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:

Shampoo Bars & Conditioner Bars Eliminate the Need for Plastic Packaging

Last updated on March 9, 2024.

Photo of man with his head under shower water.
Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay.

Most shampoo and conditioner brands are sold in plastic bottles. Since we know that 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled, many of us are trying to find ways to not purchase products in plastic.1 Recently, a colleague asked me what to do about shampoo and its plastic packaging.

Did you know you can buy shampoo as a bar?

No way, you say! Or, maybe you’re thinking ugh, what? Either way, stick with me for a bit.

Last fall, I wrote an article on the benefits of bar soap and how it can be purchased practically packaging-free. I use bar soap for showering out of personal preference. I always found that most body wash and liquid soaps washed down the drain rather than cleansed my body. Once I switched to bar soap, I felt like I got a better lather and a better cleanse, and found that I wasted less soap overall. A bonus is that there are no travel restrictions on bar shampoo, so no need for little plastic travel bottles!

I first discovered shampoo bars on Beth Terry’s site, My Plastic-Free Life.2 I was excited to learn about shampoo bars and switched to them right away. But there have been some issues with various bars, so I’m reviewing those here.

Image of lavender bar soap, light lavender towel, violet vase, and fresh lavender.
Image by joe137 from Pixabay.

“Up to 80 percent of shampoo and 95 percent of conditioner is made of water.” -Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic3

How to use a Shampoo Bar

This part is easy! You just rub the bar between your hands like you would with regular bar soap, or directly on your hair and scalp as long as you are gentle. It’s only strange the first time. The lather of a bar is satisfying, and I’ve come to prefer shampoo bars.

Plastic-Free often also means Toxin-Free

Most shampoo bars do not contain the perfumes, chemicals, and harsh detergents that are in major brands of bottled shampoo. This means you will not be exposing your body to toxic ingredients that will strip your hair, disrupt your hormones, or cause cancer. Yes, you read that right – many major brands of shampoo and conditioner contain one or more toxic ingredients. Under Additional Resources, I’ve included a link to a list of ingredients you should avoid, and also a link to review brands on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site.

I will say that this type of shampoo does take getting used to. Most of us are accustomed to shampoos that strip our hair and scalp of their natural oils, so it will take a few shampoos for your scalp to adjust and not feel greasy. But this is normal and once you adjust, you’ll start to feel and see the benefits of shampoo that is not full of harsh ingredients.

Photo of the shampoo aisle at the grocery store. Many plastic shampoo bottles in many colors.
Most grocery and department stores carry shampoo and conditioner exclusively in plastic bottles. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“The number of shampoo bottles thrown out in the United States every year could fill 1,164 football fields.”-authors Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic4

The Shampoo Bars

Here is a review of the brands I’ve tried, in order of preference:

J.R. Liggett’s shampoo bar

J.R. Liggett's shampoo bar

This is the first one I ever tried, mainly because I was able to find this locally at Earthfare (also sold at Whole Foods and Amazon). It is packaged in a recyclable paper wrapper. I’ve switched back to it several times after trying many others, and have decided this is my favorite. It lathers well, the bar does not fall apart over time, and my hair is soft and clean.

There is a bar for every hair type: Original; Moisturizing (for dry, colored or damaged hair); Tea Tree & Hemp (fragrance-free and good for “itchy-flaky scalp”); and several others depending on personal scalp preference.

Sappo Hill

Cream colored Sappo Hill shampoo bars, next to lavender sprigs.

I like Sappo Hill and it is my husband’s preferred bar soap. I discovered their bar soap when I used to shop at Earthfare, and I love that the bars were package-free except for a bar code sticker. After Earthfare closed all of its stores, I went online and discovered that they sell many more scents and that they also make shampoo bars! Their shampoo bars are mild and cleansing. They run a close second to my favorite (above) and are very well-priced. I recommend this brand if you don’t like other shampoo bars.

Aquarian Bath

Pink Shampoo bar in a blue glazed dish from Aquarian Bath on Etsy.

My third favorite is one that I discovered through the website My Plastic-Free Life, called Aquarian Bath.5 This shampoo bar doesn’t break apart and lathers well. These are handmade, vegan, palm oil-free, SLS-free, fragrance-free, dye-free, and not tested on animals.

They will ship their products naked, meaning zero waste or no packaging, which is super! There are many scents and bars with ingredients for each hair type, including one for dandruff, so read each description to find the right one for you. They also sell other types of products with the same qualities.

Nourish Natural Bath Products

Black Shampoo bar from Nourish

Nourish is where I buy the majority of my bar soap for body washing. But in recent years, they’ve come out with shampoo and conditioner bars. I was thrilled about this because I love most of their products! However, while I like the scents and the clean feeling these bars leave in my hair, they have the flaw of crumbling about halfway through the bar’s life. This leaves several small pieces of shampoo bar, and those pieces get smaller and smaller, creating frustration. I’ve tried 3 of these and each bar had this problem. I’m hoping they can improve their binding process.

