becoming zero waste with Bailey Warren of zero waste chicago

bailey warren zero waste chicago

To kick off The Story of Stuff's Plastic Free July, I sat down to talk with Bailey Warren, founder of not for profit Zero Waste Chicago about her journey becoming zero waste and her fresh take on ways anyone can join the movement. Spoiler Alert if you think zero waste is only for people with tons of free time, extra cash, and Pinterest-worthy mason jar lined kitchens, Bailey is here to shatter those misconceptions.

bailey warren flower crown zero waste chicago

What inspired you to become zero waste?

I’ve always been environmentally conscious. I grew up in rural Western Pennsylvania playing in the woods so I’ve always valued the natural world and tried to make conscious decisions.  But I never felt empowered by what I was doing. When I was 26 I visited China and spent some time in the countryside outside of Guilin where there is no trash pickup service. I saw large mounds of garbage in people’s front yards, next to the river, or on the edges of fields smoldering at almost all times. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, fruit rinds, you name it they were burning it. It was shocking to see how we manage our trash when we can’t throw it “away.” When I returned to the states I did a lot of research and found Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home and it all clicked. It feels great to live out my values in my daily routine.

zero waste reusable grocery store produce carrier, apples

try using a reusable cloth bag for grocery shopping instead of the plastic provided at most stores 

What is the hardest change you have had to make since becoming zero waste?

The hardest change I’ve experienced is ridding myself of the consumer mindset. Zero Waste is a philosophy that takes time to understand and embody. It’s about using all of what you have and investing in new things only when you NEED to. For example, when I first made the switch to zero waste I bought a bunch of cases of mason jars so I could have all of my spices in these cute small jars. The jars my spices came in were just fine! If I could do it over again I would keep my original spice jars and simply refill them.


How has becoming zero waste affected your fashion choices and purchases?

So much! I used to love H&M and Old Navy and go on these crazy shopping sprees for clothes I’d wear for less than a year! No more. I’ve taken some time to refine my style so I’m buying pieces that I’ll wear for years. I buy 90% of my clothes secondhand at thrift stores, online, or at resale shops. When I do buy new clothes, I take the time to do research on the company’s values and their supply chain and I always make myself wait a few days before purchasing something. I love that virtue + vice is so transparent about their manufacturing processes. They even show photos of the people who make their clothes and share information on the process they go through to select fabrics.


zero waste kitchen container for food scraps and composting

try keep a small container in your kitchen to toss food scraps into for composting

What are some small easy everyday things anyone can do to decrease waste?

At Zero Waste Chicago we are all about encouraging people to make small, sustainable changes in their everyday life. Decreasing your waste means understanding where it comes from. For some, switching to a reusable coffee mug instead of getting a disposable mug every day is a great way to reduce waste. For another, buying a family-sized bag of chips and portioning them for their kids’ lunch rather than buying snack sized bags reduces waste. There is no one-size fits all answer to reducing waste.

There are a few things everyone can do that does help though, like composting, saying no to plastic straws, and always bringing your water bottle & tote bag.


zero waste plastic-free travel kit cutlery and mug

cut plastic out by carrying your own reusable water bottle and utensils

Do you think there are any misconceptions in media about zero waste lifestyle?

Oh god yes. With Zero Waste Chicago, we’re really trying to break down the misconception that personal sustainability is expensive, time-consuming, and fits a certain aesthetic. It’s about reducing where you can and not about being perfect. You don’t need to be minimalist and keep everything in beautiful glass jars in your white kitchen. You can save your cottage cheese container and use it for leftovers or keep your bulk foods in an old mayo jar. It all comes down to access to resources. Some people in some areas have resources to make being zero waste easy, and some have to be a little more creative. There are so many ways to live a zero waste lifestyle but it has to be sustainable for your life. So if making your own almond milk isn’t in the cards for you; buy it in a tetra pack, recycle it, and don’t feel bad about it, but think about other areas you can reduce.


how to buy in bulk for zero waste shopping

take a trip to a bulk store and stock up using your own reusable containers

Anything else you want to add?

Going zero waste is much easier when you have the support of like-minded people. I’ve met so many people on Instagram who inspire me every day. Zero Waste Chicago also host monthly meetups with fellow zero wasters to share ideas and just hang out. If you feel like it’s impossible just start small and find people who are into it, whether they’re your friend in Bushwick or a stranger in Austin.



What are your tips on going zero waste? Share them in the comments section below!

blog post photo credit - washed up

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