News & Opinion

Living The Zero-Waste Lifestyle in Charlotte

Valerie Gackiere mans the Ekologicall booth at the South End Farmers Market
Valerie Gackiere mans the Ekologicall booth at the South End Farmers Market. (Courtesy of Ekologicall)

Editor’s Note: The following is part two in a two-part series about how our habits impact our current waste management systems and the environment. Part one can be read here, though it is not necessary to understand the following article. 

Have you looked inside your trash can lately? Your garbage says a lot about you — from your diet to your buying habits to your sustainable (or not-so-sustainable) practices. 

This is all the more important now as the world is producing more trash today than ever before, and Charlotte is no exception; the city’s garbage is growing faster than the population itself.

In Fiscal Year 2022, the city of Charlotte collected approximately 297,799 tons of garbage from residential curbside bins and multi-family residences. That’s 11.5% more than FY17 and 31.2% over FY13, which is higher than the corresponding population growth during those same spans (8% and 14%, respectively).

To be fair, a lot of this isn’t our fault as the majority of waste generated happens before products and items even enter our homes, offices, schools and institutions. Much of today’s products and packaging are designed in the cheapest way possible, often with unnecessary, single-use plastic and other non-recyclable material.

Until there’s a global shift in manufacturing practices, it may seem pointless for individuals to try to reduce their waste production as more future trash is made every day, but Valerie Gackiere insists that’s not the case.

Gackiere is the founder and owner of Ekologicall, a Charlotte-based online store selling sustainable and reusable alternatives to everyday products like deodorant, paper towels, dish clothes, sandwich bags and shampoo bottles — products widely used by people trying to live the “zero-waste” lifestyle.

In simplest terms, zero waste relates to an effort to reduce the amount one consumes and throws away. People living a zero-waste lifestyle strive to put the least amount of trash in their bins as possible by avoiding single-use materials and opting for sustainable and reusable alternatives.

Zero waste sounds intimidating, Gackiere said, as people often think it’s an all-or-nothing lifestyle, like veganism, or don’t know where to begin. As long as people try to decrease their waste, however, Gackiere said they’ll be making a difference, as the goal of producing no waste is usually unobtainable.

“Being completely zero waste is impossible in the world we live in. We are surrounded by disposables, by plastic, and that’s how the world is in developed countries,” Gackiere said. “We don’t need millions of people living completely zero waste, but we need millions of people trying.”

Bea Johnson, a French-American woman living in California, is widely credited with developing “The 5 Rs of Zero Waste,” which serves as a guide to transitioning into a zero-waste lifestyle. They are refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

According to Johnson’s method, the first step toward reducing your annual household waste footprint is to refuse what you don’t need and prevent the waste from even entering your home and life. In other words, say “no” to waste in the forms of single-use disposables like plastic bags, straws, forks and knives, cups, junk mail and other short-lived non-necessities.

“All the things that are coming to us but we don’t need, just saying no to that. So it’s a lot of preparation,” Gackiere said. “Like for instance, the bags, you have to think about taking your reusable bags [to the store] and things like that.”

The next step is to reduce what you need, which involves resisting the desire to buy new things, including fast fashion, cheap electronic gadgets and processed foods. 

“It’s capitalism culture, consumerism culture, where we are pushed every day that we need a new phone, we need new clothes, we need new, new, new, like, buy and buy and buy,” Gackiere said. “So it’s just really thinking about what I really need in my life, what can I reuse, what I can borrow, instead of buying new.”

When it comes to reducing food waste, Gackiere suggested buying less food at one time, cooking ingredients before they expire, and freezing leftovers instead of throwing them away.

Small switches add up

Gackiere grew up in the countryside of Normandy in northern France with farmer grandparents who were children during WWII. They taught her that “nothing should go to waste.”

When she moved to Charlotte with her husband and children 10 years ago, she said she immediately noticed America’s lack of sustainable practices, such as plastic grocery bags.

The culture shock and a general growing concern about climate change and pollution reignited Gackiere’s passion for the environment and reminded her of her grandparents’ mantra. She became inspired to share sustainable habits as her way of making an impact.

“When you read a lot about these topics and challenges for the planet, you kind of become a bit depressed, to be honest, but the way to get out of that is just to take action,” Gackiere said. “And so I have to do something about it.”

Gackiere started by visiting schools on a volunteer basis and talking to children about plastic pollution in the hope that they would tell their parents, but it wasn’t enough. Then she got the idea to host workshops sharing sustainable alternatives and selling those alternative products. 

