Let’s get a couple things clear before someone says, “Zero-waste? I can’t do that!”
First, always remember that it’s not about perfection. Any zero-waster you can find probably produces at least a jar of trash each year, but that doesn’t include anything they recycled, composted, or reused. The point of avoiding waste is to be conscious of what you’re putting in a landfill. Even making one change in your life can end up having a significant impact.
Second, I do not consider myself a zero-waster by any means. I’m sharing these tips with you because they’re an easy place to start – and I’m a beginner, too!
Avoiding Waste at a Restaurant
Don’t use a straw. If green is the new black, plastic straws are the new plastic bags. They’re everywhere – wasting resources, being eaten by animals, littering the ground, or *not* decomposing in the landfill. Ask the waiter or waitress to not put a straw in your drink right when you order it. (“Can I have an ice water without a straw, please? Thanks!”) It’s hard to remember at first, but this takes .86 seconds extra to say. Seriously, I just timed it. Keep a reusable glass or metal straw in your bag if you can’t live without one.
Bring a container for leftovers. I almost always have to take part of my meal home with me, but the styrofoam or plastic containers the restaurant provides are destined to be trash. If you’re going out to eat, bring a reusable container from home just in case.
Ask for things to be left off. If you know you’re not going to eat something, ask to have it left off. Picking it off later just means it will be thrown away. Don’t feel rude asking – you’re saving the restaurant money. If they forget, don’t send it back unless you absolutely have to. Food that gets sent back goes straight to the trash.
Bring a reusable cup to a coffee shop. Sometimes coffee shops will even give you a discount for bringing your own cup. Plus, if you really have a hankering for something sweet, they’ll usually make specialty drinks in one as well.
Avoiding Waste at the Store
Buy in bulk or DIY the items you use most often. I recently made a list of foods we eat a lot of and am slowly working to find ways to make them myself. So far I’ve made Lara Bars, coffee creamer, trail mix, baby food, pita chips, applesauce, and sweet potato chips. For things you can’t make yourself, buy the biggest package you can use before it goes bad (or that you can afford). Buying more at once means less packaging. Like I said, it’s not about perfection – it’s about being conscious of the waste you’re producing. But if you can find a store with a bulk section (usually sold per pound) and you bring your own reusable containers to fill – you go, Glen Coco!
Pick products sold in a glass, metal, or paper container whenever possible. Plastic should be avoided as much as possible. It has a limit to how many times it can be recycled, and once it’s finally tossed, it can take hundreds of years to “decompose” (which actually turns into microplastics that are a big eco no-no). Glass or metal can be recycled almost infinitely, and paper biodegrades much more safely.
Use virtual coupons, rebates, and receipts when you have the choice. A couple weeks ago, I wrote an article on how to save money on groceries, which mentioned two apps I use and love. One is my local grocery store’s rewards program, and the other is Ibotta. Guys, I made over $20 the first time I used it, and I didn’t have to print anything. Save paper (in more ways than one!).
Buy in person rather than online. If you can avoid online shopping, do it. Physically going to the store keeps so much trash out of the landfill because you didn’t use any shipping materials. Don’t forget your reusable bags for checkout!
Buy used. Thrift stores and garage sales are a zero-waster’s dream. A lot of items are like-new, and you’ll save a lot of packaging by picking up some used treasures: from clothes and shoes to books and appliances, you can probably find whatever you’re looking for with a little patience.
Avoiding Waste at Home + On-the-Go
Ditch any single-use product. Some things are harder to give up than others, but give up whatever you reasonably can without having a panic attack. Here are some ideas: paper/plastic plates and cups, styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery, plastic straws, plastic water bottles, napkins, tissues, paper towels, paper lunch bags, plastic wrap, parchment paper, aluminum foil, plastic snack/sandwich/quart/gallon bags, dryer sheets, tampons and pads, disposable diapers, baby wipes, single-use toilet bowl cleaning “wands,” disposable dusters, gift cards…. There’s a lot. Take it one step at a time, but challenge yourself! Think about how much waste (and money) you’ll save if you can find reusable substitutes for all of these.
Use fruit + vegetable “waste” a second time. This surprised me, but there’s actually a lot you can do with this stuff. I talked about regrowing romaine lettuce (and other tips on how to waste less + save more on produce) a couple months ago. We haven’t eaten our regrown lettuce yet, but it definitely worked. We’re also saving up vegetable scraps in the freezer to make vegetable stock soon. Supposedly you can make apple cider vinegar from apple cores. You can put citrus peels down the garbage disposal to make your kitchen smell awesome, or use the zest to add some mega flavor to a dish. After that (or if there really isn’t another use for the scraps), compost! I’m no expert on this, but there are ways to do this indoors if you don’t have the means to compost outside.
Remember: it’s about improvement, not perfection.
Start in small, manageable chunks, and just try to master one or two things at a time. Taking on too much, too fast will only serve to overwhelm and discourage you. If you don’t know where to start, wait until a need comes up and go from there.