Zero-Waste: Where to Start
Updated: May 29, 2019
Don't let the concept of zero-waste overwhelm you; start small! Here are a 15 simple changes that you can incorporate into your daily routine to get started! You don't have to do everything at once - pick one, stick to it, form the habit, and then try another!
1. REUSABLE BAGS
Many cities, states, and countries are moving to ban plastic bags; they're flimsy and harmful to both animals and the environment. Avoid them by bringing your own reusable bags wherever you go that you might need one (think beyond the grocery store)! It can be a challenge to remember them at first - I used to remember mine were still in my trunk just as I was getting ready to check out at the grocery store. But I made myself go back to get them. I'd leave my cart by customer service and then I'd run to my car and return with my bags. Annoying? Yes. Inconvenient? Yes. Effective? YES. After a few times, I started remembering my bags! I highly recommend BagPodz and ChicoBag bags because they're so convenient and easy to remember. I always have a ChicoBag on my keychain and/or in my purse, and my BagPodz in my car.
2. REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE
Plastic bottles are a major problem for the environment, and they're really expensive! Carrying a reusable water bottle is a really simple way to avoid tons of plastic waste, and there are lots of options to choose from! You don't have to rush out and splurge on a fancy stainless steel one - use what you have! Water bottles are a common promotional product, so you likely already have one hiding in your house somewhere. And while chances are your tap water is perfectly safe to drink, you can invest in a water filter, which in the long-run will outweigh the cost of all of those single-use water bottles! There are water bottles of various materials and capacities available; I recommend a stainless steel one, like Klean Kanteen.
3. REUSABLE COFFEE CUP
How many times per week do you get coffee or tea to-go? Per month? Per year? That's a lot of disposable cups. Paper cups are not commonly nor efficiently recycled, as they are often lined with plastic to prevent leakage, and polystyrene/styrofoam cups are also not commonly or efficiently recycled and is associated with many health concerns. A simple solution is to bring your own reusable cup to the coffee shop, to the office, or wherever it is you're going. Just like with reusable bags, it can be challenging to remember your cup at first, but you'll get there! I suggest leaving a spare in your car or in your desk at work so you're more likely to have a backup when you forget or for those spur-of-the-moment coffee stops! Many coffee shops, including Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, give discounts for bringing your own cup.
4. "NO STRAW PLEASE"
Plastic straws are horrible. They're one of the most common types of plastic pollution found on beaches and in oceans, and the the amount of straws consumed by the food service industry is unfathomable. Plastic straws are harming wildlife, particularly sea turtles. Sea turtles have been turning up with straws (as well as plastic utensils) painfully lodged in their nostrils. Here is a heartbreaking and slightly graphic video of a straw being removed from a sea turtle's nostril (watch at your own discretion)- I will never look at a plastic straw the same way again. But maybe you really like drinking from a straw, maybe you're a klutz like I am and otherwise get water down your shirt, or maybe straws are helpful to you if you are living with a disability or limitation - you don't have to go completely strawless! There are reusable alternatives to disposable plastic straws, such as durable plastic, bamboo, and stainless steel. Don't be afraid to bring your own! To avoid straws at restaurants, I've found that tacking on a simple "No straw please" to the end of my drink order seems to do the trick. If you work in the food service industry, providing straws only upon request, or switching to paper straws if you have that authority, are great ways you can help reduce the impact of straws on the environment!
5. TRAVEL UTENSILS
Disposable plastic cutlery is bad for the environment and not commonly recyclable. Plus, does anyone actually enjoy eating with plastic utensils? Plastic knives don't cut well, and plastic forks can melt or break off into your food. Gross! Enjoy your meal and lower the demand for plastic by using real cutlery. There are lots of options in your local camping store. I recommend this cute and compact spork from Life Without Plastic and this stainless steel camping utensil set from REI.
6. SHOP FROM BULK/PACKAGE-FREE
We are surrounded by so much plastic packaging, especially in the grocery store! To reduce packaging, look to see if you can find bulk bins in your area. Now, to be clear, there is a difference from buying in bulk and buying from bulk - buying in bulk means you are buying large amounts of an item (like a 10lb bag of rice), and buying from bulk means you are buying as much or as little as you need from a store that purchases in bulk. Whole Foods Market, Wild By Nature, Sprouts, Fresh Market, and Earth Fare are all grocery stores that commonly have a bulk section, but check out local health food and specialty stores in your area and look on Bea Johnson's Bulk Finder to find more bulk near you. If you do not have access to bulk, the next best option is to choose items that are sustainably packaged in glass, metal, or paper.
7. SAFETY RAZOR
Conventional razors have plastic handles and the razors themselves are encased in plastic, neither of which is recyclable. Plus, they're ridiculously expensive! When you've run out of your current stock of razor refills, consider switching to a stainless steel safety razor. They take a bit of getting used to, but I promise they're not that scary! Alex and I have both made the switch and love it! The razor body can be a bit expensive, but they last forever, which also means you're likely to find one secondhand! On the contrary, the razor blades are extremely cheap - we bought a pack of 100 blades for $13 and only have to change them maybe once a month. In the long-run, safety razors are way cheaper than regular razors are - and that alone is well worth the switch!