It was out of these efforts that Ekologicall was borne in the fall of 2019. 

Operating as a third-party that carries zero-waste products made by different manufacturers, Gackiere launched Ekologicall as an online store and pop-up. While that’s still how it operates for the most part, the products are also currently available in two boutiques: Lokal at Camp North End and Painted Tree Boutiques in Matthews. Ekologicall is also at the ​​South End Farmers Market every Saturday morning.

At the core of the shop is its inventory of sustainable products that help consumers move toward living zero waste. A lot of that inventory ties into step three: reuse. In other words, swap your disposable items for alternatives like reusable water bottles, bags, straws and cutlery.

Valerie Gackiere washes dishes in the kitchen sink
Valerie Gackiere uses many of the sustainable and reusable products sold by Ekologicall in her own home. (Photo by Karie Simmons)

Other habits include thrifting clothes and repairing broken items instead of buying new, as well as finding new uses for old clothes or household items to avoid throwing them away.

Hygiene products sold through Ekologicall — shampoo, conditioner, lotion, dish soap, laundry detergent, all-purpose cleaner, etc. — come in containers that can be refilled once empty

Gackiere began building the store’s inventory with products she was already using. Reusable facial rounds were one of her first sustainable swaps to replace cotton balls, which she said are bad for the environment due to the pesticides and water required to manufacture them.

A product’s environmental impact comes from a combination of how things are made, where they are made and with what, as well as what happens when they go to the landfill, Gackiere explained.

“You would think the cotton balls will completely decompose in the landfill because it’s just cotton, but they are trapped, and you have layers of trash and there’s not enough oxygen to break down even food scraps and organic material,” Gackiere said. “So gases are released like methane and CO2 and that’s why we have to limit what we send to them.”

A peek inside Gackiere’s shower reveals just three products: shampoo, soap and conditioner — all in bar form. 

On her bathroom sink sits a reusable and plastic-free razor, deodorant cream in a refillable glass jar, a toothbrush with a replaceable head, and tooth tabs instead of toothpaste (you chew it to create a paste). She makes her own dry shampoo with cornstarch and cocoa powder.

Gackiere acknowledges that Ekologicall’s sustainable alternatives cost more than their single-use counterparts, which raises the question of accessibility. However, she said access to the zero-waste lifestyle is less about monetary barriers as it is changing your mindset and thinking about your future.

“Yeah, at first, for some reusable things, it’s an investment. But in the long term, it’s cheaper,” Gackiere said, using paper towels as an example.

One $6.30 Swedish cloth replaces an average of 17 rolls of paper towels and can absorb 16 times its weight, according to Gackiere. It’s dishwasher safe and machine washable, and will last for six months or longer with normal use.

Gackiere suggests consumers check their receipts to see where they’re spending the most money on single-use items — dryer sheets, napkins, detergent, plastic wrap, coffee filters — and invest in a sustainable swap.

“I think when you do the math, you realize that it saves you money,” she said.

Other examples include plastic sandwich and snack bags. Ekologicall offers reusable food wraps made from waxed organic cotton as an alternative. Each bag is reusable for a year and, like most of Ekologicall’s products, is compostable.

Aaron Caudle of Mecklenburg County’s Solid Waste Management​ department said it’s the small switches that add up when it comes to reducing impact on the environment and our waste management systems.

“You might say ‘It’s just one sandwich bag,’ but it’s not just one, it’s however many sandwiches you make throughout the week. And you’re one person, but maybe you have five people in your house and there’s 18 houses in your neighborhood, so it’s a cascading effect,” Caudle said. “That one sandwich bag is one sandwich bag to you, but everybody has a sandwich bag and those all end up in our facilities.”

Recycling as a last resort  

Most people who live the zero-waste lifestyle see recycling as a last resort, as the current limited infrastructure often consists of “downcycling” recyclable materials into low-quality, disposable goods that ultimately end up in a landfill anyway. The recycling process itself is also highly energy intensive.

Currently in the U.S., only around 5% of recycled plastic is actually turned into new products while the rest goes into landfills. That’s because plastic trash has few markets — plastic can only be recycled into new products one or two times before the material completely degrades and becomes useless.

According to an October 2022 Greenpeace report on the state of recycling in the U.S., plastic is extremely difficult and expensive to collect and sort as there are thousands of types of the synthetic material and none can be melted down together. New plastic, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to produce.

A recycling truck dumps its load on the floor of a warehouse
Recyclables brought to the Mecklenburg County recycling center. (Courtesy of Mecklenburg County)

The reality of recycling is disheartening, Gackiere said, because many of us grew up with the notion that recycling was how we were going to save the planet.

