The EPA estimates the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash per day. That’s 1606 pounds per year. Can you imagine producing almost one ton less trash in a single year?
We made the decision to go (almost entirely) zero waste nearly three years ago. We can honestly say it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Happily, zero waste has started to become so popular – probably something to do with it being so, so satisfying! And it’s working, so if you’re just starting out and wondering what kind of impact you can have implementing these zero waste tips, the answer is a huge impact, so please read on!
While there are so many facets to zero waste living, we’re here to get you off on the right eco foot(print) with some changes that’ll give the biggest bang for your buck.
The 5 R’s of Zero Waste Living
We structured this list based on 5 simple zero waste rules as outlined by Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home. However, plenty of these tips fall into more than one of these categories (e.g. you can refuse single use plastic and reuse instead)
- Refuse what you do not need
- Reduce what you do need; reconsider just how much stuff you actually need
- Reuse by repurposing stuff, or by using reusable objects like metal straws
- Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce or reuse
- Rot (compost) the rest
It’s one thing to read these rules and another to understand them in practice. Through examples, we hope to give you that practical understanding on how to most effortlessly implement these zero waste changes in your life.
THE 5 MOST IMPACTFUL CHANGES
We understand that big “50” on this list may be overwhelming, but our advice is this: Don’t do it all right away. Start small and focus on getting the basics right. Trust us when we say there is no perfect way to go zero waste.
If you have to choose just a small number of things to do, despite this going somewhat against the grain of Bea’s advice, we found the following 5 changes to have had the biggest impact on our lives in terms of the volume of waste we send to landfill:
This is by far the fastest way to reduce what you send to landfill. As soon as we started composting, we reduced the need the need to put out the trash from once a week to once every few months (if that)… turns out a lot of our trash was organic matter that is so valuable for enriching soil – win!
Collect hard to recycle (but still recyclable) things
Recycling is a last resort, but alas sometimes we do find ourselves there. Before throwing anything out of the ordinary in the trash, do a little research first to see if there are any designated drop-offs (like municipal recycling facilities) or dispose of them through Terracycle who recycles all sorts of things. Examples of these hard to recycle (but still recyclable) items include e-waste, batteries, polystyrene, toothpaste tubes, electric toothbrush heads, etc.
Always carry a reusable water bottle and coffee cup
Sounds simple? That’s because it is, but it’s so impactful. You can save on average of 156 bottles annually by just using a reusable bottle.
Carry re-usable shopping bags and just don’t use produce bags
Again, since doing this, we have completely eliminated plastic shopping bags, which was a huge source of waste for us going back 5+ years (ridiculous to think of it now). We also just don’t use produce bags and instead wash our fresh food really well when we do buy from a store
Again a simple change but aside from food and drink, these are the products we buy most often so finding zero waste alternatives makes a big difference. We have become just a little obsessed with this topic! See our articles on essentials like toothpaste, floss, deodorant, toilet paper, shampoo & conditioner, skincare and makeup.
So that’s the cheat sheet ;). Now, here is the long list of most impactful zero waste tips to help you have an impact! Before we go on, one more thing to note – please don’t buy more stuff if you don’t need it or already have something that could work just fine!
QUICK LINKS FOR ZERO WASTE TIPS
- Refuse: Say no more to these common waste sources
- Reduce: Do you really need it?
- Reuse: Yes to using these again… and again
- Recycle: More than you think you can
- Rot: The circle of life
REFUSE: SAY NO MORE TO THESE COMMON WASTE SOURCES
We live in a plastic, disposable world. If you’re reading this list, no doubt you’ve noticed how many things around us are either single use, made of plastic, covered in plastic, or all of the above. Short-lived at best and single-use at worst, these consumables are piling up in landfills at staggering speeds.
The easiest changes to make while going zero waste are simply refusing such items. And since this type of waste accumulates so quickly, each one we can refuse in favor of a longer lasting and environmentally friendly alternative is a pretty massive win.
Let’s look at some easy areas of our lives and the most impactful refusals we can make there.
