Zero-waste living, what it is and how to start

by Sydney BadgerMar 26, 2020

Is it anyone’s goal to produce large amounts of waste? Doubtful, yet the garbage piles up around us, the trash cans fill higher each week and, as far as consumption goes, we continue to buy, buy, buy without thinking about packaging, what we will do after we’re done with it or, rather, stop to ask ourselves in the first place, do I need this?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American produced 5.4 pounds of trash per day in 2017. It’s an alarming number; enough to make us stop and think about how much trash we, personally, produce each day and why the zero-waste movement has taken a hold for some. 

What is Zero Waste? 

Zero-waste living is about reducing the overall amount of waste that’s making it to our landfills every day, a consciousness of what we are consuming and how we are discarding it. While the term “zero-waste” seems, admittedly, unachievable, the term is more about what we are striving for than a hard-set goal. It’s the desire to move closer towards zero than in the opposite direction (which is what the annual trends continue to show). 

Bianca Mularoni, co-founder of Zero Waste Path, defines it in her Ted-talk as “A philosophy or movement where people try to reduce their waste - both recyclable and not recyclable. The movement is ultimately about trying to do our best so we can leave the world better for those that come after”.

It seems like an easy decision to make. Most of us want to do what’s best for the generations to come. However, when we think about doing it, investing in it and going all in...well, it becomes overwhelming. Overwhelming in a way that paralyzes us, causing us not to make any change at all.

I think that’s the catch - we have to turn our focus from doing it to starting it.

Leading by Example

When we look at people like Kathryn Kellog, of Going Zero Waste, or Lauren Singer, of Trash is for Tossers, who have managed to reduce their waste to a small mason jar in a year, it’s both inspiring and slightly unbelievable. The unbelievable part is what made us take a deeper dive into the lives of these two to find out more about their stories and, specifically, how they got started.

For Kellog, it was a cancer scare that got her to thinking about how she was living, why there needed to be a change and how that change could start with her. Her first step was just noting what went into her trash can and the recycling bin each day. She next started to make small changes like carrying a handkerchief, investing in glass containers and mason jars, using reusable bags and composting, just to name a few. She stresses that these are all good starting points but can also be done one at a time all while making a big impact.

Singer, on the other hand, started her zero-waste journey in the cafeteria when she found herself noticing what others were bringing their lunches in each day, or rather how much they were throwing away after their lunches were eaten: the bags, the boxes, the cans, etc. It struck her how a simple change could reduce so much. She turned her focus to zero-waste and started her journey towards a new lifestyle which meant carrying her own cups, bottles, bags and utensils, reusing and repurposing just about anything she could - including food scraps and boxes.

It struck her how a simple change could reduce (waste) so much. 

Singer has a lot of tips and tricks of how to produce less waste in the kitchen. She works through the basics from composting to letting your fridge get to empty while walking others through how to make your own cleaning products and reduce waste when it comes to personal hygiene. While this may seem a little extreme for some of us, her blog is a huge platform for those asking what the next steps can be in their own journey.

With both Kellog and Singer - and the thousands of other zero-wasters - it started with awareness. Being aware of what they consumed. Being aware of what they tossed and when they tossed it. Being aware enough to look around and see the effects their waste was, and is, having on the planet and the people that are in it.

How to Start Your Zero Waste Journey?

Adopting these zero-waste lifestyles takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one step at a time and every step is just as important.

Singer outlines a few things we can start doing today to make small steps towards zero-waste living that aren’t overwhelming:

  • Reusable grocery bags. Whether you are investing in a few new ones or using what you already have - bring them and use them. Eliminate the use of the grocery store bags, plastic and paper, by making it a priority to bring your own. Many states have now. 
  • Pay attention to food packaging. When you’re buying your food, notably fruits and vegetables, take a look as you shop and notice the packaging. If you can avoid packaging, great! Don’t feel like you have to put the loose fruits and veggies into the grocery store provided plastic bags. Bring your own smaller bags or baskets or put them directly into your shopping basket. For the food that is prepackaged, try to look at the packaging that will have the least amount of waste and move from there.
  • Start (slowly) to replace disposable straws, containers, utensils, water bottles, etc. and find reusable options. Many have already started to do this whether or not it has been a conscious effort. You don’t need to throw everything out and replace it all immediately - do it slowly, as you need it or realize the need for it. Replacing plastic water bottles with a reusable water bottle is one of the easiest things that, for most of us, doesn’t require a new purchase. When you find yourself using something that is disposable, take a look and see what you can do to reduce that waste. For example, having a reusable set of utensils in your bag, carrying that water bottle with you wherever you go (especially places that you know are going to offer you that bottle of water) and using reusable baggies and containers instead of things that can be easily tossed after one or two uses.

Remember, even these things that seem so little start to make a big difference. Don’t strive to be perfect, just try your best and know that your best is far better than doing nothing.

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