“People in general are excited about recycling, because that’s what we’ve been saying for many years,” Gackiere said. “But we know that the system is broken. It doesn’t work. So we have to work beforehand, at the very beginning, from what we buy and bring into our home, because it will end up somewhere.”

The only plastic items that are currently recyclable in Mecklenburg County are containers with necks such as beverage bottles. Curbside recycling bins are also for cardboard, aluminum cans, milk and juice cartons, glass bottles and jars, and paper items like magazines and junk mail.

Brandi Williams with the City of Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services department, which collects Charlotte’s garbage, recycling, and yard waste, echoed Gackiere’s sentiment that there are better ways to reduce our carbon footprint than just recycling. 

“If you look at what we call a waste stream, and how we manage the waste along that stream, at the top of it is making the decision not to purchase certain things,” Williams said. 

The waste stream refers to the flow of waste from its domestic or industrial source through to recovery, recycling or final disposal.

Williams said an easy first step is to pay attention to how products are packaged and opt for alternatives with less plastic. Consumers can avoid unwanted plastic by grocery shopping at farmers markets and filling up containers at bulk food stores.

Rot the rest

Charlotte brings its garbage to the Speedway Landfill, a 550-acre municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill next to Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord that’s filled with decomposing household trash from Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and surrounding counties.

MSW landfills are a major generator of methane gas due to the mixture of non-food waste and organic waste (food scraps, yard and garden trimmings) decomposing together. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming and climate change. 

For this reason, it’s important to keep as much organic waste out of the landfill as possible, which can be accomplished through composting — the final principle of the zero-waste lifestyle. Composting is the natural process of organic waste breaking down and becoming a valuable fertilizer for soil and plants. Just about anything that can be eaten or grown in a field or garden can be composted.

Charlotte picks up residential yard waste and Mecklenburg County turns it into compost and mulch that you can buy for your lawn and garden, but does not offer food waste diversion as part of curbside pickup.

The city launched a curbside composting pilot program in 2018. Williams said the costs made it unfeasible, though that doesn’t mean there isn’t a future for it.  

“We need to work on how we could transition because honestly, we could transition from recycling to a curbside composting program and have a lot more success, it’s just the startup costs,” she said. 

Until then, those who want to compost either have to do it on their own or pay a private composter like Crown Town Compost, which is housed at The Innovation Barn in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood. Through Crown Town’s program, participants put their food waste into a separate bin that gets picked up (or dropped off) and turned into bags of composted soil.

Nobody is perfect 

Though living the zero-waste lifestyle is at the core of her business, even for Gackiere there is unavoidable trash. For instance, she said her family loves to eat store-bought chips. She acknowledges they could make chips at home, but that takes time and doesn’t yield as much.

“The zero-waste lifestyle or just, even if you want to reduce your impact, it’s also accepting that there are things that you cannot change and that you’re trying your best,” Gackiere said. “You won’t be perfect, but at least you’re trying.”

When it comes to living sustainably, nobody is perfect, she said. For example, using paper bags at the grocery store is better than plastic, but bringing your own reusable bag is best — or is it?

“Because if you think paper bags, you think about the trees, so it has to be recycled paper. And cotton, yes, with the [reusable] bag, but pesticides, water and resources,” she said. 

Even silicone — a popular alternative material to single-use plastic — has its potential drawbacks.

“They don’t really know how silicone is going to be recycled, or if it can be properly recycled. Will they tell us in a few years that some particles leaked into our food because the silicone goes into the microwave?” Gackiere asked. “So, nothing is perfect. If you want to live naked in the woods, then maybe you’d be perfect. But then they will tell you to move because they want to build something.”

Gackiere offers consultations and hosts workshops through Ekologicall to help people get familiar with or transition to the zero-waste lifestyle. Much of her time at pop-ups and markets is spent on education — explaining what her products replace and how they can help the environment and save money.

“Each time you buy something, you cast a vote for the future you want,” she said. “Because if we have more and more demand on sustainable products, big corporations, they want to make money, so they’re going to shift and it’s already happening.”

Now, back to your trash can. If you looked inside and saw a bunch of plastic water bottles and drinks, consider a reusable water bottle. Switching to a reusable pod or coffee filter will get rid of all those K-Cups in your trash, and composting will cut down on the stinky food scraps. 

You don’t have to live completely zero waste to refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you do need and reuse what you have. So what does your trash say about you?

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