EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a monthly four-part series about a group of professors at the University of Maine at Augusta undertaking the Zero-Waste Challenge. Can they live without generating any trash for the landfill or incinerator?

I’m in the grocery store frowning. A group of professors at the University of Maine at Augusta – me among them – are going for zero waste this semester, trying to reduce our garbage as much as possible, to zero if we can manage it. But such an effort starts long before it’s time to throw stuff out, I am learning. It starts at the grocery store.

I’m no stranger to hard work, but I like things to be easy – everywhere, including the kitchen. Lately, I’ve been so busy that easiness is even more valuable. When I have time to spare, I prepare meals from scratch – food made out of food, with minimal packaging. Who doesn’t love that? When I have the time, it’s easy to make the effort.

But now, in the second month of the fall semester, I’m busy. When I get busy, my meal plans aren’t so much “plans” as “I put whatever is near my face inside my face.” Busy food. Quick food. Prepackaged, prepared food made out of frozen or dried or canned food – as well as preservatives and chemicals I’d ordinarily rather not ingest. When I get busy like this, I buy fresh produce and then procrastinate prepping it until it’s rotting in my fridge, not my compost bin. When I have no time, it is hard to spend effort.

So here I am, frowning in the grocery store. I have purchasing choices to make that have left me warring with myself. On the one hand, I want to buy only items in which all of the component parts can be eaten, recycled or composted. On the other hand, I want to buy items that I can put inside my face when I remember to eat, but that will “keep” if I forget to eat them for three months.

Which brings me to the issue I want to talk about: This isn’t some “holier than thou, look how I’ve done all this, aren’t you ashamed you’re not doing it, too?” article about how easy it is to adopt what at our university we’ve dubbed the UMA Zero-Waste Challenge. Instead, this is us talking about and seriously considering the choices we have to make for real and lasting change in our lives – and more importantly, how we make those choices.

As a psychologist, I’ve learned that it takes about two months to turn a new action into a habit. I typically start no more than one or two new actions at a time if I want them to persist. If I make too many changes too quickly, I’ll probably fall back on previous habits once I get busy.

My first zero-waste choice was simply to get started. I took steps to put a system in place in my home. I started composting. I stepped up my recycling. This took time, but it was summer and I had time. Just from these initial efforts, our household garbage went down by about one-third. Thanks to my summer efforts, and a few handy guidesthat provide recycling and compostinginformation, these baseline changes have become sustainable for my husband and me.

But then what? I decided that I needed to pay attention to my life and my garbage in order to figure out the next steps I needed to make. Over the past month, I’ve been watching my garbage to identify the things I buy regularly but cannot recycle or compost. Noticing, just noticing, was actually an important next step, and has led to many easy changes in my shopping.

For example, I stopped getting the cashew milk I like because the carton was a cardboard and plastic composite that can’t be recycled or composted; it’s just waste. The almond milk I like a little less comes in a recyclable plastic container, making it an easy step toward zero waste. I traded this soap in cellophane for that soap in cardboard, this pasta in plastic bags for that pasta in boxes. Choices like this, noticing and making substitutions, are easy choices that build up over time.

But now I’m frowning in the grocery store because I’ve come to a harder decision. I’ve made every easy substitution I can, yet still in my garbage I notice composite materials and plastic bags. And what do they contain? In my house, these are the garbage containers of my “busy” food. My “stick it in my face” food. My “this can sit in my pantry or freezer for months” food.

Busy-ness and easiness are warring with zero waste. This next choice I have to make is a lifestyle change. This is hard.

I can’t yet say how this story will end, because I’m still in the middle of it. But I can say how I’ll take this next step. I am breaking this lifestyle change into its component parts. Each week, I will spend a few minutes frowning in the grocery store, choosing a zero-waste alternative for one item of busy food. Changing my entire eating practice while I’m busy won’t work for me – I won’t do it, or it won’t last. Making one adjustment at a time is doable.

Slowly, and persistently, I’ll make this change.

Kati Corlew is a community and cultural psychologist, a researcher on the psychology of climate change, and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maine at Augusta.

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