Greener together

There’s no shortage of scary statistics about how much trash Americans produce (over 4 pounds per person, per day), how big our carbon footprint is (more than triple the world average) or how little of our plastic actually gets recycled (9% — yikes).

If you’re like me, these stats make you feel two things — a strong desire to do something about it and an overwhelming fear of having no idea where to start.

Changing your family’s routine to “go green” seems even more daunting when you’re a parent.

Shuttling kids to and from school, activities and grandma’s house is most efficient in a car — a big one, at that. Feeding them on the go is easiest via yogurt tubes and squeeze pouches. And don’t get me started on food waste — no matter what I put on my kids’ dinner plates, only a fraction of it will be eaten before I hear the inevitable: “Am I done yet?”

So what’s a modern family to do? Change nothing, because it won’t matter anyway? Or go full-bore and build a tiny house on an island in the Mississippi? 

The answer, luckily, falls somewhere in the middle. Today’s zero-waste movement isn’t about fitting a year’s worth of trash into a Mason jar. It’s about taking small steps to become a more conscious consumer in ways that work for you and your family. 

“Do what you can within your budget and let go of what you can’t,” said Kristina Mattson, a registered nurse, mom of three and co-founder of the Zero Waste Saint Paul advocacy group. “If you get hung up on the ‘cant’s,’ it can get really overwhelming. Pick two or three things and build upon that.”

A helpful tool for reframing your thinking around zero waste is the “5 Rs.” In addition to the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra we all grew up with, zero waste adds two more: Refuse (resist our culture’s call to buy newly manufactured things) and Rot (compost). 

With that in mind, here are some realistic and impactful tips from local zero-waste experts on how to make your life — and our planet — a little greener. 

Who knows? You may instill habits and values in your kids to last a lifetime.

Sustainable shopping

Kate Marnach, a former clinical engineer living in Maple Grove, became interested in zero waste when she started having kids. 

Frustrated by how hard it was to find plastic-free items locally, she and friend Amber Haukedahl, a conservation biologist, took matters into their own hands and opened Tare Market in Minneapolis this past spring. 

Minnesota’s first zero-waste market, pictured below, Tare is a one-stop shop for anyone looking to live more sustainably. The store sells bulk foods, cleaning and bath products, including many items that can’t be found elsewhere.

“We’ve done the work for you to find products that are as close to zero waste as possible,” said Marnach, whose kids are now 7, 4 and 2. 

If you’re new to this type of shopping, don’t feel intimidated: “We’re here to help and walk you through the process.” 

The store also hosts regular classes on topics such as composting, mending and transitioning your home to zero waste.

Co-ops, such as the Wedge in Minneapolis or Mississippi Markets in St. Paul, also make sustainable shopping easier by sourcing local and organic products, and offering a wide variety of foods in bulk. 

Contrary to popular belief, co-ops aren’t always more expensive: Bulk foods often cost less than packaged ones; members get additional discounts and coupons; and many accept SNAP and WIC, making them accessible to low-income families.

If you don’t have a co-op nearby, Marnach recommends Fresh Thyme and Whole Foods for their bulk sections. 

And, if you’re being mindful of the products you’re buying — and the packaging — Mattson said traditional grocery stores such as Cub, Lunds & Byerlys and Kowalski’s, which all have bulk sections, can be good options, too.

Even Target, she said, has recycling programs and a sustainability mission: “They’re really moving toward being mindful of waste through the whole supply chain.”

Secondhand channels

Beyond groceries, shopping secondhand is an awesome way to cut down on waste. You won’t be requiring a manufacturing plant to create and ship something new from overseas — and you’ll skip the plastics/bags/ties, Styrofoam and cardboard boxes used not just for the basic packaging and display, but also for the copious amounts of packing and shipping needed if you order online. 

Mattson recommends social media marketplaces such as local buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook, thrift stores and hand-me-downs from friends. Keep the driving to a minimum when buying or selling by using NextDoor, which can be limited to your immediate neighborhood. 

Add to that baby-gear resale events, more than a dozen locations of Once Upon a Child in Minnesota and Little Free Libraries everywhere you turn — plus actual libraries. In Richfield, the Minneapolis Toy Library rents out toys for an annual fee. 

You may start to wonder why you ever bought anything brand new.

Whether you’re shopping at Tare or Target, always remember to bring your own bags. Opting for paper over plastic won’t do much good: It actually takes more resources to produce a paper bag than a plastic one. Get in the habit of keeping your bags by the back door or in your car so you never leave home without them.

Eco-conscious eating

A lot of zero waste is about packaging, yes. And the trend of reusable straws and water bottles — and those amazing refill fountains at schools and airports — have helped. 

But what we eat and drink has a much larger impact than what it comes in.

According to the research journal Science, our global food system accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with food packaging making up only 5% of that total. Animal products, especially beef, lamb, farmed crustaceans and cheese, have the biggest footprint, followed by pork, farmed fish, poultry and eggs. 

If you’re not ready to go vegan or vegetarian, that’s OK. Cutting out red meat, even once or twice a week, can make a big difference. Trade cheeseburgers for well-seasoned turkey or wild rice patties, and you might not even miss the beef and cheddar; or you might check out plant-based Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers/Beyond Sausage options sold in grocery stores and at Burger King, White Castle, Carls Jr., Dunkin’ and more.