WHEN OUT & ABOUT :
The most important thing to remember when it comes to refusing is to voice your refusals when out in public. Don’t want them to put a plastic straw in your smoothie? Say so when you order it. It may feel awkward at first, but most businesses are more than happy to oblige.
1) Plastic water bottles and takeaway coffee cups: Two words: reusable and insulated. Not only can you reduce all that single-use waste, but you can keep your water colder and your coffee hotter for way longer than in plastic or paper.
If you’re having coffee in the cafe, be sure to request it “for here”; many coffee shops now use ceramic mugs for that! We’ve actually found it’s sometimes important to even say “for here in a glass cup, not disposable please” – nothing more crazy than seeing folks sitting down for coffee with takeaway disposable coffee cups!
2) Plastic cutlery and straws: There are loads of stainless steel or bamboo alternatives to this and most sets even come in cute, handy little to-go storage bags.
3) Plastic grocery bags: Do all your shopping (grocery or otherwise) with reusable totes and cotton or mesh net produce bags. You’ve probably already got something that will work lying around the house! If you happen to forget your tote (no biggie, we’ve ALL done it), request paper instead, which is at least compostable… or just carry it if you can!
There are so many refusals to get you on your way to a zero waste kitchen. Best of all, they’re easier than a microwave dinner (though on that note, make sure you also refuse the kinds with plastic trays!)
4) Coffee and tea: Aside from getting your caffeine fix in a reusable mug, buy coffee and tea to make at home. And if you swap to a french press or stovetop espresso maker, you can also refuse disposable coffee filters (which are compostable but tend to be wrapped in plastic) or coffee pods.
5) Disposable cookware and pan liners: Here we mean things like paper plates, styrofoam cups, wax paper, and aluminum foil. These all come from society’s preference for the quick-and-easy and essentially just reduce the amount of cleanup you have. Easier to take out the trash than wash all those backyard BBQ dishes.
Take the small hit and save the environment a big one by just avoiding these.
6) Napkins and paper towels: Replace these with reusable cotton napkins and cloth rags (possibly something you’ve upcycled from old clothes or bed sheets).
7) Saran / cling wrap: Swap to washable beeswax wraps or vegan carnauba wax food wraps.
8) Plastic food containers: If you already have Tupperware and other plastic food containers, that’s fine; keep using them! But don’t buy more. Instead if you do actually need more, opt for glass or stainless steel food containers.
9) Sandwich bags: Zip up and lock out all Ziplock form your list. Instead, get reusable cotton sandwich baggies or use some of the containers from #8.
10) Unsustainable suds and scrubbers: No more plastic dish soap bottles, especially with so many zero waste dish soap options available. Even locally, it’s relatively easy to find dish soap in bulk, whether it be in powder, tab, or liquid form. Make sure to use a biodegradable scrubber as well, such a hemp dish cloth or zero waste sponge.
11) Garbage can liners: If you continue toward a zero waste lifestyle, eventually you won’t need a trash can at all. In the meantime, no more liner bags. They’re really only good for wet waste anyway, and wet waste is almost always compostable. Use newpaper instead!
It sounds funny when you consider a bathroom’s most essential function is to deal with human waste, but a zero waste bathroom is totally possible through more conscious shopping. Be sure to refuse:
12) Virgin pulp toilet paper: Not so fun fact: producing one roll of toilet paper out of virgin tree pulp uses 1.5 pounds of wood and 37 gallons of water. Prevent all that by switching to recycled toilet paper like Who Gives a Crap or wipe your wee totally tree free by using bamboo toilet paper. If you really want to go for totally zero waste toilet paper, invest in a bidet attachment for your toilet.
13) Plastic razors: Save tons of money (not to mention billions of disposable razors hitting the landfill each year) by shaving with a straight razor or safety razor.
14) Tampons and period pads: See what women everywhere are calling “life changing” by swapping to a menstrual cup (like OrganiCup) reusable liner pads, and absorbent period panties like those by Modibodi.
15) Plastic toothbrushes, toothpaste paste tubes, and floss: Plastic isn’t good for the planet or for us, so let’s stop putting it on our mouths. Instead, use zero waste toothpastes, compostable floss, and a compostable toothbrush. Lucky for you, a company called Brush Naked FINALLY solved the zero waste toothbrush dilemma.
