Tips for Achieving a Low-Waste or Zero-Waste Lifestyle
Learn new habits that'll make a positive impact on the environment (and save money too).
In a world of excess, we’re always looking for ways to trim back and be more efficient to benefit both ourselves and our environment. What defines “zero-waste,” you ask? It varies by individual and by habit, but the goal is to produce as little waste as possible by focusing on using products that are reusable and recyclable.
I tapped the mind of Ginny Leary of @ZeroWasteBuffalo on the topic to learn more about her first-hand experience. Ginny has been evolving her methods for the last 10 years since attending college in Ithaca, NY, and for her, it’s possible for her to produce less than 32-ounces of waste a month – that’s just four cups of garbage. (And she says that it’s mostly thermal-printed receipts from stores! Did you know those aren’t recyclable, even though they are paper?) Other zero-waste superstars can produce even less, but we give Ginny all of the gold stars today for her success and for being an inspiration to the rest of us.
Adopting a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t something that will happen overnight, but there are lots of ways you can gradually adapt to change your ways in order to embrace a new, more environmentally-responsible routine.
Start by doing one thing: Take a closer look at your own garbage, and make a list of things you’re throwing out. From that list, begin to adjust your habits and watch yourself produce less, less, and less waste.
Adapt to a low-waste or zero-waste lifestyle with these easy tips:
Begin Separating in the Kitchen
Assign a recycling bin, a compost bin, and a trash bin, and be mindful of what goes into each container. All recyclables should be cleaned prior to disposal, and avoid putting meats, dairy, and foods cooked in oil into the compost. You’ll need to have an outdoor space for your composted remains, and if you want to learn more, get the low down at Composting 101. Bonus: The composted remains will be gold in your garden when you plant every spring!
Reduce the Size of Your Trash Bin
You might find quickly that you don’t fill your garbage as often as you did before, once you’re consciously separating recyclables. Scale down your large garbage bin into one half-size. Eventually, you may find yourself needing only a small container to hold your garbage from the week or month. Ginny also suggests reducing the number of bins you have in your house as well. “Keep just one for the kitchen, instead of having multiple bins in the bathroom, bedroom and office.”
Adapt Your Personal Hygiene Habits
- Switch to a bamboo toothbrush. Though you don’t rotate out your toothbrush more than a few times a year, switching to a bamboo toothbrush reduces this waste entirely. Ginny points out that you can also remove the bristles when you’re ready to discard, and use the wooden handles as garden markers.
- Stop using disposable razor blades and upgrade to a metal safety razor blade instead.
- Menstrual cups are manufactured by multiple companies; make the switch and never have to buy or dispose of tampons or pads again.
- Purchase toilet paper wrapped in paper instead of plastic.
- Learn to make your own hygiene products using simple ingredients, such as moisturizing coconut soap, foaming hand soap, shaving cream, glass and mirror cleaner and natural disinfectant.
Switch to Cloth Diapers
The trash figures relative to disposable diapers are daunting. Like anything, transitioning to cloth diapers and wipes takes a little adjustment (and lots of laundering) but I can say first-hand that making the switch and sticking to it was one of the best things we did when my daughter was a newborn. Include them in your baby registry to encourage family and friends to support you on the journey, and also connect with other families who use cloth, because resale and second-hand opportunities are abundant.
And Switch to Cloth-Everything-Else, Too
- Paper towels are totally avoidable. Use cloth rags when washing dishes, cleaning up spills and cleaning your home.
- Gather a collection of cloth napkins that can be washed easily – I’ll be the first to attest that for some reason it’s easy for us to use cloth napkins while we’re dining as a family, but when we’re entertaining we switch to disposable products. I need to work on having a collection that all of our friends and family are comfortable with using.
- Tissues, too? Technically, tissues can’t be recycled – especially when used – because the fibers are too weak to be reusable. However, all of a sudden I’m realizing the benefit of the cloth handkerchiefs that my Dad has used my whole life; he’s never had to buy or discard tissues.
Say Goodbye to Plasticware
- No more plastic spoons, forks and knives. When eating at home, opt for using silverware. Hosting a picnic? You can either stock up on extra sets of utensils at secondhand stores or choose bamboo utensils.
- Substitute paper plates for porcelain or ceramic dinnerware and make a habit of using it, even if it does mean you’ll have more dishes to wash.
- Avoid using plastic containers for storing food, and make use of reusable jars and glass for storing in the fridge, pantry or freezer.
Photo Credit: Edward Addeo, Gibbs Smith, Farrow and Ball, Brian D Coleman, Edward Addeo (photographer)
Be Thoughtful With Consumer Purchases
- Buy less new and buy more used. By making use (and reuse) of items that can fall into the trash stream, you’ll help put a stop to the amount of stuff that’s going to end up at the dump. This means, maybe you’ll find a few new shirts at a garage sale or secondhand shop or accept hand-me-down toys and accessories for your children. Search Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, yard sales and antique shops for furniture and home decor.
- For packaged goods, choose products with recyclable packaging rather than something you know will have to be trashed once the product is used.
- Seek out merchants that will accept reusable containers. Most coffee shops have adapted to accepting refillable mugs, others are accepting of cloth bags for produce and reusable bags for groceries. Ginny has seen the impact firsthand of encouraging businesses to accommodate recyclables, such as co-ops and markets who will allow you to bring your own glass containers to fill when purchasing bulk goods.
- If you’re at an event, remember that you can turn down the free swag that might be appealing but will likely end up in the trash. Refusing items that you know will be wasted is one way to cut back on the number of items you bring into your home.
- Avoid buying plastic water and juice bottles and commit to a reusable container instead.
Be Conscious of the Gifts You Purchase for Others
Give gifts of experiences rather than things. For example, movie tickets, restaurant gift cards, theater performances, and lessons are thoughtful gifts for everyone on your list, sans unnecessary packaging.
Adjust Your Habits While Eating Out
“I find the most important step reducing waste is to be prepared,” says Ginny. “I always make sure I have a cloth napkin, stainless steel straw, spork, and water bottle with me when I'm out. If I know I will be getting a drink to go, I'll carry along a 16oz glass jar, it can also double as a takeout container for leftovers.”
If you’re wondering how you’ll take your drink to-go in a glass jar, invest in a Cuppow drinking lid and always be ready for action.
Plan Grocery Purchases
- Choose to buy as much in bulk as you’re able. Look around and learn where in your town you’re able to buy things such as herbs, nuts, tea, pasta, rice and many other types of foods via bulk, rather than in pre-packaged containers. Store those bulk items in glass containers in your pantry. If bulk isn't an option in your area, look for products in recyclable packagings such as glass or cardboard.
- Shop at farmer markets/CSAs/co-ops
- Grow your collection of reusable shopping totes and keep them in the car for spontaneous trips.
- When buying produce, you can also fill cloth produce bags to avoid using the plastic bags offered by the store. Or you can just go without the bag altogether. For small purchases, it’s easy to just let your items sit unbagged in your vehicle when you take them home.
Preserve What Can’t Be Used Immediately
Produce less food waste by learning how to make the most of foods you have; freeze, can or find other ways to preserve the food you buy before it goes to waste.
And because I’m always learning something new, here’s my favorite tip from Ginny: “Keep a bag or container in the freezer for vegetable scraps from which you can make vegetable broth!”