Zero Waste Primer (& Why you should do this instead!)

In the interest of living a more environmentally friendly life, you may have run across the idea of trying to live a “zero-waste” life. I’m going to dive into what going zero-waste really means, why it’s not necessarily a smart goal for each of us, and what to do instead.

Zero-waste means that you focus on conserving resources and wasting as little material as possible. You work to reduce your consumption, reuse and repurpose whatever you can, and try to not have any materials left over that have to go into the landfill.

But it means a bit more than that as well. For a more technical definition, I’ll rely on the experts at the Zero Waste International Alliance. They define zero waste as:

The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” 

Zero Waste International Alliance

Other organizations have come up with slightly different definitions. But they are all about conserving our resources and limiting our waste.

And while that is an awesome goal that I am 100% behind, unless you’re ready to spend A LOT of time and effort to change your life significantly – and I mean significantly – zero-waste is not going to happen. It’s just not. 

I’ve seen several dedicated bloggers who write about being eco-friendly and living green who are working towards living a zero-waste life, and at the end of the month (or the year!) they have a Mason jar that has 8 or 9 little things in it that they couldn’t reuse or recycle.  

And that’s awesome. I love the idea. I love the image of “this is all the trash I’ve created this year that has to go into the landfill.” I totally honor their commitment and their dedication.  Trash is a super important issue when we are trying to live green! I don’t mean to minimize that at all.

Here are some quick facts about waste:

Waste is a huge problem all over the world but especially in the U.S. We produce nearly 250 million tons of trash a year according to World Bank Researchers. If you do the math that’s 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day! YIKES!

So we definitely need to do something about this problem because we are running out of space to put our garbage! More and more plastic is ending up in the ocean. And, landfills, when not working right, can pollute our water and cause all kinds of problems.

So we need to do something and take strong steps to reduce our waste to try to deal with this mounting mountain of trash. BUT for most of us, going zero-waste is just not realistic.

Why I don’t Recommend Going Zero-Waste

It’s pretty straight forward. As I mentioned, for the average person, too many serious lifestyle changes are needed to get to zero-waste.

Here’s what I mean:

To only end up with that small amount of trash in a Mason jar and be able to say that you didn’t create any other waste that ended up in a landfill means you never went to a restaurant where a waiter bused your table and put any food scraps, bones, or anything else you left on your plate into the trash.

It means you never went to a restaurant where the kitchen didn’t compost 100% of the food scraps, eggshells, etc. that are created in the kitchen. Because if you did, then that’s not creating zero waste. You could argue that the restaurant created it. But..if you hadn’t ordered the food…you see where I am heading with this

One blogger who I think is absolutely terrific and whom I admire greatly because of her dedication to green living, mentioned she refuses her receipts when she checks out at a store.

A cash register receipt in the middle of a bunch of groceries

You might be thinking, can’t you just recycle your receipts? Yes, you can – SOMETIMES. But some paper receipts – the thermal ones – are made of more than just paper and ink. They can be coated in Bisphenol A, or BPA, and can’t necessarily be recycled. They can also be toxic as well. You can read more about that in this article from the United Kingdom’s NHS.

PLUS, a lot of cash registers at stores I go to print a receipt automatically. So if you refuse them, you’re basically just making the cashier throw them out rather than you throwing them out.  Which doesn’t really qualify as zero waste in my mind.

Here are a few more examples:

Say you’ve got a big anniversary or birthday celebration coming up and you’re going to the theater or the ballet?  Imagine it. You’re all dressed up you’re enjoying the show. You go out for intermission and want a beverage – ANNNDDD…the beverage is served in a little plastic cup or plastic wine glass.

Bottles of wine in ice buckets with plastic cups, cans of Coke and plastic silverware

Chances are these are not going to be recycled by the venue. So do you just skip that celebratory and enjoyable moment? Do you take the cup home with you to recycle it? Remember you’re all dressed up and probably carrying a small dressy clutch instead of your regular handbag.  Plus, you have to wonder if that kind of plastic that the cup is made of is even recyclable where you live.

