Updated: Dec 23, 2019
When people think of Portland, Oregon, they think of bridges, bike paths, microbreweries, and coffee houses. The word “eco-friendly” might even come to mind, which is exactly what I imagined when I moved to Portland last summer. As someone living waste free, I knew that I needed to move to a city filled with bulk bins, second hand stores, and alternative packaging options.
If you haven’t heard of the term zero waste or waste free before, it means that I attempt to send as little trash to the landfill as possible. I do this by purchasing everything imaginable in bulk (without packaging) from syrup to soap to beer on tap. And if I can’t find it in bulk, I strive to buy it in compostable packaging or just not buy it at all.
In 2017, I sent a total of 1.6 pounds of household trash to the landfill as compared to the average 1,054 pounds the typical American produces each year. Now happily cozied up in northeast, I want to share with people the ways in which I have managed to live nearly waste free in Oregon’s largest city.
Buy in bulk
A large majority of the foods we buy are packaged in plastic. Take a look inside your refrigerator or pantry and I guarantee you’ll find at least half of them are wrapped in plastic. The best way to combat food packaging is to purchase items that are fresh, local, and in bulk. Bulk bins have been around a long time but now, thankfully, more stores are expanding what they sell beyond just dry items.
Stores like the People’s Food Coop and New Seasons sell bulk oils, nut butters, honeys, and syrups. But buying in bulk itself is not enough to reduce food packaging waste. You have to also bring your own container to be filled. Simply ask the cashier to weigh the jar before you fill it, mark down the item number, and bring it to check out. Not only are you saving plastic from being thrown out, but you also get the pleasure of filling your kitchen with aesthetically pleasing jars!
Reduce food waste
It is estimated that approximately 40% of what we throw away each year in the U.S. is compostable. Just by eliminating food waste, you can cut down on nearly half of your garbage! Although it is commonly assumed that food will break down in landfills, it is a myth and should be avoided. Luckily, Portland has a wonderful curbside composting program that makes composting really simple. I highly recommend you take a minute to visit the city’s website detailing the do’s and don'ts of using the bin to make sure you are following the guidelines. In addition, backyard and apartment compost bins are common place now and provide small, economical options if the city’s green bin isn’t available in your area.
Bring your own container
Just like you can now bring your own containers to the grocery store, bring them to lunch with you too! Remember that trash follows us everywhere and sneaks up in the most unsuspecting places. Take-out containers are often often plastic or a paper based cardboard covered in plastic. Disposable utensils are also non-recyclable and come with many meals. Make sure to avoid these by making a few easy swaps. Carry around with you a thermos, container, and reusable utensils. My personal favorite is a spork and pop-up container designed for camping because they are compact and light! When the waiter comes to your table and asks to box up your leftovers, kindly let them know that you’ve got this one handled.
Research alternative products
This tip takes a little more time and effort than the ones above because it involves some foresight and planning. There are still many other products in our lives beyond just food that have packaging, from toothbrushes to shampoo to plastic wrap. Instead of purchasing these items again the next time you run out, take a moment to research some alternatives that are more environmentally friendly. Plastic wrap, for example, can be replaced by beeswax wrap that is reusable. Shampoo can be bought in bulk from many stores just like soap, conditioners, and lotions. Some toothbrushes have recycling programs or are made from bamboo! By slowly replacing each disposable, plastic item in your house, you will find it fills up with higher quality and longer lasting products that don’t harm the planet.
Understand your recycling system
Portland has a complicated recycling program that can take a little time to understand. It is important to note though that improperly placing items in the recycling bin only leads to more waste. When a batch of plastic sent in for recycling becomes contaminated, there may be no option but to send the whole thing to the landfill. By taking the time to only put in items that are truly recyclable in your area, you are saving other items from being needlessly tossed. Most importantly, remember that recycling is a great place to start but a bad place to stop. By implementing the above recommendations, you will start avoiding those plastics in the first place.
How do you live a waste free life in PDX?