Lauren Singer is an environmentalist, blogger and anti-fracking activist living in New York. Since 2012 she has been working at living a trash-free existence, and sharing her experiences from this journey on her blog Trash Is For Tossers. Lauren is passionate about promoting sustainability, not only as an idea but as a truly possible and cost-effective lifestyle. Here, we talk Citibikes, bulk shopping and urban composting. Interview by Aya Sato
Hi Lauren! Tell me about how your interest in promoting and practicing sustainability started, and how that developed to create your blog Trash is for Tossers?
I was an Environmental Studies major at NYU and have been an anti-fracking activist for about three years. I have always been interested in the environment, but I made the conscious decision to live sustainably about a year and a half ago.
There were two moments that brought me to where I am now. The first was my senior year of college when I took a class with Jeffrey Hollender, who started Seventh Generation, a sustainable paper products company. He emphasized the importance of living your values, and made me think about my own personal environmental impact.
The second was when a girl in my senior environmental class would bring lunch everyday in a single use plastic bag, a disposable water bottle, and a plastic takeout container. I would sit there and think, we are supposed to be the future of this planet and here we are with our trash, messing it up.
So when I learned about this family in California, calling themselves the Zero Waste Home, that was producing little to no garbage, it was this Aha! moment for me. I wanted to lessen my impact, so I started my Zero Waste journey. This is when I really decided that I not only needed to claim to love the environment, but actually live like I love the environment. Trash is for Tossers is my attempt.
I imagine you've learned a lot living a sustainable lifestyle in NYC. What are some struggles you face that are particular to urban life, and New York in particular, in your efforts towards a total trash free existence?
Had you asked me this question a few months ago, I would have told you that the convenience factor regarding sustainable transportation in this city was definitely lacking. I can now happily say that this is no longer a problem since I joined Citi Bike.
Because of Citi Bike, being squished in the subway at 8:30 AM on my way to work is a thing of the past. Now, I bike to work everyday (which I look forward to SO much). I definitely want to see Citi Bikes expanded all throughout Brooklyn and Queens, especially in areas like Greenpoint which is such a bummer to access by subway (G train problems). Biking in NYC, and specifically using Citi Bike is a win-win-win in my opinion: exercise, convenience, and savings (like $800/year savings)!
Michael Bloomberg is heralded as one of the "greenest" NYC mayors in history. Would you agree? Are there programs put in place by his administration that you hope thrive in the future? And in your opinion, are there other contributions that a new administration could make?
I actually worked for Bloomberg at the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability, which was an amazing experience. I focused on electric vehicle policy, specifically expanding NYC’s EV charge point network. I saw firsthand how incredible the PlaNYC team is and the great work that they do to make NYC more sustainable. On this note, the Bloomberg Administration has spearheaded some incredible “green” initiatives from smoking bans to Million Trees NYC, which have been really successful, but I think that there is always room for improvement. There are four things that quickly come to mind:
First, single use plastic bags. They are the absolute worst. I really want them banned ASAP. I think that they are so avoidable and unnecessary, not to mention they add to our demand for oil and contribute to a lot of non-recoverable waste. I recently read that over ONE TRILLION plastic bags are used globally each year! We know a ban is possible because lots of major cities and areas have already done it: parts of San Francisco, Portland, North Carolina, Mexico City, Delhi, Mumbai, Burma, Bangladesh, Rwanda… the list goes on. It’s time for NYC to step up.
Secondly, I think we are behind on urban composting. I went to San Francisco and totally geeked out when I saw that they have implemented a city-wide composting program. Residents have curbside compost bins and businesses are actually fined if they don’t compost- that is SO cool to me. It has been rumored that more composting will happen in NYC by 2016, but with the new administration change, who knows.
Third, I wish our EV (electric vehicle) infrastructure and bike lanes would be expanded even more. My apartment faces a major four-lane, two-way street. I could not be more sick of sucking down exhaust every second and washing black buildup from my windows every week.
Finally, Ari Kahn, my boss from the Mayor’s Office, piloted a grid powered energy source for food carts which usually use generators running on gasoline. Not only is the gasoline power expensive and dangerous (major fire hazard), the generators emit toxic curbside emissions. The program would allow food truck vendors to plug right into the grid with cables they already use. I would love to see this initiative expanded as I hate smelling gas when I walk by the carts, additionally, it will save the vendors money and can reduce pollution and CO2 emissions by up to 9 metric tons.
One area in my own life that seems to produce the most noticeable waste is food packaging. I often go shopping on the way home from work and don't plan it. What do I need to take to the store, and what kinds of places should I shop at (other than the farmer's market!)
The best way to reduce packaging waste, although it seems difficult at first, is not buying anything that is packaged.
How can you do this? By planning when you go food shopping, being prepared, and by shopping at markets that have bulk sections.
I go to the market once per week and always plan out when I am going to go and exactly what I am going to buy. This is one, to keep me organized, and two, to save money and prevent me from making impulse purchases (we all do it). Since I make a shopping list and know what I will buy, I know how many reusable bags and mason jars (for bulk items) I will need to bring to the market. So what should you bring to the market? I recommend bringing one to two reusable shopping bags, depending on how much food you are planning on buying, and enough mason jars and or produce bags to carry bulk items.
Bulk shopping is great. I shop at a market by my house that carries tons of bulk products. Shopping in bulk exponentially cuts down my food costs and eliminates packaging waste. I usually buy non-perishable staples like brown rice, beans, pasta, popcorn, and quinoa in large quantities so I don’t have to purchase them as often. Then I buy specialty items like dried fruit for making granola bars for the week. Some bulk markets in the city even carry items like soy sauce, olive oil, maple syrup, honey, and peanut butter in bulk so you can get those package free too!
My last suggestion for package free shopping is to AVOID THE PLASTIC PRODUCE BAGS! (you know, those super thin, flimsy ones that are kept in roles). They are totally unnecessary, you will probably throw them out when you get home, and if you bring canvas reusable bags, you can wash them if they get a little dirt on them. No biggie! Even if a produce bag is some type of “bio” or “green” plastic, it will almost always only degrade in an industrial setting. So I suggest just refusing it all together.
Do you have any recommendations of online sources, to keep up to date on urban sustainability issues and work happening around them?
To be honest, most of my urban sustainability news comes from Facebook, I still don’t get how to use twitter. Since I am involved in the activist community, the network of people I know are constantly posting about environmental and sustainability news so I am always kept up to date on what is going on around the world, particularly relating to energy. Additionally, I read NYTimes Environment, Refinery29, GreenBiz, and one of my new favorites, EcoCult.
If someone is looking to start being reducing waste in their lives, what is a good example of some first steps they would need to take?
On my blog I have outlined two simple steps to take to start reducing waste: Evaluate and Transition.
Evaluate essentially means taking a look at your life and understanding what you use on a daily basis or regularly. Once you realize that, you can consider what you don’t use and can start eliminating those things from your life. This step can be repeated as many times as needed and really helps you understand what is necessary in your home/life and what is not. You will be surprised how much you have that you don’t use at all! This has been insanely fulfilling for me as I learn, more and more, that I need very little to be happy.
Transition is the second step and comes after understanding what you need and what you don’t. It outlines how to start transitioning out the things you don’t need, for instance, how to properly remove them, and how to invest in long-lasting sustainable alternatives to essentials in your home that you will have forever. For instance, my stainless steel ice tray will be in my freezer when I am 97, no question.