By: Sarah McLaughlin
We’ve been taught that recycling is the holy grail of green living. That if we just buy things with that magical little triangle on the bottom of the container, then we don’t have to give that much thought to what we throw away once it enters the recycling bin. But the startling reality is that recycling isn’t enough—only 9 percent of all plastic waste ever produced on Earth has been recycled. So what do we do about it? Enter zero waste living! This lifestyle focuses on avoiding unnecessary consumption and waste production in the first place.
Young millennial women (Lauren Singer of Trash is For Tossers, Kathryn Kellogg of Going Zero Waste, and Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home, most notably) popularized and lead the zero-waste movement, making waves in the early 2010s with blogs about how they fit a year’s worth of their waste into a single mason jar. This new image of a zero-waste lifestyle as a trendy, modern aesthetic over the hippy stereotypes of an earthy lifestyle, paired with the emerging focus on the climate crisis and the explosive growth of Instagram has made zero-waste a household topic.
Thinking about all the trash we throw away each day might seem totally overwhelming, but with a few simple swaps, green practices can become everyday habits.
1. Avoid single-use items
Throwaway items such as plastic straws, utensils, and cups are so ingrained in our culture, but with a few reusable swaps, you can cut out that waste completely. Opt to bring your own travel mug to your local coffee shop, buy a pair of bamboo utensils (or bring a set of silverware from home) to carry in your bag so you can skip the plastic utensils when eating out, and ask for no straws before you order your drink.
2. Go for second-hand
Each person throws away about 80 pounds of clothing every year. That’s a lot of t-shirts! Avoid fast-fashion and cheaply made clothes—get familiar with your local thrift stores. Not only can you find one-of-a-kind, super-cute looks, but you’ll also avoid contributing to the unethical treatment of garment workers and the production of new clothes.
3. Make your own
The easiest way to avoid producing trash? Making your own goods! We’re talking the basics: With a high-speed blender and five to ten minutes, you can make everything from homemade nut milks and butters to hummus and dressings. Store them in a few mason jars in the fridge and say goodbye to all those cartons piling up in your recycling bin. Don’t be intimidated; making your own goods will be second nature in no time.
4. Buy bulk
The bulk section of the grocery store can seem difficult to navigate and is still full of plastic bags and ties, but with a little prep and a routine, the bulk section will become your greatest zero-waste tool. Bring your own cloth bulk bags or Mason jars with you to the store, and if using jars, weigh them using the scales at the store and mark the tare weight on top of the jar. This way, when you’re checking out, the cashier can easily subtract the weight of the container from the weight of the goods you’re purchasing. Then, fill up on lentils, dry beans, soup mixes, nuts, dark chocolate chips, dried fruit, and more—all totally sans plastic and packaging!
5. Better beauty swaps
Most of our staple bathroom products—loofahs, razors, and toothbrushes—are made out of plastic and other harmful materials. So how do you green up your beauty routine? Swap them out for long-lasting, cruelty-free, environmentally safe options such as bamboo toothbrushes, safety razors with replaceable blades, natural fiber washcloths, and vegetable bristle bamboo hair brushes.
6. Get composting
There are so many different ways to compost. The first thing is to see if your city offers a compost pick-up service, because then all you have to do is save your scraps in a bin. But if not, one of the simplest ways to compost is a binless “trenching” method. Just save all your veggie scraps in a sealed container, and then bury the scraps at least 8 inches deep in your garden bed. Soon, you’ll have nutrient-rich soil perfect for growing your own veggies or herbs!
7. Be imperfectly zero-waste
We live in a very consumption-driven, single-use focused society, so there are going to be many stumbling blocks along the way to a zero-waste lifestyle. But the world needs many people to imperfectly try to reduce their consumption, versus a few people living a perfect, zero-waste lifestyle. Any reduction of waste-production is a great place to start! Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good here. Follow zero-waste bloggers, try out the tips above, and implement new green routines into your everyday life. Soon enough, saying no to plastic packaging won’t seem so overwhelming.
Sarah McLaughlin is an LA-based writer, editor, and longtime vegan.