If you know me or have checked out this blog or my Instagram, you know I’m pretty into reducing waste. I talk about it a lot. It’s one of the things I’m most passionate about these days. As a result, I’m completely thrilled that I’ve had several friends ask me recently for tips about how to go about reducing their waste. Fist bump, friends! Because I think we can all agree that the picture below shows a sad state of affairs, right?
There are a lot of “zero-waste” blogs and other resources available on the Internet, so I urge everyone to do their own research and check out the true experts. They can all explain why moving towards a circular economy is better for the planet and why single-use plastic is the devil.
I’ve drawn on these resources as I’ve progressed along my “journey” to reduce our household waste. After a few years of really focusing on the things we can do (and the things we can’t quite take on), I think I have a decent number of tips to share. Also, many people living the “zero-waste” lifestyle don’t have kids, and that adds a serious wrinkle to one’s systems. Decreasing your own trash is different than reducing what a family of five generates!
This is a huge issue and there is so much that can be said (thus the reason I talk about it on the daily!), so I’m going to start with some broad-stroke tips for getting started. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.
one. // Use what you ALREADY own.
Being “eco-friendly” is trendy. There are stores that will sell you many things to help you go forth on your “zero-waste” journey. Some of these things are very useful (metal straws). Some of these things are beautiful but not necessary (Wreck jars). Use up the things you already own. Even if this means using some not so Instagram-able plastic Tupperware until it breaks, using items that are already in your life is always better than supporting the manufacturing of new materials.
two. // Buy LESS and buy USED.
The cold, hard truth is that the world is against us in this crusade. It might change in the future, but for now we live in a disposable economy and it’s incredible hard to avoid having trash come into your life. The best way to create less waste is to just consume less. When you need or want something, first shop your house. Maybe you have something like it that you’ve forgotten about. If not, ask around. Maybe you can borrow it or get it for cheap from someone you know. If that fails, buy it used. There are lots of online or local consignment options.
Food is obviously a semi-exception to this point because you have to buy some amount of food. It’s still a good area to think about buying less (statistics about wasted food are crazy!) but when talking about shopping for food, this is an area it’s more important to consider the packaging…
three. // If you have to buy, CONSIDER the PACKAGING and the MATERIAL.
Best choice = buy without packaging.
Better choice = buy with compostable packaging.
Good choice = buy in paper, glass, or aluminum packaging.
Less than ideal choice = buy in recyclable plastic packaging.
Worst choice = buy in non-recyclable packaging.
Packaging is pretty easy to “rate” but the material of the product can be harder. But the key question to ask yourself is “what is going to happen to this when I can’t use it anymore?” For this reason, I try to buy mostly clothing of organic fibers and toys made of wood or paper. And you always want to think about the quality of the item. If it’s really high-quality plastic that won’t likely ever break or is something you’ll use for years and years to come, then you should buy it!
four. // COMPOST and seek out COMPOSTABLE items.
Food scraps, brown paper bags, pizza boxes, wine corks, tissues, tissue paper, paper towels, paper napkins, toothpicks, bamboo = all compostable. Many cities, including Denver, have city-wide compost collection. It’s pretty ridiculous that in Denver we have to pay for it yet trash is free. However, the bin is large, so you can certainly share with several neighbors to defray the cost. Backyard compost is always an option too; look for free 101 classes at your local library or through the city.
If you need a single-use option, try to find one that’s compostable. It’s easy to order food “for here” at a coffee shop or restaurant and then pick it up off the plate with a compostable napkin. Much better than getting a plastic container! However, you should always try to use reusables before turning to compostable paper products. Paper towels, plates, tissues, etc. all take a lot of resources to manufacture and ship. This makes them less ideal for the environment.
five. // Develop a “rag system.”
In our house, we use different-sized towels or cloths for all kinds of tasks:
Towels are for kitchen clean up.
Large rags are for one-time messes like Zoë’s food on the floor.
Small cloths are used as baby wipes, tissues, or as toilet paper.
We use tablecloths and cloth napkins.
Cloth produce bags are for grocery shopping and taking food on the go.
After use, baby wipes (and cloth diapers) go in a wet bag and all the other soiled cloths are thrown in a big laundry basket in our unused downstairs shower. Everything gets washed on the “Sanitize” cycle in the washing machine and is used again. Our towels are an assortment of dish towels, and all the smaller cloths are cut-up old clothes. When I am out of the house I will sometimes throw away a “baby wipe” cloth. I figure the old clothing was destined for the landfill anyway, so at least it got a few more uses.
This is our system, but there are lots of ways you could do it depending on your family’s needs and your house/washing set-up. Also, everyone has a different tolerance for and understanding of germs…do what you’re comfortable with but I’m sure you can come up with a system that works for you!
six. // Use CLOTH BAGS and a WASHABLE MARKER at the grocery store.
Stock pile a whole bunch of cloth bags to use at the grocery for produce and bulk items. These can be bags you have bought (I, personally, avoid bags made of synthetic fiber, but that’s a personal choice), bags you already have (I have several cloth bags that purses or other items came in like TOMS shoes), or you can make your own if you’re a sewer (make me some too, please!).
The washable marker is to write the PLU number on your cloth bags for bulk items. The cashier can then see it clearly and it’ll wash right out in the laundry. If your grocery requires you to print out stickers for bulk items, your hands are probably tied, but you can always ask!
(A more “advanced” option is to take your own jars to places like Whole Foods that will tare them for you, but I don’t recommend tackling this if you’re just starting out.)
seven. // RECYCLE but only minimally. REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPAIR and ROT are all better choices!
Recycling is not the answer, particularly when it comes to plastic. Plastic gets downgraded each time it’s recycled and there’s not much of a market for thin/cheap plastic. I often hear people complain that their recycling bin is overflowing every week and they wish it got picked up by the city more often than their trash is collected. I agree with this to a certain extent, but if your recycling bin is super full, then you should still take a closer look at your materials consumption. Recyclables often end up in the landfill.
eight. // ANALYZE your waste.
Everyone is different and we all consume different types of products. Check out your own trash and recycling bins to see what you are throwing away on a regular basis. Ask yourself if you could procure those items in a different or better way.
One example from my house is yogurt containers. Even though I was buying the big tubs of yogurt, we’d still have one in our recycle bin each week. As a first response, I started buying yogurt in a glass jar. That helped from the waste perspective, but it was expensive. I then started making my own yogurt which has worked really well for us. And it’s really not that hard!
nine. // Don’t be too SELF-CONSCIOUS.
Eighty years ago, people would have thought the idea of using something one time and then throwing it out was absolutely bonkers. But, today, it’s the norm. When you challenge the norm, people sometimes get a bit confused. When I first started asking for drinks without straws people looked at me like I had three heads. But now, they often reply, “oh of course, we don’t use straws anymore!”
The grocery worker often thinks I’m a bit weird when I ask them to put deli meat or salmon in my Tupperware, but then, sometimes, they have an “ah-ha” moment when they’ll respond “oh wow, that’s a good idea!” My family has rolled their eyes at me more than a few times, but I have observed subtle changes in their own behavior over the years. If refusing single-use packaging is important to you, just be friendly and polite, and usually you’ll get a decent response. Sometimes you’ll get a dirty look or a “no,” but just keep on trying!
ten. // Remember THIS:
All the plastic ever created still exists. It won’t go away in a period of time that we can conceptualize. That one fact keeps me up at night, but has helped me dramatically change my behaviors of consumption!
Now, go forth and reduce your waste. Fist bump, friends!