16) Deodorant: While technically made of recyclable components, plastic deodorant tubes are rarely ever recycled properly and pretty much always end up in the landfill. That’s pretty senseless waste, especially given the many great zero waste deodorant options.
17) Soaps packaged in plastic bottles/wrapping: Use bars instead, which are either naked or in compostable cardboard. They even make shampoo and conditioner bars! If you still prefer liquid soap, you can find liquid castile soaps and in many cases, conditioner in bulk stores.
18) Plastic packaged beauty and skin care products: Start phasing out packaging across your entire personal care routine. Pretty much everything you can think of, from mascara to sunscreen, now has zero waste alternatives. If you need help finding some eco reliable brands, we’ve extensively covered various sustainable beauty topics to help you out.
19) Nylon toilet brushes: Once your current one gets a little nasty, use a biodegradable toilet brush, with a wooden handle and plant fiber bristles.
20) Separate cleaning products for everything: Downsize your cleaning routine to one or two zero waste products. Vinegar and baking soda (both of which you can find in bulk) are really all you need! Vinegar kills mold, while baking soda acts as an abrasive scrubber. A mix of the two works as a drain cleaner.
21) Plastic wrapped treats and dog food: Zero waste dog food can tricky to find, but if you can’t, there are several dog food companies that partner with Terracycle to ensure their bags get properly recycled. Better yet, make your own dog food! Check this article of ours for more info.
22) Dog poo bags: To clarify, we’re absolutely NOT advocating just leaving the poo. But instead of using individual plastic baggies, swap over to a compostable dog bag rolls or just plain newspaper! Get more eco friendly doggy doo disposal tips here.
23) Non-biodegradable pet toys: Bamboo is an excellent replacement for so many pet products, including toys. Hemp tugs or plushies and natural rubber chewies are also great alternatives… and then there’s always sticks from the park (our pup’s all time fave).
24) Nylon and polyester pet collars, leashes, and harnesses: Instead, put your paws up for hemp and bamboo dog collars. Both are biodegradable, sustainably grown fabrics, and friendlier to Fido’s skin.
25) Cheap promotional items like free pens and pencils: Use refillable fountain pens instead and feel like a modern Hemingway. Kill two birds with one stone by finding pre-loved (but excellent condition) pens. Also, check out Terracycle for recycling old stationery
26) Unnecessary printings: Ask yourself, “Do I really have to print this?” Utilize email and de as digital as possible. Set the goal of turning that printer/scanner into just a scanner.
27) Paper mailers and junk mail: Keep the digital trend going by opting out of paper mailers. We know a lot of this is out of your control, but you can cancel phone directories, sign up for paperless billing, and place a “no junk mail” sticker on your mailbox. Check out DMA Choice for more on how to do this.
28) Books, magazines, and newspapers: We love reading as much as the next person and wholeheartedly want to support the written arts. But instead of encouraging the demolition of more trees, get a (free!) library card, eReader, or Audible membership (for audiobooks). You can even subscribe to PDF versions of any major newspaper.
If having a physical book in your hand is just something you love (the best, especially while on holiday), aside from the library option, we’ve taken to buying second hand books at the local charity shop (which is also so cost effective) and then just donating them straight back – a win-win for more than just ourselves.
29) Non-rechargeable batteries: Well-made and trustworthy electronic devices are great as helping us cut out some waste, but lest we not forget the waste they generate themselves. Power your devices through rechargeable batteries.
REDUCE: DO YOU REALLY NEED IT?
For items you can’t outright refuse, simply try to reduce how much of them you buy, or reduce the amount of waste they generate. Start by cutting back on:
30) How much you buy in general: Adopt a minimalist mentality and stop buying stuff you don’t need. The easiest way to reduce plastic and waste is to just buy less. Try implementing a buying ban to get started.
31) Food in packaging: Buy as much in bulk as you can; a zero waste pantry reduces so much plastic and cardboard waste. Zero Waste Home’s bulk finder app may help you locate a nearby bulk store. Alternatively, there are several online bulk food stores you can use as well.
