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How letting a stranger go through my trash changed my life

Feeling guilty about climate change and her impact on the environment, one editor consulted a zero-waste expert to change her routine.
/ Source: TODAY

As a parent of two little kids, I take out a lot of trash.

And I mean a LOT.

There are piles of diapers and baby wipes, thanks to a very cute — but very non-potty-trained — 10-month-old. There are reams of paper towels, used to wipe all the sticky faces and surfaces that always seem to be covered in some kind of goo (thanks again, baby).

And there’s plastic. So much plastic — from tubes of yogurt to applesauce pouches to all the teeny-tiny bottles and tubs that come in the meal kit I use to make dinners during the week. Not to mention the plastic containers that get shoved into the trash out of pure convenience when life is too busy to figure out if something should be taken outside to the recycling.

Lately, I've been feeling very guilty about all this waste. I read the apocalyptic headlines about the environment and worry about the planet I'm leaving to my two little people, and what I'll say to them when they ask me what I did to make a difference.

So in honor of Earth Week this year, I set out to change my routine.

WATCH: How you can help save the planet by changing your routine

Look at this sticky baby! Ditching the paper towels I was using to wipe her face was the easiest change I've made to my routine.
Look at this sticky baby! Ditching the paper towels I was using to wipe her face was the easiest change I've made to my routine.Meena Hart Duerson / TODAY

I enlisted the help of Tippi Thole, a graphic designer-turned-environmental evangelist based in Montreal. She's been living a zero-waste life since Jan. 1, 2018, inspired by her young son. These days, she can fit her weekly waste into the tiniest of trash cans. (You can find her on Instagram, where she blogs her adventures from the handle @tiny.trash.can.)

Thole asked me to think about reducing my impact on the environment in five categories: plastics, disposables, food waste, eating less meat and buying less. Especially now that recycling rules have changed, it's important to create less waste in the first place if you truly want to make a difference.

All of Tippi Thole's trash fits into this teeny-tiny trash can.
All of Tippi Thole's trash fits into this teeny-tiny trash can.Tippi Thole

She came to my house in Brooklyn, New York, and went through my trash with me, suggesting simple things I could change to have a huge impact. Now a few weeks later, I've implemented several of her tips as permanent changes and am already feeling better about doing my part!

Here are my top takeaways:

Out of sight, out of mind

The first and easiest change came around the dinner table: swapping cloth rags for all that paper towel. One of Thole's tricks for making a change stick is to just remove your old habit so you're forced to make the change. I replaced my kitchen roll of paper towel with a stack of cloth rags (leftover burp clothes from when our first baby was born — hurray for reusable materials!) and used them to wipe down our sticky children and surrounding furniture. It's been almost a month and that change has stuck. Right there, we've already eliminated rolls and rolls of paper towels.

Along the same lines, Thole suggests tucking a reusable tote into your bag so that you're prepared if you end up at a store; that way, you won't need to take home plastic bags. Same goes for bringing your own water bottle.

Composting is easy

I'd always been resistant to composting, thinking it was an easy recipe to attract a lot of rats. But in talking to Thole, I realized just how much of my garbage was food waste. I really have almost no excuse not to compost — my city provides compost bins and they're picked up weekly. So after Thole came to visit, I created a mini-compost container on my counter with an airtight lid, and I now put all my food scraps in it as I cook — coffee grounds, eggshells, carrot peelings, etc. Here are some tips on how you can get started composting — give it a try! It's not that scary after all.

DIY, don't buy

One of the most effective ways to cut down on waste is to stop buying things you don’t need, Marie Kondo style. Since Thole came to audit my waste, I've started trying to make my coffee at home and carrying it to work in my own container (the internet loves this one). And I'm trying to order fewer things online to cut down on the packaging, as well as the ease of impulse buying.

Be realistic

Right away, I set some boundaries: I am never going to use cloth diapers, for example, because my baby goes to day care and that's not an option at her provider. I also don't feel comfortable swapping my toilet paper for a washcloth in the bathroom, as many zero-wasters do. I really respect Thole's commitment and the lifestyle changes she's been able to make, but not every eco-friendly solution is a viable option for everyone. I'm trying to approach this like a diet: If it's too much effort, it's probably not going to stick, which won't have much impact. A change that's stuck? Swapping a plastic bottle of body wash in the shower for a bar of soap — easy, and plastic-free!

Hold yourself accountable

Want to join me in making some small changes? Find the #OneGreenThing you can do to help the planet by taking our quiz here and set your answer as your phone's lock screen. That way, you'll see the reminder every single time you touch your phone — a surefire way to remember your new resolutions!