Talk to Samuel McMullen for 10 minutes, and you’ll think twice about what you buy and how you use it because you’ll start to see just how much of it ends up as trash. But McMullen hopes you’ll do more than think. He hopes you’ll pledge to go “zero waste” for a year.

Or at least a day. Even one day of zero-waste living, says McMullen, an LSA senior in the Residential College majoring in philosophy and entrepreneurship, marks the brain. You start looking differently at things like plastic straws, paper napkins, and T-shirt giveaways. You notice how much of a single-serving package goes straight to the recycle bin. Even your recycling can start to look like a problem, as McMullen believes it is. The environmental damage that comes from consumption happens before you even get it, he says. “Ninety-seven percent of the environmental degradation happens before you open the package.”

In July 2015, his sister, Lydia McMullen-Laird (Ford School A.B. ’12) was working for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in China, and Samuel had flown over to help her research a policy paper on renewable energy.

They’d both considered going zero waste before. It bothered them that although they cared deeply about the environment, they weren’t actually doing anything in their own lives to protect it.  So on July 16, during a presentation to NRDC members in Beijing, the two made an impulsive public pledge to generate no trash or recycling for a year.

“It was so empowering—the idea of really putting your money where your mouth is,” Lydia recalls.

Waste Away

The concept of zero waste dates back at least a decade, possibly longer. (Some claim the movement started with the federal Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which emphasized the prevention or reduction of pollution at the source.) But while most zero-waste advocates today focus only on trash, Samuel and Lydia want to eliminate both trash and recycling.

Above: Samuel McMullen holds the sum total of all of the trash and recycling he's produced since January.
Photo courtesy of Samuel McMullen

After an initially steep learning curve, the siblings quickly acquired what Samuel calls “ “‘trash goggles.’ You start seeing trash everywhere. But then you figure out how to not do trash, and it’s not so bad.”

On average, each individual in a middle-to-high-income country like the U.S. generates 4.4 pounds of trash a day, or some 1,600 pounds per year. When Samuel gives public presentations on zero waste—like the TedX talk he gave last year at U-M—he points to a cardboard pizza box filled with a few scraps of paper, a single paper cup, and one empty bottle and says, “This is my trash and recycling for the past eight months.” Audiences always gasp.

Not long after they went zero waste, Samuel and Lydia founded Live Zero Waste, an online community ( dedicated to trash-free living. The nonprofit encourages people to pledge to a zero-waste lifestyle for as little as a day, and, in return, provides mentorship and tips on how to replace new products with old, or simply how to do without.

 “If it were just about us, then I think this would be a lame project,” Samuel admits. But because Live Zero Waste is a global community, the impact is far greater. As of March 2018, 364 people in 25 different countries had pledged to go zero waste for some period of time. That means a potential collective savings of 940,192 pounds of waste per year. It also means growing awareness, worldwide, about the environmental impact of trash and recycling.

To avoid generating waste themselves, he and Lydia—who now lives in New York—shop with reusable containers at bulk-food stores, bake their own bread, and brush their teeth with baking soda. They’re fans of Salvation Army and Craig’s List. Lydia makes her own cosmetics. They wrap gifts in burlap or discarded newspaper. In restaurants, Samuel tells waiters he’s taking part in a zero-waste challenge, and cheerfully asks, “Hey, can I get that silverware without a napkin around it?”

Both siblings know that if they come off like proselytizing environmentalists, “it doesn’t work.”

And they do make practical exceptions—for toilet paper, medications, and items required on the job or at school, such as protective gloves for laboratory workers.

Lydia says they both “mess up all the time.” But nearly three years after making their impromptu pledge, the two are more committed than ever to living trash-free. They know that zero waste is not “a catch-all solution,” as Samuel says. “But it helps you think about other stuff. If there were no trash pickup, we would have to live with all of our stuff, and we’d be very wary about buying new things.”

The sad reality, Lydia says, “is that we live in a world that’s based on trash.”

Both are adamant that going zero waste for even a day is more effective than making incremental changes over a period of time, because “the shock jolts you into paying attention,” Samuel insists. And that can inspire changes that stop the waste from stacking up.



Want to reduce your trash output?

Samuel McMullen has some suggestions to get you started:

• Cancel your junk mail
• Buy something used
• Try a zero-waste shopping trip
• Engage in one interaction where you ask a waiter or sales clerk to eliminate the packaging
• Eat a zero-waste meal at a restaurant (no paper napkin, no plastic utensils)
• Collect the trash you generate during a single day and at the end of the day, do an audit to see “where you make your trash”

Learn About Suport for Zero Waste Events at U-M

Illustrations by Julia Lubas