By: Pauline Williams
The term “zero-waste living” is increasingly popular these days. More of us are beginning to recognize we have one planet and it’s essential we take care of it. But if you’re just getting started on your zero-waste journey, it can feel overwhelming. To ease your stress as you embark on zero-waste living, here are 12 tips for shifting to a zero-waste lifestyle for newbies. We’ve also included a few fun DIY projects to do at home that will help you get closer to your zero-waste goals.
1. Start Small
With any new habit, you increase your odds of success by starting small. As author James Clear discusses, small wins are key to helping people establish new habits. If you want to become a zero-waste person, you should not try to change your entire life immediately. Begin by trying one small strategy or idea for zero-waste living at a time. Pick something easy so you won’t struggle to stick with it. Then, after a few days or a week, you can add another small change. Keep building on those small items gradually, and you’re more likely to continue. Try too much at once, and you’ll probably burn out.
2. Follow the 5 R’s
Bea Johnson’s 5 R’s for a zero-waste living provides a good foundation for a newbie looking to live a more zero-waste lifestyle. They are:
- Refuse (anything that produces unnecessary waste)
- Reduce (anything you don’t need)
- Reuse (anything that can be used again or repurposed)
- Recycle (whatever doesn’t fit in the first three categories)
- Rot (start composting all other waste)
If you want overarching ideas for how to reduce your carbon footprint, following the 5 R’s is a good start. All of the following tips fit into one of these five categories.
3. Use a Reusable Water Bottle
There’s no need to buy 24-packs of plastic water bottles. Plastics make up a huge proportion of municipal solid waste. If you don’t already have one or two good reusable water bottles, this is an easy step to take to reduce your carbon footprint. Take one everywhere so you don’t have to worry about needing water while you’re out and about.
4. Consider Carefully Before Buying New
Whatever it might be, think first before you buy something new. Do you really need it? Is there an alternative? Could you borrow the item from a friend temporarily or find a used version that’s equal in quality? Every new item you purchase comes with the packaging. You then have to figure out where to store the item, how to maintain the item, and how long to keep the item. If it’s not good quality, it’ll also end up in a landfill before very long. A great option for new apparel purchases is to look for truly sustainable clothing that will stand the test of time.
5. Borrow or Buy Secondhand
Often, we rush to buy new stuff because it’s the easiest option available. It’s also what we’ve always done. But the borrowing culture is alive and well, and there’s no reason you can’t ask a friend or family member when you need something. Power tools, for example, might be something you only use once in a while and can borrow from a friend or neighbor. If no one you know has the thing you’re looking for, there are plenty of ways to find secondhand items for free or for a fraction of the cost of buying new. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Freecycle, and garage sales are a few options. You can also check out local thrift stores and shop for vintage options. This helps keep unwanted items from going into landfills, reduces the amount of packaging waste created, and gives new life to old things.
6. Avoid Freebies
It can be tough to resist the pull of free stuff. If you go to conferences or other events, they might be handing out free swag like coasters, keychains, and T-shirts. If you’ll actually use the items they’re giving away, then, by all means, feel free to take them. But often, these freebies are poor-quality and not made to last. So learn to say “no” to freebies; that way, the companies won’t make as many of those cheap items.
7. Use Reusable Whenever Possible
So many single-use paper and plastic products are cluttering our landfills, but they’re not necessary at all. Start rethinking your everyday habits. Try to avoid restaurant takeout that uses Styrofoam. Find reusable alternatives to paper towels, toilet paper, and hygiene products. Bring your own reusable tote bags to the supermarket. The list goes on and on. Toad&Co has amazing reusable shippers from Limeloop you can select when ordering clothing. Made from recycled vinyl, these last for 10 years and are easy to return once your order has arrived. Plus, if you receive anything in one of Toad's recycled polybags, you can find ways of reusing them to get more life from them.
8. Go Paperless
For your bank account and any other important accounts you hold, you’ll save a lot of wasted paper by going paperless. Companies don’t need to send you a hard copy of your monthly statements anymore; you can get all of the important information in digital format.
9. Grow Your Own Food
Gardening may not be your forte right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn new skills. Pick up seeds for a few vegetables or herbs you use regularly and learn how to grow them. You’ll cut down on the amount of food you need to buy at the supermarket and gain confidence in your own abilities.
10. Start Composting
Speaking of gardening, begin composting as soon as possible. The EPA says that food scraps and yard clippings make up 28% of the garbage we throw away. Luckily, these can all be composted, keeping them out of landfills and helping your garden grow. Composting is a huge win in your zero-waste journey. A careful mixture of browns, greens, and water can help you have a successful compost pile. Browns are dead leaves, branches, and twigs. Greens include vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and grass clippings. Check out the EPA’s guidelines for more details on how to get started.
11. Cook At Home
You can reduce your carbon footprint quite a bit by simply cooking more of your meals at home. If you go out to restaurants frequently, especially for takeout that comes in disposable packaging, you’re producing a lot of waste. Cooking at home helps alleviate that problem. (It also saves you a ton of money.)
12. Fun Home DIY Projects for Zero-Waste Living
There are a ton of items you can make yourself rather than buying. This usually reduces the amount of packaging you bring into your home and often results in a better product anyway. Start thinking outside the box and give some of these DIY projects a try!
- Bake your own bread. It tastes amazing, and you don’t need the plastic wrapping.
- Make your own laundry detergent.
- Make your own home cleaning solutions.
- Plant starter gardens in old containers (such as kitty litter tubs, yogurt cups, etc.).
- Create reusable cloth napkins from old clothing and other gently used fabrics.
We all want to leave the earth a little better than we found it since it’s our home. Instead of feeling guilty about environmental issues, take that first small step, and start on your path to a zero-waste lifestyle. No one is perfect, but the more of us that start making these changes, the better off our planet will become.
Pauline Williams is a lifelong environmentalist. She’s worked for a number of nonprofits for the past decade. She’s constantly coming up with new projects and ideas to reduce waste in her home and business.