Zero Waste: Stories and Tips from DC, Berlin, and California

To produce zero waste is obviously no small undertaking. The Sierra Club defines Zero Waste as:

“a waste management approach that benefits people and the environment by reducing toxicity, conserving resources, and facilitating community economic development.”

In Washington, DC, where much of the waste still ends up in landfills or incinerators, a big step towards zero waste was the passing of the Sustainable DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2014, better known as the Styrofoam ban. This act was designed to reduce the harmful effects of Styrofoam waste in the local community and environment, explained by the Department of Energy & Environment in this way:

“unsightly, toxic chemicals stick to the surface of foam particles. Birds, fish, and other wildlife may ingest the foam particles, causing the polystyrene and other toxins to enter the food chain. Once in the food chain, these chemicals may impact human health. Foam takes hundreds of years to break down and does not decompose.”

The ban officially went into effect on January 1, 2016 for all businesses or organizations selling food. The DC branch of the Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee also works to support composting, divert construction and demolition waste, and fight waste incineration.

In 2014 Original Unverpackt (Original Unpacked) in Berlin, Germany opened as the country’s first zero-waste grocery store. A zero-waste business encourages and empowers consumers to consider the packaging waste and excess amounts of material they purchase and to shop in a more sustainable fashion. The store opened with the slogan,

“Let’s be real, try something impossible.”

Founders Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski raised over $124,000 in crowdfunding and also relied on private investors to help them launch the store in Berlin’s Friedrichshain Kreuzberg district. Wolf previously worked with Fairtrade and the UN. Glimbovski had a background in media design and communications and previously worked for the vegan grocery chain Veganz. Wolf and Glimbovski thought up the idea for the store while eating dinner as friends and reflecting on packaging waste. While starting out on this endeavor and running their Startnext fundraising campaign they won prizes at the Berlin Business-Plan Competition and held a Social Impact Lab Scholarship.

Berlin architect Michael J. Brown designed the store, and it is situated in a neighborhood also containing a fair-trade clothing store and vegetarian café. The core method behind the zero-waste store movement is to offer bulk and dispensable items that do not come in disposable packaging of any kind. Customers are expected to bring their own refillable, reusable containers for areas like produce aisles, grains bulk bins, and beverage stations. Toiletries like shampoo are also dispensed into customer’s reusable containers. Wine is purchased directly from the barrel. Customers can also borrow recyclable bags or purchase some liquids in bottles with deposits on them, which is not uncommon in Germany. The deposit is returned to the customer when the bottle is returned, encouraging recycling. Many products are weighed at checkout for pricing. Collectively states that at Original Unverpackt,

“PREcycling, not just recycling, is all the rage.”


Original Unverpackt also practices careful product sourcing, strictly stays away from brand name products, and offers organic and local options instead. Wolf and Glimbovski hope to branch out into a second location in the future. Glimbovski explains that,

“You won’t find countless brands for each product because one, the right one, is enough. Supermarket chains overload customers with too much choice these days, when really they’re just selling the same products in different packaging!”

The Daily Meal tells us that that a highlight of the zero-waste process is that

“Shoppers can buy exactly the amount they need, cutting down on food waste as well as inorganic garbage.”

Inhabitat shares that Germany produces 16 million tons of waste from packaging each year. Original Unverpackt is working to make a dent in that number. Similar projects in Europe include Unpackaged in London, started by Catherine Conway in 2006, and Day to Day, in France, which has five locations. Global Citizen reported in 2015 that similar “models are coming soon to the US.”

Bea Johnson, a French Native who lives in Mill Valley, California, is a pioneer in the zero-waste movement. She has lived waste-free with her family since 2008 and wrote the popular book, Zero Waste Home.

She offers this basic guideline on her site:

“[M]y 5R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (and only in that order).”

If you are interested in reducing your waste production, the site Remodelista shared tips from a 2014 interview with Johnson. Here are a few paraphrased suggestions, and you can read the full article here:

  • Add plant life in the form of a living wall to clean your indoor air.
  • Try installing a hanging chair to simplify your sweeping process.
  • Let go of unneeded kitchen tools and donate any duplicate items you find.
  • Choose your favorite food staples and stick to the brands you prefer.
  • Use eBay or Craigslist to get rid of old belongings in an advantageous way; this is particularly helpful for items that children outgrow.
  • Create a completely tiled “wet” bathroom that can easily be hosed down.
  • Base your life enjoyment on experiences rather than possessions.

Producing zero-waste may not be an immediate option for many households and organizations. Taking steps like the DC Styrofoam ban, the Original Unverpackt focus on precycling and reusable containers, and Johnsons’ examples of thoughtful, waste-reducing adjustments to home life, are effective ways to move in the direction of reducing waste, clutter, and pollution in our environment and culture.

Image from Erin Rhoads, Zero Waste blogger at The Rogue Ginger

Image from Erin Rhoads, Zero Waste blogger at The Rogue Ginger

Julia Travers

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