April Hepokoski walks barefoot outside her Esko home. On her 5 acres, chickens roam around fenced-in goats and rabbits. Ducks swim in the pond. Everything around her has a purpose, she said, even her pets.
She eats the duck eggs and makes goat cheese. She also grows beets, potatoes, lettuce. Holding a handful of radishes, she said you can eat the leaves, “so nothing goes to waste.”
And no waste is her goal.
Hepokoski went "zero waste" about four years ago. That means she actively aims to reduce what can’t be recycled or composted, and she started in her home. She grocery shops with cloth bags, she brings her own silverware and chopsticks to restaurants, and she regularly fits a month’s worth of trash into a Mason jar.
On her Facebook page Zero Waste Duluth, Hepokoski posts about her lifestyle: pictures of grocery-store shrimp and cold-cuts purchased in glass containers; peanut butter and milk in glass jars; zero waste dessert recipes. The page has more than 850 followers, and people, including Hepokoski, are continually asking questions and sharing tips.
Hepokoski’s efforts started with health issues. She was experiencing complications from endometriosis and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) — nausea, an inflamed gut and painful, bursting endometrial cysts.
Her treatments were ongoing antibiotics, and the side effects were painful urination, increased anxiety and depression. “I’m an energetic, bubbly, happy person. It’s not something I was willing to do,” she said.
To address it, she started looking for natural healing methods and found that most plastics leach chemicals that mimic estrogen into food. Too much estrogen is a risk factor for endometriosis. That and working with a whole-health chiropractor led to changes in how she approaches food, waste and sustainability.
“The chemicals that get put in my food from touching plastic has caused issues in my body. What has that done to the Earth, which is contaminated with plastic?” she said.
“The grass we walk on is intertwined with the animals, the wind, the earth.
“Everything affects everything.”
She started small, eliminating single-use plastic pieces from her home, replacing plastic containers with glass containers and buying food in bulk. She also did an audit of her trash and noticed she had a lot of chip bags. Next, she aimed at reducing those by making her own chips from potatoes or kale.
She does recycle and compost, but “'Zero waste' isn’t about recycling more,” she said. “It’s about looking at what you’re bringing in and (asking), ‘Is it reusable or not?’”
On the kitchen counter in her home sits a plate with compostable scraps and a glass bowl with egg shells that she’ll smash up to feed to her chickens.
In her cupboards are glass jars with dried goods, gluten-free noodles, granola, dry garbanzo beans. She soaks the latter overnight to make hummus. There’s also peppermint drying above the sink; she’ll turn that into tea.
Shifting to zero waste felt natural, she said, but it can be a lot of work. Some items like cheese are harder to buy in bulk. Milking goats takes effort and a lot of milk for an adequate amount of cheese, and driving to a farm to buy it takes resources. So, she has learned to weigh the options and has found a balance, to toss small pieces of plastic wrap rather than driving a long distance to a farm.
She has run across confusion and some naysayers. Some people think that if you’re pursuing an environmental goal, you have to do it all and be perfect, she said. That belief can keep people from trying.
Some day, she would like to own an electric car or bike, but she’s not in that place quite yet. She's starting small and focusing on what works for her lifestyle. She is led by the example of people across the world, Bea Johnson, Rob Greenfield, Lauren Singer.
Hepokoski said she felt ready for the changes at home; the hardest part was going against the grain. At first, she felt awkward bringing a Pyrex dish to the meat counter, or just having conversations about it, but she looks forward to it today.
She shares her zero waste realities on Facebook, always focusing on her own story.
“I’m not here to tell anybody how to live," she said. "I’m just here to be an inspiration for people, if that’s what they like to do.”
Leslie Mehle ran across Hepokoski’s Facebook page, and her first impression was, “It’s a bit off the deep end for me.”
Still, the adult programming librarian at the Superior Public Library booked Hepokoski to speak on zero waste and the Mason jar challenge. The day of the event, the room was at capacity, and it brought in people who aren’t library regulars. “It was a huge success,” she said.
Mehle learned that you can buy items like laundry detergent and pasta in bulk. Considering zero waste for herself, she said she’s puzzled most by how to approach toiletries.
What struck Mehle about Hepokoski’s talk was that change doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. That felt encouraging and realistic because this isn’t a topic that’s going away, Mehle said.
Mehle referred to an April News Tribune story about the sun setting of Superior's landfill in 2027. The average American generates 4.4 pounds of trash per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And the DNT story reported there was no plan for municipal solid waste after the landfill reaches capacity.
“It gave me this … real ramification of the choices we’ve been making,” Mehle said. “In some ways, we’re at maximum capacity, and if we want to retain our natural beauty and have these lands available, we can’t be taking them over to put our garbage there.”
Of Hepokoski, Mehle said, “She’s down-to-earth about it and not holier-than-thou. … She made it seem possible.”
Becki Stradtman went to Hepokoski’s early July talk at the Cloquet Public Library. Afterward, Stradtman did an inventory of her single-use plastics. Now, she wants to swap the zip-close bags she uses for fruits and veggies to glass containers.
Stradtman brought her 11-year-old son to the event, and afterward, he sounded on board with the idea of making changes. He’s more apt to pick up these habits if he sees the behavior modeled at home, she said. “That was part of my doing it," she said. "He’s going to be around a lot longer than I am.”
Hepokoski has more planned.
She organized a June cleanup event at Park Point, she blogs about her zero waste efforts at The Little Barnyard Preschool, which she runs, and she’s involved in Bag It Duluth, a group of Duluth residents and business owners promoting zero waste strategies.
There’s a place for this, she said. We just have to build confidence in our city, within the people in the community within our city and get more businesses on board.
She said the change was not hard, it takes a little effort to build a habit. “Everybody has a different starting point," she said. "Everybody has a different story.”
Listen to April Hepokoski on the News Tribune's Pressroom Podcast.
Tips to start
If you’re interested in trying to reduce waste at home, here are April Hepokoski’s tips. Her golden rule: start small.
Leave cloth bags and containers in the car. That’ll make it easier to have them with you when shopping.
Carry silverware, chopsticks, reusable straw in your bag or car to reduce single-use plastics.
Swap plastic food containers with glass.
Do a trash audit. Locate the biggest waste item, and try to reduce it over a month.
Shop in bulk when possible.
Start composting. When you don’t put anything in your trash that will be decomposing, you’re not taking it out as often because of the smell.