How one woman has attained near-zero waste
Photos by Stephen Gabris
This year, January through June, Ginny Leary had produced a mere three pounds of trash. That means every month—after she weighed the fruit stickers, condiment bottle covers, twist ties, and bags from crackers or chips that made up her little garbage bag—she averaged just half a pound a month.
The modest North Buffalo resident is quick to point out that this does not factor in things she may have thrown out at work or on the go, or her cat’s litter (she tried switching to flushable litter, but her sixteen-year-old feline wouldn’t go for it). Still, it’s a remarkable accomplishment, representing several years of small changes she’s made toward a zero-waste lifestyle.
“Growing up, we always recycled, composted, and had a CSA,” says Leary, a Rhode Island native, who regularly shares tips and stories on her Instagram page, @zerowastebuffalo. “My parents have always been super eco-conscious. It’s just ingrained in me.”
After graduating from Ithaca College, and living in New York while working for the Broadway Green Alliance, Leary moved to Buffalo with her boyfriend in 2013. Around the same time, she checked out the book Zero Waste Home from her local library and soaked up author Bea Johnson’s advice on reducing waste and environmental footprint. Johnson is widely credited with helping the term “zero waste” become more mainstream and, in her book, she outlines a five-tiered strategy to achieve a waste-free lifestyle: refuse (items you don’t need), reduce (those you do need), reuse (whatever you can), recycle (what you can’t reuse), and rot (what can be composted).
The book inspired Leary to take the next step in her already green lifestyle and reduce waste—one thing at a time. She started by switching to a menstrual cup to eliminate her need for disposable feminine hygiene products and save money.
“I wasn’t perfect,” Leary says. “I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was just buying what I could. I would always bring my reusable bags, and then I got reusable produce bags. Then, I got a [titanium] reusable Spork. I was just trying to do as much as I could.”
Today, she always carries a reusable water bottle, a cloth napkin, and her combination fork-spoon-knife, so she doesn’t need disposable bottles, napkins, and cutlery while she’s out. Little by little, and with support from her boyfriend, she continued to make waste-free switches and adjustments part of her daily routine (see sidebar for simple swaps you can make).
“I just made the changes slowly, and that’s honestly the best tip I can give,” she says. “A lot of people—and I felt this as well—as they begin learning about [zero waste,] it’s exciting and [you feel like,] ‘Wow, I can really do this.’ But then you get overwhelmed thinking about every single piece of trash you make or waste you encounter every day in your life. Making changes slowly, one change at a time, helps.”
Leary follows Johnson’s advice by avoiding disposable items, like Styrofoam takeout containers and single-use bottles, purchasing items secondhand when possible, or even obtaining things free through her area’s Buy Nothing Project group on Facebook. In addition, she reuses other items, cleaning empty spice jars and refilling them at Lexington Co-op, or grinding fresh peanut butter into an old jar. Leary recycles what cannot be reused and composts her food scraps, newspapers, and other materials.
“I also keep a list of everything new I buy just to keep track of myself and see what I’m doing,” she says. “It makes me second-guess, ‘Do I need this? Can I get this secondhand?’”
Through all her efforts, Leary’s experienced benefits beyond reducing her environmental impact, though that is still her prime concern. This summer, she shared via Instagram the “compounding effects of zero waste”—how she saves money for experiences by not buying excess things, how she spends less time cleaning because her home is free from clutter, and how she’s been able to share her knowledge and inspire others.
“Do what you can,” she says. “Don’t get overwhelmed with everything you can’t do—just focus on what you can do. If it’s just bringing a water bottle out, that’s great. If you always get Starbucks coffee in the morning, bring a cup with you to refill. Just make the changes you can in your life.”