Zeroing in on a Zero Waste Lifestyle
I have always been inspired by big ideas. The process of bringing those ideas to life, with real and sustainable impact through practical action, is a consistent driving force for me.
Working at the International Finance Corporation for 25 years—the private sector arm of the World Bank—I was lucky to hold positions that had a lot of meaning to me, including as head of the organization’s climate change group. I loved being able to shape the institution’s direction in this strategic area, but I didn’t love the tension I felt when I would come home from work and realize I wasn’t doing enough in my own life to ensure I was living sustainably.
I felt paralyzed and overwhelmed by all the ways in which I was not doing enough. I knew, for example, that my transportation choices were very carbon intensive…in my last role as director of Western Europe, I was flying several times a month for my job. This didn’t feel like a choice but it still made me feel guilty. And my thinking went something like this: “If I can’t do anything about the really big, carbon-intensive choices like flying, then why bother with the smaller stuff? And how much difference would it make anyway?”
Then, three years ago, I left my career at the World Bank Group and decided to take a “gap year.” Having spent my career looking for solutions to climate change at a macro level, I turned my focus inward and began to question what could be done at the individual level.
I decided to start at my local dry cleaners. I was a frequent customer at President Valet but had always been bothered by all the plastic packaging that came with my clean clothes. So one day, I asked the owner whether I could bring in my own reusable garment bag and have my clean clothes packaged in that instead of plastic. To my surprise, she was happy to oblige.
Building on this “success,” the following week, I asked the owner whether she would consider adopting a reusable bag program for her clients. Again, to my surprise, she enthusiastically embraced the idea. The cleaners has since sold hundreds of reusable bags to more than a third of its clients.
This made me wonder what else I could do and led to my own personal experiment to see how I could build a zero waste lifestyle. I researched extensively, talked with prominent waste and plastics specialists, visited recycling facilities in my region, presented ideas and recommendations in my local community, and began advising others on how they could implement simple but important changes. In October 2021, I wrote a book, Zero Waste Living, the 80/20 Way: The Busy Person’s Guide to a Lighter Footprint.
What I concluded from my research and my engagement in the community is that you don’t have to do everything under the sun to make a huge difference. My journey led me to the simplicity of the 80/20 rule. By focusing on those things (the 20%) that can make the biggest (80%) difference, every individual can make a real and sustainable impact. And I’m convinced that, collectively—through our daily actions and consumer choices—we can create cleaner air, cleaner oceans and mitigate climate change.
Stephanie J. Miller