The first step towards zero waste is to start by rummaging through trash + recycling bins in your home (kind of like a raccoon..!) to determine all of the waste you create on a regular basis. Ask yourself these questions as you sort through your trash:
DO I NEED IT? The toughest question of all will be, “Do I need to continue buying this product?” Defining what is essential vs. what you are able to give up is a personal choice. But don’t be afraid to eliminate items from your diet or routine if they aren’t a necessity. You will save money and create more space in your home by challenging yourself to cut back. The first two items I stopped buying were q-tips and nail polish!
CAN I BUY IT IN BULK? The term “bulk” refers to any product (food or non-food) that you can buy completely package-free. Many grocery stores now offer food in dispensers, which means you can fill up your own jars or bags and walk out of the store without any packaging. You may not realize how much bulk is available in your town until you begin looking. (Use this site to get started!) Last year, I discovered package-free bread, tortillas, beans, rices, nuts, nut butters, oils, vinegars, honey, flour, sugar, bar soap and body scrubs! If you are unable to purchase something package-free, prioritize products that are packaged in glass, recycled paper, or metal. Opt for packaging that can be composted or recycled. There are a handful of items I cannot find package-free, and I do no feel guilty about it. I buy pasta in a compostable box, salsa + pasta sauce in glass jars, and deodorant in a metal tin, to name a few!
CAN I MAKE IT? Making all of your food and products from scratch is not a viable option for many people, including myself. But if you like to D.I.Y, you can make countless foods and products at home, ranging from almond milk, hummus, and bread to toothpaste, deodorant, and house cleaners. Home recipes are often safer and more cost effective, and you can often use ingredients that you already have in the kitchen! I like to make my own hummus, flax milk, and dry shampoo.
CAN I FIND A REUSABLE ALTERNATIVE? There are countless disposable products that we use every day: razor blades, paper towels, toothbrushes, tissues, to-go coffee cups, water bottles..the list is endless. Luckily, there are reusable, sustainable options for every disposable item you can think of. You can find reusable replacements at thrift stores, consignment shops, neighborhood swaps, yard sales, health stores, or on-line. A couple of my preferred shops are Life Without Plastic, Tiny Yellow Bungalow, and Ecobags. While you may spend more money up front to invest in a reusable product, you end up saving money in time because you don’t need to continue purchasing disposables each month. Not to mention all the precious resources you save by reducing the demand for disposable products.
Above: Cloth bags and glass jars make bulk shopping easy!
Seeing your trash laid out in front of you can be incredibly overwhelming. When I first began zero waste living, I saw nothing but trash for the first few months. I was completely overwhelmed by society’s consumption problem and I knew I was one of the causes. The desire for change was so strong, I felt an intense urge to purge my entire life and replace everything I owned with beautiful, Pinterest-worthy, reusable products (..not that I had that kind of money!) I wanted to immediately rid my home of all plastic appliances and replace them with glass, metal, and wood alternatives; I wanted to donate all my synthetic fiber clothes and build a wardrobe of clothes made from natural fibers. But the zero waste lifestyle is not a life driven by guilt or impulse. This lifestyle challenged me to be patient and value what I already owned, define what I truly needed versus what I merely wanted, make thoughtful purchases when the time was right, and transform my “trash guilt” into action.
When considering buying a new product, ask yourself:
As you begin to make sustainable changes in the way you shop, go at a pace that fits your lifestyle and your budget. Take your time and use up what you already have before buying something new! This transition period is an opportunity to declutter your life and to donate belongings that you do not regularly use, do not truly value, or do not genuinely need. Save and invest money in durable, sustainable alternatives, buying from second hand shops or ecofriendly companies. Just because you own a functional set of plastic Tupperware doesn’t mean you need to get rid of it immediately. (The food container that I carry with me daily is plastic!) You can replace items in time with more sustainable, non-toxic materials. “Slow and steady” is the best way to travel when living zero waste. And don’t forget to find community on Facebook, Instagram, or in your city! Having the support of friends and family will make the transition less daunting.
One of the most difficult parts of the transition period is saying “No” in a society that shoves single-use and disposable products in your face every day. But be confident in the journey and don’t be afraid to refuse plastic bags, take-out food boxes, free samples, straws, and more. Mistakes will happen but carry on. A phrase I am constantly telling myself as I continue on this journey is, “Lean into the discomfort, it is worth it.”
I recommend creating a simple, zero waste kit (see below) as you begin your journey. A kit will help you avoid the most common single-use items that you encounter every day. My kit was a bit more expensive to put together because I invested in new, sustainable products from a few of my favorite eco-companies. The cotton tote and the cloth produce bag are part of my grocery shopping kit. However, I created a zero waste kit for my dad for an upcoming trip to Europe and it cost me less than $15 dollars! His kit includes a water bottle ($2, thrifted), bamboo utensils ($6, new), food container (free mason jar from salsa), and napkin ($2, thrifted).
Above: Create a zero waste kit and take it with you everywhere you go! My daily kit includes: Water Bottle (Klean Kanteen); Bamboo Utensils (Totally Bamboo); Cloth Napkin (thrifted); Food Container (thrifted); Drawstring Produce Bag (EcoBags); Cotton Tote (EcoBags)