Here’s how to make the green movement of limiting the amount of trash your family creates work for your household.
Zero-waste living has become a lifestyle movement. There are now hundreds of books, blogs, and videos about it, and even a number of zero-waste stores opening in New York City. For a beginner, becoming a zero-waste household looks time consuming and difficult. So just how do you live a zero-waste lifestyle, and is it even possible for a busy, urban family to become zero waste? Leaders in the zero-waste movement share tips to reduce the amount of waste your family creates and make this green-living concept work for you.
Bea Johnson is a mother of two, blogger, author of the best-selling book Zero Waste Home, and the founder of the zero-waste lifestyle movement. Her family of four famously collects less than a glass jar’s worth of waste a year, and she travels the world talking about it. Her passion and conviction for zero waste is the driving force behind the lifestyle’s growing popularity. “To me it’s a life hack,” she sums it up. “It’s a way of saving time and money in so many different areas, so that all you regret is not having started earlier.”
But before you panic about having to throw away your trash can, it’s important to remember the world is not currently set up for us to be 100-percent zero waste. “Pretty much no one is completely zero waste,” says Celia Ristow, a zero-waste writer, organizer, founder of the blog Litterless. “You can still make some trash and that’s perfectly fine,” she reassures. “It’s less about making zero waste and more about zero-waste principles.”
Why Go Zero Waste?
Though it may seem like a massive undertaking, there are seven big reasons to live a zero-waste lifestyle.
- It reduces your landfill. New Yorkers create an average of 12,000 tons of waste each day (not including commercial waste), and the majority of it ends up in landfill, according to the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.
- It reduces greenhouse gases. Landfill is the third biggest source of methane gas, which is more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes significantly to climate change, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
- It reduces plastic waste, a global problem that is poisoning our oceans and waterways. By 2025 we will be dumping 16 million metric tons of plastic waste into the sea, per year, according to a 2015 study by the UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis.
- It conserves natural resources. Creating single-use items uses precious resources (e.g. plastic forks), and those items can’t be re-used or recycled.
- Recycling isn’t enough. Although the EPA estimates that Americans recycle more than 87 million tons of waste a year, plastic is usually recycled into something that can’t be recycled, so it eventually ends up in landfill. Recycling also takes up a huge amount of resources, including shipping overseas.
- It can improve your health. It reduces your exposure to plastics and chemicals in conventional consumer products and forces you to eat fewer processed foods.
- It can save you time and money. “When you eliminate over consumption and buying disposables, then all of a sudden it’s more time and money in your life to do what’s important to you,” Johnson says. You’ll spend less time and money on cleaning, buying, repairing, and disposing of things.
Tips to Live a Zero-Waste Lifestyle
“When people get started, they think, ‘Oh boy, this sounds so complicated. It’s so different from what we’re doing,’” Johnson says. “But it actually isn’t. We’re talking about things that your grandparents used to do, really quite simple.” She gives the example of replacing tissues with handkerchiefs. Instead of spending time and money going to the store to buy tissues and disposing of them once used, you carry a handkerchief (like Grandma) that you wash and reuse.
Johnson also wants to dispel the myth that you need to spend all of your time making zero-waste replacements for things. While some people may enjoy it, this isn’t necessary. Instead of making your own toothpaste, breakfast cereal, or five different types of homemade kitchen cleaner, make low-waste swaps instead.
“If you can find the ingredients zero waste and you have the time and the curiosity then great,” Ristow says. “If not, someone probably already makes it and so you can save yourself time.” For example, if your grocery store only stocks packaged bread, you don’t need to make it yourself; look around for a local bakery and bring your own bag. Ristow’s blog has a great shopping directory to help you find low-waste alternatives.
“Zero waste becomes a lifestyle—not a short-term project—when you let it simplify your life, not complicate it,” Johnson says. “It’s all about finding super-simple solutions that you can see yourself sticking to for life.”
In her book, Johnson introduces five zero-waste rules: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. Read on to discover how to implement them, as well as further tips to get you started.
Refuse what you do not need, especially single-use items. Say no to the plastic bag, coffee cup, plastic fork, freebie pen, hotel shampoo, and toy at the dentist. This simple step will drastically reduce the waste you are bringing into your home. Then you can start working on what is already there.
Reduce your belongings to make you more aware of what you are bringing into your home. Do you need three different types of moisturizer? Do you have a full closet but keep buying clothes? Do your kids play with all of their toys or could you donate some? Go slow and start with easy areas. You can then see where you need to make zero-waste swaps.
Switch to reusables. Bring a reusable coffee cup to the coffee shop, a lunch box to work, a handkerchief in your bag, and reusable bags to the grocery store. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this, just use what you have at home. Make produce bags and handkerchiefs out of old sheets and use glass jars to transport your lunch or wet food like meat and cheese from the store. Need to buy something? Reuse by buying second hand items.
Go slow to avoid burn out and overwhelm. Ristow recommends replacing items one at a time, for a more sustainable change. “Start small, and start where you can make a big impact,” she says. “You don’t have to change everything at once. You’ll feel really good when you notice your small changes making a difference, which will motivate you to keep going.”
Recycle correctly. Don’t just put it all in and hope for the best. Approximately 77 percent of New Yorker’s trash could be recycled, donated, or composted instead, according to the New York City Department of Sanitation. Read your borough’s recycling rules carefully to avoid contaminating your collection (causing it to end up in landfill). NYC has an excellent program in place. With a little research you can find a home for most things, even if they can’t be left at the curb.
Rot what you can’t recycle, reuse, or refuse. The simple act of composting will reduce your trash by 34 percent and you don’t need a garden to do it. Visit grownyc.org for more information about local collection and drop-off locations.
Shop at a farmer’s market, which is a great way of reducing waste. You’ll buy more fresh produce, support local farms, and you can bring your own bags and containers. There are more than 50 farmer’s markets in NYC, visit grownyc.org or downtoearthmarkets.com to find one near you.
Buy unpackaged foods. Once you get started, you’ll realize there are lots of options you aren’t using. Check out the bulk aisle of your local health food or grocery store, go to the bakery for your bread and cookies, get meats and cheeses from the deli counter, and stock up on lunch items at the salad bar. In some cases, you’ll even save money doing this. Find a bulk store near you with the Bulk Finder tool on zerowastehome.com.
Switch cleaning and beauty products. You don’t need five different cleaners and rolls of paper towels for a clean house. All you need is baking soda, vinegar, some soap, and old rags. In the bathroom you can switch to soap bars and refillable shampoo. There are now many companies offering refillable, package free products such as Brooklyn’s own Package Free Shop, set up by zero-waste blogger Lauren Singer of trashisfortossers.com.
Focus on what’s important. “People think [zero waste] is about reducing your trash, but ultimately it actually translates into a simpler life: a life that is based on experiences instead of things and a life focused on being rather than having,” Johnson says. “For us, that’s what makes life richer.”
The zero-waste lifestyle movement began in one woman’s kitchen in California and has grown into something with the power to influence corporations. In May 2019, eight of the biggest plastic polluting companies in the world, including Procter & Gamble and Unilever, will start trialing a new venture called LOOP, in which their products are shipped to consumers in refillable packaging that they then return. The future, we hope, is zero waste.