Waste Not, Want Not: Lauren Singer
Illustration by Emily Rose Collins.

When environmental activist Lauren Singer realized how much plastic she was throwing away each day, she decided to give up garbage. Now she’s out to help other people build more sustainable routines.

The allure of lifestyle minimalism lies in the idea that you can change your life by changing your habitat. Toss out your ancient back issues of Dwell and Bust, the too-small concert t-shirts and broken speakers and neon eyeliner you could never figure out how to apply, and what’s left behind will reveal your true, pure self—or at least create space for it to emerge.

But for 23-year-old Williamsburg resident Lauren Singer, minimalism is less about cultivating a peaceful inner life and more about putting her environmental ethics into practice. For the last two years, Singer has been chronicling her zero-waste regime on her blog, Trash Is for Tossers. A recent graduate of New York University’s environmental studies program, she makes her own beauty and cleaning products, buys kitchen staples in bulk and brings reusable cotton bags to the farmer’s market. Leftover food scraps head to the compost bin. Everything else gets used up or recycled.

Well, almost everything: all of the trash that Singer has produced in the last two years fits in a single mason jar.

“I’ve never encountered a situation where I was like, ‘I really wish I could use all this plastic right now’—that’s not a problem for me,” Singer says of her quest to lead a trash-free existence. “Sure, there are some instances where I would not buy something packaged in plastic, but I haven’t felt limited.”

Singer’s blog aims to help like-minded people navigate the path to reducing their carbon footprints. In practical, friendly tones, she offers advice on everything from choosing all-natural distilled white vinegar (look for a label that says “made from grains”) to making mayonnaise-free egg salad to packing a sustainable travel kit—complete with a shampoo bar in a vintage soap container.

The blog has garnered Singer a devoted following and coverage in big-name publications like New York Magazine. It’s also been a springboard to even bigger things. her favorite organic cleaning products, she took a look at the grocery store aisles and realized there were few options she felt comfortable recommending. Even so-called natural brands contained ingredients like optical brighteners and other chemicals that struck Singer as potentially harmful.

“I believe people have a right to the most sustainable cleaning products possible, and that people should have a choice,” Singer says. So she decided to start her own line of cleaning products: Simply Co.

Singer set out to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter last fall to launch her three-ingredient laundry detergent, made with baking soda, washing soda and castile soap. Instead, she raised almost $42,000, giving her the funding to rent office space, test out new products and apply for organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She plans to start selling Simply’s detergent online by March, with a full slate of organic cleaning products to come. In the meantime, she’s rolling out a YouTube channel for DIY types who prefer to make their own sustainable tinctures at home.

All this might sound like a flash flood of activity, but Singer’s transformation into a full-fledged environmental activist and entrepreneur has been a long time coming. She traces her interest in environmental action back to high school, when she first read Rachel Carson’s classic treatise Silent Spring. The book detailed the harrowing ecological and health consequences of spraying DDT, a common insecticide at the time, on a variety of food crops.

“That opened my eyes to the effect that people have on the planet and started me getting involved with sustainability,” Singer says.

While studying at NYU, Singer campaigned against fracking and the oil industry, but it wasn’t until her senior year that she began to put her own everyday habits under a microscope.

“There was a girl in a class I was taking my senior year of college, and she would always bring in a plastic bag filled with plastic silverware, food, a plastic water bottle,” Singer recalls. “I would watch her and get so frustrated and think, ‘She’s such a bad person.’”

One day after staring daggers at the girl during class, Singer went home to make dinner and peered inside her fridge. “Everything in there was covered in plastic,” she says. “I was able to look at myself and be like, ‘You’re such a hypocrite.’ There I was protesting big oil, and then using one of their biggest products.”

So Singer decided to wean herself off plastic entirely. “That meant learning how to reduce plastic,” she says, “but also how to make lots of things that have otherwise been packaged in plastic.”

In order to cut down on plastic-packaged products, Singer had to change her shopping habits. She orders compostable toothbrushes made out of bamboo and uses reusable cotton rounds to remove makeup. (Her website offers a helpful list of where to buy such eco-friendly alternatives, including sustainable condoms and a compostable toilet brush that comes with a dish that can be reused as a planter.)

Singer also works hard to avoid buying new clothes, shopping at secondhand stores and mending any items deemed salvageable. When one of her two well-worn, beloved pairs of jeans recently ripped in the crotch, Singer took them to a tailor to patch them up rather than springing for new ones. Her ingenuity often leads her to make such unexpected discoveries as making mason-jar smoothies using the base of a regular blender and creating homemade face scrubs with coffee grounds and mint leaves.

As a side benefit, giving up plastic has turned out to be a thrifty choice. “It’s saved a ton of money actually,” Singer says. “I was never the best planner before this. I was a student, and I would find myself with an empty fridge all the time and have to go get takeout. I could spend $30 a night on food. Now that can buy me a whole week’s worth.”

Although Singer’s efforts to make people produce less trash has been met with a warm response, she doubts there will be a major shift in Americans’ materialistic mindset any time soon. “Americans produce more trash per capita than any other country in the world,” she says. “I think it’s difficult for people to transition.”

But when people start paying attention to what they throw away each day, it can have a ripple effect on their attitudes toward consumption. “It’s like the less I have, the less I feel I need. Really all the time I’m reevaluating what I have. Do I need this, can I sell this—do I actually need three of the same t-shirts. I’ve reduced the amount of things that I own incredibly,” Singer says.