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Posted on Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 12:33 p.m.

University of Michigan student halfway through 'year without waste'

By James Dickson

University of Michigan student Darshan Karwat is on a year-long mission to minimize entropy.

Since March 29, Karwat, a student in the Aerospace Engineering Ph.D. program, has altered his lifestyle to produce zero waste, or as close to zero as possible.

Karwat No Waste.jpg

Michigan Ph.D. student Darshan Karwat holds up one small bag of trash, and one small bag of recyclable materials, which is all the waste he's produced in the last six months in his effort to live his life with zero waste.

Lon Horwedel |

Refusal the key

The average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash a day. Even environmentally conscious Ann Arbor residents produce an average of more than 3 pounds of it a day.

Contrast that to Karwat, who when interviewed him on the six-month anniversary of Minimizing Entropy, had only amassed a pound or two of waste between trash and recyclables, which he counts as part of the problem. It's not zero, but it's a lot closer than Karwat would've gotten without being mindful about reducing waste.

As kids, we are taught the three R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Karwat said, but the most important step is left out of the equation: Refuse.

"This gets into the fundamental question of, what makes us happy? Do we really need the newest Blackberry, and then the newest iPhone to replace it? Do we really need all this stuff?"

Karwat, born in New Jersey, hailing from Mumbai, India, and calling Ann Arbor home for the last seven years, said that he had two choices upon coming to America: He could ignore the environmental implications of shopping at Indian food stores and attempt to recreate the delicacies of home, or he could do as Ann Arborites do, focusing more on locally-grown flavors and 'closing the loop' between the farm and the dinner table.

He chose the second path, which has made his Minimizing Entropy project a bit easier to pull off. 

"I was never big on buying new things. I mostly shop at second-hand stores, so there was little waste on that front," Karwat said. "Then I realized that the bulk of my waste came from food packaging."

Changing this required changing his habits. When Karwat goes to restaurants he has to ask the waiter to not bring him napkins, straws or moist towelettes. Otherwise, he buys and prepares food as needed, shopping at places like the People's Food Co-Op rather than big box grocers. When he has to transport food, it travels in a reusable container. Karwat is also a life-long vegetarian, which also cuts down on food packaging.

Karwat said he chose trash because it's so visible. "Trash is all around us. You see it. You smell it. No one wants to live around it, and yet it's a multi-billion dollar business. How we justify trash formation says a lot about our ethics."

Recycling, too. While any self-styled environmentalist in town would make sure to recycle, Karwat sees it as another form of waste. Better than not recycling, sure, but not nearly as good as a mindful effort to consume less.

"Recycling," Karwat said, "is something people do to feel good about consumption. Rather than simply buy less or use what you have, you can feel that you're doing your part when you recycle.

"When push comes to shove, what are people really willing to sacrifice and go without?"

No turning back

Karwat went no-waste on March 29, 2010. He would've started on April 1, but for the encouragement of a friend who told him he couldn't look at the project like it's a New Years Resolution, a promise that's easier to make than keep.

"(My friend) told me that if it was important for me to live differently, I should start immediately. And he was right," Karwat said.

Karwat thinks fast but speaks slowly, which gives his words gravitas. A Michigan alum now in his third year in the aerospace engineering Ph.D. program, Karwat is studying alternative fuels and their impact on the environment. He interned at GE's Aviation division, but said that he's not really interested in private industry when his studies conclude in 2012.

Whether academia or community-level work, Karwat would prefer either over joining industries and companies he sees as part of the problem.

Karwat chronicles his efforts on his blog, which reaches a small but committed audience. The response hasn't been overwhelming — Karwat doesn't talk much about it, and, if he hadn't been interviewing about his efforts, wouldn't normally carry around his amassed refuse — but Karwat said his idea is spreading in web-like fashion, as friends tell family members tell co-workers, and so on.

He would be open to writing a book if there’s an interest, but that would require, as he explained it, “another year, at least, for research, reflection and soul-searching.” Not to mention writing and promotion.

One thing that’s not in doubt is whether and how Karwat’s habits will change when the year is up. 

