What is zero waste and how do I get started?
Zero Waste: A Definition
Zero waste is the commitment to work to reduce your waste until there isn’t any. Due to physics, this can’t actually happen so it’s more of a lifestyle than a destination. Some people find it easier than others – for example a single person might find it easier than a family of eight. Ease of zero wasting can also be affected by where you live (apartment vs. large swath of land), social support (e.g. whether your spouse supports you or not), and skills (e.g. sewing, cooking, etc.).
For many people there’s a conversion experience that may be a little bit like a religious conversion where they suddenly have an “aha” moment and become aware of their waste output and the damage overconsumption causes.
The core question in the zero waste lifestyle is the pre-consumption question, “What will I do with this once I’m finished with it?” By thoughtfully buying and thoughtfully consuming only what we need, waste can be dramatically reduced. However it is a bit like losing weight or getting out of debt – it’s a definite process and requires some self restraint and dedication.
Some zero waste people have one 16 oz mason jar of waste a year, many more aspire to get there. Some of us arrive quickly, for others it takes much longer. It’s something you’ll find yourself criticized for, but after seeing your waste – really seeing it, it’s hard to go back.
Top 5 Ways to Start Zero Wasting
Everyone’s approach will be different because we all prioritize things differently and we’re all in different situations. These are some areas that are worth starting with, and include some ideas and resources to get your started.
First, buy less. Ours is a consumer focused society and we buy more of everything than we need and then throw it out. We buy too many clothes, shoes, bags, toys, food, etc. To reduce our waste, we first need to buy less stuff and the ultimate waste reduction comes from not bringing things into your home that will ultimately create waste.
1. Buy all clothing used, then recycle it when it springs holes. Fast fashion has far reaching environmental implications – including the exploitation of workers in developing nations, high water usage, pollution and distribution costs. Fast fashion convinces us to buy far more clothing than we need (because it’s cheap!) rendering used clothing essentially worthless. One of the easiest, very best things you can do for the environment is to never buy new clothing. To learn more about the fashion industry and its affect on impoverished people and the environment, check out the True Cost (available on Netflix at the time of this blog post).
Your local thrift store is the best option ecologically speaking, but if you have a full plate, check out these online consignment options. There are also ethical clothing companies, but they do tend to be pricey (because you’re paying the true cost).
When you’re done with your clothing, some charities accept unwearable clothing for recycling, such as the Vietnam Veterans of America (which in many states offers free pickup at your house) and Planetaid (which has bins pretty much everywhere). You can also upcycle if you’re a crafty type.
This switch was by far one of our easiest.
2. Switch out single use items. This is a process because it can be hard to escape the gravity of a disposable culture. This morning I walked into the Y for an event and there were free single use water bottles for everyone as a gift. It was odd because it’s the most likely place for anyone to bring a reusable water bottle. Waste is everywhere and getting it out of your life is a constant process.
I’ve found that I’m most successful if I pick one thing and focus on it until it’s effortless, then move on to the next thing. It may feel incongruent at first (like if you use washcloths instead of paper towels but drink out of single use containers), but like anything it takes time and practice. Eventually it won’t feel so dissonant.
- Reusable shopping bags and reusable produce bags (skip any produce with packaging)
- Have a huge pile of washcloths instead of paper towels
- Carry a set of silverware and a metal straw with you instead of using single use plastic cutlery
- Bring your own waterbottle (easy!)
- Make your own (pick one)…. yogurt, soda, bread, breakfast bars, granola, etc.
- Buy milk in jars (if available locally)
- Use a bamboo toothbrush
- Switch to rechargeable batteries
3. Grow something yourself. It could be anything – a spice you use a lot, asparagus (easy to grow, lasts forever!), blackberries (you can’t kill them), bell peppers (also easy to grow and disease resistant), or some other kind of food you eat a lot that’s easy to grow. Growing your own food is basically the pinnacle of zero waste since there are no emissions, no pesticides (unless you choose to use them) and no packaging. Even if you just grow one thing, you’re making a step in the right direction!
I don’t know much at all about gardening but last year we had a relatively successful year anyway. To see some failures (including mutant plants) and successes (the best canteloupe I’ve ever eaten!), click here.
If you want a crash course on organic gardening, check out The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. It’s an easy to read book that covers methods such as wide rows, no tilling, raised beds and deep soil. We dabbled in gardening last year, and in the fall built two 4′ x 40′ beds based on the concepts in this book. I am a complete newbie so I will keep you posted!
If you live in a cold climate, you can also do some indoor gardening. This year we’ve been growing lettuce inside using a grow light and mason jars which has been really successful. To read more about our method, click here.
4. Start composting. There are a ton of complicated tutorials on the interweb but basically anything in a pile will rot so it doesn’t need to be fancy. If you have wild animals around or live in an apartment, you may need to explore options like closed containers, vermicomposting or bokashi, but for the rest of us it can just be a pile and you can put anything in it that isn’t plastic (don’t believe the no oil, no this, not that stuff. You may want to avoid meat to avoid maggots, but otherwise you’re good!). To read more about our super simple, no fuss composting method, click here.
5. Join a community. How do you keep doing anything hard? You surround yourself with supportive people. So if you’re on a zero waste journey it’s super important to join a group. Journey to Zero Waste on Facebook is a great one or start one locally to discuss local places to buy things you need with less packaging. You can also use your group as a sort of Freecycle community to exchange things you need or want to get rid of. They’re also a great place to ask questions.
What are your top 5 things? Leave a comment below!