How to Get Started with Zero Waste Living

Choose better and less packaging to eliminate superfluous waste.

reusable coffee cup vs disposable
A reusable coffee cup is a requirement for zero waste living.

Richard Drury / Getty Images

Zero waste is a movement that has gained popularity in recent years as people strive to reduce the amount of trash they generate through everyday consumption. The ultimate goal is to produce no trash whatsoever, but as that's challenging in today's world, zero waste can also refer to individual, standalone efforts to replace disposable products with reusable ones.

Reducing one's waste is a noble aspiration these days because the quantity of trash being generated globally is staggering – and very little is recycled. The average American produces 4.5 pounds of waste daily. Estimates of plastic recycling rates range from 9% to 14%, but of that a mere 2% is recycled effectively, meaning it's actually turned into something that's as useful as its original form.

Bea Johnson, the author of a book called "Zero Waste Home" (which is widely regarded as kicking off the modern zero waste movement) describes the mantra as "Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot." The most important thing is to refuse offers of over-packaged items and superfluous junk that you'll then have to deal with in the waste stream. "Refuse" is a powerful act of protest that sends a message to the world about where your priorities lie. "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" are standard phrases, followed by "Rot," which refers to composting. Buy products and packaging that will biodegrade at the end of their use and leave no trace of their existence; plastic does not readily biodegrade and does not fall into this camp.

There are several ways to embrace zero waste living. The first and most basic step is to shop with reusable containers and bags. Refuse the grocery store's thin plastic produce bags and fill your own cloth mesh bags instead. Take clean empty containers to the deli counter and asked them to be filled with cheese, meat, seafood, and prepared foods. Buy a load of fresh baguettes in a pillowcase, like Johnson does each week. Find milk in reusable glass jars and eggs from a provider who will take back old cartons. Sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share that distributes local, seasonal vegetables on a weekly basis, usually in a loose or minimally packaged format.

Learn how to make things from scratch. This is one of the fastest ways to cut down on waste – making your own sauces, broth, pickles, jams, yogurt, bread, snack foods, and more, including your own coffee in the mornings. Learn how to preserve seasonal ingredients and freeze food without plastic bags. This DIY initiative can extend to personal beauty products, such as deodorant, body butter, facial scrubs, and lip balm.

The next step is to buy items with the least amount of packaging. Buy 'naked' bars of soap, shampoo and conditioner, body lotion, cosmetics, and more. There's a rapidly growing range of bar- and tablet-based household cleaners that come wrapped in paper and dissolve in water for use in a regular spray bottle. Many bulk and health food stores offer liquid soaps, cleaners, vinegar, oils, and more products on tap. 

Avoid "convenient" food packaging that generates waste immediately following consumption. Choose non-plastic packaging whenever possible because it's more likely to be reused and/or recycled; and buy items that you use frequently in bulk quantities to cut down on extra packaging. 

Wean yourself off the everyday disposable products that people take for granted. Paper towels, wet wipes, plastic straws, cling wrap, garbage liners, paper napkins, disposable plates, and cutlery all have great reusable alternatives that generate just some extra laundry, not trash. If you're a parent, use reusable diapers with your baby. Pack your child's school lunch in reusable containers; skip the single-use plastic zipper bags and juice boxes. If you're a woman, try a menstrual cup or washable pads instead of disposable ones. 

Learn to carry a zero waste kit that sets you up for success wherever you go. It should contain a water bottle, coffee cup, reusable shopping bag, cloth napkin, metal cutlery, metal straw, and an empty container for spontaneous food purchases or leftovers. Stash it in the trunk of your car or keep the most crucial elements (coffee cup!) in a bag that you carry around. 

Set up a good system for dealing with compost, as this is a key way to reduce the quantity of waste that is set out for curbside pickup. Install a backyard composter if you can, or look into getting a solar composter, which accepts meat and dairy scraps. Put a box of red wiggler worms on your balcony or back deck to consume food scraps. Store fruit and vegetable scraps in a freezer or unheated garage in a paper yard waste bag and transport to a municipal compost yard.

The key is not to get hung up on perfection when striving to reduce household waste, but rather do what you can with what you have access to. Where you live will affect what you're able to do. For example, urban dwellers will likely have greater access to cool bulk stores and zero waste shops (such as Lauren Singer's Brooklyn store Package Free), whereas rural residents have direct access to farmers and shorter food supply chains. There are pros and cons to both.

Zero waste living takes a bit more work and planning to execute, but it pays back in money saved and waste eliminated. It's deeply satisfying to see your trash bin shrinking (and your compost heap growing) and to know that you're doing your part to keep the Earth clean and healthy. 

View Article Sources
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  2. "The Story Of Plastic". The Story Of Plastic, 2020,