‘All My Trash Fits in a Single Mason Jar’

Americans produce, on average, 4.4 pounds of trash per day, made up of items like “packaging, food waste, grass clippings, sofas, computers, tires, and refrigerators.” But over the past year, Lauren Singer has produced so little trash that it all fits in a single, 16-ounce Mason jar.

The 23-year-old is a practitioner of a light-footprint, minimal-plastic lifestyle, and she meticulously avoids purchasing or using anything that might end up in a landfill. She details her efforts — using a menstrual cup, carrying around silverware, convincing restaurants to go zero-waste for her birthday party — on her blog.

Now, she’s launching a business, the Simply Co., selling “handmade, organic, vegan” laundry detergent. A Kickstarter campaign raised four times as much as she asked for, and she plans to send out her first batches early next year.

We chatted about how easy it is to be trash-free in New York and making it through the holiday season. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Photo: Bobby Doherty

So how much trash have you ended up producing this year? I know it fit in a Mason jar a few months ago …
It’s still in a Mason jar.

One Mason jar.
One 16-ounce Mason jar. And it’s actually two years of trash! It’s been two years since I’ve been following the lifestyle.

The contents of the jar: Mac-and-cheese packets (4): “From visiting my family upstate. They have a 4-year-old, and that is a staple in her diet.”; Band-Aids (2): “I make my own now: usually cotton rounds tied with cheesecloth, and homemade Neosporin, with lavender oil and other natural antibacterial agents.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

What’s taking up the most space in there?
It’s a bunch of different things, but predominantly packaging. There’s a hot-chocolate wrapper, two macaroni-and-cheese wrappers. There’s a Band-Aid in there. Let’s see, let me look. There are some tags from the inside of clothing, some plastic straws.

Produce stickers: “They aren’t even mentioned by the Department of Sanitation [on its recyclables list]. I prefer to just avoid them by shopping at the farmers’ market.”; green and pink synthetic raffia: “From a birthday present from a friend.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

Is that planned waste — you decide you’re going to buy something or use something that comes with non-recyclable goods? Or is that accidental? Like you’re stuck somewhere, you can’t eat without producing some waste?
It’s more the second — produced by things that just happen. When I go to a bar, I always tell the bartender, “No straw, please.” But if I forget or if the bartender forgets, I take that with me. The clothing tags are in all clothing. If it’s cotton, I’ll compost them. But if you can’t compost them, I’ll take those out and keep them. So none of the waste is waste I intended to create.

Tag from supermarket kale: “I don’t buy anything packaged in plastic anymore—I’m sort of set up. I have more compost, more parts of whole vegetables.”; nylon ped: “I was trying on shoes at a secondhand store. I tried to say no, but she gave it to me.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

Over the past year, what’s been the worst temptation? Like, is there ever a time where you’ve said, “I’m sick, I’m tired, I’m ordering Seamless, whatever packaging the food comes in.”
There’s not! The only thing that happened where I had to produce some waste is when I got poison ivy really bad. I’m really allergic to it. I tried natural remedies and they didn’t work. Went to the dermatologist, and they gave me topical steroids that come in a tube. I ended up being able to recycle the cap, but I wasn’t sure about the actual medicine itself.

That’s it.
That’s it.

Lamp pull chain: “To be honest, I don’t know where that came from—I think it was in my apartment when I moved in. It’s what I call ‘circumstantial trash.’ ”; debit card: “I guess someone could reconstruct this and steal my identity?” Photo: Bobby Doherty

How much recycling and compost were you producing this year?
As more and more time passes, I produce less and less. In the beginning, I was producing a lot more recycling. That’s because I don’t buy anything packaged in plastic anymore — I’m sort of set up. Compost? That has increased. Since I was buying a lot of packaged food, there wouldn’t be things like kale spines in there. Now, there are kale spines. I have more compost, more parts of whole vegetables.

Have you converted some of your friends?
Recently, a friend said to me, “Now, every time I take out my garbage, I think of you.” [Laughs.]

