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Local grad student Zoë Hester talks about striving to live zero-waste

Hannah Swayze • Dec 22, 2018 at 11:31 PM

Graduate student Zoë Hester is fresh off finals season. The 23-year-old is a grad student at East Tennessee State University, and in addition to class, runs a blog and Instagram account called Zero Waste East Tennessee.

Scrolling through the Instagram zerowaste.easttennessee is like watching a cascading waterfall of beautiful fresh vegetables, accompanied by tips on how to live, eat and be a consumer while producing less waste. 

1. What are you up to these days?

I'm a graduate student at ETSU! I'm in the English MA program, and I'm also getting a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) certificate. When I'm done with school, I want to be an ESL teacher. In the meantime, I spend a lot of my free time in the kitchen; I absolutely adore cooking! I also work part time at an elementary school in Johnson City and teach English online to children in China.

2. You run an Instagram called, Zero Waste East Tennessee. Can you tell me about how you first got into the zero-waste lifestyle?

The zero-waste movement first came to my attention about three years ago when I saw a video about it on social media; I was immediately obsessed. I read Bea Johnson's "Zero Waste Home" and I was hooked. I began to make little changes in my everyday life to transition to a lower-waste lifestyle. I swapped single-use items like plastic bags and to go cups for reusable ones, and I began making a lot of my own products, like toothpaste. As I delved into living low waste, I discovered a massive online community, mostly on Instagram, of people in the movement.

3. What is the hardest part about living zero waste?

For me, changing the foods that I eat has been the hardest part about reducing my waste. Like most people, I was addicted to a lot of processed packaged foods, and cutting them out has not been easy; it's taken me a couple of years! Now, I eat completely plant-based (vegan). Eating more whole foods and less processed food (I like to call it fake food) has not been easy, but it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my journey to reduce waste.

4. What is a misconception that you think people have about living zero waste?

I think a lot of people think that less trash = more recycling. However, reducing waste means reducing recycling as well. We don't have a perfect recycling system, so it doesn't make sense to replace trash with recyclables. The hierarchy of the zero-waste movement is the 5 r's: Reduce, Reuse, Refuse, Rot, Recycle. I always try to reduce, reuse, refuse, or rot (compost) before I recycle. Of course, I still have recycling, but I make less of that now, too.

5. For anyone trying to reduce their waste, what advice would you give them for starting out?

Take it one step at a time! Transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle is a huge lifestyle change, and I think it's impossible to achieve overnight. Make one change, and as soon as that change becomes habitual, make another one.

Some changes, like refusing plastic bags or switching to a bamboo toothbrush or shampoo bar, will be really easy to make! Some will be more difficult. Also, don't expect to be perfect! We live in a society that makes creating an absolute zero amount of trash and emissions impossible. Reduce where you can, and be happy with your successes! I looked to the online community for inspiration all the time; so many people are making incredible efforts to live more sustainably! A lot of the big zero-waste instagrammers live in California or in big cities, so my goal in creating Zero Waste East Tennessee was to create inspiration for people living in our region.

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