Are you a complete Zero Waste beginner?
Have you been thinking about reducing your waste more and more lately?
Have you been spending your time on Instagram or YouTube researching zero waste?
Well, that’s what I did in the beginning, and I learned a lot from it. But what I’ve come to realize 4 years after starting this crazy zero waste adventure, is that I’ve had several “ah ha” moments during the process. Each one brought me to a greater level of understanding (dare I say, a higher level of consciousness?) of how my waste was produced in the first place, who is really affected, and that there is a bigger story than any trash jar could fill.
I’ve pulled together all the lightbulb ideas that came along the way and have broken down this beginners guide into 3 phases. Because it doesn’t happen overnight. Trying to make a significant life change happen immediately, probably won’t stick. Whether you’ve only just begun recycling, already shop the bulk aisles, or make everything from scratch, we all have to start somewhere. Hopefully, you feel pretty confident in this next step and you know you want to do more to save the planet.
Rock on you eco-warrior.
Let’s do this.
First Things First
None of us is perfectly zero waste, we’re all just doing the best we can with the resources that we have. I know that I’m fortunate to live in a climate where fresh produce is available fairly locally most of the year. But I’ve also lived in a small town with only a Wal-mart for a grocery store and no recycling pick-up. So I understand that this zero waste thing is going to look different for everyone.
A whole bunch of people making the small changes that are possible for them can add up to a massive impact.
What is zero waste?
Though most of us think about not sending any trash to the landfill, it’s really about thinking how we design and how nutrients flow through a system.
“The term zero waste was first used publicly in the name of a company, Zero Waste Systems Inc. (ZWS), which was founded by PhD chemist Paul Palmer in the mid-1970s in Oakland, California. The mission of ZWS was to find new homes for most of the chemicals being excessed by the nascent electronics industry. They soon expanded their services in many other directions.”
With this mindset, we strive towards a circular economy. An alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose of) a circular economy is one in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of its life.
“A circular economy seeks to rebuild capital, whether this is financial, manufactured, human, social or natural. This ensures enhanced flows of goods and services. The system diagram illustrates the continuous flow of technical and biological materials through the ‘value circle’.”
Our current linear economy designs from the beginning with waste as an end product. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to make zero trash, this is because everything we do is linked to an infrastructure that is linear. What we can do is be conscious and create a mindset that helps to navigate through our current disposable culture.
Like I said, I’ve broken down the process we took into three phases. Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t multitask and juggle a few things from each phase, it just means that if you get overwhelmed, it’s easy to take a step back and focus on one thing or phase at a time. You can, of course, do this in any order you prefer. This is simply how we tackled the job with little bites at a time.
A good example is to look at one product that you have that is producing waste, let’s say that’s almond milk in a tetra pack (non-recyclable in many U.S. areas) and try to find a better alternative. The best alternative would be to make your own dairy-free milk. You may wish to use almonds from bulk bins to make milk in the beginning, then decide to move on to making oat milk or rice milk if those ingredients can be locally sources. This would be an amazing thing to do, but I also understand that it might not be feasible for everyone. So again, making the best choice with what you have available and based on your circumstances is the goal.
First, let’s get to know The 5 R’s…
The 5 R’s
Instead of the popular Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, the 5 R’s by Bea Johnson takes it further by expanding on the idea:
Refuse things that you do not need. Like those promotional items that companies give away, new clothes when they are not really needed, etc.
Reduce the number of things that come into the home. This may mean reducing the amount of packaged foods in recyclable containers, or reducing those things that you do need to only quality pieces, and more.
Reuse things as much as possible. While recycling is helpful, it’s not the answer. It takes tons of resources to recycle that glass jar of olives. But that jar just might make a great food storage container.
Recycle what is necessary. But also keep in mind that recycling is not a 1 for 1 system. Most items get downcycled. So, a plastic bag doesn’t become another plastic bag.
Rot organic matter that can be composted and reused to grow food.
Phase One: Reduce What You Produce
The very first place we started when we decided to go zero waste was looking at our food waste. America throws away more than 38 million tons of food every year; averaging $218 billion dollars. It also takes a huge amount of resources like water to grow our food. Farmers and food producers use around 25% of the freshwater supply in America. Then consider the environmental impact of throwing food away. When sent to the landfill, organic waste does not decompose as nature intended. Instead, it breaks down in anaerobic conditions releasing methane gas. Because of this greenhouse gas, global food waste is contributing to climate change.
