket but only one of them will not have added sugar in it. The same is true with plastic. “Try buying cheese without buying plastic. It’s incredibly hard!” Schaub is right – I’ve never been able to buy plastic-free cheese, anywhere.

“Personal responsibility is very important, [and] personal awareness. But if I go buy a bamboo toothbrush and a shampoo bar, that’s good, but it’s not going to fix the overall systemic cultural problem that we’re encountering.”

Legislation May Be the Most Important Focus

Schaub says turning to legislation is perhaps more important than asking corporations to change. She said that proposed bills such as The Break Free from Pollution Act and the United Nations Plastic Pollution Treaty, as well as state and local legislation, show us progress. There are plastic bag and plastic straw bans where she lives, and there is even a charge for paper grocery bags in Vermont. “This is the low-hanging fruit. You have to start somewhere,” she said. (I didn’t tell her that my state, Tennessee, has a law banning bans on plastic and polystyrene containers.) The hope is that more states and municipalities will do the sensible thing. “The more we ask, the more available it will become.” Asking puts in your vote as a consumer!

Diet Coke bottle floating in water.
Diet Coke plastic bottle floating in a body of water. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay.

Toxic Chemicals

Plastic packaging is often full of toxins that can leach into many things, including food and beverages. “Avoid plastic packaging especially when it comes to food whenever you can. And definitely do not heat your food in plastic,” Schaub said. Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher because the heat releases the toxic chemicals in plastic, and most of the time we don’t know what’s in those plastics.

“It’s amazing to me that when you go to the supermarket, and you buy a food product, they have to tell you what’s in that food…But nobody has any obligation to tell you what’s in the packaging. That’s another instance of where we assume that ‘well, this has to be safe,'” she said. But they may not be! There are so many chemicals and the formulas are often proprietary and secret. “Plastic and food need to stay way the heck away from each other, as much as possible.”

“It’s one thing when you’re talking about ‘the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are starving,’ and nobody likes that – that’s bad! But when you start putting toxic chemicals into my body, suddenly I’m paying even more attention…or, when you’re talking about putting those same chemicals into the bodies of my children…I think that’s probably what it’s going to take, is for people to start understanding that connection between plastics and our health, and all the negative effects that can be correlated. The same thing with sugar. When you start connecting the dots, it’s very alarming. And of course, sugar and plastic are so often used in conjunction, from candy bars to all the soda, it’s like they are best friends!”

Box with variety of plastic-wrapped candy bars.
Most candy bars are wrapped in plastic. Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

Avoiding Garbage Changes The Way We Purchase

I asked Schaub what items she’d stopped buying because of Year of No Garbage. She laughed, “I had quite a love affair with paper towels. I was the person who went to the supermarket every week and bought the largest bale, like a hay bale, of paper towels.” She explained that sometimes the large bales have individually plastic-wrapped rolls in addition to the outer plastic wrap. “Horrible! But I realized that there were so many times that I could avoid using paper towels very simply, by just having dish towels on hand…or I’ve got rags that I’ve made from cutting up really old towels or sheets. That’s what I use for cleaning now…and I get a great sense of satisfaction out of that…I have incorporated [it] into my life, it’s part of my routine now. So now I just do it without even thinking about it. It does take some effort to set up a new routine. And there is discomfort in that.”

But it was manageable. And she still uses paper towels but significantly less. “I went from going through a hay bale of paper towels every week to now, I buy one roll at a time, and I’ll have it for weeks.” If you don’t want to use a certain item, like paper towels or sugar, the best thing to do is to avoid bringing them into your home. That will automatically discourage use.

Avoiding Plastics

Schaub and I agree that it’s best to avoid plastics whenever possible. And when you do have to buy something with plastic, it’s almost better to put them into the landfill than to try to recycle them. “I feel like that’s a much more honest approach. If I have something that’s going to go to the landfill, I’m just going to put it right in there and accept that’s the only thing that can happen to this piece of plastic…but knowing that will now cause me to be ever more vigilant to try and avoid buying that product,” she said.

For me, that has been items such as bottled shampoo, plastic straws, and plastic shower curtains. Once I became aware of the problems with those things, I stopped bringing them into my home. We switched to shampoo bars and have never reverted back to liquid shampoo. We don’t need a straw for most drinks; when we do, we have metal straws. And though I’ve had my trials and tribulations with fabric shower curtains, I have not had a plastic one in the house for 10 years. As for paper towels, I also use very few and the ones I purchase are plastic-free.

Year of No Garbage book cover

Normalizing Environmental Actions

I was telling Schaub that I routinely keep two clean glass containers in my car with my cloth shopping bags. This way, if I’m at a restaurant and want to take my leftovers home I can do so without having my food touch toxic Styrofoam (polystyrene). But while bringing your own bags to the supermarket is common now, bringing my glass containers to a restaurant is still kind of weird to people. She affirmed, “I think this is all about normalizing it, right? If somebody is standing next to you when you go and use that container at the butcher or the restaurant, they see you doing that and they go ‘Huh! That’s interesting.’ And it starts the process of becoming more normal. And that’s a wonderful thing we can do. We’re not just helping ourselves, we’re progressing this whole idea forward.”

