LONG BEACH — For Alexis Westwell, doing her part for the planet means resisting the temptation of Tapatio Doritos.
The 23-year-old has spent the past year trying to keep her trash from going into landfills or being burned. She hasn’t figured out how to reuse the greasy, aluminum-lined bags leftover after an orange-fingered binge, so she stopped buying the spicy snack.
Giving up chips and cheesy poofs for a zero-waste lifestyle was tough, Westwell said. But, since she set her goal in January 2017, the benefits of more conscious choices have slowly started to outweigh her cravings.
“Being zero-waste isn’t for the faint of heart,” said Westwell, who’s finishing a month-long work exchange at Green Angel Gardens in Long Beach.“You just have to make the time. Once you see what it’s doing, it’s a good feeling.”
Westwell left the sparkling backyard swimming pools of her suburban Southern California neighborhood to help owner Larkin Stenz tend gardens and look after chickens this winter in the blustery Pacific Northwest. With the experience under her belt, the Huntington Beach native plans to make her way through Europe, trading her time and sustainable skills for places to eat and sleep on farms abroad.
A sustainable sensibility
Zero-waste is a goal, not an absolute, Westwell said. The idea is to be thoughtful about using resources and make choices that reduce the amount of landfill or incinerator-bound trash in whatever way possible.
That’s exactly how experts want everyone to start thinking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average American produces more than four pounds of garbage a day but recycles a little more than a quarter of it.
Trash has been piling up across the country since China announced last year that it didn’t want to be the “world’s garbage dump” anymore.
The largest processor of recyclable materials worldwide banned certain materials and tightened restrictions on others, starting Jan. 1. The Chinese complained that much of the material it was getting from the U.S. and other countries was not properly cleaned or was mixed with non-recyclables.
When in doubt, throw it out
The West’s throwaway lifestyle is expected to become more costly, less convenient as a result. Experts caution consumers that they’ll likely have to start treating their recycles as valuable commodities to meet China’s new standards. Officials are also warning that the days of “wishful recycling,” that is tossing iffy items into the bin and assuming someone on the other end will sort it out, are gone.
Recyclable glass, plastics, paper and metals should be cleaned and kept dry to best preserve their value. They also need to be separated properly.
Some officials are now telling people, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Of course, anyone can find out by checking with their local collection service, instead.
Westwell admits she and her boyfriend, Derek Eglit, 36, didn’t give up their throwaway tendencies cold turkey. She said they started considering how animals so often go to waste, in part, because Eglit was learning about it through his job with a California food co-op. They decided to stop buying meat and chose to eat it only when it’d otherwise spoil before it could be used.
“We started off as no-wasteatarians,” Westwell said.
That quickly led to them to a vegan diet. Soon after, they started rethinking their use of plastics and decided to try living waste-free.
At the time, Westwell said, she was working for a company that provides packaging for medical marijuana products. She would pack her lunch in a reusable container and bring washable hand towels. But she couldn’t square her new ways with her work. “We literally sold plastic-anything [that the] dispensaries needed,” Westwell said.
A sensible switch
Now, she tries to find another use for things she wouldn’t have thought twice about tossing before she went waste-free.
Because most things come with excessive packaging, she’s started making most of her food, cleaners, cosmetics and household products from scratch. She’s learned how to make her own coconut milk, ceramics and deodorant, among other things.
Westwell brings wide-mouth canning jars and canvas bags to fill at grocery stores and food co-ops, mostly from the produce and bulk sections. To avoid trouble at checkout, she asks an employee if it’s OK for her to use her own containers before she fills them.
“It has made me into a bit of a bag lady,” Westwell said. “I usually just joke and say I’m trying to save the world or something.”
She also leaves one jar empty, in case the cashier wants to check the weight.
Waste-free isn’t easy
Despite her planning, there are times when her effort goes to waste. Earlier this month, Westwell asked a customer-service worker for permission to use her jars at a box store in Warrenton. After a couple calls to the manager and a lot of fuss, she said, the retailer told her she could put the plastic bags inside the jars and then fill them up.
“That’s why you can’t let it stress you out,” she said. “You’re just doing what you can do.”
Westwell makes exceptions to buy her cat’s packaged food of choice. It took some looking but she did manage to find litter that she can refill in the same tub.
Westwell also reduces waste by shopping thrift stores for vintage fashions and buying used as much as she can. She arranges clothing swaps with friends and looks for high-quality, made-to-last items. When she orders something online, she takes the extra seconds to write a note to tell the seller she’d appreciate as little packaging as possible.
At restaurants, Westwell brings her own straw and politely reminds the server not to bring her another one. She carries her metal straw, bamboo utensils and reusable containers in her purse so they’re handy. When Westwell orders take-out, she asks if she can bring a container for her food. She’s also made a habit of requesting the restaurant hold napkins, plastic utensils and to-go bags.
Counting small changes
Westwell said she tries to stay positive about her progress toward reducing waste. She understands that she’s doing things differently and that might be annoying at times. Even so, simple changes, such as declining throwaway items when they’re not needed, can save tons of trash, so she figures it can’t hurt to ask for no more than she needs.
“Every little thing you do helps,” Westwell said. “Tiny steps can make a huge difference.”
Recycling 10 cans per week saves enough energy for 30 hours of TV watching, according to information on the Peninsula Sanitation Services website.
Recycling a newspaper every week saves four trees a year. Just 15 plastic bottles have enough fiber to make 156 T-shirts and the energy from recycling one glass bottle could power a computer for 30 minutes.
As more people start to catch on, the explanations Westwell has to give to get through usually mundane, everyday activities without giving up her zero-waste goal seem to be getting easier.
Westwell, who earned her associate’s degree in liberal arts at Orange Coast College, said her parents are more understanding of her zero-waste, vegan choices than they were when she first started wearing piercings and dreadlocks.
“They appreciate what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s just not for them.”
The apple and the tree
Her mother, Kris Westwell, is a retired cafeteria worker and her father, Norm “Firecracker” Westwell, serves as an Ocean View School District trustee. He made his living running a custom swimwear company and has run unsuccessfully for political offices several times.
Westwell sees her environmental views and trash-making habits as vastly different from those of her parents. However, her father has long been known for his recycling of political campaign signs.
“I call it sign harvesting and the harvesting begins the day after the election,” he told the Orange County Register in 2008. “I get permission from various candidates and will take signs down for them as long as I can keep them.”
It was also an experience that she had on a scuba-diving trip with her dad that showed her the trouble with America’s throwaway lifestyle. She was 10 when they found a sea turtle tangled in garbage in Kauai, Westwell recalled. They worked together to set the turtle free.
“Being in the ocean and seeing all of that changes your perspective,” she said. “Still, I try not to harp on people because pushing doesn’t work. They’ll just think you’re a weird hippy.”
If it’s yellow, let it mellow
During her month learning about farming on the Peninsula, Westwell took care of animals, prepared garden beds, pulled weeds, pruned trees, and emptied the “pee pods.” Stenz collects urine in buckets under his toilet seats. He uses the nitrogen-rich waste to fertilize his organic produce. Unlike the old motto, Westwell said, they don’t let it mellow too long because the nutrients are higher when it’s fresh.
Now, she now plans to couch surf her way back to Orange County before continuing her travels abroad. Westwell intends to keep a loose itinerary for the trip, but she has lined up a gig at a Portuguese goat farm and a stay in Sicily, where she’ll help make organic olive oil, so far.
She said looking forward to trying her waste-free ways on the road, despite the extra hassle of carrying all the normal necessities plus reusable gear in a backpack.
“I’m trying to be my best, sustainable self,” Westwell said. “All I can do is me.”