For produce, find some without bags, stickers, and ties; farmer’s markets are a great resource for this!
If you cannot find it in bulk, find a direct supplier (i.e. bring a jar to the ice cream shop, a pillowcase to the bakery for your bread, or your own bottles to the winery/brewery). Or get creative and try making your own DIY salad dressing, hot sauce, jams, hummus, cookies, and canned tomatoes.
32) Buying new clothes: Challenge yourself to buy less new clothes or even go so far as to #neverbuynew. Make an adventure out of hunting down super stylish second hand clothing, whether in person or via online thrift stores.
If you do need to buy new, buy only what really fits and what you absolutely love, or as Marie Kondo would say, that which “sparks joy”. And always choose well made pieces of sustainable fashion made by ethical clothing brands, even if they cost more (hint: there’s a reason for that). Needless to say, Fast Fashion is a no go.
33) Laundry washes: Start by cutting back to once a week and stick to cold water washes (which helps preserve the life of your colors anyway). Work your way up to washing things only when they’re dirty, not just after one wear.
Line dry rather than using an energy gobbling dryer that’s also super hard on your clothes (think about the lint trap… that all comes from somewhere).
34) Technology upgrades: These days, gadgets are designed with planned obsolescence in mind, and it’s almost cheaper to just buy new ones when they break. Try to break the cycle. Buy well-made, warranty-backed items and if something happens…repair it, don’t replace it. We call this our “slow tech philosophy”.
If you do need to replace, buy second hand if you can.
35) Air travel: Travel is amazing and in our view, important to grow minds and embrace differences but airplane emissions are hard on the planet. Reduce this pollution and carbon emissions by not flying if you don’t really need to and if you do need to travel, purchasing carbon offsets are a good way to help remediate some of the damage.
36) Reliance on your vehicle: Instead of commuting via car, reduce your carbon waste by opting for transportation alternatives: car pools, public transport, or, best of all, a bicycle.
37) Eating out: Start packing a lunch to ensure it’s zero waste. Instead of buying plastic wrapped snacks on the go, be prepared and take a banana or some nuts in a reusable container. It’s healthier for you, too!
38) Physical gifts: Ask for a donation or an experience gift that doesn’t cost the earth (i.e. dinner for two or tickets to a movie or sporting event – whatever you’re into). If giving a gift, employ the same philosophy. Some more ideas here and here.
REUSE: YES TO USING THESE AGAIN… AND AGAIN… AND AGAIN
Reusing is an amazing way to reduce waste (and save you money!). While we’ve included some reusable product suggestions throughout this list to help you avoid using disposable things, we ALWAYS advocate for using what you have before buying new.
39) Jars, jars, and more jars: Jars are the zero waster’s best friend. You can use them to buy in bulk (anything from dry good groceries to cleaning products), store prepared meals, or even make your own DIY stuff.
40) Old tupperware: Don’t buy new stainless steel or glass alternatives until you need to. The plastic damage is already done, so may as well maximize its value.
41) Food waste: Even before resorting to composting, reuse what future food waste you can. Use fruit peels to make citrus cleaner. Use root vegetable scraps (like the ends of onions, leeks, spring onions and bulb) to regrow them.
You can even help reduce grocery store food waste by buying nearly expired items at major discounts (just make sure you DO eat them before they expire).
And of course, most importantly, compost the remaining food waste and feed your garden glorious nutrients (more on this below, under “rot”)!
42) Learn some basic sewing skills: Like darning old socks, patching holes, and altering hems and waistlines. If the problem is minor, fix it yourself!
43) Worn out clothes/towels: For really worn clothes or towels that can’t be repaired or cheap “Fast Fashion” items without much donation value, chop them up and use them for reusable rags around the house.
44) Old toys for pets: Pets are tough on toys. Before investing in new pet toys, even eco friendly ones, try to put old stuffed animals to use. If you don’t have any at home, look at the thrift shop or talk to any friends you have with children.