How we reduced our food waste:
- Meal plan and portion control: Becoming more aware of how much you and your family eat and planning out meals in advance can help you reduce the amount of uneaten food your household produces. Not up for meal planning? I don’t always do that either. Instead, I like to prep a few staples ahead of time so that I can make whatever meal I’m in the mood for.
- Store produce for freshness: Properly storing produce to prevent spoilage is a great way to avoid tossing something out. Also making sure to store things where they are visible. I keep a basket in my fridge of fruits and veggies that need to be eaten first. That way I know where to look when making a smoothie or dish. Here and here are some great hacks for storing food for optimal freshness. Don’t be afraid to try out different methods. We live in a very dry and hot climate so fruit stores well on the counter for a few days, then in the fridge to avoid over-ripening. It may be different in your climate.
- Eat leftovers: This may seem simple enough, but often leftovers are thrown away. Try making only enough for one meal for each family member, or plan to eat leftovers for lunch. Also storing leftovers that are labeled and visible are really helpful. This rule also applies to anything the toddler loved yesterday and won’t eat today. I usually give my son a few chances to eat before finishing his plate for him. Don’t forget that some leftovers freeze really well. So you can always have something on hand that you can defrost and eat later.
- Freeze or dehydrate: So many things can be frozen and saved for later use if you want to stock up when they’re in season, or to avoid letting the food spoil. I like to freeze veggies, corn, and leftovers for another time. Dehydrating or drying things like herbs, greens, and root vegetables are a great way to save food from being wasted. Fruit leathers and jams also help to use up food before it goes bad.
- Shop more: So this one may not work for everyone, but I find that if I shop for food twice in one week, then I always have fresh food on hand and I can avoid shoving a head of lettuce in the crisper only to forget about it.
- Compost: Food scraps are going to happen. While there are a ton of ways to reuse food scraps, smoothies, veggie broth, homemade cleaner, etc. most of it will need to be taken out of the home once done with it. Try to set up a system to compost fruit and veggie scraps that can replenish the soil and give back to Mother Earth. There are a ton of tutorials online for DIY backyard composts, you can buy an already made system, some areas may offer curbside pick up of compost, or you can save it in the freezer and drop it off somewhere that allows you to. Check out my sneaky apartment compost in my Instastory highlights here.
- Make broth: Don’t toss things into the compost if they can be used first. I like to save any peels, pepper and carrot tops, asparagus and celery ends, and onion skins in a paper bag in the freezer. When I have time, I can make a veggie broth and freeze that in cubes for an easy way to use it later.
- Make a smoothie or popsicles. Use up fruit that to make a smoothie, then freeze it to make popsicles. Or, freeze the fruit first, then make into nice cream.
- Ask, can I eat this? So many things we toss out of habit without really thinking why we don’t eat them. For example, strawberry tops can be eaten, though you might like it better if you save them for a smoothie or use the whole strawberry. Organic orange peels can be added to a smoothie too for extra flavor and vitamin boost. Just be sure to try only a little bit first since it is a strong flavor. Carrot and turnip greens can be cooked just like any other green you might eat or added to soups as seasoning. And does anyone know why we started peeling potatoes? Eat those whole too or at least save the peel for broth, or you can fry or bakes the skins for a crispy snack. Don’t overlook liquids like pasta water or canned chickpea water, those are great to add to soups too.
We spent a few weeks addressing just food waste before moving on to an equally daunting task, personal trash. I’m talking about things like packaging and junk mail. After getting all of the food waste out of the trash can, it was much easier to perform a trash audit. This is where I took a good look at the trash in the bin before it went out. We had been pretty good about recycling before switching to zero waste (read my post Recycling Without Losing Your Mind here) so that made it easier to audit the actual non-recyclable trash. Most of it was packaging and personal hygiene products. Then, we devised a plan to cut out as much packaging as possible.
Here’s how we reduced our personal trash:
- Use what you already have. You don’t need to run out and buy a ton of new things to start reducing your waste. If you already have food storage containers, even plastic, then it’s a better option to use those until they are no longer usable. Use your own utensils when you bring your lunch before buying a cute new bamboo set (unless traveling on an airplane). Use the clothing, purses, and accessories that you already have in your closet. Use those weird looking promotional bags that you picked up a while back as grocery bags. Use an old pillowcase as a bulk shopping or produce bag. The most zero waste option is always to make do with what you have and buy nothing.
- Bring your own to avoid disposables: Produce bags, shopping bags, coffee cups, straws, and cloth napkins are all easy to bring along to avoid disposables.