8. BAMBOO/RECYCLED PLASTIC TOOTHBRUSHES
Toothbrushes are another plastic item in our lives that we have to replace on a regular basis, which aren't commonly recycled and are often found polluting oceans and beaches. There are toothbrushes made out of bamboo, but if you're not quite ready to try one of those, try opting for a Preserve toothbrush made out of recycled yogurt cups.
9. BRING YOUR OWN CONTAINER
You're out to eat with friends and just can't finish what's on your plate, so you decide to take it home. But you want to avoid the disposable takeout containers the restaurant provides, especially if it's styrofoam/polystyrene! What to do?! Think ahead and be prepared - if you know you're going out to eat, grab a container before you leave the house, or keep one stashed in your car. I've found that keeping a mason jar in my purse has been most useful when it comes to bringing home leftovers from restaurants. You can also see if you can order takeout in your own container by calling ahead (you may have to order in person and wait while your food is prepared). Also, look to see if there's a reusable container program with participating restaurants in your area, such as GreenToGo in Durham, NC!
10. CHOOSE CLOTH
Paper towels, paper napkins, and cotton balls are all disposable items commonly found in the home. While these items can generally be composted and returned to nature, they're not costing you money, but they're also costing the Earth's resources. Land to grow the trees and cotton, water to sustain the crops and process the production, oil to fuel the factories and transportation...all so it can end up being thrown away. Ditch them and opt for reusable items made from cloth. Real towels, cloth napkins, and cloth cotton squares are all alternatives that our great-grandparents knew to be normal. Yes, they require water and energy to be washed, but compared to the amount needed to wash a cloth napkin versus produce a disposable paper one, it is insignificant. To maximize water and energy efficiency with washing cloth, be sure to wash full loads with cold water.
11. USE REAL PLATES
Just like with the previous point, more resources are needed to produce countless disposables that end up in the landfills versus producing a single reusable plate. Opt for real plates wherever possible, and get creative when you're out if need be.
12. DITCH MICROPLASTICS!
Microplastics are a major problem for our oceans and wildlife. These tiny bits of plastic end up bypassing water filtration systems and end up in waterways where they absorb toxins and are ingested by marine animals. The toxins from microplastic pollution are not only harming aquatic animals, but they work their way up the food chain directly onto our plates. Remember when high levels of mercury in seafood made headlines? It's the same concept here - the larger the fish, the higher the concentration of toxins. There are two major sources of microplastics: microbeads and microfibers. Microbeads are those tiny little balls commonly found in toothpaste, hand soaps, and face washes. Microfibers are the tiny fibers that shed during the laundering of synthetic fabrics (e.g. polyester). Avoid contributing to this devastating problem by choosing more natural personal care products and clothing that is made from natural fabrics (cotton, hemp, linen). For more about microplastics, check out The Story of Stuff's videos on microbeads and microfibers.
When we throw food scraps and other organic materials into a plastic trash bag and then send it off to a landfill where it's tossed in a heap and buried under lots of other plastic trash bags, the trash inside is suffocated. The conditions that would naturally break down this material are not present in a landfill, which is why excavators have unearthed samples from landfills and found perishable items still in tact.
As a result of breaking down improperly, these organic materials release significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. Composting is a simple solution to diverting food waste, and can also improve the quality of your garden soil! It's one of the most foundational components to a zero-waste lifestyle. There are various methods of composting: pile, vermicomposting, and bokashi are all methods of composting that can be done at home. More cities are starting to roll out food waste collections alongside trash and recycling pickups, but if your city does not have one, there may be a local collection service in your area, such as CompostNow in North Carolina and Vokashi in New York.
14. MENSTRUAL CUP
This one pertains to all of the menstruating individuals out there. Firstly, do you know what is in your tampons?? Recently there has been a lot of attention on the harmful chemicals found in disposable pads and tampons. There are natural brands available that you can choose if you're just looking to avoid exposure to these chemicals, such as NatraCare, but also consider how much trash these items create and all of the resources that go into making them in the first place. There are more sustainable options for feminine hygiene out there, such as a menstrual cup, reusable cloth pads, and absorbent period panties. I personally prefer a menstrual cup, sometimes combined with a cloth pad as backup. But what is a menstrual cup, you ask? It's a small silicone cup that you insert into your vagina to collect your period. Sounds gross, I know, but I promise you it is a total game-changer! The best part? It can stay in for to 12 hours before you have to empty it, rinse, and reinsert it! Or maybe the fact that it lasts years is the best part. Or the fact that you forget it's there or that you have your period. OR that you can wear thongs with it! Seriously, I can't sing the praises of menstrual cups enough! I highly suggest checking out Put A Cup In It for some amazing resources for learning about and choosing menstrual cups. My personal favorites are Lunette and Super Jennie!
15. SHOP SECONDHAND
The most sustainable way to shop is to shop secondhand: the resources to produce it have already been spent and you aren't creating a higher demand for an item by buying it from a thrift store or individual. Plus it gives items another life! Instead of heading to the mall when you need something, head to the thrift store instead! Or check out secondhand buy/sell websites, such as PoshMark, ThredUp, Let Go, Offer Up, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Ebay, and Freecycle. You can also select the "used" option when searching for an item on Amazon or Ebay.
This post may contain affiliate links.