During Rob Greenfield’s recent public awareness campaign in Los Angeles, I met up with him at a sustainable grocery store (called re_grocery, in Highland Park) where he stuck out like a very green thumb in his custom-designed trash suit. The environmental activist’s first tour of this kind was in 2017 in New York. During that campaign, he carried every piece of garbage he created for an entire month.
When I met up with Greenfield during his Los Angeles campaign, his trash suit was already holding a sizable amount of garbage. He’s outspoken about his sustainable eating habits, as I’d covered in a previous story, The Planet-Friendly Diet. That sparked my first question, about his habits on the road.
STEPHEN NELSON: How long have you spent collecting trash for your suit?
ROB GREENFIELD: “I started on April 20. And today is day 30. And for the last month, basically, I have been just living like the average person: eating, shopping and consuming like so many of us are used to. But I’ve been wearing every single piece of trash that I create.”
SN: Did you abandon your normal routine to take on the persona of the average consumer?
RG: “Normally, I live a very low-waste lifestyle. I try to create as little trash as possible. I keep my money out of capitalistic hands, and instead I try to put my money into local businesses that are actually part of the solution.
“But for this month I’ve set all of that aside. And I’ve just floated on the wings of consumerism. I ate at McDonald’s and I’ve been going to Starbucks. The idea was to try to lead what’s considered to be a fairly typical lifestyle for this country.
“I want this trash to be representative of what other people do. So I want people to be able to look at this and say, ‘Wow! Is that what I would look like if I held on to all of my trash? Do I make more trash than that? Or less?’ The idea is to really get people to think critically. The goal is, once they’re thinking critically, they start asking these questions. Then they’ll start talking about solutions, asking, ‘What can we do to create less trash?’”
SN: How is your routine in LA different from what you did in New York? Did you switch it up for the West Coast?
RG: “The big difference between the New York and LA projects was that in New York I only got in the car a couple of times. And I had more of a routine in New York: I would take the same train, and I would generally go to Union Square Park.
“In New York I was more of a die-hard, because here I take the suit off to get in the car. There, I only took public transportation, and I always wore it. Sometimes I was doing up to 12-hour days in the trash suit. And here I’ve been doing more like seven-hour days. New York City was a bit more intensive.”
SN: Do you take the suit off at the end of each day so you can sleep?
RG: “I don’t sleep in it. And toilet paper goes down the toilet as usual.
“Some people wonder about the smell. All the trash, I wash it before adding to the suit. For food waste, what I do is weigh [it] and then I replace it with dry rice in order to simulate the weight of food waste without being smelly. I think I have 20 pounds of dry rice and noodles, of the 72 pounds. So about a quarter of the weight is food waste.”
SN: What’s your general impression of Los Angeles?
RG: “The thing I love the most about LA is the humans, you know, the people. I love the air here. I love the plants. I love the sky. I love the ocean. Not so much the buildings or the concrete; but the people for sure. I have made so many beautiful connections over the last month.
“The thing about wearing your garbage out in public is that it results in you speaking to a lot of people, including a lot you wouldn’t otherwise speak to, because it breaks down barriers. It’s been a beautiful experience getting connected with so many different people in a meaningful way. Like our conversation is meaningful, it’s actually talking about trash as an issue and creating critical thoughts.”
SN: Considering your large social media following and the fact that you’ve been tracking your movement around the city on your website, were your interactions mainly with people following your campaign? Or were they with random people asking questions like, “What’s with the suit?”
RG: “Definitely both. I mean, I run into people frequently that do follow me on social media, or very loosely do, but they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s that guy… Robert… Robert Greene?’ And then other times I get to run into people that have followed me for five-plus years, who just get to run into me in the street. And I love that. I love to bring the online world into real life and have that connection.”
SN: In our first piece about you, Meet Rob Greenfield: Leading by Example, we shared a bit about how you transitioned from a more typical American lifestyle into the one you now pursue. What motivated such an extreme change? Was it internally-driven, for example, to be healthier? A desire to make a change in the world? Or something else entirely?
RG: “I had started to watch documentaries and read a lot of books. I learned that almost everything we were doing [as a society] was causing destruction, including everything I was doing—the food I was eating, the car I was driving, the trash I was putting in the garbage, the junk I was buying, where my money was invested, the bank account my money was in—everything that I was doing was causing destruction on the earth.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be destroying the earth. I don’t want to be living in a way that people are suffering from my existence. I’m not fine with that.’ Whereas a lot of us are able to just set it aside and pretend it doesn’t exist.
“I don’t do cognitive dissonance or delusion. I wanted to overcome delusion. I wanted to overcome corporate and political agendas.
“I realized what I was doing, most of the actions I was taking, was simply because I had been told by some company with a lot of money that this is what I should be doing. I decided I wanted to live a life of truth, where I actually understood my actions and how they affected the earth. The only way I could do that was to radically transform my life, one bit at a time.”