- Stop using disposables at home: Items such as paper towels, paper plates, utensils, cups, food storage bags, foil/cling wrap, and even trash can liners (you won’t need them if there is nothing wet like food scraps going into your trash). And replace them with cloth napkins, rags, actual plates, real utensils, stainless steel or bamboo straws, and reusable food storage containers or jars. Keep an eye out for toilet paper wrapped in paper instead of plastic, recycled toilet paper or even bamboo toilet paper. You might be able to find it in a local restaurant supply store, or try Who Gives a Crap brand. You can even find reusable menstrual pads or a menstrual cup to avoid chemicals and disposables during your period.
- Shop bulk aisles: If you have been researching zero waste, then you have probably seen someone bring a jar into a store with large bulk bins and take home exactly what they need package-free. While shopping bulk bins aren’t completely zero waste (it does need to be shipped to the store in something) it greatly reduces the amount of trash produced because it is one package for multiple servings. It’s an extra bonus that you will produce less household trash since you won’t be bringing home extra packaging. I recommend making cloth bulk bags from old sheets instead of hauling around jars. It’s a little easier for me to carry and I don’t need to get tare weight beforehand. If you don’t have access to bulk, have food allergies, or can’t find the item you need, then consider buying the largest sized package instead of individually wrapped items. For example, buying a large container of oatmeal instead of pre-portioned sizes will save a ton of trash. I like to try and find packaging in paper, glass, or metal if I possible. Since it can either be composted or recycled instead of downcycled like plastic.
- Look for better packaging: Like I said above, when needing to buy something in packaging, try to look for glass, metal, or paper. Glass and metal have a longer recycling life as opposed to plastic which is limited in the number of times it can be reproduced. Paper can be recycled but it is best to compost it whenever possible. Of course, the paper comes from trees and may not always be the most sustainable option, but it is far more gentle on the planet in the long haul than plastic. Make sure you save glass jars or list them on freecycle.
- Handmade or make your own: A few great examples here are bread, tortillas, condiments, jams and jellies, peanut butter, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and soap. You may be able to make bread at home or find a bakery willing to let you use a pillowcase to carry your bread. Condiments are actually pretty easy to make at home, try my Tomato Ketchup Recipe here. You can find a ton of recipes for deodorant, shampoo, and toothpaste or try my Toothpaste here. If you aren’t able to make it yourself, you may be able to find handmade soap at a local health food store or farmer’s market. Or, try supporting cool zero waste online shops like Tiny Yellow Bungalow and The Refill Revolution.
- Secondhand: Almost anything that you need already exists. And chances are that someone somewhere is trying to get rid of it. Clothing is my #1 secondhand purchase, after that it’s children’s items like clothing and toys, and then home decor. Read my post here, Pro Secrets to Secondhand Shopping. I’ve also bought furniture, books, phone cases, an Ergo baby carrier, and a computer. Anything that you might want or need you may be able to find it secondhand. Assuming you can afford a little patience to wait until you find it. Of course, the day will come when you need something right away and must buy it new. In that case, I try to buy for quality so I know it will last not only for me but so that I can pass it along when I no longer need it. I like to keep a running list of items that I will need soon or want. That way I can be on the lookout when I visit shops or hear that someone is getting rid of an item.
- Unsubscribe: Junk mail isn’t just in your email inbox, I’m sure your regular mailbox gets flooded too. Try these 6 steps to stop junk mail or this website. Here are the resources I used to stop my junk mail: ▸ Catalog Choice – https://www.catalogchoice.org/ ▸ OptOut Prescreen https://www.optoutprescreen.com/opt_f…
Phase Two: Lower Overall Impact
- Avoid Plastic: Not just in food containers, but did you know that everyday items like fly swatters, toilet brushes, sponges, toothbrushes, and razors are available non-plastic and reusable? It took me a while to figure out the toilet brush thing too. I’ve also found loofah dish scrubbers, natural dish brushes, and solid dish soap here. Most of these items are available from Tiny Yellow Bungalow or even Amazon. Click on the item above to find a better alternative from Amazon. Don’t forget your kid’s toys too. Wooden toys are growing again in popularity and are becoming easier to find. Other children items to consider are natural rubber (for non-slip bath mats, bottle nipples, and pacifiers), wood step stools over plastic ones, and stainless steel sippy cups whenever possible. Disclaimer: I have yet to find the perfect plastic-free sippy cup but I like to use these sippy cups on the go, these cups at home, with these lids, and these straws.
