Several years ago, I stumbled across a blog called Zero Waste Home. I had never heard of the zero waste movement before, and in fact, I didn’t even recycle. I created several large bags of trash per week, stored my food in plastic containers, and didn’t bat an eye about the few hundred plastic grocery bags sitting under my sink. I’m not sure how I ended up on Bea Johnson’s website gawking at the mason jar full of her family’s yearly trash output, but I know that I was instantly hooked. The mission, the aesthetic, and the overall intentional, minimalist nature of zero waste was exactly my brand of gateway drug into a full-scale lifestyle change that occurred over the next few years.
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What is Zero Waste?
The goal of the zero waste movement is to produce as little trash as possible—ideally, none at all. This is accomplished through cradle-to-cradle product design, the minimization of product packaging, and sustainable personal consumption.
Why Zero Waste is Important
“10% of the world’s oil supply is used to make and transport disposable plastics.”
Ed Humes, Garbology
The average American generates over 4 pounds of trash every day.
US EPA, “Municipal Solid Waste”
“The world population now demands 62 percent more than what Earth’s ecosystems can renew.”
Marco Lambertini, Huffington Post
“Your food is contaminated with toxic chemicals from plastics. These chemicals you are eating and drinking are changing you on a cellular level, altering your chromosomes in ways that can lead to infertility, obesity, and cancer.
Lisa Kaas Boyle, Huffington Post
“Packaging mades up about 40 percent of all solid waste.”
In.gredients, Facts About Packaging
5 Ways to Get Started with Zero Waste
1. Refuse and replace single use products
Starbucks cups, disposable razors, straws, and plastic grocery bags are some ubiquitous examples of single use products in our economy. These are items that we use for a short period of time and throw in the garbage can without a second thought. Finding a reusable option for these products is a simple way to make a big difference.
While replacing all single use products with reusable products is best, it can be overwhelming at first. To get started, a good rule of thumb is to consider whether the product will be used for more than an hour. If, like a plastic grocery bag, the product’s useful life is less than an hour, try replacing it with a more sustainable alternative.
One of the best ways to avoid these products is to refuse them before they enter your life. Unsubscribe from mailing lists and catalogs, order a drink with no straw, and decline unnecessary receipts.
Low Hanging Fruit:
- Disposable plates— ceramic plates
- Disposable coffee cups — travel mug
- Plastic water bottles — stainless steel water bottle
- Plastic grocery bags — reusable grocery bags
Level Up Options:
- Plastic food storage — glass containers and mason jars
- Plastic produce bags — reusable cloth produce bags
- Paper towels — cloth rags
- Disposable cutlery — travel bamboo cutlery
- Disposable razor —stainless steel safety razor
- Tampons — menstrual cup
- Disposable diapers — cloth diapers
- Paper tissues — handkerchiefs
2. Invest in glass containers and reusable bags
Plastic storage containers have a limited life span, absorb smells and leach funky chemicals, and let’s face it, it’s impossible to find the right lid. Replace these with beautiful and reusable glass storage containers and mason jars. Bonus points if you reuse existing glass jars [I love to save applesauce and pickle jars for this purpose].
Reusable grocery bags are everywhere these days. Keep them in your car so that you don’t forget them at home. It doesn’t make much sense to load up those reusable bags with tons of produce, individually separated into tiny produce bags—my mother-in-law was the first one to show me that produce bags are completely unnecessary in most situations. She simply shops without them. Apples have their own packaging!
For produce that does require a bag [mushrooms, maybe?] or items from the bulk bins, invest in some cloth bulk bags or make your own from some old sheets. I usually just jot down the item number on a note in my phone rather than use the tags.
3. Choose glass or stainless steel over plastic
Plastic is pervasive in our lives, but alternatives are readily available. Our great-grandparents didn’t have access to plastic colanders, and we can avoid them too. Any time that you can choose a more durable, sustainable material, do so. In many cases, this will be glass or stainless steel, and generally, the item will be of much higher quality than the plastic option.
Below are some of my favorite plastic-free products:
- YETI travel mug
- Kleen Kanteen
- Pura Stainless bottles and sippy cups
- Stainless mixing bowls
- Stainless measuring cups and spoons
- Glass pyrex containers
- Kids utensil set
- Stainless funnel
- French Press
- Dish Brush
- Glass spray bottle
4. Learn to cook from scratch
Cooking from scratch is one of the best ways to avoid unnecessary waste while eating healthier and saving money. Win-win-win.
Cooking can also bring lots of packaging into your life if you allow it. Try to come up with ways to make your favorite products at home. Tortillas? Simple. Boxed cake mix? Psh. Barbecue sauce? Easy and better than store-bought. The majority of the time, these swaps will be painless—easy to prepare, cheap, and healthier than the shelf-stable stuff.
[I do, however, continue to buy La Croix. If anyone can figure out how to make that at home, please start a blog immediately.]
5. Shop in bulk
When “bulk shopping” is mentioned, most people think of the big box stores that involve a membership and a package of 96 rolls of toilet paper. Don’t get me wrong, we have a membership to one of these stores for the occasional giant TP purchase [though there are better alternatives], but shopping in bulk to a zero-waster means using the bulk food bins available at many natural food stores and a growing number of conventional grocery stores to purchase dry goods like beans, grains, and dried fruit without packaging.
Bulk shopping is a great way to buy only the quantity that you need using your cloth bags, and prices are generally cheaper than the packaged alternatives on the shelves. Don’t worry about getting side eye for using your own bags—I’ve never had a cashier hesitate, and it’s actually sparked interesting conversation on the subject with cashiers and other shoppers.
There are so many small steps that you can take to make a huge impact on your waste output. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but remember that the goal is reduction, not perfection. I’ve reduced my trash significantly, but I’m a long way from a filling only a mason jar a year–I still forget my reusable cup, buy my meat in plastic, and occasionally stop at Chick-fil-a–it’s a balance. I hope these tips spark your curiosity about what you can do on an individual level to care for the environment!
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