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It’s clear that plastic is becoming a huge problem in our society and environment. As consumers, it can sometimes feel like there’s nothing we can do to stem the flow of single-use products onto the market (and then into the landfill). The zero-waste movement is one way we can make a difference in our homes that can make a big impact in the world.
What Is the Zero Waste Movement?
The zero-waste movement is a philosophy of waste cycling that supports a goal of zero-waste (no waste going to landfills, incinerators, and the ocean). The zero-waste philosophy is not just for consumers but includes responsible manufacturing, packaging, and more.
Some companies use the term “zero-waste to landfill” to describe their business waste practices but this term can be misleading. For example, incinerating waste so it doesn’t go to the landfill would fit under this term but does not fit the philosophy of reducing waste through better use of resources.
At its core, the zero-waste movement aims to reduce the creation of waste through better production practices and resource use. For individuals, that means supporting companies that are low-waste and making individual choices to reduce waste as well.
Can I Really Be Zero Waste?
In a society that achieved zero-waste in manufacturing and government, for example, it would be easy for consumers to be zero-waste as well. In our current single-use and throw away culture, it’s far more challenging (to put it mildly).
Does that mean it’s impossible? No! Some families do find a way and I admire them. At the same time, don’t be discouraged if you can’t be zero waste. In our family, zero waste is more of an ideal than a hard goal. Every little bit helps and the more we can do as individuals, the more pressure on large companies and government to enact changes worldwide.
Benefits of a Zero-Waste Lifestyle
The most obvious benefit to a zero-waste lifestyle is that it reduces waste. This means less stuff going to the landfill, less pollution, and fewer resources being used. But there are many other benefits in addition to helping the environment!
When you commit to a zero waste lifestyle you become more aware of what comes into your life and home. You might think twice about buying some items that will inevitably turn into waste, or come with lots of packaging.
Using resources more wisely also means you’re not wasting them and needing to purchase new items to replace them.
When you divert food or recycling from the trash, you can reduce your trash bill as well.
Reducing how much stuff comes into the house can help reduce how much time it takes to clean it and put it away. Additionally, being more waste-free with your resources and possessions may mean fewer trips to the store and less time making purchasing decisions.
Promotes Healthy Eating
Junk food is much more likely to be packaged in single serving plastic packaging than real food. Avoiding this kind of wasteful packaging will also help you avoid those unhealthy foods. Foods that can be purchased in bulk (with your own containers) are usually whole foods that are much healthier (and may be less expensive too!).
Teaches Kids Valuable Lessons
While on a zero-waste journey, you’ll probably be much more intentional about what you choose to purchase and take home. This is a great lesson for kids of the value of possessions (or lack thereof). With the throwaway culture we live in, kids often see everything as replaceable. Without even knowing we’re doing it, we may be showing them that things aren’t worth taking care of. But by being more intentional on what we choose to buy and keep, we are showing our kids that we only buy a few things, so we should take good care of them.
Brings Back Lost Skills
Kids also learn the value of repairing, reusing, and being creative with found materials. If you’re not willing to buy a cheap replacement at a big box store, you may have to get creative with what you have and learn to fix it. These are valuable skills for our kids.
10 Baby Steps to a (Close to) Zero-Waste Home
Zero-waste living can seem overwhelming and impossible, but with just a few easy changes you can make a huge difference.
1. Take a Slow Approach
Jumping into a zero-waste lifestyle will only cause frustration and overwhelm. Instead, take it one small step at a time.
2. Conduct a Trash Audit
Look through your household trash and take a mental note of what shows up most in the trash. This can give you an idea of where to start reducing waste. Maybe there’s lots of spoiled food, plastic zippered bags, or plastic packaging.
3. Cook at Home
Cooking at home is a great way of reducing waste. Prepared and packaged foods, as well as take-out, are always going to be packaged in a lot of wasteful packaging. Preparing meals at home eliminates the packaging needed. Even if you buy your ingredients at the grocery store without bulk buying or bringing your own containers, you will still save a lot of packaging. Plus, cooking at home has the added benefit of being much more healthy. Here is my favorite batch meal cooking plan for busy families.
4. Drink More Water
We could probably all benefit from drinking more water every day. But drinking more water (from home) can also help reduce waste. Single-use plastic beverage bottles are one of the biggest pollutants. Beverages in tetrapaks are just as bad. Instead, get a water filter for your home and bring your own water bottle when you go out.
That doesn’t mean you can never drink anything but water though. Instead drink homemade loose leaf brewed tea or some homemade kombucha.
