Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Visitor brings ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle to Tacoma

Lauren Singer leads a zero-waste life.
Lauren Singer leads a zero-waste life. Courtesy

Lauren Singer has a way of making you feel inadequate, even uncomfortable.

That’s not her intent, but it’s a somewhat unavoidable reaction. Listening to her talk, it’s hard not to come away feeling like a guy eating a Big Mac outside Whole Foods.

Singer’s claim to fame is unusual, at least compared to modern American culture. A resident of New York who studied environmental studies at NYU, she lives a “zero-waste” lifestyle — meaning she recycles and composts food waste but doesn’t send anything to a landfill.

She’s built a blog and a brand around all of it because this is 2015, and that’s what people do.

The trash Singer has produced in the last 3 1/2 years fits into a single mason jar, which is astonishing.

On Thursday, Singer was in the City of Destiny discussing her environmental endeavor with a group of University of Washington Tacoma students and anyone else who wandered into William Philip Hall, including at least one newspaper hack drinking coffee out of a paper cup. (Sorry about that.)

I think she gets disbelief quite a bit.

Dr. Ellen Moore, UWT faculty member

Dr. Ellen Moore, a UWT faculty member and one of nine members of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, told me Singer was invited to Tacoma as part of the UW’s ongoing Carbon Challenge. She said it involves hundreds of students and faculty members from all three UW campuses challenging each other to reduce their carbon footprints.

The challenge stems from a similar effort by the Sustainable Tacoma Commission in early 2014, under the moniker Tacoma’s Biggest Carbon Loser. Moore said that’s what inspired her to take the challenge to her classroom and this year university-wide.

A $50,000 “green seed” grant from the school helped pay for Singer’s travel to Tacoma — an appearance that Moore described as the Carbon Challenge’s “signature event.”

Singer is an extreme case, it goes without saying, and when confronted with her zero-waste lifestyle I found myself going through an array of reactions.

Singer told the audience the choices she’s made are about “living her values.”

Right on, I thought.

She said she gave up plastic after being “really annoyed” by a fellow college student studying environmental science with a habit of showing up to class with food packaged in plastic to-go containers, carried in a plastic bag.

Later, she said, she looked in her refrigerator and realized nearly all her food was also packaged in plastic, and she felt like a “total hypocrite.” It was at that point that she declared, “I’m done” with plastic.

OK. Bold move, I thought.

Singer also said she makes her own deodorant, using cornstarch and coconut oil.

Wait, what?

She said eliminating waste from her life — by taking steps such as drinking from jars, carrying silverware in her bag, shopping for second-hand clothes, buying food in bulk, making her own beauty products and “simplifying” her daily existence — is actually easy and has saved her money.

Anyone can do it, she promised.

The heck you say.

Singer said she tries to live by example and “would never tell anyone how to be or how to live.”

Oh good. Because I was kind of starting to resent some of this.

Singer says she tries to live by example and “would never tell anyone how to be or how to live.”

I’m not sure how everyone else felt after Singer’s talk, but I left with questions — a lot of them. For one, I needed a place to ditch my now-empty paper coffee cup where no one would see me.

More importantly, I couldn’t help but wonder why Singer’s laudable effort filled me with so many conflicting emotions.

Why did I start to bristle at every thought of her bamboo toothbrush and mason jar, and what does it say about challenging societal norms, even ones that are obviously unsustainable?

It’s a question I’ve thought a lot about since Thursday, and I’m still not sure I have a great answer. What I’m fairly certain of is that the discomfort is likely more about me than it is about her. And I’m likely not alone.

“I think she gets disbelief quite a bit,” Moore said of Singer.

Then she offered to send me some of the homemade deodorant that Singer inspired her to start making.

“To be honest, I think if more people were like Lauren Singer, it would help,” Moore continued. “I think eventually Lauren Singer’s way is going to become more normal.”

That may prove to be true, and if it does, I agree with her. It will probably be an improvement.

To get there, though, it will probably take a few more uncomfortable, introspective moments for folks like me.

And a lot more coconut oil.

How do you live a ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle?

For information go to Singer’s blog at trashisfortossers.com.

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