“Awareness is the beginning of all meaningful change.”

Glass container with bamboo lid, white background.
Glass container with bamboo lid from IKEA.

Living Intentionally

Schaub said that all three projects permanently changed how her family lives and consumes in the world. This is because they can’t ‘unknow’ the information they’ve learned. She also liked the symmetry of the three projects because she felt like her family came full circle. “We started with the things that we put into our bodies, and then I focused on the things we bring into our homes, and then lastly I focused on the things that we’re putting into the environment, which, guess what – spoiler alert – because they’re in the environment, they’re now coming around and going back into our bodies as well. And so now we’re finding microplastics in foods because it’s in the dirt! It’s in the produce! It’s in the tap water and the bottled water! These microplastics don’t go away…[plastic] never breaks down.” It turns into microscopic plastic pieces. “But it’s still there, and that’s the stuff that’s going into our bodies as well as into the environment,” she maintained.

Our culture is so busy but when we slow down, we can be more thoughtful and more intentional, including with our resources. She wrote, “As it turns out—and I’m as surprised as anyone about this—living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all led to the same place: living thoughtfully…Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice: getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from basic ingredients.”3

Cardboard sign with black painted letters with sky in background: "All You Need Is Less."
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

Read Year of No Garbage

Schaub’s goal is to spread information and provide people with more information so that they can incorporate it into their lives in a way that makes sense for them. She said that some people read Year of No Garbage and find it an entertaining story. For other readers, it might change everything about the way they shop and discard and recycle. She doesn’t want people to feel shame because guilt isn’t going to make anything better. These are urgent issues and we need to come together. Her book incorporates these ideas, so be sure to check it out!

If you are interested in purchasing Year of No Garbage or any of Schaub’s other works, you can find links on her website.

Read my book review, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023

Video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” Education, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, May 26, 2009.

Documentary, “Fed Up,” 2014.

Video, “Plastic Straw Removed From A Sea Turtle’s Nostril (Short Version),” The Leatherback Trust, August 13, 2015.

Website, About The Story of Plastic film.

Footnotes:

Book Review: Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub

Year of No Garbage book cover

“Trash is America’s number one export.”

I recently had the pleasure of reading Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub. The book is a great source of well-researched information regarding the huge problems surrounding our waste crisis. I found myself laughing out loud at the many humorous and relatable stories, which help make very real topics like plastic pollution feel more approachable. Especially when those topics can be so complex and depressing!

Overflowing 'Litter' bin with trash piled in front of it, a crowd of people in background.
Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash.

“Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, in our very bodies, and we don’t even realize it. Microplastics have been found in humans’ blood, lungs, the placenta of unborn children, and, most recently, breast milk.”

Garbage is a Problem For Everyone

Garbage doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.

Even the most extreme environmentalists and zero-wasters have found objects for which there is no way to upcycle, recycle, or reuse. Nobody knows what to do with them, so they must go in the garbage. Many environmentalists often don’t talk about these types of items, but Schaub puts those stories front and center.

For example, in Year of No Garbage, she included a hilarious story about a Styrofoam-filled beanbag that her cats had peed on. There was no saving or repurposing it so she had to trash it. Her husband thought her blog readers would ‘crucify’ her for having something like this that was dumpster-bound. But she thought this was the point entirely! “I mean, I have to talk about this, right? This is what the whole thing is about. I mean: look at this. Things like this should not exist.”

The stuff – meaning the plastics and Styrofoams and disposables – pervades every part of our lives. It is almost impossible to not come in contact with them constantly. In fact, Shaub tried just going a single day without touching plastic and found it nearly impossible. That is, she had to avoid the toilet, the soap dispenser, her cell phone, pen, computer, yoga mat, light switches, etc. “I couldn’t drive anywhere, because cars are 50 percent plastic. This was probably just as well, because I also couldn’t wear my glasses.” Even books and magazines often have a plastic coating on the covers. On her blog, she commented:

“I still hate plastic and everything it is doing to us, but this impossible day gave me a newfound understanding of what we are really up against. Who knew that in only a few short decades our society could have so thoroughly encased ourselves in mysterious plastic chemicals, to the point that doing without them immobilizes us? Recently I had happened upon an article in the New York Times, ‘Life Without Plastic Is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.’ I beg to differ—and I speak from experience.”1

Black garbage bag sitting in front of a door next to a pair of slip-on shoes.
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash.

Recycling 

One way the author attempted to reduce her family’s garbage was to recycle everything she could. But this wasn’t easy as just throwing it in a blue bin. One of the chapter titles, “I Become the Sherlock Holmes of Recycling . . . or at Least Watson,” referred to the vast amounts of research it took to recycle many items. “There are so many things about recycling that we just don’t know, that prevent us from doing it correctly and efficiently, and I was pretty much spending every waking moment trying to figure them all out.”

Plastic’s rate of recycling used to be just 9%, but has fallen even lower to between 5 and 6 percent. And that’s typically only plastics with a resin code of 1 or 2. The rest is often shipped off to other countries, where they often do not have the infrastructure to deal with these plastics. “No matter what your garbage service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 are not getting recycled.”

