By Abby K. Cannon, JD, RD, NLC
It’s safe to say that if you’re reading this, you think a lot about food. What to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, who to eat with, and, of course, how well that food will photograph.
I thought about food so much that I left my job as an attorney to become a dietitian. I soaked up all the information I learned about nutrition and was excited to implement it. But, slowly, I noticed something. I got sick of talking about food and of being told what and what not to eat.
That feeling is apparently a reflection of a bigger phenomenon: A recent Food Literacy and Engagement Poll found that most Americans are overwhelmed, and therefore misinformed, when it comes to information on food and the food system. With sensationalized headlines and over-simplified explanations of studies, conflicting information can start to erode the confidence we have in our food choices.
To confront that, I searched for a new way to frame my education. I needed to eat empowered. But what did that look like for me?
It started, surprisingly, with analyzing my garbage.
I grew up in an environmentally conscious household. We composted and recycled, turned off lights to conserve energy, and constantly discussed environmental issues. My dad even ditched the car for a bicycle to commute to work. I thought we nailed sustainable living. But then I watched Lauren Singer’s TED talk “Why I Live a Zero Waste Life” and realized that our efforts just scratched the surface. We recycled, but did we need those single-use items? We composted moldy celery from the back of the fridge, but was composting a crutch for a wasteful habit? In the guise of being “green,” I was unconsciously wasteful, and for the first time, I considered the impact. It was eye opening.
Take a moment and identify the last thing you threw away. Did you think before tossing? Did you think about whether it could, should, or would actually be recycled? Did you think about where it would go or the resources that created it? Probably not, because, well, you’re normal! Society values convenience. Enticing new food, clothes, and gadgets tempt us everywhere. Trash is whisked away early in the morning or travels down a chute never to be seen again. Out of sight, out of mind.
The Zero Waste movement brings that trash into full view. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Less than 10 percent of all plastic is actually recycled.
These facts, instead of only depressing me, motivated and empowered me. Unlike many things out of my control, I could control what I purchased and the waste that I produced. The Zero Waste Lifestyle seeks to avoid sending trash to landfills. Bea Johnson, “The Priestess of Zero Waste Living,” lays out the 5Rs of this lifestyle: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (in this order). Refuse to purchase/use certain products, reduce what we need, and reuse what we can. Recycling and rotting (i.e., composting or sending trash to landfills) are the last resort.
How I Created a Low-Waste Diet
So what does this have to do with food? Well, I analyzed what my family threw away day after day, week after week. I prided myself on my nutrient-dense diet, but noticed processed, packaged foods and takeout meals showed up in our diets (and our trash) regularly. And while trying the new, hottest food trend was fun, invariably the excitement faded after one too many “healthy” cookies, crackers, bars or chips. These foods did not make me feel my best and were contributing to most of the waste I produced.
As I implemented zero-waste principles, treats and convenience foods with clever advertising stopped appealing to me. The packaging quite literally blinded me and propelled me toward the perimeter of the supermarket (where the produce and bulk sections live) and into my own kitchen.
This was refreshing. I naturally filled up on the most nutrient dense foods without constantly thinking about food itself. In focusing on the packaging, I was finally eating empowered.
How to Get Started
Avoiding all waste, however, is daunting (which is why I live a low (not zero) waste lifestyle). I started slowly and continue to tackle new challenges daily. If you’re intrigued, an easy way to get started is to analyze your trash. What are you using only once? Do certain packaged foods sneak into your diet more than anticipated? How do they make you feel? Do you throw away packages of plastic cutlery as soon as you unpack takeout? (I certainly did!)
Once you’ve done that, you can tackle the low-hanging fruit. This is different for everyone and correlates to your trash analysis, but start with changes that you won’t really feel first. Here’s where I started:
3. Say no to straws. Americans use 500 million plastic straws daily; most end up in oceans, polluting water and killing marine life. Kindly ask for drinks sans straws and carry a bamboo or stainless steel straw.
4. Bring your own cup. I’m not asking you to give up coffee or matcha tea (sigh of relief!). Treat yourself to a reusable cup that you love (I love my KeepCup). Most coffee shops happily fill them (and some even provide a discount).
By the way, your kitchen is just the beginning. My low-waste lifestyle informs all of my choices—from the food I eat to the clothes I wear to the beauty products I buy to my travel habits. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing how I reduce waste in all these areas. Stay tuned.
Abby K. Cannon, JD, RD is a Nutritious Life Certified attorney-turned-dietitian who lives a very low-waste lifestyle. While practicing law in New York City, she realized her true passions were for nutrition, wellness, and the environment and so she returned to school to become a dietitian. Her food philosophy marries sustainability and nutrition. Abby’s Food Court (both the website and the practice) helps people make the best choices for their health and the environment. Stay up to date with Abby by following @abbysfoodcourt on Instagram.
(Featured Photo: Shutterstock)