7 Steps to Start Living Zero Waste (Without Spending Money!)

I know it’s cliche to say this, but the only thing that seems certain in 2020...is uncertainty. So many of our lives have been uprooted or put on hold, and it’s become near impossible to make plans for the future. Will our jobs or businesses survive the pandemic...when will it be safe to gather with friends and family...who exactly will be the next President of the United States (oh wait...that we DO know!)...and when will our lives return back to normal(ish)?

Like many people, I’m experiencing a mix of anxiety and hope for next year while also trying to stay present and focus on what I can control right now (I said ‘trying,’ ok?). In terms of waste reduction, well...things look a little different. Bulk food aisles have been shuttered, markets are restricting the use of reusable produce bags, and most businesses no longer offer food or drinks to-go in our own containers. While I’m bummed that our pantry is brimming with plastic packaging and our garbage is more full than usual, it’s also forced me to recognize the privileges that have supported my zero waste lifestyle to date.

Zero waste living is about taking gradual, mindful steps to reduce your daily waste, and should not be restricted based on your access to bulk foods and other plastic-free resources, income, location, etc. No matter what the world looks like in the next few months, there are many things you can do right now to reduce waste without spending money or having access to bulk options. And, if you’re new to the zero waste movement or have felt intimidated about participating, this is a great way to start and make a huge impact on waste reduction.

1. Before You Toss It...The first step toward reducing waste is to get really familiar with what you’re throwing away. First, consider whether something really belongs in the trash. Research what materials it’s made from and find out if it can be recycled or composted instead. I was surprised to discover that a number of items I typically threw out didn’t belong, like paper towels and dust bunnies (both compostable) and soft plastic bags (recyclable at drop-off location). For everything else that does belong in the garbage, notice the patterns. What are the most common items being tossed—food packaging, cleaning supplies, beauty products? This will help you prioritize your waste reduction efforts to make the biggest impact.

2. Stop Wishcycling. There’s a saying about recycling: “It’s a good place to start, and a bad place to stop.” While recycling is an important part of waste reduction, it’s important to take multiple approaches to curb waste, including reducing how much we consume and reusing what we already have. But when we do recycle, we need to do so responsibly. Recycling restrictions can vary widely base on location, so be sure to check out your local waste management website. Find out what belongs in the blue bin and what doesn’t. If you’re in doubt do more research, give waste management a call or throw it out. It’s estimated that 1 of 4 items in recycling doesn't belong and recycling contamination can actually send an entire bin (and in some case, an entire truckload!) to landfill. 

3. Declutter, Thoughtfully. Decluttering the home not only frees up physical space, it frees up our time and attention. When we have less things, we are more likely to treat our remaining belongings with greater care and make them last. And, when we can easily see what we have, we are less likely to purchase duplicates and other unnecessary items. I’ve found that decluttering and curating a more minimal home has even reset my shopping habits—I’ve become a more cautious consumer, pay closer attention to what materials products are made from and consider where they will end up at the end of life.

4. Use Up Disposables. While it may seem tempting to round up and toss out all of your plastic, disposable items and start fresh with beautiful, reusable replacements, I don’t recommend it. Take the time to use up all of your single-use items, including sandwich bags, kitchen sponges, beauty and hygiene products and paper towels. Let each item serve its purpose and give yourself time to research how it can be replaced once it’s gone. This will give you time to integrate plastic-free alternatives and adjust to a waste-free lifestyle.

5. Borrow or Buy Used. It’s no surprise that when we buy less things, we create less waste. But when we do have to buy something, a preloved item is the most sustainable route. Shopping secondhand not only keeps that item out of a landfill, it reduces the packaging, manufacturing, shipping and material waste that comes with buying a brand new product. So before you buy something new, see if you can borrow it from a friend or buy it secondhand. If possible, delay your purchase to see if you really want / need it. Often when we wait, we lose the impulse to buy it or find something else that can work instead.

6. Reduce Food Waste. Did you know that food, not plastic, is the most wasted material in landfills? It’s estimated that 40% of all food goes to waste in the United States and a family of four throws away $2000 worth of groceries each year. We can all do better to reduce food waste and it starts before we even set foot in a grocery store. Start with a pantry and fridge audit and try to build a meal plan for the week around what you already have. Then, get really good at properly storing items (without plastic!). Keep a tidy, organized fridge so you can easily spot what needs to be consumed first and try to get creative with your food scraps. Many vegetable trimmings can be saved for a savory vegetable broth, stale bread can be blitzed into bread crumbs and browning bananas can be baked into breads and muffins.

7. Repair / Recycle Broken Items. We’re quick to throw things away when they get dirty, damaged or broken and purchase a replacement. Not so fast! With a little research, and elbow grease, you might be able to repair it (or find someone who can fix it for you). Everything from worn out shoe soles (find a cobbler), broken electronics (contact the manufacturer or find a local repair person) to a dirty rug (can you make it look like new with some household ingredients—find out!). If it’s beyond repair, and can’t be repurposed, find out if it can be recycled. There are many options for hard-to-recycle items that might surprise you, and with a little effort, you can help keep them out of a landfill.

I hope these tips help inspire you to start living less wastefully. And, if there's anything you'd like to add, please comment below!