“I’m not going back to the way I lived before — I can't. What would it say about my beliefs if this experience didn't produce a lasting change?" will follow-up with Karwat at the conclusion of Minimizing Entropy to see what he learned and what the community might learn from his efforts. James David Dickson can be reached at


Darshan Karwat

Mon, Nov 29, 2010 : 6:43 p.m.

Greg, You raise a fantastic point, which makes me think of several things. First, I'd like to clarify that the focus is not only on energy, but more broadly on natural resource use in general - that includes water, land, metals, etc. in the production of goods and consequently trash. I think the reduction in natural resource use goes hand in hand with a redefinition of communities and what it takes to support them. One of the primary reasons we do have trash is because we transport objects long distances to get them to their destination of use. Now, if what you buy is produced closer to you (ideally locally), you may not need all of that packaging to go along with it. Localism addresses two problems - reduced energy use (and natural resource use and environmental impact) because of reduced need for packaging, AND the same because of reduced need for transportation. In effect, not creating trash has made me to find more local solutions to my wants and needs.

Bhuman Bo

Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 6:56 a.m.

I always refuse plastic bags, as well as styrofoam cups, boxes, etc. at restaurants, and will nix strawls, too. Thanks for the inspiration Darshan! If a clerk, waiter/waitress, or anyone scoffs at you, tell them to Google (or quicker YouTube search) "Pacific garbage patch"

Eric Jankowski

Thu, Oct 28, 2010 : 10:22 p.m.

First off, three cheers for Darshan! Second, in particular with regard to the second law of thermodynamics, I have a soft spot for my good pal entropy and feel I should stand up for her when people give her a bum rap. Lots of awesome things can be made my maximizing entropy: crystals, rooms full of oxygen, and punk rock, for example. Anyway, I think Darshan would agree that the easiest way to minimize entropy is to move somewhere cold.;) Third, for the energy-conscious among you another great way to minimize your environmental impact is to ride a bike! Parking everywhere, exercise built in to your daily routine, no traffic, the wind in your hair. Bikes: they're the best!

Gregory Wagner

Thu, Oct 28, 2010 : 3:48 p.m.

Darshan, this is beautiful. I particularly admire the the moniker you have given your mission, "Minimizing Entropy". I think this label strikes at the heart of the matter - humanity and the Earth has been allotted only a finite amount of energy - and both common sense and the Second Law of Thermodynamics require that this energy be someday inevitably and irretrievably lost to entropy. To survive, we must slow this process as much as possible. So, observing this, and also acknowledging that the steps taken towards the optimal use of energy must be incremental, I think that there will be logical follow-up question once the question of whether trash can be reasonably eliminated is answered: If it is possible to completely minimize the energetic impact of trash creation, is it then possible to exhaustively detail the energy costs of all actions and decisions, and minimize those as well?

Darshan Karwat

Sun, Oct 17, 2010 : 2:56 p.m.

@ Ryan: Thank you so much for your kind words. You put it perfectly - it is a matter of consciousness. It is definitely frustrating when people that are "conscious" of issues don't act on their consciousness. I do think that personal responsibility is essential, and we must be willing to make the hard decisions ourselves before asking others (people, communities, companies, governments, etc.) to do so. Please keep me posted on your thoughts.

Ryan J. Stanton

Sat, Oct 16, 2010 : 12:08 a.m.

@Darshan Thanks for your inspiration. Since reading about your zero-waste mission, I have found myself consciously trying to cut back on my own waste output. I've already been doing things on the sustainability front like adhering to a strict vegan diet, walking/biking most places, recycling everything I possibly can, not accepting plastic bags from stores investigating the practices of companies I buy products from, etc., but I'm pushing myself further now. For example, now if I go out to eat at a place like Earthen Jar, where there's the option of using paper plates and plastic utensils or grabbing a dish from the dish rack and cleaning it yourself afterward, I will make sure to go the latter, less-convenient route. Sometimes I think the impact of my own individual decisions seem minimal, but I've always been a bit of an idealist and live in the hope that good practices eventually will catch on on a grander scale and real positive change will result. In any case, you're proof that merely living by example can be contagious. Keep it up.

