Written by Brittany Shenk

Ashley Shenk: Zero-Waste Warrior

I realize this article is a bit biased. I, of course, have looked up to my older sister, Ashley, from the moment I entered the world. Growing up, the amount of respect and admiration I had for her was off the charts, but somehow in the past year, she managed to go from off the charts admiration to simply unattainable with words. She continues to blow me away and make jaw-dropping decisions that defy societal expectations. Last summer, Ashley’s focus in life shifted from World-Wide Traveler to Zero-Waste Warrior. Her passion and drive to save the Earth, to have zero-impact on the planet, caused me to pause and re-evaluate my own long-standing, zombie-like habits. I have to admit, she was dedicated to the fight before I was, but I’ve done my best to keep up, as younger sisters typically do.

I spent last summer living with Ashley in our hometown. We often discussed the panic we experienced when thinking about the state of the planet, and what we could do as individuals to help change the world for the better. Feeling small and helpless, we still did what we could; recycled our plastics, shopped at our local co-op, bought bulk foods whenever possible, threw our food scraps in the yard waste bin rather than the garbage can, attempted to plant a garden in our tiny backyard, bought locally grown eggs, filled our growler with kombucha instead of buying individual bottles, and rode our bikes into town when possible.

Then, Ashley read a book called “No Impact Man” by Collin Beaven. I would return from work in the evening and she would be another five chapters deep, spilling new ideas and concepts on me before I had a chance to remove my shoes. A slightly golden, bright light surrounded her as she shared what she had learned, declaring that she, too, wanted to try to accomplish the challenges this man was overcoming. Only buying local food, purchasing no disposable products, creating absolutely zero waste, emitting zero carbon emissions, addressing everything from travel to cooking to hygiene. She decided she would be zero-impact because this was within her control. She wasn’t able to offer her hand to save the polar bears, to keep the Arctic ice from melting, change the hurricane patterns, or change who had been elected as our “President”, but this, she could do.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to only buy products grown or produced within a 200-mile radius, because, coffee.

I remember shopping with her at the co-op, and cauliflower was on our list of vegetables to buy. I find cooking and baking all-things-healthy to be therapeutic for my soul, I can get lost for hours in the kitchen creating new recipes. I had recently discovered how to make chocolate frosting using steamed cauliflower and avocados. We walked to the produce section and as she reached for the cauliflower, she stopped.

“What? Why is this wrapped in plastic? We can’t buy this.”

I was taken back. What do you mean we can’t buy it? I wanted to make the secretly healthy frosting, and cauliflower was the main ingredient. She retracted her hand and moved on to the next thing on the list without a second thought.

But I want the cauliflower, I thought.

And then it slowly dawned on me, standing there in the co-op with my Zero-Waste Warrior sister who was already in the next aisle, with no lingering thoughts about buying the plastic wrapped cauliflower just this one time. She was strong enough in her values, her dedication to avoiding plastic packaging, that she only had to contemplate the purchase for less than a second before moving onto the next item. She immediately went to “Nope, I’m not putting that in my trash can, I’m not contributing more plastic to the epidemic” before I even had a chance to argue.

I realized at that moment that I absolutely did not need that cauliflower. I wanted the cauliflower. This is exactly how we ended up in this mess in the first place. Choosing what we want without considering the impact it has on the Earth.

Ashley’s snap decision changed the trajectory of my life. After this day, I couldn’t unsee the plastic. It was everywhere.

Ashley is my green hero. Since last summer, she’s lived in an intentional community while attending classes to receive her permaculture certificate, moved to a small permaculture neighborhood in Eugene where she attends meditation courses and works in the community garden, and is off on a new green adventure working at an off-grid, sustainable, spiritual hot spring resort for the summer. She lives a completely zero-waste life, is deeply connected to nature and spirit, and walks softly on this Earth.

Heroes are not necessarily the CEO of a green company, a superstar who’s founded a non-profit, or a scientist who discovered the end-all solution to the climate crisis. Heroes are individuals who positively impact your life, regardless of their social status. I hope that you, too, have someone close in your life who takes you by the hand and leads you into the happy unknown. Someone who makes you pause and shift for the better, to evolve humankind in the necessary direction. Someone who does not judge but instead inspires you to live lighter.

I am definitely biased. But she is, and will always be, my green hero.