SN: When was it clear that you had to throw yourself into a new way of life, 100%?
RG: “It was never 100%. It’s still not 100%. I’m consistently not always living up to my ideal ethics and morals. I’m sometimes letting myself down. But I am very, very committed.
“And it was very obvious that I was going to radically transform my life because to do a little bit was close to nothing. Our society is so radical, when you have 5% of the world’s population that consumes 25% of the world’s resources—that’s the definition of extreme. So I have to go to extremes to break away from one extreme. Ultimately, all that I am is a product of an extreme society. I’m just going to the other end of the spectrum.”
SN: When you encourage your audience to make incremental changes in their lifestyles is the idea that on a global scale, it’s going to make a big difference?
RG: “Yeah. You never know when that little flame inside of someone is going to turn into a full-on fire that changes their life. So my whole job is to go around and light little fires inside of everyone. I don’t know where they’re gonna go. And I don’t know when they potentially ignite into a full life change. But that’s my job; talk to and reach as many people as I can about trash and light little fires inside of everyone that will burn down capitalism and consumerism.”
SN: What are your views on recycling? (Greenfield pulled out a couple of bottles lodged in his trash suit and held them up as he talked.)
RG: “Whether it’s this bottle or this bottle–glass or plastic–when you’re shipping all this stuff around, there’s nothing sustainable about it. All of this can be distributed through pipes; that’s efficient and works. Almost any packaged stuff that’s for liquids is just absolutely, unfortunately, like one of the most ridiculous things in the world.
“Recycling is a part of the solution. But there’s legit recycling, and then there’s BS recycling. And much of our system is BS recycling. I’m absolutely an advocate of recycling. But glass bottles, what makes sense to do is reuse the glass bottle; not melt it down to make a new one when you can simply reuse them. The thing is that, when you get into zero waste, you learn that it’s not about recycling. It’s about reducing and reusing [first], and lastly recycling. So the goal in true zero waste is to recycle as little as possible. …We can’t have this idea that it’s environmentally friendly to recycle. It’s environmentally destructive to recycle. It’s just less destructive.
“Number one is composting, that’s legit. Backyard composting, ideally, or local composting in nearby gardens. That’s the revolution. If we as a nation start composting all of our waste, even on a larger scale through trucks, that will be one of the most massive changes to our society, because we’re returning all that into food, through our soils.”
SN: In “How Rob Greenfield Built a Homestead from Scratch,” we covered your Florida homestead project, where you spent a year living off of food he had either grown or foraged. How did you create a fully sustainable place to live?
RG: “I gave myself six months to get my gardens going and get food producing. I started with a completely blank slate; just lawns. It ended up being 10 months. By then, my gardens were so abundant that I was able to eat out of those, along with foraging. It was the groundwork that I laid over those 10 months that allowed me to thrive.”
SN: What was so impressive was that you hadn’t ever grown a garden before. How did you learn?
RG: “I went to foraging classes. I went to local community gardens to see what was going on. I volunteered and read books, and watched YouTube videos and asked questions from people online. And everywhere that I could find to learn what I needed to learn.”
SN: You don’t talk much about cannabis. What’s your view of it?
RG: “I don’t ‘use’ marijuana. I have a relationship with marijuana. I know how my body relaxes and connects with more plants and more people when I’m ‘working with’ marijuana. Some people would call it ‘consuming’ or ‘using’. But that’s such a one-way scenario. And so I don’t like to think of humans as ‘consumers,’ you know? Because ‘consuming’ means you’re not giving.
“I haven’t talked about [marijuana] a lot. I didn’t smoke any marijuana from 2013 to 2021… about seven years. Yeah, I mean, for me, it just wasn’t…enlightening. It was a party. And then, as of a year ago, it’s been such a positive tool for helping with connecting people; connecting more deeply with nature or sometimes for releasing or relieving stress and for entering into a more acute state of presence.”
SN: Is the nationwide legalization of cannabis leading to more chemical-laden varieties of hydroponics?
RG: “I can say that is happening. I can’t say what the cause is. I can’t say why society is moving in that direction. But I can also say that, to me, it’s all about growing marijuana outdoors in real soil and smoking it in a way, or eating it in a way that’s as accessible as possible. And you would need no high tech, and you can grow it in your own backyard. And you take that marijuana and put it into a joint or something with which to smoke it. I like a more natural approach.”
As a writer who has been covering Greenfield and his work, it was enlightening to speak with him and pick his brain about just what drives him in his activism. I now have a much better idea about what makes him tick: a profound sense of responsibility for his actions as a citizen and a consumer, and his mission to change how we all live.
What’s compelling about Greenfield is that he isn’t satisfied by making a change on an individual scale. He’s managed to successfully lead a grassroots movement through social media, with the potential to inspire millions to make a major difference on this planet. What’s more, it seems he’s just getting started.