Why Trash Jars Don't Make Rock Stars

by Ossapha Ou
Why Trash Jars Don

A Great Inspiration
But Unrealistic Expectation

Why making a jar of trash is not a realistic goal for everyone.

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Like any other minimalist, I love mason jars. They are zero waste workhorses that have long been a staple in the sustainable movement. They have long been used to hold our cocktails, store our foodstuffs, grow mini-gardens, and save our coins, among countless other. 

But when some people started collecting trash in them, that’s when the mason jar became a zero waste sensation, albeit a somewhat controversial one. Many have been turned on to the sustainable movement after coming across online articles, testimonials, and tips from people who have found a way to fit one year’s worth of trash inside a small jar. But considering that the average American produces 1,704 pounds of garbage each year, is successfully maintaining a trash jar a realistic goal for most people? And does it risk sending the wrong message that going zero waste is a lifestyle challenge, instead of what it truly is; a lifestyle change?

By getting a better understanding of the iconic trash jar, we can get a better understanding of whether or not the environmental awareness that the trash jar creates for the zero waste community does more harm than good for the sustainable movement.

woman holding a glass jar of dry pasta at a zero waste store

Trash Jars Don't Account for Upstream Waste

The first thing that you need to be aware of is that any trash that you place in a jar is not a true indication of your environmental footprints. Upstream waste relates to any waste created during the material extraction, production, and transportation of a finished product before it ever makes it inside your home. If you scoop 2 pounds of bulk noodles into your reusable shopping bag from a bulk bin, a quick peek at your trash jar may tell you that the purchase was completely waste-free. But did you consider carbon emissions released during transporting and the packaging that the bulk supply was delivered to the store in? Of course, buying food from bulk bins is an excellent way to reduce your personal waste, but the point is a trash jar won’t give you an accurate account of the actual waste that you truly created from the purchase. In fact, placing too much attention on it can misguide you into making less eco-friendly buying decision.

For example, let’s say you buy a bar of soap, which happened to be mass-produced in a large factory on the other side of the country. It might seem like the greenest option available to you in the moment knowing that the plastic-lined wrapping paper can be crumpled up into a tiny ball. But fixating on jar space prevented you from considering the locally-made and bicycle-delivered bar soap that was laying right next to it on the shelf. It may have been packaged in a slightly bulkier (but completely compostable) cardboard box, but it produced far less upstream waste and was the more nature-friendly choice.

Reducing your annual trash down to an amount that can fit inside a small jar is obviously an extraordinary accomplishment, and once that will result in a net positive effect on the environment. But it is essential to consider upstream waste and other factors to clearly understand the environmental impact you make whenever you make decisions.

flat lay of plastic disposables on concrete floor

Trash Jars Don't Account for Recycling

Listed as the last of “Three R’s of Sustainability,” recycling is often used by many as a first option instead of a last resort by many people. While recycling our waste is undoubtedly a much greener option than burying in a toxic landfill, it also comes with inherent problems that can be perpetuated when a trash jar is the focal point of your zero waste lifestyle.

Studies have shown that when recycling is an option, people consume more disposable products. Certain materials, such as glass and aluminum, can be recycled indefinitely. But plastic, which makes up a majority of the disposables items we buy, does not hold its virgin state and instead must be recycled for different uses due to the loss in quality. This means that for plastics, the recycling economy is differs from a direct linear economy only in the way that it just takes a little longer to eventually reach its final destination inside a landfill.

So if you don’t have a method to account for plastic that your recycle, nor employ a circular strategy for reusing it indefinitely, your trash jar will never be a true indicator of your waste footprint. Furthermore, if you rely heavily on recycling in order to save space in your jar, you may even be purchasing more disposables without realizing it and creating more plastic waste might have been before.

reusable canvas bag and glass coffee tumbler against a white background

The Dangers of High Expectations

With nearly 70% of North American consumers stating a willingness to alter their shopping habits for the sake of the environment, now is golden opportunity to expand the green movement. We should nurture and guide this growing curiosity by welcoming potential new zero wasters into a community that feels welcoming and inclusive for everyone. Because the general public has never before been more serious about the environment and spreading awareness about the joys of sustainable living is always a great thing – except, of course, when it isn’t.

That’s what makes the hailing the trash jar as an icon of the zero waste movement somewhat of a double-edged sword. Fitting a year’s worth of personal waste inside a mason jar is certainly a remarkable feat worthy of all the fascination and attention it gets, but it is an unrealistic goal for most people; it risks alienating the public who might mistake it for normal expectations. And while maintaining a trash jar might be sexy, but maintaining personal sustainability to lessen your burden on the planet is what’s important.

reusing it indefinitely, your trash jar will never be a true indicator of your waste footprint. Furthermore, if you rely heavily on recycling in order to save space in your jar, you may even be purchasing more disposables without realizing it and creating more plastic waste might have been before.

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