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7 Ways to Get Closer to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Small changes can help to shrink your carbon footprint

spinner image a collection of reusable items such as reusable bags jars bottles tea bags and straws as well as a compost bin
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​Jean Werner of San Francisco hasn’t finished an entire roll of plastic wrap in four years. She also brings her own refillable containers to shops, buys only what she needs, stores food in glass mason jars and composts.​

Those small steps add up to a pretty big dent in the amount of plastic she uses and the waste she produces on her journey to a zero-waste lifestyle.​

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“It’s an ongoing process that honestly takes years because you’re changing your habits little by little,” says Werner, 73. “Ask yourself, ‘What is in this stuff?’ Think about it for a minute and make a good decision. Pretty soon you feel pretty good about yourself.”​

The zero-waste movement began in the 1980s as a business goal to divert 80 to 90 percent of waste from landfills and was popularized more recently by bloggers like Bea Johnson in, for example, her “15-Piece Wardrobe, 50 Outfits” post, and the mason jar challenge (fit one year’s unrecyclable trash into one 16-ounce jar). The idea is to shrink your carbon footprint to protect the environment from harmful chemicals and emissions of methane gas produced by waste in landfills that contribute to climate change.​

“An 80 percent reduction [for consumers] in how much we throw out is entirely possible without making too many changes,” says Kathryn Kellogg, founder of the Going Zero Waste lifestyle website and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste. Start by paying “attention to what you throw away and what you can eliminate.” ​

Although recycling and composting have increased over the past two decades, so has the amount of waste going to landfills. Americans dump about half of the 292 million tons of trash generated every year, or about 5 pounds per person per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ​

Zero waste may be difficult for people to achieve in today’s consumer-oriented society, so experts suggest first focusing on reducing your waste. Follow the five Rs: Refuse what you don’t need, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot (compost organic waste).​

Here are seven simple ways to start reducing home waste:​

1. Start composting

“One of the most motivating things for people is to start composting” their food and yard waste, says Amy Maas, a waste reduction and recycling specialist for Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis. When people look at what’s in their trash, she says, they find it’s mainly food waste. ​

Composting is a process that breaks down organic material, such as food scraps and leaves from your yard, and converts it into nutrient-rich plant fertilizer or mulch through natural decomposition. Microorganisms feed on the materials added to the compost pile during the composting process.

The EPA says the 55 percent of food that goes to landfills could be composted instead. Harmful emissions from food waste in landfills contribute to climate change.​

“I compost almost everything I can compost, [and] my garbage is so much less,” says JP Fitzgibbons, a 59-year-old Minneapolis resident who uses two backyard bins for food and yard waste that he eventually reuses in his garden. “When people say they’re throwing something away, there is no ‘away.’ ”​

If you don’t have a yard or physically can’t work a compost pile, find out if your city or county offers a curbside program or drop-off locations, such as at a community garden. If you live in an apartment or a retirement community, Maas suggests keeping food waste in a countertop container with a vented lid and charcoal filter (to control smells) that costs less than $25, or storing it in a bag or container in the freezer.​

2. Buy in bulk

Many grocery stores, including food cooperatives, sell items in loose bulk, including spices, grains and honey, to reduce packaging. Buying fresh food when possible also reduces plastic packaging that’s harmful to the environment. ​

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Shampoo and laundry detergent can also be bought in bulk at specialty zero-waste shops. This strategy may also save you money, Kellogg says, because you buy only what you need. To find places where you can do bulk shopping, check out this state-by-state list from Litterless. 

