Announcer: How much would you have to change your lifestyle in order to cut the amount of trash you produce to zero? Samuel McMullen is a student at the University of Michigan who embarked on a one-year journey to do just that. Samuel is the co-founder of Live Zero Waste, an environmental nonprofit that helps people give the zero waste lifestyle a try. Greg Dalton spoke to him to find out what it’s really like to live a zero-waste life.
Greg Dalton: Tell me about the first zero waste meal that you try to have. How did that happen tell me about that first meal?
Samuel McMullen: Yeah, it was right after we gave a presentation to sort of launch the zero waste or the live zero waste idea and right after that we went down into the lobby of the NRDC in Beijing and went into the restaurant and had to sort of negotiate our first zero waste meal which was has been repeated many times since then in my life and in my sister’s life. And it was just a matter of asking if we could have the silverware with no napkin wrapped around it at that particular place. But actually the dinner we had the next dinner we had the silverware came wrapped completely in plastic. Everything, the silverware, the plates, the bowls everything was shrink-wrapped in plastic because in Beijing I think foreigners are worried about germs. So they were sort of proving to people how clean they were. And so we had to ask them for serving if we can eat out of the serving dishes and I ran home, my apartment was not too far. I ran home and got chopsticks that were not wrapped in plastic. So that was an adventure right off the bat.
Greg Dalton: How do people react when you ask for no straw, no plastic wrapping. Do they roll their eyes at you and think, uh, what a pain this guy is?
Samuel McMullen: Yeah, it depends entirely on how you ask. And I’ve asked many different ways. The best reactions I get or when I preface it with listen, I’m doing the zero waste challenge and it’s a little bit weird and gonna make your job hard but do you mind giving me a water without a straw or this burger without a paper wrapping or sandwich or whatever. But yes, sometimes if you just ask if you say, can I have a water with no straw or the silverware without a napkin around it and you get some eye rolls and muttered things as they leave.
Greg Dalton: And what’s the purpose of doing this is this to sort of live the zero waste life for your own identity and comfort, or is it to change other people’s thinking and change something bigger than yourself?
Samuel McMullen: Yeah, I mean it’s components of both for sure. The impetus was certainly the first thing you said, which was that we’re trying to sort of live out our values and we’re working on environmental law paper at the time studying renewable energy policy. And so we were feeling great about ourselves as environmentalists, but start realizing that we weren’t really doing much in our own lives to address the problems that we are writing about. So that was our reason for doing it. And then as we started encouraging other people to try it, it became much more about the idea that these kinds of changes measured on an individual level, don’t make much sense. Like it doesn’t really make sense to go zero waste if you’re the only one doing it because you save a lot but you don’t save that much. Whereas if you measure your community metrics and you try to encourage other people to do it and encourage them to get their friends to do it and get everyone on board, then you start to get real numbers that you can be proud of and that you can say we’re actually changing something. So it’s definitely turned into a form of like personalized activism. And an activism that’s a little bit less in people’s faces about why they should change their mind and more just about changing your own behavior and role modeling.
Greg Dalton: Yeah, the Old Gandhi phrase “Be the change that you want to see.” So how many people are living zero waste? You started in Ann Arbor where you’re been going to school. How many people have been following you?
Samuel McMullen: We’re at 305 pledges which — and they’re spread out, they’re all over so that’s 26 countries now where people are trying to limit. And we’re trying to get people hooked up with others that are living zero waste near them. So like we have pledges in Egypt and we have no idea what it’s like to live zero waste in Egypt so we try to encourage those people to get in touch with each other and find the resources in their area.
Greg Dalton: So how do you handle things like Christmas, you know, those sorts of things. You give gifts without any wrapping on them or do you give gifts at all?
Samuel McMullen: Yes. So our version of waste or our definition of waste is pretty all-encompassing. So any new product we count as waste because of the eventual, you know, it’s been produced and eventually it will go to landfill somewhere. So anything new is off-limits, but thrift stores are totally inbounds, antique shops. I do a lot of Groupon giving. So giving experiences and that ends up people actually think you’re really thoughtful if you do an experience with them for the holidays, really value your time or I do web design so I give people websites and people love that.
Greg Dalton: How would you describe your social group and your quality of life? I mean do you hang out with people that have more material possessions and you do the latest whatever, you know, cool to have in college these days?
Samuel McMullen: Yeah, absolutely. I’m in a comedy improv troupe and that was a huge blessing actually because they don’t care what you’re doing, they’re gonna make fun of it regardless. And that actually made it much more accessible to everyone else around me. So I’d often go out to meals with this person named Guy Majar [ph]. He would make fun of me in front of the waiter and he and the waiter would sort of get on a team making fun of me and then I didn’t have to explain to the waitstaff that I was doing this thing, they already knew. And it was the same result, they brought me my stuff without waste but they got a laugh and that’s which is very helpful. But yeah, I mean my social group it hasn’t changed because of this, but they’re definitely aware and we do like secret Santas and whoever draws my name gets made fun of because they have to get a zero waste gift, figure out something. So I think if you handle it well and you’re not annoying about it, it can be a really fun thing for a whole social group to get behind.
Greg Dalton: And just to be clear. So if you give someone a bottle of tequila for secret Santa and that tequila bottle is recycled, is that count as zero waste?
