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

When I accepted a colleague’s invitation to participate in the University of Maine at Augusta’s zero-waste initiative, I implicitly signed up my entire family for major lifestyle changes. As a parent of a 4-year-old (Iris) and an 18-month-old (Arlo), I am used to making unilateral decisions about playdates, family vacations, meal plans and more. The decision to attempt zero waste – a group of 32 professors and university staff have set that as our collective goal for the fall semester – seems bigger than most of these things, though, as it affects all members of my family every day.

Attempting zero waste with young children has many special challenges. Many times over the past two months, exasperated, I have thought to myself, this would be so much easier if I lived alone! (Just planning and baking a week’s worth of snacks for the kids can take up much of my weekend.) On the positive side, zero wasting as a family also comes with specific rewards and opportunities.

A favorite book in our house is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” a whimsical story about Chewandswallow, a town where people benefit from ready-to-eat meals that fall from the sky until the food falling from the sky becomes unappetizing and dangerous. The town’s residents have to set sail for a new home, settling in a place “where they found it odd that the food was kept on the shelves, packaged in boxes, cans, and bottles.”

Since my 4-year-old is an invested participant in zero wasting this fall, the book has prompted conversations around food choices and waste. We discuss how receiving food from the sky is both like and unlike getting food from our garden and farmers market, as well as how getting used to packaged food is both like and unlike getting used to going without packaged food. Connecting our zero-waste project to what we read and observe helps the family be conscious of our consumption choices, while we also work to understand that having such choices is a privilege not afforded to everyone.

The zero-waste choices we have been making of late all fall under one of the five tenets of zero waste: refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle and rot.

REFUSE

The zero-waste action of refusing provides a way to avoid unnecessary consumption. This is, perhaps, a tenet of parenting in general, as it sets precedent for answers to questions like “Can I please have 10 puppies?” and “Can I have that stool? I need to climb up to the very highest bookshelf.” Refusal is nothing new for parents.

Zero-wasting refusal takes that to the next level, though: no more cheap plastic toys, no more hair accessories, no more restaurant take-out, no more bendy plastic straws and no more 10-cent candy from the corner market, either. I’m still not a perfect refuser. I looked the other way when my family bought plastic Halloween window decorations, but I know that next year we can try window paint instead.

REDUCE AND RECYCLE

One thing that I cannot refuse but instead try to use less of and then recycle is paper. As a 21st-century parent, I am aware that digital screens too often suck my attention away from engaging with my children. Even when I glance at my smartphone for just a second to find a recipe or consult my shopping list, I get drawn into texts and emails that seem to need immediate answers. To limit my screen time, I print out recipes and handwrite shopping lists. I am able to reduce the amount of paper I use by writing mostly on scraps (receipts that snuck into bags, junk mail envelopes we never returned to sender, the margins of preschool worksheets), after which I toss the scribbled sheets into the recycling bin.

REUSE

The tenent of reuse has not been particularly difficult for us, but it is time consuming. Before joining the zero-waste initiative, my family was casual cloth diaper users; we relied on disposables overnight and when we were traveling. We used disposable wipes. Now, we use cloth diapers exclusively, as well as cloth wipes. Along with the piles of diaper laundry, we scramble to keep up with laundering cloth napkins, cloth paper towel alternatives and handkerchiefs.

Also time-consuming is consciously working to reuse food storage containers. A child’s leftover dinner can no longer just be cling-wrapped and slid into the refrigerator: transferring between place settings and food storage containers generates lots of dirty dishes, and we don’t have a dishwasher.

Still, it is embracing these practices of re-use that brought our average trash from 25 pounds a week to only five pounds.

To some extent, reusing has become our family’s “cheat” category of zero-wasting. We have embraced the idea a little too fondly, vowing to use plastic packaging and other waste we generate for “arts and crafts projects.” But how many yogurt containers can one family really use, make that re-use, for crafting? Still, I’d argue that repurposing package waste into kid-friendly crafting is, to a point, an authentic zero-waste move. Our creative projects may not turn out as Pinterest-worthy as if we purchased new materials like construction paper and sequins, but the projects are still fun to do and the kids are still proud of their work: They are certainly willing to use their imaginations to make up for any end product deficiencies.

ROT

Young children pose special challenges for following this tenet, which refers to composting organic materials. For instance, a cucumber slice that soaked in a puddle of store-bought ranch dressing (we recycle the glass container) for an hour is perhaps less compost-friendly than ordinary produce trimmings. Also, baking mistakes – like when I get too confident about how much kale I can sneak into a batch of muffins and nobody eats them – often include oil or dairy, and so are not ideal to add to a home-based compost pile.

Still, rot is hands down the favorite zero waste tenet in our house. For kids, composting is an on-going science experiment that has a thrillingly high “yuck” factor.

Elizabeth Powers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maine at Augusta.