Schaub noted that recycling programs are flawed and often don’t work. That includes everything from single-stream/curbside to extreme recycling programs like TerraCycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. What I am giving up on is the myth of personal responsibility…it took me an entire year of looking and asking and researching to finally accept what so many have long suspected…Plastic recycling does not work. Extreme ‘recycling’ programs are not trustworthy.” She wrote that legislation (with enforcement) regarding plastics, chemicals, and waste will be what makes the most difference. That is how we can get corporations to make better products and packaging, as well as use less toxic ingredients.

“Before the Year of No Garbage, did I love that I could buy a package of lovely, sealed, organic ground beef at the supermarket that would keep good for much, much longer than other, mere mortal organic ground beef? Of course—it’s convenient and efficient. It reduces food waste and saves money. Longer shelf life probably even made my supermarket more likely to carry organic meat in the first place. But where Intergalactic Space Plastic reduces waste of food, it creates waste of something arguably even worse: permanent, forever garbage. At least wasted food, if composted, can degrade back into the environment.”

A seagull at a body of water with trash in its mouth.
A seagull with trash in its mouth. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Garbage Reduction

There are so many things that most of us absent-mindedly throw away because we don’t know what else to do with them. This book teaches us to think about trash differently – whether we recycle, give items a second life, or avoid buying certain items in the first place.

Schaub’s family was able to greatly reduce their garbage, mostly by paying closer attention to what they bought. They made incremental changes, such as “eliminating paper towels, instituting a burn pile for small and unrecyclable paper, collecting wine corks and plastic caps to donate for school craft projects, composting all food scraps (not just some),” collecting plastic film for the bin at the supermarket, washing and recycling their aluminum foil, and avoiding the purchase of disposable items as much as possible.

Schaub recommended not using garbage bags. “Garbage bags are black holes, I realized. They encourage things to be thrown in them, things we’d rather not think about or deal with. Not having a bag in the bin means no messy organic material (which should really all be going into the compost anyway) but it also means, when I empty it, that’s one more time I think about my garbage and what it is composed of.” She uses pet food bags to bring trash to the dump.

“Instead of that ninety-six-gallon trash bin we used to fill each and every week, today we fill one-half of a kitchen-sized garbage bag every week, always composed pretty much entirely of single-use plastic food packaging that I couldn’t figure out how to avoid. We have gone from 96 gallons of trash per week to 9.”

Three waste bins in green, red, and yellow: Compost, Waste, and Recycling respectively.
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash.

Zero Waste Is Extremely Difficult

“There’s a lot of stuff out there masquerading as useful and sustainable, when it’s really just more stuff…As the Zero Wasters like to say, the most environmental purchase is the one you didn’t make.”

It is very difficult to go completely zero waste in our modern society. “Zero waste is a lovely idea,” Schaub wrote. But “the number of people who are both willing and able to genuinely go full bore zero waste under our existing system is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Which means, effectively, that even though it is technically possible, it is not realistic. And it’s not going to fix anything.” Fossil fuel companies are the biggest drivers of emissions and plastics production. They don’t have any plans to put themselves out of business.

But we have to keep trying.

“I’m not suggesting that just because personal responsibility will not solve the problems of garbage and plastic and climate change, we should all just throw in the towel. Forget it! Hand me that plastic straw! Turtles be damned! No. What I’m saying is that personal behavior changes are never going to be enough all on their own, because the forces at work are so enormous.”

Black trash can with trash items sitting on top of it and on the ground around it.
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash.

Intentionality

Schaub wrote that being intentional is key to making any great change, whether it is at home or through legislation. We can all do better if we know better. We can all become more intentional in our lives. This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from minimalism even if we are not minimalists. She wrote:

“If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it follows that living mindfully gives us purpose. I hope my kids will live life with a sense of curiosity about the world and our place in it. I hope that if something doesn’t seem right, they’ll know that blind acceptance is not their only option; that even if one person might not be able to solve the problems of the environment, global warming, racial and environmental injustice, we can start the conversation, change minds, reveal a wrong, by the simple act of slowing down and taking a closer look.”

Read the Year of No Garbage!

I highly recommend reading this book! It’s fun, interesting, and full of well-researched information and first-hand experiences. A Year of No Garbage resonated so much with me because I have run into many of the same roadblocks and situations with plastics and garbage. I have struggled with replacing my plastic shower curtain with non-plastic. It was difficult to find alternatives to take-out containers made from Styrofoam (polystyrene) because of their toxicity. I also stopped paying for garbage bags and now just reuse dog food bags or I upcycled my own from shipping envelopes.

Understanding some of the problems surrounding waste in our society is the key to being able to change it. Schaub wrote, “As I’d learned with our other two projects, even when you are supposedly ‘done,’ you are not done at all. In fact, in some ways, that is when the hardest work begins. After all, the whole point of the crazy year-long project is to change how we do things so dramatically that it changes us.”

I had the opportunity to interview Eve O. Schaub, and I look forward to sharing that with you in my next article! In the meantime, you can check out her blog. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

All quotes from this article are from Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023, unless otherwise cited.