Zach and Sadie McElrath’s six-year-old daughter saw something at a store that caught her eye: a slingshot. But they didn’t buy it for her because it would have ultimately produced landfill waste. Instead, their daughter is figuring out how to make a slingshot with a stick and rubber bands from around the house.
The McElraths, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, live a “zero waste” life. What they do throw away is compostable, except for the rare cases when they end up with items that have to go to the landfill, such as an Amazon envelope or a bag from frozen berries. They take their trash to the curb once or twice a year, even as a family of five with children ages 9, 6, and 2.
Both parents work—Sadie as a nurse practitioner, and Zach as a software engineer at a start-up. Even with their full life, they find the zero-waste life doable and even freeing, not having to think about buying things like slingshots.
“Other people might not be as extreme as we are,” said Sadie. “But everybody can do something.”
The McElraths have been living this way since 2017, and they haven’t found many other Christians interested in zero waste over the years. They find more zero-waste efforts coming from faith groups like the Unitarian Universalists. But they have been seeing more interest among Christians in their circles in doing things like composting.
This tracks with national data on evangelical attitudes about the environment compared to other faith groups. Evangelicals are the religious group least likely to see climate change as a serious problem, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. And a University of Florida study found a generational divide among evangelicals over that issue (a divide that is even starker among white evangelicals). Younger evangelicals are more concerned about the environment, even though they are more politically conservative than their peers.
But the Pew survey also showed 80 percent of evangelicals say they try to reduce their food waste every day to protect the environment. The majority of evangelicals also said they try to reduce their use of single-use plastics. And 41 percent of evangelicals said their church has recycling bins and is trying to be more energy efficient.
The McElraths aren’t interested in guilting their friends and families into becoming zero waste. They also think zero wasters can be consumer focused (get the newest zero-waste coffee gear!) or perfectionist. Approaching waste with the right understanding—and theology—is important.
“There’s been nothing to teach me in real life more than zero waste that there’s no separation between sacred and secular,” said Sadie. “God cares about the shampoo you use, and whether the company who made it was making a river in a developing country dirty … he doesn’t just care about what you do on Sunday morning, and about what you profess to worship. He cares about your whole life.”
She understands that can be an overwhelming thought—is every item in a household “reflecting the morals and the kingdom of God?”
“That’s why it’s really great to just trust God that he is the one that’s in control … we just have to walk in obedience one step at a time,” she said, which might mean grabbing a reusable bag for the grocery store. “That might be your thing for that day, and that’s okay. Because God can take care of the rest. But there’s no part of our life that God doesn’t care about. The trash and the waste that we consume is something God cares about, that is part of his kingdom.”
Zach added that, because of how interconnected the world is today, Christians can have “more positive impact on communities halfway around the world by the choices we make at home than by going somewhere and doing a—I don't know—short-term missions trip.”
But a key to not being overwhelmed by the cascade of decisions about trash is “to live in the tension of saying, ‘There are problems in the world. I can’t fix them all. In fact, today, I may be making them worse, and I know that, but God still loves me,” he said.
For basic nuts and bolts of understanding trash and zero waste, they found the books Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson and Garbology by Edward Humes useful. To sharpen their thinking on creation care and the theology behind reducing their trash, they liked Freedom of Simplicityby Richard Foster and Practicing the King’s Economy by Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt.
When the McElraths started living zero waste six years ago, they began by finding zero-waste replacements one at a time for things they were throwing away, like deodorant. When the average person thinks about being environmentally-friendly with trash, they usually think about recycling. But that’s the last thing zero wasters emphasize. The first action is refusing wasteful things coming into your life—“the elimination of stuff,” as Sadie says.
For example, Sadie found a conditioner bar she likes for her hair—“I buy that and I’m good,” she said—so she can ignore ads for new anti-frizz products.
One third of the average American household’s trash is organic waste, so composting is one of the best and easiest things people can do. By contrast, if organic material goes to a landfill, it doesn’t decompose for decades because it’s sealed off from oxygen. Worse, it contributes to climate change through anaerobic breakdown that emits methane, “which is like 20 to 25 times as potent as CO2 as far as a greenhouse emitter,” said Zach.
The McElraths started a blog, and started doing classes on zero-waste living and waste management at local festivals and churches. (They attend New City East Lake in Chattanooga.)
When they get questions at these sessions, people ask about Band-Aids a lot. The McElraths aren’t sure why that tends to be the pressing question on people’s minds, but they’re happy to have an easy answer: Companies make compostable Band-Aids.
Their kids say they like making things. They know the recipe for making their own toothpaste, for example: baking soda, coconut oil, and peppermint oil. For birthdays and Christmas, they ask for secondhand gifts, coupons for going out for ice cream, or just cards. During the holidays, their kids buy jars of jam for their teachers.
When the McElraths had a baby two years ago, they decided to try to buy all the baby supplies they could secondhand. Sadie worked up a spreadsheet of their purchases for the baby’s first year and found that they had saved $3,000, which she documented in detail on their blog.
They get their grocery and household supplies from bulk sections with their own containers from home—sometimes wrapping a loaf of bread in a scarf or putting food in sippy cups from the car if they forgot to bring enough containers. During the pandemic, a new grocery store opened in Chattanooga called Gaining Ground, which was designed to serve a local food desert, but it also stocked items in bulk bins so the McElraths could come stock up. The McElraths and others did a GoFundMe to buy the store a peanut butter grinder so people could refill peanut butter jars.
The McElraths like to imagine how a world with better waste management, and just less stuff, would look.
“In Chattanooga, the air is breathable, and the water is drinkable. But a lot of people don’t live in that world,” Zach said. “The Bible has so much to bring to the discussion … We have a God who cares, we have a God who is powerful. We have a God who listens and knows us, but who still loves us in this journey.”
“He’s given us all gifts to use in his kingdom,” Sadie added.
“And he can do more than we ask or imagine,” said Zach.