Zero waste isn't just for hippies anymore

Lauren Singer and Daniel Silverstein founded Package Free, a shop online and in New York that sells sustainable products.

Story highlights

  • Package Free, a shop opening May 1 in New York, sells sustainable products
  • It's part of the zero-waste movement, which aims to reduce the amount of trash in landfills

New York (CNN)You'd be forgiven if you mistook the place for a nightclub or a gallery.

It has concrete floors, high ceilings and neon lights. And it's tucked away in Brooklyn's coolest neighborhood, Williamsburg, where alternative lifestylers, work-from-homers and celebrities pay an arm and a leg for apartments just one stop from Manhattan on the L train.
But look closely: Instead of bottles of Mezcal lining the shelves, there's laundry detergent. Instead of fine art, there are shower curtains -- and everything is a tool to becoming zero waste.
    This is Package Free. And when the shop opens May 1, its goal is to give Brooklynites (and online shoppers) access to products that can help them inch toward being trash- and plastic-free. This means cloth produce bags, silicone menstrual cups and bamboo toothbrushes.
    Sound like hippy-dippy, tree-hugging nonsense? You're wrong. The zero-waste movement has teeth, and it's coming to a city near you.

    Living trash-free

    The average American generates 4.4 pounds of trash every day. That means, every person in the US, on average, produces more than 1,600 pounds of garbage per year.
    About half of it ends up in landfills.
    Zero-wasters aim to obliterate that number. So, instead of sending trash to the dump, they refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
    Bottles and jars line shelves at Package Free, a New York store that aims to reduce package waste and sell sustainable products.
    It's hard to say when the lifestyle movement started. Going Zero Waste blogger Kathryn Kellogg and others point to Bea Johnson as the mother of the movement.
    Johnson, a Frenchwoman who lives in California, has been living trash-free with her husband and two children since 2008; she published a book on the subject in 2013. When she started, zero waste was a term only used by the government and by companies that wanted to differentiate themselves from organizations they saw as less environmentally friendly.

    An idea takes hold

    But the idea of zero waste and waste prevention in the US dates back to President George H.W. Bush. Under him, Congress passed the Pollution Prevention Act which angled to prevent or reduce pollution whenever possible and in turn spend less on controlling pollution.
    Bush's take, says NYU environment studies department chair Dale Jamieson, was: "If you don't create pollution and waste, you don't have to clean it up."
    The Package Free shop in New York.
    Today, zero waste has taken hold on social media. The internet community of zero-wasters is big: There are almost 350,000 Instagram posts tagged "zero waste." There are blogs left and right that aim to educate the masses on how to make zero-waste toothpaste and deodorant. There are never-ending Reddit threads of people talking about whether you have to be vegan to be part of the trend.
    But zero waste isn't just a subcultural fringe movement. Indeed, in the past 20 or so years, major US cities have set goals to be trash-free. Way back in 2001, Oakland, California, established a zero-waste goal. San Francisco hopped on the bandwagon shortly thereafter, with both cities aiming to be zero waste by 2020. New York City aims to send substantially less waste to landfills by 2030.

    Powered by people

    Policy changes help -- but the movement can't succeed without people. That's where Lauren Singer and Daniel Silverstein, the founders of Package Free, come in.
    Singer, who claims she fit all the trash she generated over four years into a 16-ounce mason jar, runs the zero-waste blog Trash Is For Tossers and founded The Simply Co., an organic, vegan, laundry detergent company. Silverstein is a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate whose line, Zero Waste Daniel, uses scraps from other companies to fashion his styles and save water, energy and waste.
    Both believe businesses can productively promote the zero-waste movement.
    "Business is a really clear way to solve big problems in a really short time frame," Singer said of the Package Free shop.
    Brushes with little or no packaging sit on a shelf at Package Free in New York.
    Indeed, some major brands have paved the way. Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, plans to approach zero waste by 2020, and Nestlé announced that all 23 of its US factories achieved zero waste in 2015.
    Companies make changes because customers demand it, Johnson said.
    "The most important thing is to understand the power of buying," she said. "Every time you buy, that's a vote. You have the power to support a practice that is either sustainable or not."
    Silverstein and Singer said they hope Package Free will equip people with what they need to contribute -- or in this case, not contribute -- to whatever degree is possible.
    "What I've found," Silverstein said, "is that people are perfectly willing to make that sustainable choice when it's easy and accessible to them."
    How do I start?

    1. Trade plastic bags for a reusable shopping tote
    2. Swap one-time-use water bottles for a stainless steel one
    3. Pick up a set of reusable utensils that you can take with you on the go
    4. When you order a drink, ask for it without a plastic straw
    5. Buy compostable, sustainable toothbrushes instead of plastic ones