Our Journey to Zero Waste: The Basics

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I’ve always felt strongly about recycling. When our little family lived in Dallas and our apartment complex stopped the recycling collection I almost cried (I mean, that’s gotta be a sin, right??). Now we’re in North Carolina and I store our cans and bottles until it drives my husband crazy enough I make the [now two-minute] walk out to the recycling bin. But I’ve realized that recycling isn't the answer, and I can do more - need to do more - to reduce my impact on the environment.

I’ve started to notice how much I throw away; how much food gets thrown out, how many plastic wrappers or tissues make it into the trash… my worst flaw may be that I go through paper towels like there’s no tomorrow. I don’t like using rags because I hate getting my hands all wet and slimy. But now I get this twinge in my belly every time I pull a paper towel off the roll. Like here’s another one for the landfill or incinerator or ocean… yikes.

So as part of our continual journey to a more low-impact life...

I’ve decided to change to a zero waste lifestyle

...starting with the basic things that I probably should have been doing all along. Zero waste is both a philosophy and lifestyle of reducing the waste you produce to almost nothing. For me, it’s all about living efficiently and mindfully by not consuming more than we need.

I did this footprint calculator recently, and if everyone lived like me we’d need four earths to make as much as we’d consume. That’s sobering, and I’m slightly embarrassed to even write it on here; but I’m telling you all this to hold me to my word. And even if we can't fit all of our trash into a single jar, it’ll still be better than how we used to be!

Here are my 7 basic steps to start the transition to zero waste:

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1. REDUCE PLASTIC BAGS

Have you seen that meme with the yogurt cup from 1976 found on the beach? Other than the design (and dirt), it looks like it could have been made yesterday... crazy! Plastic doesn't disappear when you throw it away, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Now they’re saying that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastic bags were used heavily at our house for groceries, lunches, and storage, but we've started collecting reusable bags and containers that will replace hundreds of plastic ones in their lifetimes. I love glass jars and beeswax wraps for food storage and cotton net bags and baskets for grocery shopping (read more about what I use to store food here).

  • Use reusable bags at the grocery store

  • Use glass jars for food storage

  • Use Bee's Wrap beeswax wrap for keeping bread and other food fresh (instead of ziplock bags and plastic wrap), plus these can be composted at the end of their life

  • Use Stasher silicone bags for storing snacks and in lunches

  • Buy bulk when possible

  • Use reusable baby food pouches for on-the-go snacks

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2. REDUCE PAPER TOWEL USE

This one gets its own bullet point because it’s become a problem. I started using paper towels because I hate getting my hands all wet when using a rag. So to help with the rag-phobia I got some new microfiber cloths, a bamboo dish scrubber, and these walnut and cellulose sponges. Honestly, any of these options clean better than paper towels, as long as I grab a new one each day so they don't build up bacteria. You don't have to spend money on rags - old linens, towels, or even t-shirts will get the job done. I talk in depth about reducing paper towels in this post.

  • Use rags/microfiber cloths for cleaning (also - have you seen the “unpaper towels" floating around Pinterest?)

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3. NO MORE PLASTIC STRAWS

I've talked about straws in this post but feel like they deserve a second mention. America alone uses 500 million (yes, that's million) straws a day - that's crazy. I'm not a straw person usually, and we don't eat out very often, so this one is about thinking ahead for those rare occasions.

  • Request no straw when eating/drinking out

  • Bring stainless steel straws on the go

4. REDUCE ENERGY USE

This is not generally thought of as a zero-waste lifestyle tip (same for #6), but our waste is not limited to what goes in the trash can. Our energy consumption causes waste as well. There are so many ways to reduce energy use. One is to use LED light bulbs. Do I need to talk about the benefits of LED's? I feel like they're mentioned a lot. They last longer, produce better light, and are more efficient; pretty much the total package. Some electricity companies offer a promotion for LED bulbs; we got a box of 16 LED's for free from our provider.

