Why zero waste?
Knowing how to start zero waste can be difficult and overwhelming, especially if you are just at the beginning of your zero waste journey. Trash and excess are all around us, somehow both in and away from our psyche. Finished with that bottle of soda? Just throw it away! Unfortunately, our trash does not just disappear into nothingness once we throw it away. It can be hard to think that an individual change can have a big impact, but a sustainable lifestyle can lead to large-scale effects. Even when only looking at plastic usage, we see that 79% of our plastic used ends up in landfills, where it takes multiple lifetimes to break down, releasing dangerous greenhouse gases in the process. These gases contribute to the dangerous effects of climate change. By committing to a more eco-friendly lifestyle, we are able to support the environment and our earth during this time.
I knew I wanted to start my zero-waste lifestyle after studying abroad in Germany. Around that time, I had started to really understand the impacts of climate change and how individual actions could make a difference—I rode my bike everywhere, transitioned to a vegetarian diet, and carried a reusable water bottle everywhere I went. In Germany, though, I had to sort my trash into very particular bins—paper, cardboard, metal, glass, plastic, compost, landfill. Through this process, I began to realize how much waste I sent to the landfill each day. Even though there were bins for everything, not all of my waste could be recycled or composted—plastic grocery bags and greasy pizza boxes, for example, had to go to the landfill.
At that point, I vowed to myself that I would reduce my waste and be a conscious consumer moving forward. As I started my zero-waste journey, I used these five tips to help me be more eco-friendly everyday.
For many of us, a lot of our trash comes from single-use products—paper towels, coffee cups, plastic straws—and our use of single use items can be easily changed. For many of us, simple swaps in the kitchen can help kickstart our zero waste lifestyle. Instead of buying rolls of paper towels that will only be thrown away, try these unpaper towels from Marley’s Monsters.
In the beginning, choose one zero waste swap that you could easily make. For me, I started taking a reusable set of silverware with me everywhere, so I could avoid throwing away plastic forks and spoons when I went out to eat or got take out. I knew this was a good place for me to start because I loved getting takeout, but hated how much waste I created when eating delicious food.
To figure out where you might want to put your efforts first, do a trash bin assessment.
The trash bin assessment
Choose a certain period of time and continue to live as you have been—throw away things you would normally throw away—but instead of just doing this mindlessly, start logging it! Each time you throw something away, make a note of the item, its purpose, and how it could be diverted from the landfill (single-use alternative, compost, recycling). Taking the time to do a waste audit can make a huge difference in starting zero waste.
Once you’ve completed your assessment, nail down a few problem areas and work from there. Tackling something that might seem like a huge problem can make you feel successful and give you the momentum to keep going.
Divert waste from the landfill
Starting zero waste means rethinking what needs to be thrown away and what can be composted or upcycled. Reframing what the trash bin is for and reflecting on my trash assessment gave me the tools to start composting and begin upcycling.
While recycling is also a good solution to divert waste, it should be used as a last resort. Many things are unable to be recycled—for example, only 9% of plastics are recycled, which means that composting and upcycling are better long-term sustainable options.
Composting is a great way to give your food scraps new life. Most organic material can be composted to create something rich and nutrient-filled, perfect for adding to your garden or houseplants. There are a variety of ways that you can begin composting, depending on the space you have available. The most traditional way to compost is with a home compost bin that can be easily set-up in a backyard. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the space for backyard compost. If that’s the case, I recommend vermicomposting or looking into composting services in your area.
No matter how you compost, be sure to “take care” of your compost. Pay attention to guidelines set out for your method in order to keep your compost happy and healthy.
In a lot of places, now, waste management services and city utilities refuse to take glass recycling. In my own zero waste living, I’ve found myself “upcycling” glass to be reused in my home, helping me create less waste. Upcycling means taking something that would be thrown away or discarded and finding a new purpose for that object! Spaghetti sauce jars can be used as drinking glasses or to store dried goods from the bulk bins at the grocery store. Old wine bottles can be repurposed into bud vases to adorn my kitchen table. Think about how you could creatively reuse things around your home.
Smart shopping can help reduce your waste and send a message to large companies that you are interested in a sustainable lifestyle.
Pay attention to product packaging, materials and ingredients. Seek out things with compostable or recycled packaging and shop from bulk bins if they are available. Opt for products made from sustainable material and natural ingredients.
Becoming an advocate for buying local and in-season can also help reduce waste—both through packaging and transportation costs. Check out the farmer’s market on the weekend for your produce and visit the artisan shop down the street for handcrafted clothing and home décor. Not only are you reducing your emissions, you are able to support your local economy!
Additionally, becoming an avid “borrower” can help you reduce waste. Need power tools for a Saturday project? Ask a friend if you can raid their garage or look up rentals in your area. If you need to buy, consider buying second hand or buy from a sustainable company that is transparent about their production practices.
Bring your own
No matter where you go, keeping a little “zero waste kit” in your bag or car can help you start and stay zero waste. Bringing your own things, whether it be a reusable market bag, container for leftovers, or coffee cup, will help reduce the amount of waste produced. Once you get started, it’s easier to get into the habit. Soon you’ll be looking for zero waste swaps everywhere!
When you start building your zero waste kit, you can begin using things in your home and then slowly upgrade to more durable and eco-friendly products. Maybe instead of a dedicated lightweight silverware set, you just wrap some of your own utensils in a washcloth and keep that for any on-the-go eating.
Find your balance
However you start zero waste, your journey will be unique to you and what resources you have available. At the beginning, figure out how to get started within your comfort zone. Take small steps at first—start composting or bring a reusable grocery bag—and then work your way up to some more difficult swaps.
Even though I’ve been working on my sustainable lifestyle for a few years, I’m still not perfectly zero waste. I have to throw things away now and then. I’ve forgotten my grocery bags. I’ve had to forgo composting when I didn’t have the space to build my own or a place to take my organic waste. Through it all, though, I’ve made sure to keep my low waste values at the forefront and do what I can with the cards I’ve been dealt.
We all have to find our own balance when starting zero waste, whatever that means for you.