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How a Winooski family tries to live a ‘zero waste’ life

June 27, 2019

WINOOSKI, Vt. (AP) — Take a tour through Meredith Bay-Tyack’s home, and you’ll see covered metal cans in the kitchen, the bathroom, and other common areas. These aren’t garbage cans — in fact, the opposite. They’re for collecting laundry: diapers, towels, cleaning wipes and tissues.

For about four years, Bay-Tyack, her husband Josh Tyack, and their two young daughters have been doing whatever they can to reduce their contributions to the landfill.

That means shunning plastic packaging, buying in bulk, and aiming for “zero waste.” (Bay-Tyack prefers the term “low waste” because it’s more realistic.)

The effort began when the couple had their first child in 2014 and chose to use cloth diapers. Soon, they couldn’t help but notice disposable products everywhere.

“If we can wash diapers, what else could we wash and reuse?” Bay-Tyack recalled thinking. Instead of paper towels, Bay-Tyack made “unpaper towels” out of an old flannel sheet. The changes snowballed from there, leading to a yearlong challenge to reduce as much waste as possible.

“I decided to be an activist in my own home,” she said.

The family used to take out the trash every week. For 2016, they started being able to fit their trash in a glass mason jar each month. Bay-Tyack blogged about their progress and posted photos online.

“I celebrated it because it was such a massive shift for us,” said Bay-Tyack, 33.

But the photos also meant being vulnerable to the opinions of strangers on the internet. Some people applauded her efforts, while others were critical of her efforts, pointing out small pieces of plastic in her photos or downplaying her efforts by comparing them to traditional methods that had been used for generations.

Now several years into the effort, with two children aged 4 and 2, Bay-Tyack no longer tracks by the month. But certain zero-waste habits have become almost second nature.

Take the kitchen, for starters: The family shops in the bulk section at the grocery store when possible. Bay-Tyack makes her own liquid dish soap, mixing Castile soap and filtered boiled water in a mason jar.

In the bathroom, the family uses shampoo bars and a bottle of apple cider vinegar that functions as a hair conditioner. A box full of cloth tissues sit ready to be used and rewashed.

Nearly everything in their Winooski home is secondhand, including the girls’ toys, many of which were birthday gifts passed down from cousins and other family members.

“We’re careful about what we say yes to,” Josh Tyack said.

Restraint brings simplicity.

“We just spend less time managing our stuff,” Bay-Tyack said/

After dinner, Bay-Tyack scrapes leftovers into a metal bento box for her oldest daughter’s lunch the following day. Any other food scraps go into the compost to be dropped off at a local transfer station along with the family’s recycling.

When eating out or buying prepared foods, they bring their own containers and utensils.

“If I forget my coffee cup, I don’t get coffee,” Bay-Tyack said. “So I remember my coffee mug.”

In a place like Vermont, where sustainability is a watchword, residents might assume they’re getting better and better at keeping our stuff out of the landfill.

Not so.

Vermonters are composting and recycling more than ever before, according to the state Agency of Natural Resources, but the amount of stuff reaching landfills has only slightly declined since the start of the century.

Vermont saw some progress in recent years after passing a universal recycling law, but that progress was wiped out by a trash spike in 2017.

On average, each Vermonter sends about 3.7 pounds of municipal solid waste to the landfill per day, a figure that includes household, business and industry waste. State government is aiming to reduce that to 2.8 pounds.

Living without disposable products means plenty of laundry, every day, in the Tyack family’s in-house washer and dryer. Cloth diapers and wipes get their own extra-hot load every few days.

Not everyone has such easy access to laundry, Bay-Tyack noted as she showed a reporter around her home.

“This isn’t something that everybody can do in the same way,” Bay-Tyack said. She has learned not to prescribe perfection, for herself or for others. Some habits turned out not to be feasible for her family, such as making their own toothpaste or driving long distances to buy food without packaging.

But she believes that people who have the means to choose sustainable options have no excuse but to try.

“People in a place of privilege should be doing more, individually and collectively,” she said.

She sees more people shopping in the bulk section, using their own containers, compared to a few years ago.

“Just that alone shows me that more people than we realize in the area, but not enough, considering how much access we have,” Bay-Tyack said.

Vermonters have one year remaining before state government requires everyone to adopt more waste-reduction habits.

Gov. Phil Scott recently signed a law that will stop stores and restaurants from handing out single-use plastic shopping bags and polystyrene food and drink containers.

The plastic bag ban begins July 1, 2020. On the same day, food scraps, which today comprise about a quarter of all disposed waste, will be banned from the landfill.

Bay-Tyack sees waste reduction as freeing rather than burdensome.

“I can’t go back,” Bay-Tyack said. “You can’t unknow it. You can’t unsee it. You can’t unlearn it.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2XdYuRq

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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