Cook: How one local family creates no trash or waste

Cook: How one local family creates no trash or waste

August 4th, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Zach and Sadie McElrath stand near their garden outside their Brainerd home; the Christian family is generating as little trash as possible.

Zach and Sadie McElrath stand near their garden...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Two years ago, Sadie McElrath, a nurse practitioner, was curled up on her living room couch, watching YouTube about the plastic and environmental crisis.

Like many of you, she knew it was bad: the death of millions of animals from trash and waste. The presence of plastic and microplastics in our rivers and streams, bodies and bloodstreams.

Each year, the world dumps 8 million tons of plastic into our oceans. ("The equivalent of setting five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world," reports National Geographic.)

Like many of you, she and her husband, Zach, a software engineer, were already making good environmental decisions. Recycling. Taking shorter showers. Driving a hybrid.

It's not enough.

There on her couch, Sadie stumbled across a video that would change her family's life.

"A zero-waste lifestyle," she said.

At its heart, the Zero Waste Movement seeks to upend the constant throwaway-trash culture we live in. Zero Waste tries to redesign culture and economy so that products, start to finish, are created in sustainable and loving ways.

Zero Waste individuals try to reduce consumption and change habits so the waste we create gets less and less and less, all the way to this:

"A year's worth of trash in a Mason jar," Sadie said.

Sadie, 32, and Zach, 31, aren't moonstar hippies. They're, well, pretty normal. They have a mortgage. Young daughters. Degrees from Covenant College.

Both believe the environmental crisis before us is ultimately a spiritual and evangelical issue.

"We believe God made the whole world and commanded us to love neighbors as ourselves and take care of creation," Sadie said. "If God made it, God loves it."

Zero waste became an act of faith.

"What kind of legacy are we leaving?" Zach asked.

They stopped buying plastic water bottles. Began drinking out of reusable ones.

A look inside Sadie and Zach McElrath's pantry; the local family has decided to generate as little trash as possible.

A look inside Sadie and Zach McElrath's pantry;...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Brought their own bags to the grocery store.

Vegetarian, they went vegan. Recycling, they began to compost.

Thanks-but-no-thanks to the waiter who offered plastic straws.

Got off all junk mail lists.

Soon, they realized zero waste wasn't about recycling more, but using less.

"We needed a perspective change," Zach said.

Began shopping at thrift stores.

Began to blog. (Check it out:

At picnics and potlucks, they brought their own silverware.

On business trips, Zach began to say no, refusing free swag and gifts. (It was stuff he really didn't need.)

Sound crazy?

Crazy is the thoughtless way we continue to trash ourselves, animals, the waters and land around us. Our economy only focuses on the product instead of the totality of its existence. How was it made? Were workers treated well? What are the environmental impacts of making or consuming this product?

"People feel like the world is full of big problems. People feel powerless. Taking the zero-waste battle has been a way of pushing back against darkness," Zach said.

By reducing waste, the McElraths gained the contentment that comes from simplicity and conscious decision-making.

They also saved money. (Buying at bulk bins or farmers' markets or growing your own food has no packaging costs.)

"We're definitely happier," Sadie said. "We have more time. We have more money."

Open up their pantry, and you'll find no prepackaged meals or boxes or bags.

All their dry goods — spices, pastas, rice, crackers, granola — are in Mason jars or Tupperware, bought from bulk bins, local restaurants or made in their own kitchen.

Look inside their trash can. I've never seen anything like it in America.

There's a popped balloon from a children's birthday party.

A race bib from a local 8k.

The little plastic window from the junk mail envelope.

A receipt.

A plastic cork from a wine bottle.

And that's about it.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

The McElraths give speaking engagements: your church, business, Scout troop, school or family gathering. (Contact them through the blog.)

They teach the Five R's:

1. Refuse what you don't need.

2. Reduce what you do need.

3. Reuse.

4. Recycle.

5. Rot and compost.

"Small steps. It starts with small changes," Zach said.

They recommend beginning here:

Drinking out of reusable water bottles.

And reusable coffee cups.

Bringing your own bags to the supermarket and store.

Composting. (Check out for curbside compost pick-up.)

"Consumers have incredible influence on the world," Zach said. "We can change society and change the world."

They've convinced me. Since meeting Zach and Sadie, I've begun my own two-part trash experiment, beginning with reducing food packaging. I've started shopping at supermarket bulk bins, not aisles.

I've also begun to pay closer attention to what I buy. Do I really need it? Does this help me or the land around me?

The McElraths offer this invitation to all of us, paraphrasing Zero Waste author and chef Anne-Marie Bonneau:

"We don't need a handful of people in Chattanooga doing zero waste perfectly," Sadie said. "We need everyone doing it imperfectly."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at

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