5. Swap Out Biggest Offenders
Making some simple swaps can save a lot of waste and get you one step closer to a zero-waste lifestyle. I know this seems like one more thing on the to-do list, so here are some easy and pain-free swaps (and may even save some money too!).
- Water bottles – Use a reusable water bottle in place of disposable ones.
- Coffee cups – Even paper coffee cups can be lined with plastic. Instead, bring your own cup. I like glass and silicone hot or cold beverage cups (this one is my favorite). Bringing your own coffee from home can also help save money and is healthier than most coffee shop coffee.
- Straws – These are a huge problem for the environment but are also one of the easiest places to make a change. When possible, simply refuse plastic straws. If you need a straw, consider bringing your own. I like stainless steel straws, glass straws (just be careful with them), and silicone straws.
- Shopping bags – Once you get used to remembering your reusable cloth bags when you’re grocery shopping (that’s the hard part!) it’s really easy to reduce how many plastic bags you bring home. For one thing, a quality reusable grocery bag (Like these super strong reusable grocery bags) can carry 2 to 4 times what a plastic bag can. These are especially helpful at farmer’s markets as not every vendor has bags for you.
- Bar soap – Without having to change your routine, you can reduce your use of plastic. Choose bar soap over liquid soap stored in plastic containers. Bar soaps last longer and are just as good as liquid soap (if you choose the right kind). I like homemade soap and shampoo bars, but when I don’t make it, I choose bar soap made with organic ingredients that I can pronounce.
- (Un)paper towels – Instead of buying paper towels every week, consider investing in some reusable cloths. It doesn’t take much time to wash them with the rest of your laundry and you’ll be saving a lot of paper. Alternately, you can compost your paper towels to keep them out of the landfill.
If you switch out just one plastic container for something more sustainable when you can, you’re making huge progress. One easy way to do this is replacing single use laundry detergent bottles for reusable jugs through MyGreenFills.
6. Get Rid of Junk Mail
Junk mail is not only a huge waste of paper, ink, electricity (for printing), etc., it’s also a huge waste of your time when you have to recycle it. Sign up at dmachoice.org, optoutprescreen.org, and catalogchoice.org to reduce how much you are sent. You can also try to contact the company sending it and ask them to take you off their list.
7. Buy Quality Products
The throw-away culture we live in extends from fashion to kitchen appliances and everything in between. By purchasing the highest quality items we can afford, we can reduce how much stuff enters the garbage and landfill. Higher quality items last significantly longer than the cheaper options and are often cheaper in the long run!
8. Shop Secondhand
One way to reduce waste is to buy second hand whenever possible. Look for high-quality items at second-hand stores instead of buying new. You reduce how much packaging you have to throw away and you give something old a new life. If you’re short on time (aren’t we all) there are online second-hand shops like ThredUp where you can find really nice stuff without having to sift through the consignment store.
9. Begin Composting
Twenty-two percent of solid waste that enters the landfill is food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Diverting this food to a compost pile instead of the trash is a great way to reduce food waste and your garbage bill. All you need is a countertop compost container (it can be as simple as a bowl) and a spot in your yard to start a compost pile.
10. Switch to Zero-Waste Feminine Care Products
Choose cloth pads and menstrual cups over conventional pads and tampons. Conventional tampons and pads are loaded with harmful chemicals and pesticides that can easily build up with monthly use. Once you get the hang of it (there is a slight learning curve) a menstrual cup is not only low-waste but can save you tons of money and protect your health.
Advanced Tips for Zero-Waste Living
If you have the basics down and want to further reduce waste, try some of these. I bet you already do some of them!
- Skip toilet paper. Instead, use cloths or invest in a bidet.
- Find local bulk shopping places.
- Make your own personal care items (like deodorant, lotion, and other beauty recipes).
- Start a garden.
- Cloth diaper your babies.
- Switch from toothpaste to tooth powder.
- Choose handkerchiefs over tissues.
- Make cleaning cloths out of old towels and sheets.
- Switch unrecyclable gift wrap for eco-friendly ideas like reusable cloth gift bags.
The more you practice zero-waste living, the easier it will become and the more “zero-wasting” you can do!
Baby Steps Matter!
The goal isn’t to necessarily become a trash jar family (some people can fit a year’s worth of trash in just one mason jar!). The point is to do small things to reduce our need for high-waste products and materials. The better we do and the more we demand zero-waste products, the sooner companies will come around to satisfy the demand. When we all get together to reduce wasteful production and consumption, we will all reap the benefits.
What do you do in your home to reduce waste?