Lush Cosmetics

Image of Lush shampoo bar, white with pink edges.

I tried a shampoo bar from Lush Cosmetics and it crumbled halfway through its life as well. I did not enjoy the scent either but I highly respect Lush Cosmetics because of their naked packaging. Their products are handmade, vegan, and cruelty-free. This particular bar just didn’t work for me. However, I like and respect the company so much that I plan to try additional shampoo bars. Here’s why:

“Since 2005, we’ve sold more than 41 million shampoo bars, saving 124 million plastic bottles from ever being produced. That’s approximately 3417 tons of plastic saved, or about the weight of 30 blue whales. Imagine if everyone ditched the bottle in favor of the bar!” -Lush Cosmetics6

The Right To Shower Shampoo Bar & Bar Soap

The Right To Shower Shampoo bar packaging with a yellow and orange bar inside, visible through the package window.

I found this brand at Whole Foods, and they claim to help bring mobile showers to people living on the streets, which is pretty cool! It’s a large bar for the price and can be used on both the hair and body, which is an added benefit. These bars are vegan, sulfate-free, are made in the US, use Rainforest Alliance Certified palm oil, are cruelty-free, and are packaged in 100% recycled carton paper. I love the promise of this product! But it does not keep my hair as cleansed as I’d like – I noticed some build-up on my scalp.

Photo of a woman running her hands through her light brown hair, wearing a white sweater, pink background.
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels.

What about Conditioner?

When I first started going plastic-free, I made my own conditioner and continued doing so for about 2 years. There are many recipes on Pinterest and I’ve tried a bunch. Most did not work for me – they were either too greasy (coconut oil-based) or left my hair tangly (shea butter-based). The one I settled on uses a combination of oils and aloe vera gel with guar gum as a thickening agent. Unfortunately, the ingredients are not all available plastic-free in the area where I live. Since the beginning of my journey, some companies have developed conditioner bars. Below are the ones I’ve tried.

by Humankind

White conditioner bar, peach background.

This company sells all plastic-free/packaging-free products and orders are carbon neutral (meaning the company contributes to forest preservation to offset the carbon created from shipping their product). I tried their grapefruit-scented conditioner bar and it is my favorite though most expensive. The bars are vegan and made of all-natural ingredients. Unfortunately, it broke into pieces toward the end of its life. I found it very difficult to use 4 tiny pieces to conditioner my long hair, so this was disappointing. But it left my hair soft, manageable, and shiny! I plan to give it another try, and they also sell shampoo bars that I haven’t yet tried.

Nourish

Nourish conditioner bar, pink

I tried Nourish’s conditioner bars in addition to their shampoo bars. They have great scents and they conditioned my thick mane well, leaving it shiny and manageable. However, they crumbled about halfway through the life of the bar. Even so, this one is my second favorite and they are much more affordable than others. They are vegan and made with natural ingredients. They offer a choice of packaging when you order, either compostable plastic or tissue paper wrapping.

HiBar

HiBar conditioner bar packaging and blue bar.

I am still on the fence about this one. It is also a little costly and I don’t like the scent of the blue moisturize bar. But the shape is unique as you can see. The bar is made to hold in your hand while you rub the angled flat part of the bar directly onto your hair. This creates no friction or tugging and allows me to condition my hair much more thoroughly. The same goes for washing my son’s hair – I can conditioner it quicker without tugging, which of course makes hair washing better for him! So I do like the shape but I may need to try a different scent. If I do, I’ll update this article. HiBar Conditioner bars are free of sulfates, phthalates, silicones, or parabens. They also sell shampoo bars. These are sold only in cardboard packaging, no plastic packaging.

Person washing hair in shower, lathering brown hair, angle shows back of head and hands in hair, and bare shoulders.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.

Let Go of Guilt

I’m not perfect. I’m still figuring it all out too. I got very frustrated once with conditioner bars breaking into small pieces that became unusable and purchased conditioner in a plastic bottle! I did at least buy Pacifica Beauty brand because their products are vegan and cruelty-free, as well as toxin-free. But I’m not giving up! 

Remember, the fact that you’re willing to try another method to avoid plastic means a lot. So if your attempts at switching fail, just don’t give up. You will find something that works eventually!

You can do this, and hopefully, this post helps! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote or receive free items for any of the product reviews in this post.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, 15 Harmful Ingredients In Shampoos And Conditioners That You Should Avoid, Starting Today!” Skinkraft Laboratories, April 21, 2020.

Website, EWG’s Skin Deep, accessed February 16, 2021.

Footnotes: