Eco-Friendly Living

Lifelong learning, zero waste month, and how I became a garbage picker

Once upon a time I was a Literacy Outreach Coordinator. It was a brief period of time, but I gained a lot from that position, the most important lesson being the vital importance of a concept called lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning is the idea that learning doesn’t stop when you graduate high school or university, it’s a process that continues your entire life, through taking classes, mastering new skills, and yes, reading. Basically, it means continually challenging yourself to learn new things and pushing yourself to grow as a person.

I have been thinking a lot about lifelong learning because for a while now, it’s felt like I have been sort of set in my Eco-friendly ways.

I make my cleaners and lotions, I bring my bags to the grocery store, I recycle and compost and shop secondhand. I’m proud of the choices I’ve made and how I’ve managed to continue with them for so long, but it also doesn’t feel challenging anymore. In some this is great, I’m used to not buying paper towels and using a drying rack, it feels second-nature , but although I’m constantly making little tweaks or changes it also really didn’t feel like I was progressing in any significant way.

SO! In October I decided to tackle a zero-waste month. I’d done this before on a much smaller scale, but I decided it was time to really tackle it in a long-term way.

What does this mean? Well, I was modeling my journey on the work of Bea Johnson, Lauren Singer and others, most of whom have committed to producing little to no garbage – often their yearly garbage output can fit into a mason jar.

A YEAR. A whole year! They do compost and recycle, but mostly they reduce the amount of stuff they consume in the first place, make conscious decisions about packaging, and are mindful of the amount of trash they generate.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet their goal of a mere mason jar full of garbage, but I did want to challenge myself to go further and think differently about the choices I was making.

So, here is the bag of garbage I collected from October 1-Nov 3.



I roughly sorted it for this photo so I could talk about what garbage I ended up with.

This time period spanned Olive’s birthday party (which we held at our home) as well as Halloween, which I was kind of kicking myself for because damn look at that whole pile of candy wrappers up there in the top right! I’m not a huge fan of sweets, so bags of M&Ms and chocolate bar wrappers wouldn’t normally feature in my trash pile.

Similarily, the large plastic tray on the right-hand side is from one of Olive’s birthday gifts, as well as the little lego packages in the centre of the photo and the ribbons.

My medication produces some waste, too, which I will probably never be able to get around. I take around 15-20 pills a day and I recycle my plastic pill bottles, but some things like Robaxacet and migraine medication come in blister packages, which can not be recycled.


Doing this month meant that I made significant changes to my routine – most notably how I grocery shopped. (Looking at this picture it really brings home how crucial this is, even with the changes that I made this month, I’d say around 80% of my garbage was food packaging.)

For years I have brought my own bags to carry groceries in, and used cloth produce bags (or none at all) to avoid using plastic ones, but some things like cracker sleeves, styrofoam meat trays, and frozen food packaging have always stumped me. This is compounded by the fact that I’m not a very enthusiastic chef, so although I buy very few processed or junk foods, saying “just make everything from scratch!” doesn’t really fly.

Here are the changes I made:

I simply had to buy less of it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I didn’t find a grocery store that had a deli selling bulk cheese, so I usually bought a tub of goat’s milk feta cheese (which I could recycle) and a brick of aged cheddar, packaged in a thin saran wrap rather than the thicker commercially packed plastic.

I don’t eat meat, but I do cook it for Olive once or twice a week. I found a grocery store which would put meat like prepared chicken breasts, (or the deli meat for Olive’s birthday party) into my own glass container I brought from home. The only waste I generated by doing it like this was the little plastic sticker.

The deli would simply weigh my container before filling it, and then subtract that weight from the total meat weight. I felt awkward asking, but they didn’t bat an eyelash! (This was at Save-On Foods, for any Calgarians out there)

Frozen Fruits & Veggies
I just didn’t buy any. Some of my garbage for this month includes packages of frozen peas and corn which I used up from previous grocery shopping trips, but I just avoided them for this month. I suppose I could get them canned, instead? But then there’s BPA? I mean, do I really need frozen veggies? Olive likes eating frozen peas and I often add them to soups and stews to cool them down for her (tiny nutritious ice cubes!) but I think she’d like eating fresh snap peas instead.

Snack Foods
I think adventuring to our bulk store would have helped eliminate some of this packaging, as I did have a bag of tortilla chips from prior grocery shopping trip, and a bag of chips because goddamn who doesn’t enjoy a bag of chips every so often? At the time the bulk store (Buk Barn) did not allow you to use your own containers, so I still would have ended up with several thin plastic bags. They’ve since changed their policy, so I will be exploring this more in the future.


Anyway, all put together the bag of garbage looked like this, I’d say I would typically produce two full bags in a month, so I was able to reduce my waste by around 50-70%:


I tried to get Olive to pose with it for scale, but she was having NONE of that nonsense. Smart girl.

