Last Updated on April 5, 2021
Have you been on a journey to shrink your ecological footprint? Heard of zero waste but are a little intimidated by the sound of that word “ZERO”?
Here’s an important thing to understand: You don’t have to get all the way to zero at once!
I get overwhelmed, too. But making little changes to cut your waste is actually pretty easy, kind of fun, and will also save you money. So let me give you a hand with some super-simple tips to get you started on transitioning to zero waste, one little baby step at a time.
So What Is Zero Waste?
Zero waste can refer to a whole lifestyle, but also to the waste trail of an individual item, like your shampoo. Zero waste simply means making choices that don’t result in trash. So if things can be reused, recycled, or composted, you’ve achieved the goal of zero waste for those items.
As we all wise up to the dangers of treating the planet as a vast garbage dump, each and every one of us should be taking a hard look at our trash cans and take steps towards eliminating unnecessary waste.
See that word unnecessary? That’s the key here. Most of the garbage we make did not need to happen.
Cutting down on all this needless waste is in everyone’s best interest. Our landfills are overfull and pollute the atmosphere and groundwater, bad news for all of us. A decent percentage of the greenhouse gases driving climate change come from the manufacture of stuff we don’t need and the climate pollution it creates when we’re done with it.
We all need to waste a whole lot less. If you need more convincing, I highly recommend this film from The Story of Stuff Project that boils down the problem of all the stuff we consume and toss everyday. Here’s more on moving your lifestyle toward sustainability and here’s a customizable worksheet to help you shift to sustainable habits faster.
And guess what? You’re probably paying a premium to make that garbage. Why would you want to pay more to create trash??? Zero waste choices actually save most people thousands of dollars per year.
Even if zero waste sounds like an unachievable goal at the moment, a vow to trim your trashprint is a positive step in the right direction, and there are some great benefits in it for you.
Benefits of Wasting Less
1. You’ll save money. You’re probably paying extra for things you don’t actually need, from plastic baggies to paper towels, to baby squeeze pouches. All these items can be replaced with reusables that will save you big bucks in the long run. The average American family spends over $180 on paper towels every year! Wasting less doesn’t just help the planet, it should put a lot of extra money in your bank account.
2. Less stuff in your life = less stress. Study after study has shown that clutter makes us stressed, so as those toys and doo-dads accumulate in your house, research has shown our stress levels rise. Too much stuff affects kids, too, and getting rid of some of the clutter can help them feel more calm and focused.
Here’s how to reduce cortisol until you clear out the clutter!
3. Your disease risk may improve. Plastics are one of the primary culprits in creating unnecessary and unrecyclable waste, and they are also a top contributor of hormone-disrupting chemicals to the foods we consume. When you cut out plastic packaging, you drastically reduce your exposure to chemicals that have been linked to risks of obesity, infertility, and cancer.
Interested in slashing your trashprint? It’s far easier than you might think with some savvy swaps. Here’s how to get started.
Getting Started with Zero Waste: Do a Waste Audit to Find Low-Hanging Fruit
If you take an inventory of all the stuff that winds up in your garbage can, you’ll likely find many things that might not have to be there. You don’t actually have to pick through your trash, though some people find that helpful. You can do a mental audit and keep an eye on things as they land in the bin.
Generally, you’ll find four categories of garbage:
- Food waste: Food scraps should get composted and turned into fertilizer for garden plants rather than adding to our climate problem.
- Recyclables: Belong in recycling! I’m always amazed how much recyclable material gets tossed in the trash.
- Packaging: This one can be challenging, but in a lot of cases, there are unpackaged options.
- Stuff you could have done without: Some of our trash is stuff we didn’t need or want in the first place, like little sauce packets from a takeout meal that you never intended to eat anyhow.
Next, Learn the Facts
There are two really important things to understand about zero waste principles when you’re just starting out:
1) You don’t have to get to zero immediately
Though “zero” waste may sound pretty extreme, you don’t have to get all the way to zero to have a pretty major impact. When you start reducing how much you buy and throw away, you’re on the right track and shouldn’t waste any of your precious time or energy fretting about your distance from that goal of zero.
2) Recycling is always a last resort.
A lot of people if think if they recycle, they’re doing all they need to protect the environment. Not so.
First, all those recyclables took resources and energy to make and created pollution in the process.
Second, a lot of what we throw in recycling doesn’t ever get used again. Much of it is contaminated by people who throw the wrong stuff in their recycling. And much of it is recycled into a lesser quality product, what is referred to as “down-cycling.”
There are only so many times your laundry detergent bottle can get recycled before — guess what? — the plastic it’s made of is useless and winds up in a landfill, or worse, in little pieces in the water supply, where we drink them. Or fish consume them (and then we consume the fish). Yes, you’ve been eating and drinking plastic for a long time now, and we’re all worse for it.
Recycling what you can is still important, however; only 9% of plastics in the US are currently recycled. We should do whatever we can to keep waste out of landfills and waterways.