Peak hours are the hours when the most electricity is being used. The reason it’s not good to use more electricity in peak hours is because to meet the higher demand, most electricity companies use fast, dirty electricity to handle the extra load (like your electric provider might be water-powered most of the time, but the water won’t start running faster when everyone is getting home from work, cooking dinner, and watching TV - so they’ll supplement with an alternate source like coal for those peak times).

  • Only buy LED light bulbs

  • Turn off as many lights as reasonable during daylight

  • Don’t run the dishwasher/washer/dryer during peak hours

  • Wash most clothes in cold water (most of our clothes don't get very dirty now that the little one is not a baby anymore), so a cold gentle cycle does well for most of our clothing)

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5. REPLACE TRADITIONAL CLEANERS WITH NATURAL CLEANERS

Many commonly used household cleaners have toxic chemicals that can circulate in the air your home and cause harm to plant or animal life through drainage. But there are products on the market made from plant-based ingredients that are much safer. I have started purchasing natural cleaning supplies as I run out of my current ones. I don’t feel as worried about keeping my daughter away while I clean or concerned about what may be happening down the line (the drainage line, that is) when I use plant-based products. At this point, we are still recycling the bottles the cleaners come in, so in the future I'd like to start making my own cleaners. But if that’s not in the cards yet, buying bulk or concentrated soap is a good option. A few great companies, like Fillaree, have soap and cleaner refill stations in certain locations across the US where you can bring in your own containers to fill. Also, using glass spray bottles (or even just refilling the plastic ones we have) will go a long way to reducing the trash from this area.

  • Look for "plant-based" cleaners and evidence to back up claims made on packaging (for more on greenwashing, take a look at this post)

  • Use glass spray bottles

UPDATE: Since first writing this post, I have learned that many of the cleaners I have pictured are not as "non-toxic" as they advertise. So sad that marketing covers the truth sometimes; but this is a lesson to always do your own research! What to look for? Green Seal certification is a big thing. One reader (thank you!) suggested ewg.org, which ranks products and gives them a grade from A to F. As far as brands go, Biokleen seems to be near the top. Mrs. Meyers, and Seventh Generation are not as great as advertised, and Babyganics actually fares quite badly. The safest (+ zero-waste) way to do cleaning products is to make them yourself.

6. NO MORE WASTEFUL WATER CONSUMPTION

There are places in the world that are running out of water or in the middle of a drought. Even though I'm not living in one of those areas right now, the water I use is still affecting the place I live. There is a swamp I see on our drive to church that used to be higher; I can tell because the tops of the tree roots are above the mud. I don't know that using less water will change that swamp, but I know that it will change something somewhere whether I see it or not.

  • Turn off the faucet when washing dishes

  • Fill laundry and dishwasher loads

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7. ONLY BUY THINGS I NEED/LOVE

This actually makes purchase decisions easier. I used to take hours in the store making sure I looked at all the options and worrying about how I would like it when I got it home. By using "do I love this" as a measuring stick, I can make decisions a lot faster and end up with less regret (thank you Marie Kondo).

I also tend to shop in different places when I shop with the goal of finding something I'll keep for a lifetime. I find myself more often at farmers markets and local boutique stores looking for handmade or unique items.

Now, I don't know if I'll ever love dishwashing detergent. So this is where the "need" comes in. The culture of excess has gotten us into a big mess and it's definitely a mindset change to pare down to what you really need.

  • Make a shopping list and go with a purpose in mind

I've decided to implement a zero waste lifestyle over time so that I make these life-long habits. Sometimes it sounds like a lot, but I know that it's important to live as responsibly as I can.

Some of these basics are simpler than others, but as I’ve already started implementing them I feel a lot better about my habits. I'm finding that by reducing plastic, the things I surround myself with are more beautiful.

Being mindful of what and how much I consume feels more responsible and efficient, and saves money. I’ve always been a minimalist, but I've found that I can still think more carefully about what I’m buying, which makes me plan better and purchase fewer things that I love more.

I’d love to hear your experiences! What works for you?