Darshan Karwat

Thu, Oct 14, 2010 : 5:01 p.m.

Hi everyone. Many of you have asked about grocery shopping and food packaging, and how I manage to avoid creating trash (at least directly) with them. Well, I guess it is my situation that serves as a helping hand; I live in Kerrytown, right by the People's Food Co-op, and the Farmer's Market. When I started this project on the 29th of March, I decided not to acquire any new packaging, and wanted to make full use of what I have already - plastic bags, containers, twist-ties, Ziploc bags, etc. I have bought everything I need/want in bulk. I have stopped going to the Indian store, because most everything is packaged there - now I cook food, Indian included, by buying spices, etc. in bulk. I have also tried to go local with foods - I generally don't buy something that comes from Europe or South America. When it comes to going out to eat, I have tended to go to non-fast food restaurants. I also always go prepared (when I have my backpack) with my own silverware. Some places serve you in glass (if you ask), but don't carry any actual silverware. I guess I never really used to go out to eat much anyway, as I love to cook. It's odd actually. I've come to realise that we create trash because we want to be in control of our experiences, that we want to prepare for the future (say, buying a granola bar for an afternoon snack), and the only way to combat this trash is to, again, be prepared to avoid it.

Darshan Karwat

Wed, Oct 13, 2010 : 8:31 p.m.

AlphaAlpha, Thanks for your comments and thoughtfulness. I will absolutely continue to use this website and this comment section as a forum to answer questions. I will also add a Q&A (kind of like an FAQ) section to my blog, so that people can just look up questions and comments. Tomorrow, I will go ahead and add some tips and details on grocery shopping... =)


Tue, Oct 12, 2010 : 5:39 a.m.

Thanks Darshan - Much concurrence on most points. Your perceptions seem spot on. Local companies are much like locally produced food, better in many respects. The multinationals tend to be green only as much as needed; most of them care far more about being perceived as green than actually being green. Relevant facts such as mercury rich CF bulbs, heavy metal rich hybrid cars, hyper packaged franchise products, etc. ad nauseum, are carefully ignored by slick advertising and PR campaigns. In reflecting upon some of the comments here, the range of positive comments was a happy surprise. It would seem you may have found an excellent forum with which to expand your influence; we can only hope you would consider publishing additional material here, so that, for example, we can learn the details of your grocery shopping experiences, to name one example. It would be great if you can answer specific questions as well. It seems your concept will play well in our new Age of Austerity. You may do this on your blog; candidly, there is only so much time for surfing each day; this site would enhance your exposure substantially, with very minimal eco effect. Lead on.

Darshan Karwat

Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 7:33 p.m.

Hi everyone, This is Darshan Karwat. Thanks so much for your interest, kindness and thoughtfulness. I wanted to respond to some comments from heartbreakM, Steve Harper Piziks and AlphaAlpha. I basically decided that I was only going to use, particularly in terms of packaging, what I started off with on 29 March, 2010. I already had some plastic bags and containers, and I have used only the ones I owned prior to 29 March. I try not to acquire any new packaging. I also count recycling as trash, because there is so much that we recycle that can be reused. I like the example of glass bottles. In other countries, glass bottles are taken back, washed out, and refilled. However, in the US, most bottles are crushed, melted, and reformed...a particularly wasteful practice. Toothbrushes are something I haven't been able to eliminate, but I have eliminated toothpaste by making my own mint oil, and using that with baking soda. AlphaAlpha, I think there may be some misunderstanding that you are getting at. I have absolutely nothing against the private sector in terms of employment, especially for small, local private businesses. I try to support as many local private businesses that I can, and I think this is essential to the redefinition of communities of the future. Private businesses have helped me tremendously in going towards zero waste. I do, however, feel that larger private companies have had an incredible hand in defining who we are today, in terms of what we choose to consume, and what we consider as acceptable in our communities. These are powerful entities that can move masses of people to behave in a certain way, in particular regarding consumption and consequent trash and waste formation. I also think that the centralisation of capacities of production of goods, foods for example, leads to trash and waste generation. Maybe I am wrong and naive, but I do not think that many people that are high up in these larger companies have much concern for ecological and social issues, in particular if it affects profitability. I know companies, especially like GE, have moved towards providing less environmentally harmful products, but that is just like recycling - making us feel good (or less bad) about what we choose to do. I completely agree with you that if you could somehow change the ethics of how large, private businesses operate, it would be incredibly impactful. I would love to be proven wrong, and I would love to hear your further thoughts on this.


Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 3:26 p.m.

Awesome! It would be cool to do another article where Mr. Karwat gets specific about all the ways he refuses. A lot of people aren't exactly sure HOW to actually shop for food completely without packaging, etc.


Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 9:40 a.m.

Three cheers for Darshan! It's great to hear the words of someone who gets it AND lives it. You're an inspiration. I completely agree about the "feel good fallacy" of recycling -- yes, better to do it vs. not do it, but we shouldn't pretend it's anywhere near as good as buying uber-packaged stuff to begin with. There's an incredible amount of energy and resources lost in the recycling process. I would have to disagree with the implication that he has "disdain for the private sector." Is Darshan not helping employ *local* people by buying their food? Would you rather he buy Pop Tarts and put money in Sam Walton's pocket? Or send money to China for the latest electronic widget? He's a consumer that's keeping more money in our community.


Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 9:22 a.m.

If you take a look at what you are tossing, then take a look at those triangles? 90% are recyclable. We only have one bag a week to toss. Our recycle bins are so full? Sometimes we have to use a box to add more. I read an article about a group of nuns from Montana. They have this man beat. Not saying I do, but very close. Should see our neighbors, they beat that by more then 5lbs. A group of nuns take apart everything before it goes to the trash. They reuse everything possible. I read an article about them a few years back. I too looked at what I was tossing and realized I too was being wasteful. So, yes, you too, can follow him if you too are resourceful and diligent enough to reduce, reuse and recycle before you toss. By the way, for food waste? There are those yard waste bins that are collected every week. Our plant matter goes there. A lot of products can be bought in paper over plastic. Just a thought. Good luck recycling.

Julie Martin

Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 8:55 p.m.

I applaud the effort and agree that 3# per day per person is way too much.


Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 8:15 p.m.

Mr Karwat- I agree that less is better. There are far too many people eating far too much all day and night long. American dietary habits are in need of a reality check before it's too late! Your efforts are laudable and I agree that a more simple lifestyle is far better that being a victim of "marketing brainwash"...which is exactly what it is. Thank you for this community educational effort and keep up the good work!

Steven Harper Piziks

Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 7:50 p.m.

I imagine he eliminates paper waste (like mail) by recycling it. Toiletry waste like toothpaste tubes may be part of what he can't get rid of (but one large tube of toothpaste will last one person a very long time). If you buy at the bulk food section or a farmer's market, you don't need food packaging. Cans can be recycled. And so on.


Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 6:29 p.m.

I don't get it, though. How does he not get containers for his food? Does he stick his hand in the vegetables and put them in a bag? What about milk or juice or any beverage? What about deodorant, or soap, or laundry detergent? There is a lot that I would love to hear about. Congrats on this venture, but please, share in detail how you are eliminating the basics of everyday living? (toothpaste, toothbrush, mail, newspapers, etc).


Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 3:54 p.m.

not the lifestyle for me but wow i'm impressed. keep it up.

John Spieser

Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 1:12 p.m.

This guy is awesome!


Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 12:43 p.m.

Kudos to Karwat! In the environmental scheme of things, Reduce and Reuse, in that order, carry far more importance than Recycle. And Refuse is even better whenever and wherever possible in daily life. I very much like the idea of adding this fourth "R" to the tradtiional three. National and regional environmental outfits, including the local Ecology Center, prefer to overemphasize recycling, which has become a viable alternative for municipalities seeking to divert trash and lower their landfill costs. In comparison, it's harder to raise donations and grants when openly challenging the middle class to rethink their addiction to high-consumption lifestyles. Karwat does what the mainstream enviro groups shy away from.


Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 12:34 p.m.

Mr. Karwat - Hopefully your current disdain of private sector employment will evolve... if your own private business could operate using these same principles, you could set an example for the entire business world to follow.