Rethinking the 3Rs
The guiding principles of the zero waste movement are based on the 3Rs you’ve probably heard somewhere along the way. Reduce-Reuse-Recycle is a good start, but it’s important to recognize that recycling also includes recycling food waste, so “Rot” has been added to the slogan as well.
Composting is easy and municipal composting programs are expanding rapidly, so there’s no good reason to throw valuable nutrients in the trash where they cause pollution instead of feeding our food crops.
“Reduce” also deserves more attention. It’s referring to cutting how much we consume, everything from clothing to packaging to electronics and toys. Many people add “Refuse” to distinguish those things that are given to us by well-meaning individuals, like dentists with itty bitty floss boxes or restaurants doling out plastic utensils and drinking straws.
Learning to see these “freebies” as waste, as something we don’t want, is part of the process of reducing. Just say no thanks the next time someone tries to give you stuff you don’t need. The more times they hear it, the more likely it is they’ll start asking before sending us home with more garbage.
Ready to waste less? Here’s how to get started.
Zero Waste Step #3: Waste Less One Step at a Time
Because I know we’re all busy, here are the first swaps to consider when you’re thinking about reducing your waste. They’re the easiest and have the greatest impact.
1) Zero Waste Practice: Just Say No (Refuse/Reduce)
Ask the central question: Do you need it? Your first goal is to buy less overall and to say no to things you don’t really need. Just getting in the mindset to question is a major step in the right direction.
Some places to say no to unnecessary junk that adds to your wasteprint:
- Takeout. Make sure they don’t pack a bunch of sauces and plastic cutlery you don’t need. Better still, bring your own containers and skip all that extra plastic. Or consider just dining in.
- To-go drinks. Bring your own cup and skip the straw, cup, and lid, all major contributors to our plastic pollution problem.
- Parties and holidays. Throw a no gifts birthday party and skip the junky party favors. What parent wants more of this stuff in their house? I love this post from Sunshine Guerrilla about no-gifts birthday parties. We’ve been doing this for 8 years now. So much better for all concerned! Here are some tips on eco-friendly Halloween practices and eco-friendly gifts.
- Anywhere anyone is handing out free stuff, whether it’s plastic junk at a fair or floss at the dentist. You don’t need it, so don’t take it!
2) Zero Waste Practice: Compost Food Scraps
By weight, 80% of most trash is organic material that could be doing good in the world feeding our crops instead of polluting chemical fertilizers. Cutting down food waste and composting the rest will take a huge bite out of your trash.
Start by trying to waste less food overall, keeping tabs on what needs to get eaten in your fridge and pantry. Here are 40 ways to cut food waste by eating root-to-stem.
Not throwing food in the trash means you’ll rarely have to empty the trash bin, since without food waste it won’t stink.
Composting is as easy as tossing scraps in a bin, either in your own yard or through a municipal pickup program.
You can compost even if you live in an apartment. You can sign up for curbside collection or set up a compost bin in your apartment or yard pretty easily. Here’s a good guide to getting started composting.
Because meat and dairy can’t go in home composting systems, eating less of both will not only cut down on garbage, but will also help your carbon footprint in a big way, not to mention all the plastic packaging you get to skip. Here are some good vegan protein sources and a bunch of plant-based recipes to inspire your next meatless meal:
3) Zero Waste Practice: Choose to Reuse
Most families go through tons of paper towels, napkins, baggies, and plastic wrap. There are plenty of less wasteful ways to store food and wipe up:
- Rags or natural fiber reusable cloths rather than paper towels. If you’re a sponge person, try a plant-based sponge that can be composted when you’re through with it. (Microfiber cloths and conventional sponges are made of non-compostable plastic, so look for plant-based options whenever you can.)
- Cloth napkins instead of paper
- Metal lunch boxes rather than baggies. You can also make your own reusable snack bags with this tutorial from Mindful Momma.
- Storage containers rather than plastic wraps.
- Refillable jars for buying in the bulk aisle. You can buy them, or you can reuse jars other food came packaged in.
- Travel mug and water bottle rather than throwaway cups
I love the reusable and non-plastic options at Life Without Plastic. Check out the huge selection of containers and other household products. They’ve done a ton of research to find non-plastic replacements for everything from packing tape to dental floss!
Etsy also has an excellent selection of zero waste items, from cleaning supplies to body care.
Zero Waste Practice: Rethink Your Bottles!
We buy a lot of things in plastic bottles that we could get without creating plastic waste — you can get powder laundry and dishwasher detergent instead of liquid, for example. Some natural foods stores and zero-waste shops even stock these products in bulk, so you don’t even waste the paper packaging. This company makes my favorite shampoo bar, which works wonderfully and lets me skip plastic-bottled shampoo. The link will get you 25% off your purchase of an already reasonably-priced product. You can also find numerous shampoo bars on Etsy.
Most foods and drinks sold in bottles can be replaced with homemade versions that will save you money and protect your from exposure to plastic chemicals. Certainly water brought from your own faucet in a glass or metal bottle is a simple swap for bottled water, which besides creating a scary amount of waste, is full of contaminants you shouldn’t be drinking! (Here’s the water filter I recommend.)
