Choosing a Life Without Trash | Sam McMullen | TEDxUofM

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Eight months ago I decided to become "that guy". (Laughter) My sister Liddy and I committed to live trash-free for a year. Of course, no one can live completely trash-free, but we are pretty close. This is my trash and recycling for the past eight months. We did this initially because we wanted to feel like we were doing something about climate change. An issue that Lydia had spent her entire college career, a Fulbright Fellowship and all her time in the Natural Resources Defense Council working on. And I had spent countless minutes watching YouTube videos about. (Laughter) At first we were awful at it, we were so bad. Our first trash-free dinner sauce, eating out of a serving dish with chopsticks that I'd run back to the apartment to get because this is how our plates were given to us, wrapped in plastic.

We also had to improvise a take home container. See those stickers? That means I care about the environment. (Laughter) On the eighteen hour plane ride back from China, I didn't drink any water because they make me dump out my water bottle before boarding. And when I did get back the first thing I did, was create trash. I was out with a friend and before I knew it there was a drink in front of me with this napkin under it and this straw in it. Over the next few months my mistakes ranged from having to buy a packaged sandwich in an emergency room in York, Pennsylvania to literally forgetting that I was doing the whole waste-free thing and buying a brand-new chain tool to repair a bike. A lot of good that did me low because the bike is still in my basement – broken. So all of this led to me being introduced to you as an environmental activist. Now I thought that was kind of funny when I first read it, because I don't think of myself as much of an activist. What I started to realize was that by living without trash I had to enlist the help of everyone around me.

My professors had to agree to let me send them homework via email. My wait staff had to remember not to put the straw in the water. And at first I thought this would make me come off as total snob. But what I quickly realized was that if you just check your ego and understand and acknowledge that what you're asking for is a little bit ridiculous, it quickly becomes a team effort rather than an imposition of my values on someone else's life. The beautiful thing about this whole thing is that when once people have been an accomplice to an act of trashlessness they start to think about their own impact. Or you get texts weeks after having a meal with someone of someone is saying, "Hey, Sam, what do you do about toilet paper?" Or I'll get a snapshot of a napkin that someone didn't use. And by the way we still use toilet paper. Don't worry! (Laughter) This aspect of going zero waste that forces conversations about it is, I guess, a kind of activism. But why would we go zero waste and does it even make a difference? I'm sure we've all seen this graph of CO2 emissions. We've all had this picture come up on your timelines; we've all watched this video.

We all live in a world where these things are true, but we're not there, we're here and here is fine. We're confronted with this massive issue where cause and effect are completely separated. If you live in the developed world, like I do, you're probably never going to see the whole impact that your lifestyle actually has. That's probably because we are really good at exporting all the bad stuff and importing the finished product. 95% of a product's environmental impact happens before you even open the package. 95 percent – that's why we've included recycling in our trash because even though the product might be recycable, that 95% still applies. You just don't see it. If we're being honest with ourselves we know what the problem is, right? We know that we just use too much new stuff and use too many resources but the solution is scary. Not getting new stuff is really hard. It's the worst. Keeping that shirt for next year isn't that sexy, getting your phone off Craigslist rather than buying the newest model isn't that chic.

It doesn't feel quite right to turn down that piece of gum. But real action? The kind that addresses our biggest challenges is going to be just that: challenging. Cutting your dependency on trash is a little hard but hard is good in this case. In fact, hard is great. It forces us to notice what's happening and do something about it. Like saying, "Hey, any chance to get that coffee in a ceramic mug rather than in a paper cup?" So what we need is not the next easy fix, we need something manageably hard that has a real impact. That's where trash comes in super handy because for every piece of trash we throw away like this pizza box, it's a sort of representation of the upstream impacts like the transportation costs, the resources used to make it or the wrapping at the store or the extraction of those resources and the energy used to do all those things. For every pound of trash we create, seven pounds are created upstream. Now all of this is a real downer, I'm sorry, but it represents a choice, right? That's the flip side. With every wrapper, every bag, every new item we buy, we have a direct influence on all those systems and we can opt out. The fight against climate change is won and lost billions of times every single day in each of our choices.

This realization was crucial for my sister and me because even though we felt great about the fact that we're doing a zero waste year, in reality we weren't having that much of an impact, right? Because the two of us doing it for a year is about 20,000 pounds of waste which is great, but nowhere near enough. So over Christmas break at about 4 a.m. I shake Lydia awake and we have an idea that you can probably only have in the middle of the night. What if instead of some "now-jean-carrying", "same pair-of-jeans- since-August-of-07-having" or "shower-when-I'm-dead-environmentalist" doing this for months and years, what if everyone or a group of people from around the world did this for a day? Tried it. And then if they wanted to extend it for a week or a month, we'd be there to help them. So we got serious and started an organization called "Live Zero Waste".

With the goal of giving people resources and a community who are trying to live trash-free. Now what got us so excited about this idea was that even just trying for a day would at least give people a chance to audit their lives and realize that trash is a choice and maybe demonstrate to them that they can have a concrete and measurable impact on climate change. Yes, they could see what they were doing. They could see, yes, I can change something because what is so powerful about this way of life isn't necessarily the trash you avoid, it's the idea that the majority of our trash could be avoided by a simple increase in awareness and a little creativity. The average American wastes 4.4 pounds of trash per day, but going zero waste for a day is more than that 4.4 pounds; it's that and the thirty-plus pounds for the upstream impact. It's having a tangible representation of your environmental footprint. And it's the awareness that imparts on every single person you meet during your trash-free day or week or month or heck on a year. At this point I should sort of admit that going waste-free has been a little bit of a sacrifice in certain ways, but hugely rewarding in others.

Without even noticing it, it shifts your focus from stuff to relationships, from money spent on things to time spent on experiences. Going "Zero Waste" is an opportunity to take problems big, important, international problems and address them in our daily lives with our daily choices. So instead of asking, what will our government do to fix this? Or, why isn't this NGO doing more?, the questions become, can each of us separate individuals come together and make the choices we know we need to make to combat climate change? Can we be the bold ones to cut into what we thought of as necessities? Who's going to step up and be the exception that in time will define a whole new set of rules? And I think it's you. Now I'm just some college student but that's exactly the point. We're all just some college student or just some barista or just some CEO, but together we're incredible.

We now more than ever have the power to shape the environment we live in. We're the first generation to know beyond a shadow of a doubt what we've done to this planet but also what we can do to fix it. So I'll leave you with a promise and a request. My promise is to do everything I can to make living waste-free as accessible as possible and to build a community of people committed to taking concrete action against climate change. And my request, that each of you tomorrow whether you're in this auditorium or watching online give living zero waste a shot for one day. One of my best friends called me up the other day and she said, "I just can't imagine how I would do this, I don't know where to start how do you do it?" And if I thought this were some Herculean task, I'd feel the need to give you detailed instructions. But honestly what it comes down to is waking up tomorrow morning making a choice and sticking to it as best you can.

And if you mess up, put it in a bag or a pizza box. I think you'll be surprised by how much waste you can avoid, how many interesting conversations you'll have and how many of your own habits you can change by simply noticing, the napkin and the straw. Thank you. (Applause).

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