Man holding plastic beer cup in Giants stadium

One last example, imagine you’re at the ballpark enjoying a baseball or football game. Do you just skip that beer in the plastic cup? That brat in the plastic-coated paper container that’s going to end up smeared with ketchup and mustard and not be recyclable? That popcorn that comes in the paper bag that’s going to be coated with popcorn oil and, again, not be recyclable? 

I think you can see where I am going with this.  

Zero-waste is a huge commitment that means you have to watch every single thing you do to make sure you’re not creating waste. 

Is this an amazing goal. Yes, AND NO! 

If you’re that dedicated to going zero-waste, then, by all means, go for it.  The planet will be a better place for your efforts even if you don’t get it perfect. And I applaud anyone who wants to try.

BUT – if you don’t want to be worrying about every single activity you do and making sure you stop doing anything that will create waste then I have to say, NO, it’s not a good goal for you.  

Skip having a zero-waste goal because it’s just going to make you feel guilty when you don’t manage to do it.

For most of us, committing to going zero-waste is like committing to going on a lifelong crash diet or deciding to run a marathon when we haven’t even completed a 5K. It won’t work because we’re not ready and because there is no balance there. 

It’s much smarter and more productive for most of us to set smaller goals!

When you set smaller goals you are much more likely to succeed and that way you can figure out what works for you as you go along.  

Pollution, landfill waste, and climate change can feel like such big issues it is easy to get discouraged and end up feeling like, there’s nothing I, as one person, can do to make a difference in all this mess.

And then it’s all too easy to just quit because it all seems like it’s just too much to deal with. “Nothing I can do about it…I’ll just have to take my good intentions and go home.”  

One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

John F. Kennedy

Keeping our morale and courage up while we face these challenges is important. Setting too hard of a goal or too high of a goal – like going zero-waste – can be a bad thing for our morale.

It can feel like our goal to live green is taking all the fun out of life – and that’s the last thing we want! Living green should be life-enhancing and not depressing or detracting from the joy we feel each day.

zero waste items like metal reusable straws, bamboo tooth brush, reusable grocery bag and produce bag, reusablel metal water bottle

So here’s what you can do instead of trying to go zero-waste.

1. Think of 3 things you’re going to do this week to cut down on the waste you create or bring into your home. This is a great thing to do on a Sunday or whenever you plan your schedule for the week.  

2. Write them down and put them in your phone reminder app so that you can remember what you are trying to do to cut down on waste.  It’s hard to start new habits and change old ones. So it’s important to give yourself a lot of support (by writing these kinds of reminders) especially early on.

3. If it’s something you do on a certain day, then put it on your calendar. For example, if you usually stop and get a latte or a smoothie on the way home from your workout on Wednesdays, make a note to take a reusable cup for that smoothie or latte with you that day. That way you’ll have it handy when you need it and save a cup.

Need laundry detergent but hate to end up with that big plastic bottle that has to be recycled? (Yes, recycling plastic is way better than throwing it out, but recycling still takes energy and resources. There’s a reason that recycling comes last in that “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” saying!) Make a note on your shopping list to look for a detergent that uses less packaging when you’re at the store or when you’re ordering online.

If 3 new things to try each week seems like too much, make it one new thing each week. By the end of the year, you’ll still have done 52 new things to reduce the waste you create! And that’s a great start at creating better habits and a greener lifestyle!

Want more ideas to help you cut down on your waste?  

Take the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” maxim and brainstorm a list for yourself that fits your lifestyle. 

Here are some ideas to get you started.  (Plus, I’ve got a list of 31 more down below along with a printable PDF.)

If you want less waste, then the easiest thing to do is reduce what you buy. The less “stuff” that comes into your house the less stuff you’ll need to throw out at some point.  

You can also reduce the amount of packaging that comes into your house (this is something that makes up a lot of our garbage and a lot of it isn’t recyclable) by choosing products at the store that come in less packaging.

A person filling a jar from a bulk bin of red lentils

Buy in bulk if you can and take your own containers. This isn’t always allowed at every store so be sure to check with your store before you try this.  Visit this resource page I’ve put together for bags and containers to help make this as easy as possible.