If you’re a coffee or tea lover, consider how you can cut the footprint of your cuppa. K-cups’ popularity (9 billion pods a year!!) have led to a huge new stream of avoidable plastic waste. Brew your joe in a French press, moka pot, or espresso machine and help make a dent in that alarming statistic.
Watch out for plastic tea bags as well — you don’t want your healthy tea filled with leached plastic chemicals anyhow, do you? Those “silky” sachets won’t break down in your compost, either. Loose tea made with a tea ball or infuser cup or pot is the zero waste choice.
Instead of sodas or other fruity drinks filled with chemicals and refined sugar, pack your own infused water or homemade herbal teas. They have so many health benefits, while plastic bottles of “juice drinks” and the like have basically the opposite.
I love hibiscus tea and spruce tea for a refreshing drink when I don’t want caffeine and I’m tired of drinking water. Rhubarb juice in home-carbonated sparkling water is also incredibly refreshing. If you forage the ingredients from your yard using mint, lemon balm, elderflower, or pine needles, for example, your drink has zero waste. Here are a number of herbal tea recipes and instructions on how to use herbs in your yard to make delicious sun teas. Nice!
4) Zero Waste Practice: Borrow or buy secondhand
Wasting less also means reusing things wherever possible, which can mean buying secondhand clothing and toys, or turning old t-shirts into homemade shopping bags. (Super easy! Here’s a tutorial for a no-sew t-shirt bag.)
As the sharing economy has taken off, many people have found they can without a car and all kinds of electronics, renting or borrowing instead. There’s no need for every home to have its own supply of tools and other equipment, and many neighbors have saved a bundle sharing snowblowers, ladders, wood splitters, and more. Talk to your neighbors about going in together on equipment before going out and buying your own.
Time to Start Wasting Less With a Zero Waste Mindset!
Remember that zero waste living is a journey, and in this day and age it can take awhile to find less wasteful ways to conduct our daily lives. I’ve been hacking away at our family’s wasteprint for years now, and there are still things I haven’t found good alternatives for.
Our mostly vegetarian diet, for example, involves more cheese than might be ideal, and we don’t have any non plastic-wrapped cheese options. We’re actively seeking out alternatives to things like lotions in plastics. Let us know if you know a good one!
But with a shift in mindset, we’re generating very little waste, especially compared to the average 4.4 pounds most people produce in a day. Will a year’s waste fit in a mason jar? Not yet, but with so much going to the compost and recycling bin, the amount of trash in our bin each week is very small.
We take our eco-friendly habits with us when we travel as well. Here are top tips for more sustainable travel.
Zero Waste Living: Beyond the Individual
While what we each do personally can add up to a decent-size impact, what the world needs fast is less wasteful solutions. Whose dumb idea was it to pack bananas — which come in their own compostable packaging! — in shrink wrap?
There was enough outrage when Whole Foods tried to sell peeled oranges in plastic containers that they pulled the product immediately. We all need to let stores and manufacturers know that foods like this packaged for our “convenience” is irresponsible and needs to stop.
When you shop, choose the least packaged option so you can vote for less waste with your dollars. Some of these decisions are easy. Skip the apples bagged in plastic and put your fruit in your own reusable bag, or shop the bulk bins for rice and beans. Buying dried beans unpackaged in bulk rather than purchasing cans will save you money and keep your food away from the plastic lining in most cans these days. We fill our mason jars with flour, oats, beans, coconut, pepitas, sunflower seeds, and more and use them in favorite recipes like overnight oats, homemade split pea soup, and hearty vegan white bean soup.
Growing your own food will help cut down on packaging as well. Growing your own fresh herbs (and preserving some for the cold months) will save you money and skip those plastic containers of herbs and greens. Add some perennial vegetables and fruit trees to your edible landscape, and you cut down dramatically on the packaging and transportation footprint of your food. Here are some fast-growing vegetables to get you started and tips for growing vegetables indoors.
Some zero waste choices are harder. My town’s coop carries two types of cucumbers when the growing season ends: local cucumbers that come shrink wrapped in plastic or cucumbers flown in from other states. While I prefer to buy local and local usually tastes better, I can’t support all that stupid shrink wrap. Mostly we try to eat seasonally and shift to eating more of the amazing carrots we get from our CSA in fall and winter, but on those few occasions when we want a cucumber, I’ll get one from Mexico.
Slowly solutions are developing for more of what’s called a circular economy, meaning that instead of the take-make-waste model prevailing in the last few decades, we try to make products that can be endlessly reused without trashing the planet.
How to Help Promote Zero Waste Living:
- Start reducing your own waste, making some of the swaps above and choosing less wasteful products whenever you can
- Let the companies you buy from know you want them to develop more sustainable solutions in their packaging
- Support local and national candidates that will fight for legislation limiting wasteful practices.
What are you doing to shrink your wasteprint? Are you already on a path to zero waste? Leave your good ideas in the comments.
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Photo credits: monicore, annca, Hans, meineresterampe, hhach, StillWorksImagery, MrTinDC, Undercover Mexican Girl
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.