Are you someone who loves the environment, and the idea of going green, but can’t quite put your finger on how to make it happen in your everyday life? Maybe you hesitate when you reach for a paper towel, or a single-use cup, but haven’t quite determined how to eliminate waste from your routines. Transitioning to a zero-waste lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight, but is a noble endeavor worth investing your time and energy in. Through some tips from the pros who have made it happen in their homes or companies, we can start our own journeys towards zero waste with baby steps. Eventually, we can teach others how it was done when we accomplish a fully waste-free existence.
Melanie Mannarino, the author of The (Almost) Zero-Waste Guide, wrote about working up to a zero-waste life in whatever ways we are comfortable in all aspects of our lives. Instead of focusing on that intimidating “zero” number, she explains how she did it: “For us, it wasn’t so much a focus on becoming zero waste, but on reducing our waste as much as we could–and to keep going, every time the opportunity presents itself.” For her tips, along with other experts’, check out our guide to living a zero-waste life below.
Identify the “easy wins”
Mannarino started in this way and then used the success to create a “positive snowball effect” to other more challenging zero-waste situations. She asks the following questions:
- Do you need to dry your hands with a paper towel while prepping dinner, or would the dishtowel work just as well?
- Can you collect fruit and vegetable scraps and start a little compost bin outdoors (or does your community offer compost services)?
- Have you checked the local antique or second-hand shop or site for a coffee table, instead of defaulting to the idea of buying new?
She says you will be inspired by your success with these easier trade-offs and will want to continue in all areas of your life.
Buy from companies with a zero waste pledge
When CEO Matt Bertulli started his zero-waste company, Pela, he felt he had a “debt to pay” for the role he’d played in selling products throughout his career that would do environmental damage. So, he started with the lofty goal of keeping 1 Billion pounds of plastic from ever being made. Now he sells zero-waste phone cases, AirPod cases, smartwatch bands, and other products. “I truly believe all products should be designed to have no waste at the end of their life,” he says.
Living a zero-waste life doesn’t mean you will never need to buy a new item, but it does mean you can support sustainability-focused businesses when you do. While many of us are living in cities and states without waste mandates for companies, we can be inspired by entire towns that are living zero-waste as well. To shop zero-waste stores, simply begin compiling a list to replace many of your currently non-eco-friendly items you can’t live without. Start with this list of stores.
Focus on tiny but significant behavior shifts
It’s not all about choosing different items, but also different habits and routines. How many times per week do you purchase to-go coffee, Bertulli asks. “By far the most difficult things to change are daily habits…but the combined impact of everyone making one small change is significant.” This could include canceling a recurring order for a product such as paper towels because you know you can use a cloth towel. Also, having a plan to replace your purchased coffee by brewing your own in a reusable cup, takes a bit of forethought but is doable. “As a consumer, the hardest part is resisting the urge to keep buying ‘things’, especially useful items that can now be replaced with reusables,” he says.
Designer Sarah Barnard, who creates spaces with an eye toward environmental preservation, recommends putting a little DIY love into repurposing furniture instead of throwing it out. “A fresh coat of paint or reupholstery can breathe new life into something old and is a wonderful alternative to buying something new,” she says. She also recommends the laundry room hack of switching to woold dryer balls, which she uses in her studio, rather than paper dryer sheets which she says are “full of chemicals and end up in landfills.”
Grow your food; finish your food
You probably remember your grandma scolding you for wasting food. Mine used to check the trash can to see who hadn’t finished their dinner and was wasting her food! Mannarino says that rethinking leftovers will go quite a ways in reducing food waste in your home, a problem she says is “huge, both in this country and globally”. She has found ways to rethink what constitutes a typical breakfast or lunch, describing a hodgepodge of leftovers she combined to make her own “riff on a lunchtime salad nicoise.” With some leftover homefries from Sunday brunch, leftover lemon garlic shrimp from dinner the night before, and her son’s green beans from leftover school lunch, she has a new creation of foods that otherwise would have landed in the trash.
She also encourages others to grow their own food, a practice her family starts doing as soon as the winter ground thaws. “There are so many reasons to grow your own food: not only is it the most direct way to eat, eliminating resources such as fuel to transport food from farm to supermarket, but it is also a lot of fun, a great way to get kids to try new foods, and incredibly convenient to look out at the garden when deciding what to eat at your next meal.
Increase your own buy-in by committing to causes close to your heart
Like anything that takes commitment, inconvenience, and perseverance, you are going to have to have a strong “why” for both yourself and your family to progress towards a zero-waste lifestyle. Kristen Fulmer, is the CEO of Recipric and Head of Sustainability at The Bridge, a real-estate company that transforms old properties into eco-villages. She recommends pairing your passions for the environment with your zero-waste transformation choices:
- “If you love the beach, tap into ways that reduce your single-use plastic consumption that is the biggest contributor to ocean waste.”
- “If you like gardening, try to recycle food waste into compost that can be used to grow your own produce or flowers.”
- “If you’re simply fed up with spending a lot of money on garbage pick up, just try to find small ways to reduce how much is being sent to the landfill.”
She says that by buying into the “part of the zero-waste story” that interests you, you will be more likely to succeed.
Push for politicians and businesses to support your mission
Fulmer explains that the reason it’s so tough to be zero-waste is that we don’t yet live in a zero-waste economy. Sometimes, there are no alternatives she says, giving prescription medicine as an example of a necessity. “The critical step is that more people transition to zero-waste habits that push the economy to adapt. If enough consumers of prescription pills will support a less wasteful alternative than the current market, for example, the ‘traditional’ drug industry will need to catch up,” she explains.
If you are still dropping your coffee grounds in a trash bag, you have a clear place to start. A wealth of composting resources are available to help you figure out how to get started on this key component to a zero-waste home. Fulmer says that this can be tough living in a city due to space constraints, concern for pests, and other reasons, but she utilizes city and local organizations’ compost initiatives to bring her items to compost collection points.
Mannarino recalls her grandparents’ compost bin as a worm-filled box at the edge of their yard, which both “repulsed and fascinated her” as a child. “As an adult, I had no interest in saving produce scraps and creating a wormy compost bin of my own. But I love to cook and eat good food—which led me to want to grow my own herbs and vegetables, and if I’m going to do that, why wouldn’t I want to nourish the soil with compost, and keep that food waste out of the landfill?” Now her family composts, noticing a huge reduction in the amount of household waste they put out for the garbage collectors each week. She calls it “gratifying” to see the fruits of her family’s efforts.
Apply zero-waste to transportation choices
So you’ve figured out how to use fewer paper towels, how to compost your coffee grounds, and you are seeing much less waste exiting your home. Now you can expand to other aspects of your life, and decisions you make surrounding other potentially environmentally damaging behaviors, including travel. Whether you plan to start biking more or have an option to share school transportation responsibilities with another family, your gas and Earth-saving activities add up.
When Mannarino was researching for her book, she found out that you can reduce your flights’ fuel consumption by opting for nonstop flights over connecting ones. She explains that planes burn most of their fuel during takeoff and landing. The collective increased use of nonstop flights may eventually reduce the airlines’ offerings, helping to make major fuel-saving changes.
Whether you are a beginner at reducing waste or looking for specific ways to fine-tune your already eco-friendly practices, remember that each small act is contributing even if you aren’t perfect every day.