Could You Live Zero Waste for a Year? Jenny did…

January 20, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Last month our theme was ‘Less is More’. We had one interview which I didn’t get to post that month and so am posting it today.  Jenny Rustemeyer is described on her website as "the woman behind thecleanbinproject blog; she’s the one who said "ok" to Grant’s crazy idea to live zero waste for a year".  Making the film that documented the experience, also called The Clean Bin Project, apparently "cured her of her deathly fear of public speaking". I spoke to her from her home in Vancouver, where as well as being a mum, she is also a GIS Analyst for an environmental consulting company, and started by asking where the motivation and inspiration came from to try and live zero waste for a year. 

"It started off when Grant and I were a little disgruntled with our work and felt like we needed a change and to take a break and go on a bicycle trip. We bicycled down the Pacific coast of the US. We spent about 2 months on the road living very simply. Everything we needed was with us on our bicycles and when we came home we were out of money of course, and we were also really struck by how much ‘stuff’ we had in our house and we wanted to simplify.

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The theory is, less stuff coming in means less stuff going out. So we stopped buying stuff and tried to reduce our garbage as much as possible. To make it fun, we had a competition: the idea was that the person with the least amount of garbage at the end of the year wins. We’re kind of competitive!

And how did it go?

It went pretty well. Before the project, we would take our full garbage can to the kerb every week, just like every other family. By the end, we each had a garbage can that weighed about 4 lb, so you could fit our garbage for the year in your microwave.

How was it with your family? One of the things that’s always a challenge when somebody decides they want to try and change their lifestyle is that for the people in their immediate family it can feel like a bit of a threat or a bit of a dismissal of their way of doing things. How was it with your wider family? Did they think you were mad or were they very supportive?

They were supportive in theory, but sometimes it took them a little while to wrap their heads around the logistics of it. They still wanted to give us candies wrapped in plastic or material gifts and we really had to re-educate them and say – this year we really don’t want those types of things. Let’s give each other experiences or spend time together, and just avoid the packaging at all costs.

So we were really strict with our family and we would not allow them to give us that kind of thing. A lot of our friends thought – "oh, you can’t buy this for yourself, I’ll just buy it for you". For us, that was completely cheating, it was beyond the point.

What were the hardest things to do in daily life without contributing to your dustbin?

It definitely took a rethinking of the way that we grocery shopped, because so much food these days is really packaged. We’re very lucky in Vancouver as we have stores that have really good bulk sections. So we started shopping around the periphery of the grocery store, just in the produce and the bakery and the meat and deli department with our own containers, and in the bulk section as well. That shifted our diet. We started eating less processed foods and more healthy foods at the same time.

You’ve just released a film or recently released a film about it. Can you tell us a bit about it?

At that time Grant was transitioning from being a musician and working in film and music and things to starting to get behind the camera. He really wanted to make a documentary, so I wrote a blog and he started filming us. One of the best ways to inspire other people is to share your own story. If you just do it in your own house and never tell anyone it can never affect any other greater change.

Image RemovedSo we made a film that we thought would be fun and entertaining and something that we would want to watch, and then when we were finished we put it out there to see what the reception would be. It’s been received really well. I think it’s heartening to see an environmental documentary that talks about serious issues, but also has positive solutions and lets you laugh at the situation as well.

How has it been received? You’ve been touring it all over place?

Yes. It’s toured all over the world. It’s played in New Zealand, it’s played in Europe, it’s played all across Canada. We actually bicycled the film across Canada. So it first came out in 2010 and that’s when we took 3 months and cycled across Canada for 100 days and showed it in 30 different cities.

What did spending a year doing that tell you about the fundamentals of or economy?

I was really struck by how consumeristic our society has become, and how our economy is really based on this idea that you must consume consume consume. Our lives became so much more enjoyable when we really simplified and didn’t have to think about – are we going to buy that next new gadget, because we just knew it was off limits for us. After the project of course we went back to buying things, but I think we became more conscious consumers, so I think it was a really good exercise for us.

There’s the element of what you were trying to do in terms of live with less and simplify, but of course there are lots of people who live with a lot less and don’t have a choice. I wonder what your reflections were on that in terms of choosing to live with less and not really having much of a choice. What’s the difference?

Sure. There’s probably more empowerment in having the ability to buy more things and then choosing that lifestyle. It’s also easy once you’ve amassed a certain amount of goods. When you own a couch and a table and a chair, it’s easy to say I don’t need any more stuff. We already did have a core amount of belongings and I realise it’s also a luxury to say "I’m going to always buy quality that’s going to last a long time rather than whatever’s the cheapest product, because you have to have some sort of wealth saved up in order to be able to afford to do that".

In some ways, some of these environmental movements are a bit of a luxury, but on the other hand, a lot of the things that we practised, anybody can do. Shopping in bulk and avoiding packaging has nothing to do with how much you have. It has to do with your environmental decisions and your personal health.

Next year in Paris is the COP 21 which is seen by many as make or break in terms of climate negotiations. A big part of that is around the wealthier nations consciously choosing to move to a lower carbon, lower consumption way of doing things. What, from your experience, would you say to ministers from developed countries who are feeling a bit reticent about that? What would your experience give them or empower them with, do you think?

I’m all about the individual action and the grassroots movement, I guess. But I think that the policy is the most important thing. That’s where you can have the most carbon impact, if you’re talking about things like the oil sands, me not using a plastic bag is a drop in the bucket compared to the carbon emissions that they’re creating. For real global change, it has to come from the top.

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But on the other hand, I think the small actions speak volumes as to the way that you’re thinking. It breaks my heart when I see some kind of environmental leader using a disposable coffee cup, as if they don’t see the correlation between something like that and their policy. I think there’s a real disconnect.

Is there anything you want to say in terms of the film if people are interested in seeing it? How can they see it? Can they get hold of a copy?

With Clean Bin Project we do have DVDs available on our website. It is available for streaming also through our website if people would rather go digital. We really agonised about having DVDs or not, because it seems ironic to sell a product in a film about not buying things. So we went as environmentally friendly as possible with the cardboard packaging and we offered to recycle the disk at the end or to reuse it if people are done with it. But it is available through our website online.

The last thing I wanted to ask you was – the theme last month was ‘Less is More’. So strictly speaking, according to the criteria of a consumer society, the year that you spent consuming much less stuff, you should have been a lot more miserable, a lot more isolated, a lot empowered, considered yourselves a lot less attractive, all that kind of thing. How was it?

It was absolutely the opposite. Yes, I spent more time doing certain things, like making certain foods from scratch, but I also learned so many new skills. I spent way less time in the Mall. I spent no time looking online for things I was going to purchase. I think we had a better quality of life, and I really discovered a passion for making things myself and for empowering myself to run my own life.

When I ended up going back to work, just when we were starting the project again, I ended up simplifying my life there too. I went back to work 3 days a week instead of 5 and was still able to live the same quality of life and have more time off, because I wasn’t spending as much.

And now?

Now, I’m continuing the same thing. We actually just had a baby, so I’m trying to continue the same lifestyle. Obviously with him we’ve done everything as environmentally friendly as possible, we bought things second hand, cloth diapers, he eats the same food we eat so we don’t buy special packaged food or anything, and I think our life is simpler for it. 

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: personal resilience, powering down, reducing waste, zero waste