July 11, 2019

By Leslie Gittemeier, #byetobags Coordinator

Here at the Saint Louis Zoo, many of us are concerned about the welfare of animals. Our daily choices impact the environment and all of the living things that rely on it for survival. I personally became interested in my own ecological footprint while attaining my bachelor’s degree from Truman State University. One semester, I was flooded with information about the global extinction crisis, which has been deemed the sixth mass extinction, and about climate change.

After I graduated, I learned about Earth Overshoot Day, a day each year when we have used all of the resources that our planet is capable of renewing in a single year. In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day landed on August 1. It’s estimated that we would need 1.7 “Earths” in order to sustain our current level of consumption. This fact is alarming to me, especially considering that since I was born in 1987, the human population has increased over 50 percent, from 5.06 billion people to 7.7 billion people.

In order to sustain life on this planet with finite resources, I decided to take action and reduce my personal ecological footprint as much as possible. You can calculate how many “Earths” it would take to sustain humans if everyone lived like you at: footprintnetwork.org.

This is the story of my journey to minimize my ecological footprint. There are five key components, known as the 5 R’s (recycle, rot, reduce, reuse and refuse), that I live by.


I began this journey as a child; my family has recycled for as long as I can remember. We would collect all of our cans, bottles, paper and cardboard in different bins in the garage and drive them to the large recycling facility every few weeks.

ROT (i.e. composting)

As an undergrad at Truman State University, I began the next stage of my journey toward a more sustainable life and started composting. The university had a heap compost pile at its farm where I would bring food waste. In our apartment (I shared an apartment with two roommates), we stored our food waste in a diaper genie. The diaper genie did a great job of keeping out insects and keeping in the smell.

Later on, when I was in graduate school at Missouri State University, I created my own heap compost pile behind my apartment building with my roommate. It was a joy to watch it teeming with insects, worms and slugs in the evenings. Now, I own a holding compost unit.


At the end of my junior year at Truman, I started working as a wildlife field technician. Since then, I have been a field technician studying wild birds, frogs and amphibians for six different projects, in two countries, and covering seven states. Being a field technician and travelling a lot taught me how few possessions I need in order to meet my needs and be happy. As a result, I strive to be a minimalist and only buy and keep items I really need.


On August 1, 2018 (Earth Overshoot Day), I felt overwhelmed when I learned that we reached this unfortunate milestone, and I decided that I really needed to make a more concerted effort to reduce my ecological footprint. I discovered the zero-waste movement and decided to tackle my trash. I paid very close attention to the type of waste I was still producing, and I actively looked for ways to reuse those items or find alternatives to replace my disposable items. I had already been using reusable bags and water bottles, but this process took me much further.

I noticed that a large amount of my trash was tissues (I am a year-round allergy sufferer). When I looked up what to do with my tissue waste, I found that I had two options: compost the tissues or make reusable tissues. I chose to compost my current supply of tissues while I had them, and then I switched to using reusable tissues. My new, reusable tissues consist of handkerchiefs and old T-shirts cut to the size of regular tissues and stored in my old tissue boxes.

Another paper product I stopped buying was paper towels. My household already contained enough cloth towels to make the transition very easy. (An extensive list of zero-waste alternatives is below.)


In order to avoid waste and unnecessary possessions, you have to get good at refusing new things. This occurs at home, in the stores, at restaurants and events. Avoiding waste in stores was the most difficult for me. Nowadays, almost everything is wrapped in plastic, even many fruits and vegetables.

My spouse and I had to find stores that sell unpackaged produce and other goods in bulk. We purchased glass jars and reusable produce bags for buying grains, nuts, produce and bread. Additionally, we bought some staples in bulk online, including cocoa powder, beans, whole wheat flour, popcorn kernels and dates. We store these bulk goods in the basement in food-grade buckets (except the dates, which are in the refrigerator).

When we go out to eat, we select businesses that use reusable plates and silverware, and we always bring our own take-out containers. At events, I have gotten very good at turning down freebies and taking pictures of any information on handouts using my phone. In addition to avoiding waste and unnecessary items while I’m away from home, I also had to refuse the waste delivered to my house… junk mail. I started calling and emailing the companies that were sending me unnecessary mail and asked them to remove our household from their mailing lists.

There are a few other things that I’ve done in order to reduce my ecological footprint. One, I eat lower on the carbon chain; this means my diet is largely plant based. I will eat poultry a few times a year, and I will eat ground venison in small portions when my friends and family have extra meat to spare. Additionally, I walk to the local stores when time and weather permit, and I avoid air travel. If I do need to travel by plane, I purchase carbon offsets (i.e. I pay businesses money to sequester carbon from the atmosphere that would otherwise be left in the atmosphere—usually by planting trees).

My efforts have been worth it; I have reduced my ecological footprint to the point where only one Earth is required to sustain humankind if everyone were to live like me. We would need 4.1 Earths to sustain humankind if everyone lived like the average American. If you would like to reduce your own ecological footprint, I recommend checking out plasticfree.ecochallenge.org.

How I Live a Zero-Waste Lifestyle By Room:


  • Hybrid (me) and electric (spouse) cars
  • Electric lawnmower and weed eater (powered by rechargeable batteries)
  • Smallest size waste bin available
  • Boxes for TerraCycle goods (TerraCycle is a recycling company that recycles hard-to-recycle waste. You simply collect the items and ship it to the company for recycling.)


  • Food-grade, reusable buckets for storage
  • Wool dryer balls (we plan to start hang drying our clothes this year)
  • Homemade washing soap
  • Washing and drying only full loads of laundry in cold water (hand-powered washer ordered)


  • Reusable towels, tissues, produce bags, silicone zip-close bags and storage containers
  • Metal compost pail
  • Bin for reusable towels and tissues stored under sink
  • Homemade all-purpose cleaner made from white vinegar that had soaked in a glass jar with citrus peels.


  • Bar soaps for hands, body and hair
  • Bar deodorant
  • Homemade toilet cleaner
  • Toilet paper not packaged in plastic (Who Gives A Crap brand)
  • Water saving practices (water on only while rinsing, jar for collecting excess water for our house plants)


  • Compost bin
  • Doggie Dooley bags for dog waste


  • LED lights
  • Energy Star-certified appliances
  • Thermostat set to 64F in winter and 84F in summer, and off for most of the spring and fall
  • Unplugged accessories to reduce phantom energy (electricity drawn from outlets when equipment is off but still plugged in)


  • medical (prescriptions, toothbrush and toothpaste)
  • fruit (some fruit, like grapes and raspberries, can only be purchased in plastic, but we purchase seldomly)

Click on a photo to see a larger image and description.