Samuel McMullen: So we also have included recycling waste just because our main focus is really the production end of things. So as long as something is produced, that’s like just because of how much environmental load is upstream of the actual purchasing decision we thought it made sense to include recycling because it still has all the production of that item still happened even though in the postconsumer end of the lifecycle it’s recycled and reused or melted down or whatever. So we’ve decided to include recycling in our definition of trash.
Greg Dalton: Well that’s remarkable because a lot of people, even in liberal eco-places like California say oh, I recycle so it’s okay I can buy that because it’s recyclable. And you’re changing the definition of recyclable as waste. And so all of us live in this what we think is an eco righteous coastal lifestyle, not so much, shown up by a student in Michigan.
Samuel McMullen: Yeah, I hope it’s not seen as showing up, but definitely I think there’s a valid point there and something to be aware of that recycling is not innocent. And it really like recycling doesn’t get at the issue that I think environmentalists have, which is that our economy is based on extraction and based on sort of exploiting other people’s countries and their natural resources and their environments for our own our own gain. And if you look at it that way then anything that’s produced anywhere is suspect and a target for environmental action.
Greg Dalton: So you’re calling for like a change in capitalism, throwing our consumer society?
Samuel McMullen: Yes. Yeah, we get this a lot like well if everyone is buying used then there won’t be any economy and that’s fair and valid. But I think what the counterpoint that I always make is if someone’s job is producing straws, we’re wasting that human’s talent. Like we shouldn’t have people whose job it is to produce straws or to produce things that we use for 15 seconds, you know, like napkins. That’s not a good use of our economic power and I think if we free ourselves of producing those sorts of things we can start to focus on things that will last much longer. And we can produce things that we need, I mean living zero waste, you certainly still use things. You still use soap you use all kinds of stuff. You just don’t use unnecessary things. You don’t ask for production that didn’t need to happen.
Greg Dalton: So describe to me your bathroom and where you live. So what is it look like, how many things do you have, how many — describe to me how bare in existence are you leading as a zero waste lifestyle?
Samuel McMullen: Yes. So I’ve been living zero waste for 2 1/2 years now. And I haven’t noticed much of a difference in clutter. I think anyone who knows me will attest to that I’m not a clean roomie. So it’s just change what I have has changed certainly. And where I got it mostly has changed. So like sheets I get from the Salvation Army, I have more bags than I used too, more containers, reusable containers. My bathroom is a toothbrush that I got from a donation pile at Standing Rock, when I was there. So there were donations frozen into all the snowbanks so figured that was fair game because they were getting bulldozed unfortunately, and a little pot of baking soda for toothpaste. My shower is a bar of soap and a washcloth, but otherwise I don’t think you’d be able to, I don’t think you could look at my life and say oh, this guy’s got something going on like there’s something significantly different. It’s just the procurement aspect is different.
Greg Dalton: Okay so you’re not a — yeah, this lifestyle that you’re leading wouldn’t be telegraphed by someone looking at you. They wouldn’t say, oh this guy is leading a radically alternative different lifestyle. You look like a regular guy.
Samuel McMullen: Yes I think that’s a fair assessment.
Greg Dalton: And Samuel, do you think you’ll still be living this lifestyle when you get out in the world when you’re in your 30s? And it’s one thing for a college student to live this zero waste lifestyle often college students living on a tight budget. Do you think you’re gonna carry this into adulthood and maybe even the comforts of middle life?
Samuel McMullen: I think it will be difficult not to continue living this way after college. Once you, we call it trash goggles, when people pledge we talk to them. And one thing we say is you get these trash goggles where once you’ve done it even just for a day, once you’ve done it, you start seeing trash everywhere. And that’s the like golden nugget that we’re after is getting people that point where they’re like, wow, a lot of things we do create trash and none of them are really necessary. So I think after I leave college it’s not gonna be much of a difference. And I’ve actually been helped a lot one of the things we offer through our organization is mentorship. And so a lot of people have come with challenges that I don’t really have, so moving and dealing with children and cats and all kinds of things. And I’ve been mentoring them through something that I have no idea what to do about it, but I’ve done research on it and I can sort of imagine my way through it. So solving those problems creatively with my mentees has really helped prepare me for whatever happens next.
Greg Dalton: And what’s one thing an average person can do to reduce the trash in their lifestyle if they were to say as you say, put on those trash goggles. What’s a simple thing that a person could do?
Samuel McMullen: Yeah. So one big differentiator that we have that we try to hammer home is that changing little things can be effective and you can get a long way with a little change. But it doesn’t accomplish the same sort of cognitive shift that doing a radical change. So we really advocate for completely eliminating trash from your life for a day. Just try it, see what happens. And so like by doing it by time period rather than by items. So like if you were to eliminate aluminum cans that would be great. Aluminums are very high intensity thing to make. But you wouldn’t experience the same like wow everything is made of aluminum because not everything is made of aluminum. So doing a big shift for a day I think is the best thing that I can offer in terms of sort of like a lesson learned. Like shifting your mindset for a little bit and then going back to your life and you have that knowledge then oh man, when I was doing my zero waste day I wasn’t using this and now I’m using it again. You have to sort of pay attention to it in a way that you wouldn’t if it were a small shift.
Greg Dalton: So do a comprehensive shift for a short period of time for the biggest impact.
Greg Dalton: Samuel, thanks for joining us on Climate One.
Samuel McMullen: Oh absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Announcer: Samuel McMullen, a student at the University of Michigan and co-founder of Live Zero Waste. This is Climate One.