Lauren Singer doesn't come off as an environmental evangelist. She's unassuming when she speaks, and doesn't raise an eyebrow when you admit that you eat meat or drink water out of disposable plastic bottles. She even wears a black leather jacket (bought second-hand). But she doesn't joke around when it comes to trash.
"My ex-boyfriend had used baking soda for toothpaste and I used to say, 'You're so disgusting.' And then, ironically, the first thing I made was toothpaste made from baking soda and coconut oil," she laughed. She also cleans her toilet with white vinegar, carries around her food in glass mason jars, and even makes her own makeup.
She does all this with the intention of reducing her landfill waste to almost zero. Since March 2013 she has curated a blog about this mission called "Trash is for Tossers" through which she presents alternatives for products that often produce waste, from plastic utensils to liquid body wash sold in bottles.
Her DIY products led her to launch a Kickstarter campaign for laundry detergent that contains only three ingredients: baking soda, washing soda, and castile soap. She thought her initial goal of $10,000 would be reasonable, but her product apparently struck a chord; with 55 hours to go, she's earned over three times her initial goal.
Singer's journey toward zero waste started in fall 2012, as a senior at New York University in environmental studies. In her capstone class with all environmental studies majors, one girl would pull out her lunch every day and throw away the residual disposable plastic container, water bottle, silverware, and bag.
Singer was frustrated and thought that the girl was a hypocrite, but never said anything. Instead, she turned her frustration to her own plastic consumption, which she noticed was wrapped around almost all the food in her fridge.
"I was really angry at myself," she said. "I decided that day that I had to quit plastic. There was a lot of introspection—I decided that I needed to stop judging [eco-friendly] people so hard." Little by little, she incorporated habits that would reduce her waste to almost nothing.
Plastic is Singer's pet issue. She has tried to eradicate every form of plastic from her life; she buys food in bulk and has mostly stopped shopping for clothes because she doesn't know what to do with the plastic-coated tags, or the plastic barb that connects the tags to the garment. She carries her lunches around in large resealable mason jars, to be eaten with accompanying metal utensils and dish.
At times, her concerns about plastic seem more related to her own health than the environment. "I definitely don't want to produce trash, but I definitely don't want to actively put carcinogens into my body," she said, indicating that heating up plastic can cause it to leach chemicals like BPA into food.
Singer's anti-plastic mantra creates a few habits that may seem incongruous to other environmentalists. She wears a black jacket of real leather because faux leather is plastic. She's a vegetarian but she's wary of being labeled as too extreme, like "No Impact Man" Colin Beavan has been. Singer hasn't run the exact numbers on whether or not she's actually conserving resources by using less plastic, especially when she might use more water than the average person to wash all her reusable items. But she's pretty sure that the manufacturing processes for plastic uses a lot more resources than whatever she's consuming.
Part of this caution against extremism is because of the flak her tough-love Army family used to give her for her more traditional eco-conscious practices, like eating organic. "My grandma called me a tree-hugger, and that's cool because I am," she admitted. "I think for a long time my family thought it was a phase. But now they are really into it and so supportive."
I used to talk at people and I realized that you don't get anywhere by doing that.
But the other reason is that Singer wants her brand to be exceptionally approachable. "I used to talk at people and I realized that you don't get anywhere by doing that," she said. "I thought a blog was a really good medium for me because it's the most comfortable, accessible and safe way for people who want to explore a way of living that's different than their own."
Critics may be quick to point out that a regimen of spending hours making your own makeup or hunting down pricey castile soap is not possible for those with limited time or money. But Singer emphasizes that buying food and other products in bulk can get buyers more value, and if they know where to look it can save them time, too. "A lot of it is just getting past the first step, which is just learning that it's an option to buy food in bulk."
For Singer and for others who believe in her mission, talking about trash means more than just what it seems. "Trash is a really narrow scope to try to start addressing all the greater problems," she said.
In her desire to bring waste- and chemical-free products to everyone, she launched a company called The Simply Co. to sell the three-ingredient laundry detergent. When she first launched the Kickstarter campaign, she figured she could whip up a few boxes of the stuff in her kitchen. But with almost 600 backers at the time of writing, she's not sure how she's going to do it. She doesn't feel discouraged, though—"People give a shit."
Singer sees this current iteration of the environmental movement as being distinctly "millennial." "It's questioning everything. I don't know if we take action on everything, but it's important to ask what's in everything we're using and why."