I don’t try to convert people. But the people who know me, I think sometimes they start thinking about their trash, being around me. I have friends that have started using Mason jars or eating more organic or started composting. But that’s never something I’ve told them to do. They just started doing it.

Tyvek wristband: “From a show. A lot of my friends are musicians.”; Saran wrap: “From—cheese, I think?” Photo: Bobby Doherty

What’s your biggest challenge, the biggest annoyance or barrier to living this way?
New York makes it really convenient. I was traveling in Los Angeles for a little while, and it was so much more inconvenient to be there, because they don’t have the composting and recycling infrastructure we have. When I was in Portland, it was the easiest thing ever, because they have so many good co-ops and farmers’ markets. But Los Angeles doesn’t.

I should add: New York has a great composting program at farmers’ markets. But our recycling isn’t that amazing. The natural food stores pick up the slack for that.

Clothing-tag ties (9): “At the secondhand store that I shop at, they have colored ones, which I think they use to date items.”; yeast packet: “Now I buy it in bulk—it’s a lot cheaper.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

What do you regularly carry to facilitate all this?
I always have my computer. I have a makeup bag with a small container of homemade lotion and deodorant, just in case. I always have a Mason jar with me, and then, depending on the season, a stainless-steel straw. I’ll carry a straw to get iced coffee in the summer. But since I’m working from home now, or working from a coffee shop, I don’t carry as much around. When I worked an office job, I would always carry a stainless-steel folding fork and cotton napkin with me. And, of course, a reusable bag.

Silica gel packets (5): “From vitamin bottles.”; hot-chocolate and dried-green-juice packets: “I think the hot chocolate was a giveaway or something—I won it.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

What’s your biggest piece of advice for people looking to cut down their trash production?
There are three.

The first one is you have to figure out what your garbage is. You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is. So look in your garbage can and identify what is in there. For me, it was a lot of food packaging and food waste, so I learned to buy in bulk and to compost.

The second one is to pick the low-hanging fruit, which would be the easy, everyday alternatives. Instead of using a plastic bag or paper bag, bring your own. Bring a stainless-steel water bottle, instead of buying a bottle of water. Bring your own coffee cup, instead of taking a to-go cup. Bring your lunch instead of ordering in. That’s really an urban thing, isn’t it, ordering your lunch in? 

The third thing is the DIY thing: Transition out purchased products and learn to make things yourself. A really easy one is toothpaste — that’s a super-easy switch. So make toothpaste, body lotion, deodorant, and cleaning supplies.

Clothing tags (19): “If it’s cotton, I’ll compost them. But if you can’t, I’ll take those out and keep them.”; peel-off tops (5): “From vinegar bottles, aspirin bottles, etc.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

The holiday season, it’s an orgy of buying and wrapping and spending and waste. It’s a great thing, but also not great from a sustainability standpoint. How are you getting through it?
From a financial standpoint, I quit my job and am starting my business, so I don’t have the money to buy presents for people this year. Instead, this holiday season, I’m making presents for my family. My grandmother loves this granola I make, so I’m going to make a huge batch of that. I’ll also make them things like body lotion and scrubs, all organic. Things that they can use, instead of stuff.

My family loves giving stuff. They love abundance. They love the visual of presents under a tree. I told them this year, I don’t want any gifts from them, but if they wanted to give me something, they could give me plants or things that grow. And I asked for online subscription to The New Yorker

Tiny plastic tab: “It’s from an ink cartridge.” [The hard plastic cartridge itself was recyclable, but not the tab.]; straws (6): “I always tell the bartender, ‘No straw, please.’ But if I forget or if the bartender forgets, I take that with me. It is unclear if they are recyclable, and I have tried to answer this.” Photo: Bobby Doherty

Did they react well to that?
They did! Last year they were really cute, too. They wrapped everything in recycled newspaper or put it in a reusable bag.

*A version of this article appears in the January 12, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

‘All My Trash Fits in a Single Mason Jar’