Editor’s Note: This is the last in a monthly five-part series about a group of professors and staff at the University of Maine at Augusta undertaking the Zero-Waste Challenge. Could they live for a semester without generating any trash for the landfill or incinerator?

As the new year brims with resolution, those of us at the University of Maine at Augusta who have been experimenting with zero-waste living since last September have been reflecting on which of our attempts to consume less and reuse more will stick with us through 2017. For all of us, this has been a prodigiously positive experience; at its best, zero-waste living feels virtuous, and the quest to live more sustainably can be its own reward. However, as our columns have indicated, changing one’s habits – let alone the habits of those with whom we live – can be tricky. In this, our last column, I offer some insights from the 30 or so professors and staff who resolved to refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot this past fall:

 WE LEARNED TO SAY NO. When things at the supermarket were wrapped in plastic, we declined to buy them. Ok, so not everything. Sometimes you are committed to making cauliflower on Tuesday, and the farmers market is not until Saturday, so you purchase a plastic-wrapped cauliflower from the supermarket. But we refused many things: sandwiches in plastic clam shells, disposable plates at school events, catalogues, free pens at conferences, sample-sized toothpaste tubes from the dentist. Some of us also tried to send bulk mailers back to their companies through the post office and learned we couldn’t if “current resident” is also stamped on the front.

 WE BOUGHT LESS AND BOUGHT IN BULK. We learned to think more carefully about the things we already have in our offices and our homes and then reconsidered what we really needed or wanted. Our change in thinking resulted in some alarming purchases, as in the 25 pounds of nut-free chocolate chips my household ended up buying to concomitantly address our son’s food allergy and our new commitment to baking – instead of buying – cookies. Overall, though, dialing back our consumptive habits has been liberating. We now try to seek out quality over quantity. The siren call of sales and bargains has become less compelling, and we seek other ways to find value in our lives.

 WE INVESTED IN REUSABLES. We’re shaving with straight-edged metal razors or going hairy, bringing our travel mugs and bottles with us wherever we go, and using cloth napkins. In my house, a handkerchief experiment has been half-way adopted, so our paper tissue use has significantly decreased, and we now employ metal straws instead of plastic ones. Also, some of us have been trying out a variety of newer feminine hygiene products, such as the reusable Diva Cup, which can prevent a great deal of landfill waste. Not least, we’ve learned to stash fabric shopping bags in our cars, our backpacks and our pockets so that we have them wherever we go.

1133522_992792 zerowaste image001.jpg• WE EDUCATED OURSELVES MORE ABOUT RECYCLING. Different towns employ different companies for recycling and thus have varying rules about what they accept or how they accept it. Additionally, where we previously might have been cavalier about sending a mixed-material item into the recycling bin, which likely did not get recycled, now we more carefully separate out the elements, cutting the plastic spouts from cardboard milk containers. We also seek out glass vessels, as glass is one of the more reusable and recyclable materials.

Tucker, the family dog, contributed fur to our compost bin, but made it abundantly clear that bulk dog biscuits are not acceptable.

Tucker, the family dog, contributed fur to our compost bin, but made it abundantly clear that bulk dog biscuits are not acceptable. Contributed photo

• WE COMPOSTED. Many of us had been composting for awhile, but several members of our group began this year and plan to continue. Pet fur and dryer lint have been added to some of our compost bins. And those of us still addicted to paper napkins have started composting them instead of throwing them in the trash. New in my family’s yard as of this fall is a pet-waste compost system made of a plastic bin with holes drilled in it sunk into the ground. This won’t be fertilizing our vegetable garden next season, but it will be fine for other plants. More importantly, the waste won’t be sitting in a plastic bag in a landfill.

Despite these efforts, at this point none of us is close to the zero-waste gurus like Bea Johnson, whose family of four produces a quart-sized jar of waste annually. For some of us, this is because we negotiate with family members who have preferences for things that come in packages with plastic, like my dog, who, despite never having exhibited elevated tastes before, has made it clear that bulk biscuits are simply not acceptable. Or we’ve found that the one source of bulk dishwashing soap within 30 miles of our house is noticeably inferior.

But other factors also interfere. For those of us who aspire to being low-maintenance customers, zero-waste consumption, where we request that an untutored store clerk tare a mason jar from home, for instance, can feel like an imposition. Asking the local supermarket manager if we can bring our own containers for meat or fish can produce a similar sensibility, if such an inquiry is even productive. Sometimes, such requests go nowhere.

Moreover, many trade-offs leave the thoughtful zero-waster peering down a sustainability rabbit hole. For example, those of us who swap paper products for cloth end up doing more laundry, creating a new set of issues in terms of water use, which was particularly significant here in Maine last summer when we experienced drought.

Overall, though, we’re pleased with this phase of the project. We’ve established new, more planet-friendly habits. We’re acquiring less plastic. We’re sending less trash – a LOT less – to the landfill. And we will continue to be mindful about the way we consume. 2017 could be the year that you do the same.

Lisa Botshon is a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of Maine at Augusta. She is currently researching back-to-the-land memoirs written by Maine women. She may be contacted at [email protected]