"One thing I want to emphasize is that I'll never actually produce “zero” waste. It's just not humanly possible. Making the conscious effort to produce the least amount of waste possible is the life I try to live."
Erin Denny grew up and in "crunchy" Marin, as she brilliantly describes it. She was a year ahead of me in high school, and I always remember friends talking about Erin's talent for cooking and baking. Growing up in Marin definitely breeds an attention to eco-friendly practices, and those principals are indoctrinated in school curriculum from a very young age. She remembers bringing her own bags to the grocery store and a reusable bottle to school, but recalls, "I was never fully sustainable by any means."
I had the pleasure of not only getting to know Erin a little more, but also expanding my knowledge into what it means to be more conscious of the waste we produce every day. Erin was extremely patient with my hunger for information on the topic, and I want nothing more than to help propagate her message around learning about our everyday consumption. So grab a cup of coffee or tea and settle in, because your prospective on all things grocery shopping, cooking, to feminine hygiene will definitely shift!
If you could describe yourself in three adjectives, what would they be?
Curious, adventurous, conscious.
For someone who is curious about implementing ways to be less wasteful, how would you recommend they "dip their toe in the water?"
The first step for me was thinking about grocery shopping, one of my favorite things to do! This meant I would now be “forced” to really only shop the perimeters of the grocery store. It's an easy way to see a reduction in waste because produce (if you're buying it fresh) won't come in any sort of packaging. It took a lot of time, and a few aggravating reminders that you will at times find plastic in the produce section and styrofoam in the deli section.
I suppose then that a perhaps, "unintended," but healthy repercussion of going low waste is that you're eating much less processed and more "whole" foods?
Yes for sure! Sure, there are some processed options that come package free in the bulk bins, but going zero waste also helped me to truly seek out whole foods and I’ve also learned to make many of my own products which has helped with my creativity in the kitchen! The biggest thing I hope to share on my page is how to live a sustainable lifestyle, especially in the kitchen! Not only is it my favorite room in the house, but it's also the place where the most waste gets produced.
I think a lot of people truly want to go low waste, but it can be really intimidating. Your emphasis to those interested in becoming more sustainable is to approach it as a transition. Can you share your top 5 tips for being more sustainable on a day to day basis?
Making any sort of lifestyle change can definitely be super intimidating, which is really unfortunate because that is preventing so many people from at least trying out a low waste lifestyle. Here are some things I did to make it less scary;
- Start slow. Take one or two steps at a time, and focus on these changes throughout the week like making it your goal to bring your own grocery and produce bags to the market. Once you feel like this is second nature, pick another thing to work/focus on.
- Look at the waste you're producing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For me, that was a lot of food packaging and hygiene/beauty products. So, I began slowly phasing out products in wasteful packaging and swapping them out for zero waste, low waste, and/or plastic-free packaging. Even after a year, I'm still phasing out certain products that I haven't fully finished.
- Don't throw away every "wasteful" item you own! Finish it, find another use for its packaging, or find a better home for it. Sometimes people feel the need to instantly strive for perfection but this can backfire.
- Do some research! Figure out why exactly you want to live this life and how you want to live it. Learn from others through personal interactions or social media platforms. Plan out how you want to execute certain things like grocery shopping, ordering takeout, etc. My first zero waste grocery trip was intimidating as hell but it was so fun to challenge myself and explore a new way of shopping! When grocery shopping, I always have my reusable tote bags, produce bags, and bulk bin containers. When going out to eat, I'll bring my utensils, a cloth napkin, and a container if I'm taking it to-go.
- Embrace the discomfort and keep learning! I was and still am far from perfect in terms of living a low waste lifestyle because I am constantly learning how to improve my habits but a big tip is just be conscious!!
A transition can often feel like you're not making any progress. Do you have any tips on how to navigate from transition to it actually becoming your lifestyle?
If goal setting is your thing, please feel free to do this! I'm sure it could be helpful to set a timeline in order to personally stay on track, but when I decided to take on this lifestyle I also gave myself room for error knowing I would eventually get the swing of things. My biggest tip for navigating the transition period would be to not feel guilty or beat yourself up for bringing waste into your life. Don't see your small mistakes or "zero waste slips" as huge failures. Rather see them as learning opportunities and room for growth. Take it at your own pace. No one is forcing you to live a low waste lifestyle, so it's awesome that you're already in the mindset to want to live a low waste life!
How much is enough? I can totally get down with shopping the perimeter of a grocery store, but when it comes to feminine hygiene, what if I'm not about using a diva cup? What would be your best advice on how to navigate zero waste towards some of the less "glamorous" aspects of the movement?
This is your life. If you really don't want to do something or if it makes you feel uncomfortable, you most certainly do not have to "go with the crowd" in order to feel like a success. Contrastly, there is a difference between something that makes you uncomfortable or something that is just intimidating to you. I will always recommend trying something out, whether it be a reusable menstrual cup or cooking something from scratch that you would usually purchase pre-made. If something doesn't work for you, at least you can say you tried it!
Have you noticed an economic impact on going low waste? What if at my local grocery store there isn't a bulk section, like Trader Joe's for example?
I have most certainly seen a lower grocery bill since starting zero waste. Shopping at the bulk bins is almost always cheaper than purchasing the same exact product in packaging. This is due to the fact that around 15% of a product's price is for the packaging. Additionally, grocery stores likely pay less for purchasing the items in bulk, which allows them to charge less for the food. I will say, shopping at stores that offer bulk bins and package free options tend to be more high-end stores. I sometimes find myself buying package free produce at the cheaper stores and bulk bin items at stores like Whole Foods or other local businesses. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort but allows me to stay in my budget. On top of saving a buck, buying whole, unpackaged foods is a much healthier way to eat!
In your opinion, what is the one thing we as consumers should focus on doing the most?
The biggest message I like to promote is focusing on the mental shift of becoming more aware and conscious of waste in our lives. Once you're able to change the way you think about waste and how to reduce it, it will all come naturally. You'll be faced with small and large decisions throughout the day that will force you to challenge your old way of thinking and to (hopefully) make the right decisions. Go out and take that first step! Mother earth will thank you!
Lastly, if you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and what would you be eating; starter, main and dessert?
Michael Pollan! He is such an intelligent human and I would love to pick his brain. We would definitely eat a plant-based meal that he most likely grew in his backyard. We'd start with a loaded and bountiful salad, then eat a hearty plant-based protein with veggies and grains, and finish with something refreshing, like almond cake and fresh fruit. Yum.
Quick fire questions!
1. Kale chips or kombucha? Kale Chips!
2. Salty or sweet? Please don't make me choose!! I equally love my sweets and my salty snacks.
3. Oatmeal or avocado toast? Avo toast all the way.
4. Chocolate or nut butter? Dark chocolate (filled with nut butter...?)
5. Guilty pleasure? Food or non-food related! Diving the depths of the YouTube black hole. I love to watch beauty tutorials, TedTalks, and silly BuzzFeed videos for hours.
6. Favorite cook book or book in general? Food Rules by Michael Pollan. Great to keep around to read over and over again.
7. Last time you laughed so hard you cried? My mom and I can make each other laugh like no other. Even on the phone, we can bring each other to tears.
8. What's next for you!? I. Don't. Know. And I love it! I will be traveling for the summer and potentially the fall, but after that, I plan on finding a job in Food Science in the Bay Area. I'm currently living a spontaneous life and looking forward to seeing what's next!