Enjoying Life Without Heaps of Trash

By ALISON KIRSCH/ecoRI News contributor

Colleen Doyle demonstrates how to make your own body lotion during a recent presentation at the Fertile Underground Grocery on Westminster Street in Providence.

Colleen Doyle demonstrates how to make your own body lotion during a recent presentation at the Fertile Underground Grocery on Westminster Street in Providence.

PROVIDENCE — Two years ago, Colleen Doyle took out her trash for the last time. A few months later, she gave away her garbage can. Now, all the trash Doyle produces in a month fits in the palm of her hand.

In a country where 250 million tons of trash are generated annually — that’s 4.5 pounds per person per day — all that Doyle sends to the state landfill on garbage collection day is a coin-sized stack of produce stickers.

Doyle’s goal to live without trash started by avoiding products with packaging, and grew from there. The 29-year-old brings her own reusable containers to the store to buy bulk groceries, which then line her kitchen shelves in glass jars. Food scrap goes in the compost bin in her backyard garden. She buys all her clothes secondhand, except for undergarments and running sneakers.

When she can’t find a wasteless solution, Doyle makes one, from knitting her own dishcloths to fashioning clothespins out of wood scraps from homemade furniture.

Moreover, Doyle puts out essentially no recyclables, though she can’t say the same for her cat Magpie, who goes through three or four tins of food a week.

“She is not trash-free but I love her anyway,” Doyle joked.

Doyle can pinpoint the three moments that beckoned her into this zero-waste life. The first came when she moved to Rhode Island for college, before the state’s 2012 expansion of its recycling program. At that point, Rhode Islanders could only recycle plastics that were container-shaped and labeled Nos. 1 and 2. Doyle was mistakenly moving other plastics that weren’t recyclable from the trash to the recycling.

“I realized that I had been making so, so much more waste than I thought,” she said.

The next flashbulb moment came in 2010 at a conference on whether recycling alleviates the garbage crisis. “My blood pressure was rising as I was sitting there,” Doyle said of the overwhelming talk of big-picture issues. Her anxiety lessened with a panelist’s comment on the comfort to be had in realizing you can only control your own impact. Yes, Doyle thought, that was something she could do.

The final push came when she saw a video segment on the Johnsons, a family of four whose annual waste fits in a single cup. “OK, that’s it,” Doyle thought. “If they can do that, I’m definitely doing this.”

The No Trash Project was born.

“She was in the middle of thinking about moving and paring down her junk, and it kept going from there,” said her mother, Sherrie Doyle, of her daughter’s endeavor. “It seems really natural for her to be doing it.”

Plenty of trash talk

Doyle was born on the beachy shore of northern Massachusetts, but spent her teenage years in California. “I can’t say we were ‘crunchy granola,’ but we definitely enjoyed taking care of the land, having a garden and eating well,” her mother said.

Doyle graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006 with a bachelor of fine arts in film/animation/video. After a few months of freelance filmmaking, she came to her current position as assistant archivist and computer coordinator of Brown University’s Department of Modern Culture and Media.

The No Trash Project appeals to the same aesthetic sensibilities that Doyle uses at work. Her pristine, practically empty office evokes the streamlined simplicity of a zero-waste life. The shelves hold a few DVDs, books and jars of herbal tea. A whiteboard and single-framed poster hang on the walls, brightly lit by an undressed window. This beauty of simplicity is also reflected in Doyle herself. Her solid-colored clothing is subdued, and her only accessory is her big smile.

“I have props with me usually, that sometimes can start conversations,” Doyle said, pulling a stainless-steel container out of her bright-blue canvas backpack. At any given moment, she has with her a collection of reusable dishtowels, containers and jars that help her avoid daily waste when she’s out.

Doyle’s switch to bulk grocery shopping brought her to the Fertile Underground Grocery on Westminster Street. Her story intrigued the founding members. According to volunteer Jillian McGrath, the grocery store is always looking to collaborate with people in the community who exemplify the store’s mission. Doyle has since teamed up with McGrath to lead monthly workshops, running demonstrations such as how to make body lotion.

