The Race to Zero Waste

By Kylee Boone

Sadie McElrath fills her jar of beans while holding her baby Zion as her two daughters Jubilee and Shalom help her collect groceries in the process. Thursday, November 10, 2022. (Photo by Kylee Boone).

The average American throws out approximately 4.9 pounds of trash per day, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. For nearly half a decade, married couple Sadie and Zach McElrath have striven to defy this statistic through a journey toward producing zero waste within their family of five.

The journey began when the two were listening to the radio and heard of someone who was working toward that same goal.

“I heard this college student can fit all her trash for our whole year into a single jar,” Sadie McElrath said. 

This prompted the couple to ask themselves “… How low can we go?… And it turns out we cannot fit all of our trash into a mason jar, but we have significantly reduced it,” Sadie said.

Before learning about zero waste, the McElrath family has already begun paying closer attention to their environmental footprint in regard to their trash production. To their surprise, they discovered about one third of their waste was compostable.

“We started by just taking things out of our trash at like the end of a week and seeing what’s in there,” Zach McElrath said. “Like what are the main things that are going into our waste stream and trying to see patterns…We did that for a while and we slowly started taking things out.”

Sadie McElrath spreads out her compost scraps through her yard Sunday, November 13, 2022. (Photo by Kylee Boone).

After five years of research and dedication, the McElrath family has significantly changed their everyday behavior in an attempt to make a difference in Chattanooga’s waste production. Adapting habits like composting food scraps, utilizing reusable containers, and getting creative to repair broken items reduces their waste for a year into a single trash bin.

“I go grocery shopping at a place that has book bins and bring a jar, refill it with beans or whatever I want,” Sadie said. “I’m buying food without packaging.”

According to Zach, many people think of their trash can as a “magic basket” that makes their waste disappear; unfortunately, this is simply not the case. In 2018, the EPA reported that 146.1 million tons of waste are dumped in landfills each year, going nowhere but into our environment.

“They don’t break down the normal way in a landfill because there’s no air,” Zach said. “Los Angeles’s landfill… found a head of lettuce that was still green. It had been there for 25 years.”

As reported by a study through Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, roughly 28% of waste thrown into landfills is compostable. If everyone in the US practiced composting, it would have the same environmental impact as removing 7.8 million cars from the roads.

“A lot of times landfills are anaerobic environments, and there’s no oxygen, there’s no microbes and bacteria to break down the [waste], so particularly organic waste, like food scraps, that stuff just sits there, it doesn’t break down,” Zach said. “Whereas if you just took that and you put it in your backyard…it’s gonna break down in a few weeks.”

Many people know the harmful effects humans often have on the environment, but refrain from action because they assume their contribution wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The McElrath family does not let this stop them, and instead, they use their platform on social media to share ways Chattanoogans can reduce waste in their own homes.

“If everybody else is still doing the normal amount of waste, it would feel like not a big deal,” Zach said. “But every time you do something and you share a little bit about your journey with your friends or your family, that can be a huge catalyst for change in your community.”

The McElrath’s zero waste lifestyle is a way of life that most would consider pretty foreign to their everyday habits. Their outlook on life and care for the environment relates back to a common ground that most can agree on, loving people around you.

From utilizing reusable water bottles to advocating for a plastic bag ban, everything the McElrath family does is how they show others their love and compassion towards their community.

“You can’t separate taking care of the world we live in and our environment around us from loving each other,” Zach said. “They’re so intertwined.”

The McElrath family speaks about what it is like raising a family in a zero-waste lifestyle. (Audio By Kylee Boone).

Meet the Storyteller

Kylee Boone is a visual storyteller studying Communication at UT Chattanooga. She utilizes her leadership qualities as the Social Media and Advertising Director for The University Echo and as the co-founder of her nonprofit organization with Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. She hopes to one day work in social media management and inspire others through her work in storytelling. For questions or collaboration, please contact llb813@mocs.utc.edu.

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