Eating local is another beneficial and — thanks to the abundance of local farms and eco-conscious restaurants in Minnesota — easy choice to make. 

Many local restaurants — such as Birchwood Cafe, Brasa, French Meadow, Keg and Case Market, Kieran’s Kitchen, Wise Acre Eatery and dozens of others — pride themselves on sourcing local and organic ingredients, even growing their own food on rooftops and nearby farms. 

Being a locavore can be a way to connect to local farmers, too: In summer, you can bring the whole family to one of Birchwood’s “Crop Mobs” for a day of real farm work at Riverbend Farm in Delano (pictured at left). Every July, you can tour local farms as part of the annual, self-guided Co-op Farm Tour, too. Many local farms open to the public to offer everything from strawberries in the spring to apples in the fall. 

Farmers markets are also plentiful in Minnesota, with more than 75 in the metro area alone. The selection changes every week based on what’s in season, so you can be sure it’s fresh, local and virtually packaging-free. 

In July and August, check out Tiny Diner’s farmers market on Thursday nights, with kid-friendly themes including baby goat day and chicken poop bingo.

If you like to cook, you can take it a step further and sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share, which creates a direct connection between your family and the farmers who grow the food you’ll get to enjoy all season long. 

Growing your own veggies is another fun way to teach your kids where food comes from — and it doesn’t get more local than your own backyard! Kids are more apt to eat food they grow, too. (They love ripping the veggies right off the plants.)

Winter is an ideal time to plan a garden, too, thanks to colorful, dreamy seed catalogs that go out in January — just the thing for winter-weary souls. Check out four perfect projects for kids (including three edibles) at mnparent.com/gardening-with-kids.

Disposing of it all

If you want to make a huge difference with a small amount of effort, Mattson has the answer: Start composting. 

Most metro-area counties offer free drop-off sites, compost bins and bags, and even curbside pickup in some cities. In addition to food scraps, you can compost literally hundreds of things this way, including paper towels, tissues, greasy pizza boxes, pet hair and so much more. Composting in your backyard — or even indoors with red wriggler worms! — is another option.

You may have read that China stopped taking recyclables from other countries last year, forcing some American cities to cut back on or even discontinue their recycling services. 

Lucky for us, Minnesota sorts most of its recycling locally, which means that as long as you’re recycling correctly, your paper, plastic, glass and aluminum shouldn’t end up in a landfill.

Many local businesses, in fact, use some of the state’s recyclables for their manufacturing, such as By the Yard furniture in Jordan (HDPE plastic), Spectro Alloys in Rosemount (aluminum) and Rock Tenn in St. Paul (paper and cardboard), among others.

The U.S. has dealt with the 2018 changes in China by stockpiling valuable recyclables and by turning to other countries that are accepting imported materials.

But quality matters more than ever, making contamination a bigger issue. And that’s where American households come into play. 

Some common recycling mistakes people make are putting plastic bags in their curbside recycling bins (take those to your grocery store drop-off) and trying to recycle black plastic, Styrofoam and other items that have recycling symbols, but aren’t accepted by your local hauler. 

Take 10 minutes to review what’s accepted on your county or city’s website; most have handy guides you can print out and hang on the fridge for the whole family to reference.

A lot of other packaging, including food wrappers and personal care and cleaning product bottles, can be recycled through TerraCycle, which offers free recycling for a variety of mainstream brands: Find local drop-off sites on the company’s website or ship your items — such as GoGo squeeZ apple sauce pouches and Febreez cans — for free. 

Loop — a new e-commerce platform — is offering zero-waste packaging options for popular products from P&G, Unilever, Nestle, PepsiCo, Coca Cola and many others. It’s not available in the Twin Cities yet, but it allows consumers to get products ranging from Haagen Dazs ice cream to Pantene shampoo in durable, reusable containers that can be returned for cleaning and refill. 

(You can sign up for the global waiting list at loopstore.com.)

When it comes to bigger things like electronics, furniture, clothes, toys and more, look for city- and county-sponsored recycling events and other special collections, like Target’s semiannual car seat trade-in. 

Greener ways to get around

Nearly 60% of car trips in America are 5 miles or fewer, and transportation is now Minnesota’s biggest source of carbon emissions. If you don’t have access to public transit, driving may be the only way to get where you need to go. 

But just like rethinking your shopping and eating habits, changing how you get around can be approached one step at a time.

Think about everywhere you go in a typical week — work, school, the grocery store, church, the gym, other errands. Use Google Maps to see if any of those trips could be done on foot, bike or public transportation. 

If not, try combining multiple errands into one trip or carpooling with a friend or coworker to cut down on your daily mileage.

While adults tend to focus on getting from point A to point B in the fastest way possible, Julia Curran, who lives car free in Minneapolis, encourages people to remember how fun it was to walk, bike or ride the train as a kid. 

If your kids are anything like mine, the light rail ride to Target Field is often more fun than the game itself.


Erica Wacker lives in St. Paul with her husband and two boys. Her household is celebrating its one-year compostiversary. Follow her journey in eco-friendly living at climate52.com.