If you don’t have a nearby bulk option or you can’t carry heavy loads, see if a store you shop at does bulk delivery and specify what kind of container you’d like, Maas suggests. If you shop at a discount store to save money, it may have limited bulk or fresh options, so find other home waste to curtail, she says.​

3. Use refillable containers

Stores that let you buy in bulk also usually let you fill your own reusable containers or buy them. Anything goes — from stainless steel containers to pickle and jam jars. Refill services are popping up in many parts of the country, and you can find refillable containers as well as many other sustainable items at online-only stores like Common Good, EcoRoots and ZeroWasteStore.​

“I take empty mason jars to the grocery store so I can get just the amount I need and eliminate all of the plastic and cardboard packaging,” Werner says. “I like to try new recipes and need new spices, and can just buy a little bit.”​

4. Buy less

Whether it’s food, clothing or other products, buy only what you need and no more.​

People who are transitioning to feeding a smaller household may have to adjust how they shop, cook or eat so they don’t waste food, says Maas, who also is the coordinator of Hennepin County’s Zero Waste Challenge for residents.​

“Be really intentional about things you can’t buy in small amounts,” she says. That may mean learning how to cut a recipe in half, using the same ingredients in multiple meals or using leftovers. Maas recommends these online tips for meal planning and reducing recipe sizes. 

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5. Refuse single-use plastics

“I’m trying to be conscious of the plastics that I can’t recycle, [but] it’s hard to know what they are,” says Fitzgibbons, who last summer took a class offered by his county to learn more. “How do you do it? Plastic wrap and stuff like that are so tough to do.”​

Dianna Cohen, cofounder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition in Washington, D.C., suggests looking at it as a “fun challenge” to find sustainable products instead of plastics. Ninety percent of the nation’s 4.2 million tons of plastic bags and single-use plastics go to landfill.​

Start by bringing your own reusable bags wherever you shop — cloth or mesh bags for produce, and reusable bags to cart groceries home. You can even make bags from old pillowcases or sheets. If you have trouble lifting or carrying heavy items, follow Werner’s advice and use reusable wine bags instead of one large tote; they’re sturdier and items are separated. ​

Consider carrying your own set of bamboo or stainless steel utensils, a reusable steel cup and a stainless steel straw to avoid using plastics when eating out or traveling, Cohen suggests.​

In the kitchen, follow these recommendations:​

  • Replace foil and plastic wrap with beeswax covers, and use a pot lid or plate as a steam hood or food cover. ​
  • Use cloth towels rather than paper towels. ​
  • Try reusable water bottles instead of buying water in plastic containers. ​
  • Invest in a Drinkmate, FIZZPod or SodaStream machine to make bottled sparkling water instead of buying it. ​
  • Avoid antibacterial (or body) wipes, some of which contain plastics that don’t break down easily, and opt for gentle soap on a moist cloth or sponge.​

6. Repair and share

Instead of throwing out and buying new clothes or other products when they no longer fit or stop working, consider borrowing, sharing or buying used items. You can buy pretty much anything secondhand or get it for free on social media and websites such as Buy Nothing Facebook groups, Craigslist’s “Free Stuff” page or Freecycle.​

Kellogg recommends following the “Rule of 30,” which means wearing or using something at least 30 times. If you want something new, set a 30-day buy ban — time to be creative.​

7. Skip bathroom disposables

Think about replacing the disposable items in your bathroom with sustainable or reusable versions. For example:​

  • Invest in a reusable metal safety razor and a bamboo toothbrush. ​
  • Buy soap, shampoo and conditioner in bar form with less packaging. ​
  • Look for makeup and personal hygiene products in sustainable packaging, such as bamboo containers or cardboard cylinders, instead of plastic. ​
  • To cut down on the amount of water and toilet paper you use, consider getting a bidet toilet or a manual attachment (for as little as $40) for your existing toilet. Bidet toilets typically use about 1/8 of a gallon versus about 6 gallons per flush for an older, inefficient toilet, according to the EPA. Some newer toilets use as little as 1.28 gallons per flush, according to the EPA. ​

The bottom line is “it doesn’t work if you don’t make it easy for yourself,” Werner says. “Do the best you can to use glass, stainless steel and pottery — and reduce your plastic or eliminate it if possible.”​

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