Leader Spotlight

Lauren Singer: How an Influencer Turned a Mason Jar into a Movement

The world is being overrun with plastic waste—but it’s in our power to change that. Here’s how one advocate brought her zero-waste lifestyle to the social media masses.
Posted on
April 14, 2021
Lauren Singer: How an Influencer Turned a Mason Jar into a Movement

Small actions can lead to big changes, and Lauren Singer is a testament to that.

How to fit two years of trash in a mason jar

In 2014, the zero-waste advocate and business leader, Lauren Singer, drew headlines for nothing more than a 16-ounce Mason jar. But this was no simple glass vessel. It contained all of the trash she had accumulated over the previous two years: a few produce stickers, an old cut-up debit card, Band-Aids and other loose scraps that she couldn’t find a way to compost, recycle or repurpose.  

Lauren drew headlines for a 16-ounce mason jar—it contained all the trash she had accumulated over the previous two years.

Back then, Singer was a sustainability manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Flash forward seven years and the 29-year-old is the CEO of a lifestyle brand, a Forbes 30 Under 30 inductee, a social media influencer with more than 380,000 Instagram followers and a pioneer of the zero-waste lifestyle. And that Mason jar, now home to nine years’ worth of garbage, is a symbol of the new wave of conscientious young consumers.

Hands emptying a mason jar of garbage

How much waste does the average American generate per day?

According to the EPA, the average American generates almost five pounds of garbage a day. (Yes, that’s roughly five of Singer’s jars. A day.)

This consists of the day-to-day trash many of us don’t give a second thought to, like plastic packaging, old appliances, ratty old clothes and food scraps carelessly thrown out—plus, sad to say, even recyclable glass and cans.

What did Lauren do to begin reducing her trash?

As an environmental studies student at New York University, Singer began to recognize her own contribution to the trash heap. Inspired by Bea Johnson, an early zero-waste advocate and author of the book Zero Waste Home, Singer pledged to cut unnecessary waste out of her life.

The average American generates around 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. That’s roughly four and a half of Singer’s jars. A day.

Her first step was swapping single-use packaging and plastics with easy reusables, like a travel mug for paper coffee cups and a tote bag for plastic grocery bags. Then, she started buying her groceries at farmer’s markets and bulk shops, which brought an end to produce stickers and unnecessary food packaging. Eventually, her personal mission became to eliminate personal garbage entirely.

Lauren singer standing on stairs

It was around this time that Singer launched her blog, Trash is for Tossers, to help others cut the garbage.

The website, still going strong today, offers helpful DIY recipes for things like household cleaners and body lotion as well as research-driven articles on topics such as urban composting and how sunscreen harms coral reefs.

Over the years, she has emerged as a thought leader through the blog, her Instagram and her TED talk, which she presented in 2015 and has since racked up over 3.6 million views.

In 2017, Singer took her mission to the streets with the opening of Package Free, a retail shop with outposts in Brooklyn and Manhattan. (It started as a pop-up shop and, well, never closed.)

The store stocks eco-friendly versions of everyday lifestyle items like shampoo bars, refillable plastic-free dental floss, compostable cooking utensils and natural-bristle cat brushes for your feline friends.

In 2017, Lauren opened Package Free, a retail shop that stocks eco-friendly versions of everyday lifestyle items like shampoo bars and refillable plastic-free dental floss.

In 2019, Package Free announced that they had raised $4.5 million in seed investment to advance their mission, both as a seller of zero-waste items as well as in manufacturing more of their own products. (Currently, they make a three-ingredient laundry detergent under the brand The Simply Co.)

Lauren Singer holding zero waste beverage cup

The challenge of 2020: when thriving turned into barely surviving

When COVID-19 (Coronavirus) hit North America in a frenzy of panic-buying and shelter-at-home orders, the zero-waste movement was faced with a major hurdle. So-called disposable goods were suddenly inescapable.

Out of fear of virus transmission, bulk shops closed or started wrapping their goods in single-use packaging, cafes stopped accepting reusable mugs, and an uptick in takeout and food delivery led to more food packaging and single-use cutlery.

The streets were littered with disposable masks and gloves. New York City temporarily suspended its compost collection program. For the first time in eight years, Lauren Singer’s trash could no longer be contained in a single jar.

When COVID-19 hit, the zero-waste movement was faced with a major hurdle—disposable goods were suddenly inescapable.

Faced with this new reality, Singer decided to be transparent. In an impassioned Instagram post, she admitted to stocking up on items wrapped in plastic and shared an image of her pantry, which included boxes of prepackaged crackers and other disposable goods.

She wrote: “Now’s the time to lift our community up, even if that means pivoting away from one value to prioritizing another; in this case pivoting from sustainability to create and sustain a strong, thriving, and inclusive community. If that means buying plastic packaged foods, using single use cups, or getting takeout from local restaurants, do what you need to feel safe and to help others feel safe as well.”

Through the pandemic, Singer and the team at Trash is for Tossers have been supporting the movement online by sharing updates on the environment and advice on zero-waste living while sheltering in place.

Organic waste collection bin

How do you live a zero-waste lifestyle?

Singer’s simple advice for anyone who is interested in reducing their waste is to begin with an assessment of your personal trash. Identify the biggest culprits, and find substitutes. Ideally, this means using things you already have in your home.

As tantalizing as it is to go on a spending spree for that perfect zero-waste lifestyle kit, buying a bunch of new stuff kind of defeats the purpose.

Start with the obvious wins: replace paper coffee cups and plastic water bottles with reusable and refillable options, use long-lasting totes instead of single-use bags, and avoid plastic straws.

Then there are the next-level swaps. Look for opportunities to buy food in bulk, or in returnable glass bottles or jars. When possible, bring your own containers to pick up takeout.

When shopping for new household goods, look for the longest-lasting, most waste-free option, like a French press or stovetop percolator or Mokapot for coffee instead of an appliance that uses filters or pods. Personal care products like toothpaste and body lotion can also be replaced with packaging-free homemade options, like Singer’s recipe for toothpaste.

When shopping for new household goods, look for the longest-lasting, most waste-free option, like a French press or stovetop percolator or Mokapot for coffee instead of an appliance that uses filters or pods.

When shopping, Singer recommends frequenting farmer’s markets for fresh produce, and buying clothes and other goods secondhand. (Look for clothes made of natural fibers like cotton, wool, silk, hemp and linen, which are biodegradable and don’t release microplastics into the water, like other kinds of fabric do.)

These simple swaps don’t seem like much individually, but they add up over time.

Package Free claims to have diverted more than 100 million pieces of trash out of landfills. Partnering with recycling company Terracycle, the company also takes shoppers’ non-recyclables to be safely disposed of. As a retail shop, they’ve given dozens of small, values-driven brands a brick and mortar home.

Through Trash is for Tossers and her advocacy work, Lauren Singer has helped a new generation of eco-conscious consumers make more educated decisions on their lifestyle habits. And you don’t need to live in Brooklyn to join the movement. Look around in your region—you might find a bulk or packaging-free store nearby ready to help you cut your waste.

And if you can’t find one? Well, have we got a business idea for you...

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Jessica Wei
Written By
Jessica Wei

Jessica Wei is a writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, and the Independent. She'll sneak an anchovy into any dish she's cooking.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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