Make selections carefully. Oftentimes you can find something like cookies in just a bag, rather than in a plastic tray surrounded by a plastic-coated bag/packaging. You might find cereal in a cardboard box that can be recycled rather than in a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside it as well that can’t. Or check to see if you can find a similar cereal in the bulk section. There is so much overpackaging in our stores.

And, of course, take your own produce bags and shopping bags with you so you don’t need to bring more plastic bags into your home.  Great produce bags can be found on this resource page as well.

Reduce what you buy when it comes to clothes and household goods. Think about whether or not you need to buy an item before you buy it. Impulse shopping can carry a big cost in terms of waste and often in terms of our budgets as well.

A great way to avoid this is to make a deal with yourself that you’ll sleep on it before you buy anything (other than groceries) over $10. If you give yourself a 24-hour or 48-hour waiting period you may well discover that awesome blue sweater isn’t really something you need…since you have 3 blue sweaters at home already.

If you have a tendency towards minimalism then this will be a lot easier for you to start doing. But even if you don’t, just being mindful of how much “stuff” you have and how much “stuff” you need can start new habits and not only help save the planet but save you a bunch of money as well!

So those are just a few ways you can “reduce.”  What about “reuse”?

When it comes to “reusing” I love to do my shopping at thrift stores so I can reuse someone else’s castoffs. You might be surprised at some of the awesome outfits you can put together for a bargain. 

I also make sure to donate gently used clothing and household items to my charitable thrift store to help reduce my waste and to help the needy in our community.  

I try to reuse whatever I can. The cardboard egg cartons work great for planting seeds in spring. They are also good for various craft projects. 

The t-shirts that are looking too shabby to wear anymore get cut apart and reused as dust cloths and washable reusable Swiffer mop cloths.  

The denim jeans that no longer fit either get donated or have gotten reused and upcycled as fabric to embroider on, to make little crossbody bags with, or as gardening “tool belts” or aprons. (There are some really fun patterns on Pinterest for this.)  

Old flannel shirts that are worn out, have holes or are stained can be been cut apart and reused to create a cozy flannel patchwork quilt or throw.

The list of how you can reuse things goes on and on.   There’s almost no end to the things in your house that you can reuse rather than throw out.  

If you can’t reuse it?

Recycle anything you can’t reuse. Again, recycling comes last here because it takes energy and resources (like water) to recycle something. It’s definitely better than throwing something out. But it’s not the first choice in a lot of cases.

It’s important to become super familiar with what recycling is available in your area and recycle the right way so you don’t end up ruining a whole batch of other recyclable goods. 

One of the most common things that can happen is food waste being left in a recyclable item. While you usually don’t need to scrub out each soup can and salad dressing bottle, it’s important to give them a quick rinse to be sure you’ve got most of the food particles out.

a pepperoni and cheese pizza in a box with one slice missing

Another common mistake is trying to recycle something like a cardboard pizza box. If the box is clean and grease-free then there likely is no problem.

BUT if it’s greasy from the cheese then that box can’t be recycled (at least the greasy parts) and needs to be put in the trash instead (or possibly composted!). It’s important to know these little things so your recycling system will work at maximum efficiency and all those things you tried to recycle don’t actually end up going in the landfill instead.

Is it Go Big or Go Home when it comes to living green?

Big actions do need to be taken as we work to save our planet, stop climate change, and limit pollution. BUT we need to be smart about it. If we bite off more than we can chew it’s just too easy to get worn out and quit altogether. This is way TOO important of a cause to allow that to happen.  

So set smart goals that will work for you and that you will be able to follow through on. Once you get set in your “greener” habits you can up your game and set more ambitious goals. Small successes lead up to great achievements!

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.

MOther Theresa

Here are 31 ways you can decrease your waste!

If you like a challenge you can go ahead and set the goal of doing one each day of the month! Or take it slower and use these as part of your “3 changes a week” goal.

Grab your FREE PDF here so you can keep the list handy.