45) Give stuff away: Even if you don’t have a use for something, someone else might. Donate your unwanted things to charity or thrift stores, or find someone who wants it via sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and Freecycle. Don’t just throw them away. You know what they say about one person’s trash…
**Note we realised when writing this that so many things in the “refuse” section have excellent reusable options so recommend scrolling up and revisiting those ideas with “reusing” in mind! **
RECYCLE: MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU CAN
Reserve recycling for that which can’t be refused, reduced, or reused. Contrary to popular belief in our “Oh-but-I-recycle” culture, we should be thinking of recycling as a last resort. Zero waste is the future! But you will of course need to recycle some stuff so:
46) Recycle properly! This may seem obvious but for roadside recycling (if your council/municipality provides it), stick to the guidelines of what can and can’t be recycled and how these should be recycled (e.g. sorting into glass, paper, tins, etc).
These guidelines can generally be found on council/municipality websites, or just give them a call. Guidelines can vary a lot by area, for example, in our council, pizza boxes CAN be recycled but our neighboring municipality can’t.
47) Check if it can be recycled before you chuck it: A surprising number of weird and wonderful things that you probably haven’t thought of can actually be recycled at specialised facilities. For example, nearby we have a drop off facility that accepts batteries, lightbulbs, e-waste (like laptops and irons), polystyrene, hard plastics (like plastic chairs) and soft plastics (like dog food bags).
Terracycle is another great option and now operates in many parts of the world including USA, UK and Australia. They accept things like toothpaste tubes, electric toothbrush heads, pens, etc. You can organise to have your own collection box or drop off your waste at specified collection points.
ROT: THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
For everything else, rot (aka compost) it! We humans throw away a staggering amount of organic, compostable waste…as much as 50% of our waste output in fact!
The word “rot” may not make it sound like it, but composting is a magical process we heartily believe everyone should do.
48) Collect your food waste: A simple collection bin on your kitchen counter will do (we use an old plastic container). That way you can collect food for your own composter, or, if you don’t compost, collect it for someone who does! Check with your local council to see if they offer any municipal composting services.
If not, check the ShareWaste App (which connects composters with folks wanting to get rid of their food waste) and/or places like Craigslist, Facebook, farmer’s markets, or community gardens – most are chalk full of people willing to put your scraps to good use.
49) Composting for everyone: Ideally, you’ll get into composting yourself! You can even do it right in your own apartment, on your balcony (we have a balcony worm farm!) or even indoors, thanks to some very clever indoor compost bins on the market. See our article on Apartment Composting 101 to get started!
50) Use your rot to regrow: Use your compost to grow your very own little apartment garden. Compost is great for amending soil and providing nutrients to plants. If you have a vermicomposter, you’ll find plants simply thrive with a little worm tea fertilizer. Again, if you can’t grow your own, give your compost away to someone who will use it.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON ZERO WASTE TIPS
51) BONUS TIP: Tell others and lead by example! We’re pretty normal, everyday people so we’ve been so happy to observe others making changes just by seeing what we’ve done. We try not to be righteous when telling others about this amazing zero waste thing, but we do try inspire action.
This is sometimes a fine line but there are some go to ways to share that don’t make others feel inadequate, threatened or defensive. So at the risk of sounding like we’re man(/woman)splaining, here are some cheesy examples:
- “I enjoy the most delicious coffee at home AND save money” (should be true of course, which it is in our case!)
- “Don’t worry about giving me those plastic utensils, I brought my own – I’m really trying hard to be more conscious about my plastic waste, even though I fail some times” (we find it helps to be “real” – in our experience, it’s impossible to be totally zero waste all the time)
- “Have you seen these incredible zero waste bloggers, they’re so inspiring” (this list of our favourite zero waste blogs have some pretty epic insta accounts which can really help with inspiration)
Just remember: zero waste is a journey. It’s not about the end destination but about all difference you can make along the way. The tips on this list aren’t necessarily about eliminating ALL waste, but will help reduce your impact in a huge way.
We hope this list has helped you on your personal zero waste journey, whether you’re just starting it or are well on your way. Let us know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this list or found it helpful in moving toward your zero waste goals, consider sharing this article to help us inspire others. The more of us that make these little changes, the more we’ll start to see just how much they really do matter!
*originally published on Sustainable Jungle