Eat Chips, Save Trash: One L.A. Guy’s Almost Zero-waste Year

sustainable dave
Think hardcore environmentalism requires living like a monk? Not if you ask Dave Chameides, a steadicam operator living in L.A. who collected all his trash for a year and blogged about the project.

Dave created less trash in all of 2008 than an average American family throws out in a week. And more impressively, he achieved this eco-feat while drinking beer and eating potato chips.

“I didn’t want to change the way that I was living my life,” Dave says. “If I wanted to drink beer, I wasn’t going to say, well, I can’t find a way to drink beer without creating packaging, so therefore I’m not going to. Instead, what I’m going to do is look at the packaging in beer and pick the most ‘eco-friendly’ way to do it.”

The idea behind Dave’s project was to focus on things people could do without drastically changing their entire lifestyle. “There are definitely people out there who have done similar things where they’ve cut everything out of their life,” Dave says. “A lot of people who are really really hardcore have emailed me and said, ‘You know, you can just not eat potato chips.’ Well, yeah, but I wanna eat potato chips!”

So Dave opted for bigger bags of chips versus the more wasteful one-serving bags — and cut out packaging wherever he could. Buying used items on Craigslist, composting food and paper scraps in his worm bin, and shopping at the farmers’ market — where he could even take back his egg cartons to a farmer for reuse — helped downsize Dave’s trash pile.

In the end, Dave amassed just 30.5 pounds of non-recyclable trash. That wasn’t the only stuff he piled up in his garage though — Dave decided to keep his recyclables for the year too, to show that “recycling isn’t the answer.”

“If you look at the majority of the waste that I put out there, it’s recycling,” Dave says. “That’s gonna take energy, it’s going to take resources, it’s going to take all sorts of things. I think we’ve been trained in the U.S. to think that recycling is the answer. But statistically, only 10% of everything that can be recycled is recycled.”

Plus, recycling tends to be a loosely used term, according to Dave. “Take plastic water bottles. they’re not actually recycled, they’re downcycled. They’re turned into park benches and plastic wood and things like that. Recycling is turning something back into itself. With plastic water bottles, you need relatively virgin plastic resin, so as far as the next generation of plastic bottles goes, recycling’s not doing anything.” Recycling’s still better than sending things to the landfill, but isn’t a guilt-free eco-parctice, Dave says.

Takin’ Out The Trash from Sustainable Dave on Vimeo.

See Dave display all the trash he amassed in the short video above. The trash-collecting experiment ended Dec. 31, 2008, but Dave expects most of the habits he picked up during the year to remain permanent. “I got rid of all my junk mail — I’m not going to go back to having junk mail, obviously!” Dave says. He’ll also keep taking his own bag to the farmer’s market — and even taking sugar packet wrappers home to feed to the worm composter.

And Dave’s collected trash is going to become a permanent fixture too — at the Museum of Trash in Hartford, Conn., which will put Dave’s 30.5 lbs of nonrecyclable trash on exhibit later this month. Dave’s recyclables are going to become art as well, thanks to an artist in Seattle who wants to pulverize everything then create something new out of the remains.

What are Dave’s plans for 2009? He’s working on a book called 365 Days of Solutions, teaching eco-seminars, and working at a new job as the director of sustainability at a local school. You can follow Dave’s eco-journey and get tips to craft your own at sustainabledave.org.

Photo courtesy Dave Chameides

  1. ken

    “The idea behind Dave’s project was to focus on things people could do without drastically changing their entire lifestyle.”
    Isn’t changing your entire lifestyle the whole point here? Being lazy and greedy and reluctant to change seems to me to be part of the reason the whole ship is sinking.
    Still, it is your planet.

  2. hannah

    i agree with ken, for most people drastic changes are needed, and are the only way we can shift to sustainability. what is wrong with sacrifice? you live simply and you will find many rewards.

  3. Jenn

    to hannah and ken,
    dave’s point that drastic changes aren’t neccessary are to push the great majority of people who are not willing to make drastic changes to make small changes. sacrifice and living simply is fantastic, but not every family is willing to take it on. I like dave’s ideas! it should be more highly published where the masses might learn of it πŸ™‚

  4. walrus

    Wait, he reduced his yearly trash output to that of an average families yearly output and it’s somehow not good enough because he didn’t suffer?

    I think some of you have lost sight of the prize…

  5. Danny

    the problem is right here. Somebody shows that it can be done and there are those of you who are critical of the effort…he didn’t do this…he didn’t do that…what did any of you do? THAT is more to the point. People don’t make the effort to be more efficient because they think it cramps their style. He’s trying to show it doesn’t have to. No more excuses. It takes nothing short of a force of nature for many people to make ‘drastic’ changes. In America you just can’t expect people to do it ‘voluntarily’ in this cultural climate. They simply feel like they don’t have to.

  6. Mary

    Intresting article! What you did was amazing! but what would you suggest for moms in terms of school lunch? Of course we would like to be more eco friendly to but it just seems impossible. Plastic bags are what I use currently and I was wondering if switching over to plastic containers is even a better solution. For they have to be constantly washed and then again they are made out of plastic. Paper bags is just not able to carry all the items i would like to put with my kids lunch.
    What is the best option

  7. Uncle B

    Many of we, great hulking American Neanderthals, disenfranchised from corporate paychecks, medical insurance, homes, lifestyles, by downsizing, lay-offs and the flight of American Capital we earned and entrusted, stolen, to build Asian industries, have collected at village edge, in Shanties, Shanty Towns, Hoovervilles, Tent Cities, Shacks hidden in woods, and humanure, compost, and hand water small garden plots, eat possum and varmints, pressure canning and drying produce we grow or scavenge, and live in a cash free society of barter and day-labor, and nightly scavenging. We face certain extinction, unable to procreate in such circumstances, victims of our own high productivity and psycho-consumerism and greed, when we did work and had benefits, and a greedy selfish and short sighted over-class of cheats and thieves, even setting police dogs on us, their American brethren, and fearing us after cheating us! This man has publicized the obvious, and I hope he can turn a good dollar and some security for himself and his own, and a happier old age than me and my ilk expect in America, the land of the Free, land of the Brave! Land of the Proud, Land of the filthy corporate Shylock thief, and land of environmental tragedy! May he prosper but never trod on another’s good will , and have a full tummy more often than me!

  8. Terri

    Very motivating indeed. I recycle everything I can, and compost too. Obviously, I need a few more practical techniques to reduce my waste consumption. Definitely going to read through Dave’s website.

  9. Layla

    Great article! Very inspiring!

    Mary, I LOVE bento boxes!!
    Even if you do have to wash ’em, at least you’re not throwing them away daily! If you choose good quality and look after them, they may last for long years! (Some are even made of stainless steel, jot necessarily plastic. Some people also use glass jars, including my Dad in the past for his lunch at work, depends on how lively the kids are.)
    Or, you could lobby for free or very affordable eco zero waste lunch at school?:) Healthier than sandwiches all the time! Might happen, you never know!

  10. solar

    I often find myself thumbing down “green” pages- as they’re usually completely inane. This isn’t one of those pages. This guy is actually living by a reasonable “green” lifestyle. Being environmentally friendly isn’t about buying more “green” stuff- it’s about buying and wasting less stuff in general.

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