31 Ways to Reduce Your Waste

  1. Start a compost pile or find community composting in your area. Many things we throw out can be composted if we know how to do it or have a facility nearby that can. You can find some good composting resources mentioned at the end of this post including a FREE master composter home study course offered by the University of Wisconsin.
  2. Switch to eco-friendly compostable bamboo toothbrushes the next time you need a new toothbrush. 
  3. Switch to a reusable metal straw and take it with you. Or just say no to the straw. You’ll need to catch the waitperson in advance of them bringing it. Otherwise, it will often just get thrown away.
  4. Create a zero-waste kit consisting of things like a reusable spork (utensil), a metal straw, a cloth napkin/handkerchief, a reusable bottle or cup with cover, and take it with you so you have these items handy. Want a premade kit (or ideas for what to put in yours?) check out these from Amazon: Kit 1, Kit 2, Kit 3  (These make great gifts for “green” friends and family)
  5. Research your local recycling and make sure you’re recycling the right stuff. 
  6. Switch charge accounts and bank accounts from paper “mailed to you via the post office” billing to electronic statements and pay online.
  7. Change any paper subscriptions (magazines, newspapers, etc.) to online subscriptions.
  8. Contact catalog companies and ask them to remove you from their mailing list and shop their online catalog instead.
  9. Buy beans, rice, tea, nuts, etc. in bulk. Take your reusable produce bags to the store so you don’t end up bringing more plastic home. Don’t have any reusable produce bags? Check out our resources page for some great ones.
  10. Buy soap with no packaging (sometimes called “bulk soap”).
  11. Switch to a shampoo bar rather than buying shampoo in a plastic bottle.
  12. Take the pledge to wait 48 hours before buying any item over $10 (unless it’s groceries) to be sure you really need it and want it. (Less in means less out!)
  13. Switch to reusable napkins.
  14. Quit paper towels and use reusable cloths instead. 
  15. Buy cotton swabs that don’t contain any plastic and are compostable (then be sure to compost them when you’ve used them).
  16. Switch to handkerchiefs rather than disposable facial tissues (unless you’re sick, then it may be better to use disposable tissues). 
  17. Try a menstrual cup – if you’re a gal.
  18. Cook “from scratch” to reduce waste from food packaging. It may take a little more time, but you’ll know exactly what’s in your food and it is usually a lot healthier for you!  
  19. Switch brands of laundry detergent from one that requires you to throw out or recycle a large bottle to one with less waste. You can find some ideas on our resources page
  20. Use natural wool dryer balls rather than dryer sheets to soften your laundry and remove static. There are great ones on this laundry resources page.
  21. Find a creative way to “reuse” one item from your household you would normally throw out. Below are a few to get you started but use your imagination and I’m sure you’ll come up with even better ideas!
  22. Turn egg cartons into seedling starters and start growing some of your own food. 
  23. Turn an old jar (from pickles, spaghetti sauce or whatever) into a canister for holding bulk foods.
  24. Use jars of all sizes to hold craft supplies. They’re great because you can easily see what’s inside and they can even make a beautiful display on your craft room shelves (or wherever you store your craft stuff!).
  25. Use magazine pages and used wrapping paper to make paper beads to craft into jewelry. This is fun and easy to do and kids can even get in on it.  
  26. Turn used tissue paper from gifts into fun flowers.
  27. Use old newspapers as an effective weed barrier in your garden. (Spread them 4 or 5 sheets thick and weigh down with mulch.)
  28. Turn jars into luminaries by decoupaging tissue paper or even old book pages and designs on them and putting a candle inside for magical evenings in the garden.
  29. Turn beer or soda bottles into a new set of glasses by cutting and smoothing the edges. You can find all kinds of videos on how to do this on YouTube.
  30. Always try to donate rather than throw away if you’ve got items that someone else might be able to use. Take them to your local charity thrift store or advertise them as free giveaways on Craigslist or Freecycle. You might be surprised at what some people want that you’re trying to get rid of!
  31. Buy used rather than new whenever possible. Whether it’s furniture, clothes, cars, you name it, if you can get more “miles” out of an item that someone else has previously enjoyed, then that’s one less thing that goes to the landfill!

Have more ideas? I’d love to hear them. Please share them in the comments below!

Thank you! 

Thank you for reading this and thanks for caring about our environment! Our decisions and choices do matter. Taking small actions each day WILL make a difference. When we work together good things happen! 


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