Trash days for most Long Islanders come twice a week, but not at Matt and Nicole Lentini’s Malverne home.
“We throw out the trash about three times a year,” said Nicole, 32, a Huntington native.
For the past few years, the couple has aimed for a “zero waste” lifestyle, avoiding throwing anything into local landfills by reusing and repurposing items and buying products made of natural materials.
The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash a day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But zero waste, as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance, is a mission to “eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health” and to “emulate sustainable natural cycles.”
Zero waste is “nothing new,” said Nicole. “It’s how our ancestors and indigenous people have been living for thousands of years.”
Almost everything in their house is upcycled or purchased secondhand, Nicole said. For example, most of an old shirt was turned into a produce bag, with the rest cut up and used to replace tissues. And her husband’s old skateboard decks found new life as a shoe rack.
Because they’re both vegetarians, their food waste can go straight into a backyard compost tumbler, which they bought used on Craigslist.
The Lentinis don’t go anywhere without their reusable water bottles and shopping bags. When they order takeout food at restaurants, they bring their own utensils and containers for the food and they decline straws. They use cloth napkins and shop in bulk, to name a few strategies.
“Small changes can have a big impact,” said Matt Lentini, 36, a Medford native.
Some of the things the couple no longer buy include paper towels, tissues, pads, make-up remover wipes, plastic wrap, garbage bags and cleaning products.
“We just don’t need them,” Nicole said.
The trash they do produce — which hasn’t been thrown out since February — consists of mostly nonrecyclable paper and plastic so it “doesn’t smell.”
She works as a professional organizer and volunteers with the Surfrider Foundation doing beach clean-ups and at the nearby Crossroads Farm, where she is the waste reduction and recycling consultant.
Matt is a toymaker and a part-time instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The couple own a Toyota Prius, but mostly use public transportation.
Nicole first heard about the zero-waste lifestyle after reading an article about a New York City woman who was doing it.
“I kind of just connected with it,” she said. As someone who works with different materials in various crafts, she said she had always felt “bad for throwing things away.”
Matt has been an environmentalist for 15 years, so persuading him to join her in this endeavor was easy, she said.
His biggest adjustment was getting restaurants on board with his requests for no straws and “thinking of the best way to say it so that they remember it. Because they’re kind of in a set routine.”
“Sometimes I explain why I don’t want one, like ‘I’m trying to avoid plastic’ and that often helps,” he said. “It’s a hit or miss, depending on your server.”
While the couple entered “zero waste” initially for environmental reasons, they are seeing a financial benefit to it as well.
“That was kind of a bonus,” she said, estimating they’ve saved a few hundred dollars since starting the lifestyle three years ago.
Although they don’t have children, they say a family can invest in cloth diapers, buy secondhand clothes, create crafts with recycled materials and request experiences instead of physical gifts.
She said it’s important for parents to teach kids what their values are, so “this way of living will be normal to them.”
As a couple who enjoy doing art projects, plastic is an “incredible material,” but becomes a problem when it’s put “in items that are meant to be used for minutes and then thrown away forever,” Nicole said.
Because plastics don’t biodegrade and are made of a nonrenewable resource, “it’s really, really scary. It impacts all of us,” she said.
The Lentinis recognize that a completely waste-free life is impossible. Their prescription cat food, for instance, comes in plastic packaging.
“Trash happens. We all make trash. If anyone tells you they don’t make any trash, they are lying,” she said.
But, she added, “We have to try our hardest to reduce from the start.”
Editor’s Note: We’re looking for Long Islanders who have adopted unique housing or lifestyle situations to deal with LI’s cost of living. If you — or someone you know — have a story to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How they cut back on trash
From straws to tampons, there’s a “zero waste” alternative for almost every disposable item out there. Here are some favorite reusable and eco-friendly products that the Lentinis use to help them become more sustainable:
- They’ve swapped out non-biodegradable plastic toothbrushes for compostable bamboo toothbrushes
- They use package-free shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste made with natural ingredients
- To replace plastic wrap, they use a reusable food wrap made with beeswax
- Instead of the plastic produce bags at the grocery store, they use (and use again) bags made of cloth
- They use a stainless steel container to bring home leftovers and when ordering takeout food
- An alternative to disposable pads and tampons, Nicole uses a menstrual cup and “period-proof” underwear
- Nicole’s cosmetic kit consists of toxin-free, cruelty-free makeup with sustainable packaging
- Her favorite face lotion is made by a woman in Brooklyn who offers it in reusable glass jars with no chemicals
- For laundry, they use a washing bag that filters out the plastic fibers released from clothing during washing. Their detergent is also package-free and made of natural ingredients
- They’ve ditched plastic straws and use ones made of glass instead