- Opt for Natural Fibers: How many people are used to looking at the material that their fabric items are made of? I’m sad to say that it wasn’t always my first thought to look for 100% cotton or other natural fibers when shopping for things like clothing, throw pillows and blankets, and even children’s items and toys. It was shocking when I looked in my closet to figure out that most of my clothing was actually a high percentage of plastic, aka polyester. Synthetic fibers like acrylic and polyester produce microfibers – tiny threads that shed from fabric – they have been found in abundance on shorelines where waste water is released. New studies indicate that the fibers in our clothes could be poisoning our waterways and food chain on a massive scale. This is the same for children’s items like stuffed animals, clothing, blankets and bedding. If you still need to wear out your old clothing (as you should) and it is synthetic, consider investing in a Guppy Friend bag.
- Reduce animal products: Global greenhouse emissions from animal agriculture are greater than ALL transportation emissions combined – yes, that includes cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes, and cargo ships! If you decide to research the topic more, the movie Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is very informative. It’s important to understand that big agri-business poses threats to the environment and often treats animals inhumanely. So maybe you consider reducing your meat and dairy consumption. Another option or small step is to try purchasing meat and eggs from a local butcher who advocates raising animals in biologically appropriate environments while ensuring their farmers treat animals with compassion.
- Where did it come from? Was that tomato imported from another country? Is it possible to find a local source of the fruits and vegetables that you like to eat? Transporting food is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Watch Institute. Each year, 817 million tons of food are shipped around the planet. The result is that a basic diet of imported products can use four times the energy and produce four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet! I understand that not everyone will have access to a variety of produce throughout the year. But any little bit helps when trying to be mindful of eating local or seasonal produce.
- Support companies who care. There are companies that have been working on the plastic-free / zero waste message for years. Stores like Biome, Life Without Plastic, and brands like Klean Kanteen. They’ve been trailblazers in getting the zero waste message out there.
- Plastic-free Amazon order. It is possible to get a plastic-free order from Amazon, though it doesn’t always work. First, contact Customer Service (firstname.lastname@example.org) and request that they make a note in your account to avoid plastic packaging or avoid extra packaging when possible. Next, sign up for Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging service. And lastly, request that all items be shipped together (even if it means they come a bit later). You can also use the Amazon Give-Back Program if you don’t plan to reuse or recycle the shipping box. Here is an idea of what to email Customer Service:
Hello, I have an Amazon account under (name) and (email address). I would like to request that all of my Amazon orders be packed with minimal, plastic-free packaging. Please make a note on my account to avoid plastic shipping pillows, bubble wrap, plastic bags, shipping peanuts, etc. Thank you.
Phase Three: Ethical Standards
- Do your research when shopping. When in doubt, do a little digging on your favorite brands. Most of the time you can find out where garments are made, how much they pay their workers, and if they are treated fairly. Sure, skipping a specific store in the mall doesn’t exactly make a worldwide statement, but the more people who do it, the bigger difference it does make. Use the following sites to research a number of clothing companies: KnowTheChain.org | FairTradeUSA.org | GoodGuide.com
- What is the company’s mission? Ethical companies will be clear about their commitment to sustainability, fair treatment, and if they are cruelty-free. Check out their website under the About page.
- Who does this effect? It’s great to aspire to reduce our personal trash. But as we move forward, it’s also important to think of our overall impact on the planet and people. Here are some handy apps that can help you decide what might be the best sustainable and ethical choice for you. Always remember to do your own research, it’s not wise to only take an apps score into account. But something easy like an app can point you in the right direction. Non-GMO Project Shopping Guide | EWG Food Scores | Choco-locate | Good Fish Guide | Certified Humane | Buycott
- Understand labels. Mandatory nutrition fact labeling on packaged food products in the U.S. has made it easier for consumers to shop for foods based on dietary restrictions and nutritional requirements. But just because a food bears a healthy nutrition label doesn’t mean it was ethically or sustainably produced. Words like “natural”, “green”, and “organic” don’t have industry standards without being certified. With over 400 different eco-labels on the market, it can be challenging to pick a product which is safe for usage and for the environment. Here is a handy infographic created by my friends at customlabels.net
Zero-waste and ethical purchases can sometimes be wearisome, and there’s rarely a perfect solution when something is manufactured. It seems that there’s always a compromise or trade-off somewhere. The most important thing is to be informed and mindful as much as possible. Making a conscious choice, knowing why you made that choice, and putting thought into the decision is what counts.
So, tell me a little about you. Are you just getting started or are you a seasoned zero-waste pro?