Doyle also finds time to spend at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC). Krystal Noiseux, the recycling program manager, has given Doyle extensive behind-the-scenes tours of the agency’s Materials Recycling Facility (MRF). Doyle finds that when she gets caught up in the small details of this lifestyle ‚ for instance, agonizing over what type of nylon is used on the bristles of her compostable toothbrush — these visits to the MRF give her context of the larger scale of waste generation. Recently, Doyle welcomed the chance to connect sustainability and film by making an informational video for the RIRRC about the MRF.

Six months into the project, the East Side resident started a blog to track her challenges and discoveries. The growth of the blog’s audience was apparent at Doyle’s first workshop at the Fertile Underground. McGrath recalls a timid woman, the only customer to show up specifically for the workshop. The woman leaned over and shyly said to Doyle, “I read your blog all the time.” McGrath couldn’t tell who was more excited — the woman, for meeting the face behind the No Trash Project, or Doyle, whose reaction McGrath recalled as, “Wait, people read my blog?”

No going back

Many trash-less weeks later, Doyle conceives a future just as clean as her present. “I can’t imagine going back,” she said. Doyle has thought about the challenges she might face in living zero-waste in a less urban area, or with a family. But she affirmed, “As long as I have access to the things that I need in order to live this way, I will.”

Doyle stressed that the No Trash Project isn’t about making sacrifices. Rather, it has improved her quality of life. “It has had such a positive effect on my life that it’s just easy to do it,” she said. “This is about making myself more efficient ... and I love the problem solving part of it.”

Of course, Doyle does occasionally get overwhelmed. To cope, she reminds herself that she is doing the best she can do within her small sphere of control. Yet, there is evidence of the ripple effects of Doyle’s actions. Just recently, her parents were considering buying a single-cup coffeemaker that uses individually packaged plastic containers. They decided against it, with Sherrie Doyle joking, “We can’t do that, Colleen would kill us.”

Noiseux noted that it’s Doyle’s friendly, approachable way of discussing her project that engages otherwise wary strangers. “People can get turned off by things like that — they think, ‘It’s radical, it’s not for me,’” Noiseux said.

Though she doesn’t seem easily ruffled, Doyle does get frustrated when her approach is portrayed as drastic. “Why is it that not making garbage is extreme, but sending huge bags of trash to be buried in a hole in the ground weekly is not extreme?” she asked, her tone more curious than upset.

A common objection she encounters is that her lifestyle requires more time or money than the average person would be able to spend. Her response? “We make time for the things that are important to us,” she said. “It’s very much about happiness.”

Doyle believes that the No Trash Project saves her both time and money. She lowers her grocery bill by buying more produce and bulk grains than meat or processed foods. Though Doyle said she’s “definitely not anti-stuff,” this lifestyle has also lowered her desire for new things — and her spending on them.

She acknowledged that she’s likely to let the all-or-nothing nature of the project take priority over what might seem a simpler solution to a problem. For instance, she justifies driving an hour to a store to buy certain soaps in bulk by carefully planning the carpooled trips and considering how many plastic bottles she will forgo over time. Yet, Doyle isn’t satisfied with this, or other problems that lie in the way of her goals of selling her car and putting absolutely no trash on the curb.

“My brain just won’t let it rest,” she said with a chuckle. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Sherrie Doyle compares her daughter’s lifestyle to other environmental initiatives that initially seem excessive. She recalled the first time a grocery store cashier asked her if she needed a bag for her purchases. “I thought the girl was crazy,” she said with a laugh.

Now, Sherrie Doyle said, bringing a bag to the grocery store is becoming the norm. “When an idea is new it can feel like it’s extreme,” she said. “I really think Colleen’s on the cutting edge of a future way of thinking.”