Here’s what I learned from this month:

  • Holding yourself accountable changes your behaviour. Because I knew I planned to pick through and display my garbage at the end of this month, I was really diligent about what I bought, and why.
  • I learned to really take advantage of  alternate waste streams. Typically I just dump my bathroom garbage into my main garbage bag, but during this month I was really careful to compost anything I could (tissues, toilet paper rolls, cotton ear swabs, etc). Same story with whatever I swept up, typically it’d go in the garbage but I got used to picking out any bits of plastic and composting the rest.
  • Changing your eating habits is 80% of the battle, at least for me. Even eating fairly healthfully, trying to deliberately move toward zero-waste means also shifting to fresh, whole foods. Definitely a good thing.
  • It’s really easy to forget to be gentle and patient with yourself, something I remind others to do all the time. I have to admit I was disappointed when I saw my garbage accumulating more and more throughout the month. Each little piece felt like a failure, I mean Bea and Lauren collect a mason jar a YEAR! I had to remind myself how long it took to get to where I am in my green living routine, and how much improvement I did see. Reducing my garbage by 50-70% is huge!

I’m really glad I did this month and I’m going to continue the habits I picked up, and hopefully gather some new ones, too. Feel free to leave any questions/comments below, especially if you’re in the Calgary area and want some local resources!


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  • Reply Jo Bay November 29, 2016 at 1:01 PM

    Couldn’t you have recycled the empty candy wrappers? They are paper, aren’t they?

    • Reply sweetmadeleine November 29, 2016 at 1:04 PM

      Unfortunately no, the bags are plastic, as are the chocolate bar wrappers 🙁

  • Reply Amber November 29, 2016 at 1:13 PM

    Hey Madeleine! Do you know if the Bulk Barn BYOB is all stores or just your local one?

    • Reply sweetmadeleine November 29, 2016 at 1:15 PM

      They began with a test store in Toronto earlier this year and have begun rolling out the program country wide – I would call yours and see if they’re on board yet! I know Calgary only began doing it a month or two ago and I haven’t tried it yet, but a few people in a zero-waste facebook group I’m a part of have gone and said it’s great!

    • Reply Amber November 29, 2016 at 1:22 PM

      Just checked their website. It’s not every store, but here is one in Edmonton 🙂

      • Reply sweetmadeleine November 29, 2016 at 1:44 PM

        Yayyyy! That’s fantastic!

  • Reply Kim November 29, 2016 at 1:38 PM

    Here’s my question…did those other ladies have a little tiny human that they were feeding and also planning Halloween and a birthday party for?! You did great, I couldn’t even imagine tackling this with how my life is running these days!!

    • Reply sweetmadeleine November 29, 2016 at 1:44 PM

      Haha, Lauren does not have kids but Bea’s waste output includes her and her husband and two kids!
      I am conscious of keeping in mind that it’s not a competition though, I think everyone should just do what they can while staying sane and not turning their life upside down to keep up with the Eco friendly Joneses, you know?

  • Reply Jo Bay November 29, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    I was happy that our family of three produced one small bag of garbage (the size of a turkey) every week. But I guess I’m going to have to work harder. We’re lucky we have compost pickup once a week. That really helps.

  • Reply Nicola Pryor November 29, 2016 at 3:12 PM

    Well done! You did amazingly!
    I too am trying to cut back on waste, and yes, food is the worst culprit. Also feeling ya on the medication. They don’t use anything but blister packs in the UK, so I get through loads. 🙁
    Like you say, go easy on yourself, and look at what you have achieved instead of what you haven’t. Xxx

  • Reply annelogan17 November 29, 2016 at 4:05 PM

    As a fellow Calgarian, I really appreciate this advice. My community has the compost pick-up now, so we’ve been doing it for years. This makes composting so much easier! It’s crazy what you can put in the bin.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine December 5, 2016 at 12:17 PM

      I’m thinking about moving in the next few months and it’s one of the things I’m most worried about – what if I move to an apartment/condo with no compost?! It’s seriously a huge consideration for me.

  • Reply Sara November 30, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    I have a five month old and a preschooler with ARFID (type of insanely restrictive eating disorder) so food packaging waste is our deal, too, for this life season.
    My husband is not as keen an eco freak as me, but he hit on the biggest thing we did to push ourselves to reduce our waste: we got rid of our garbage cans and bags. I put 2L yogurt containers labeled compost, recycling and garbage in the bathrooms, and only recycling and compost in the kitchen. Our garbage has to go in the cracker bags, cereal bags or bulk oatmeal bags, etc. It directly eliminated the garbage bags, which was great, but made it really inconvenient to make garbage, so we unconsciously try to avoid it. At first we made just a lot more recycling, but we seem to be making less of that now too.

    • Reply sweetmadeleine December 5, 2016 at 12:15 PM

      Such a fantastic idea! Thank you for sharing it, and you’re right, cut yourself ALL the slack for food packaging and put your child’s health as top priority!

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