What Is the Zero-Waste Lifestyle?
At the turn of the century, the term “zero-waste” offered a new perspective on commercial waste-management practices: People believed society could conserve resources and eliminate harmful byproducts of the manufacturing process through products that were more thoughtfully designed and produced.
Inspired by this movement, lifestyle blogger Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home reimagined the term in 2009, encouraging people to modify their household practices. Bea believed people could reduce their waste to no more than one mason jar of trash per year — a dramatic change from how much trash the average American household produced at the time. Those who were successful could proudly say they led a zero-waste lifestyle.
Keep reading to learn about the zero-waste lifestyle and how your family can apply its principles to become a zero-waste household.
Americans Produce Tons of Waste (Literally)
Many Americans are starting to think about how they can reduce their environmental footprint. One practical way to do that is to reduce the amount of trash your family generates.
Producing a mason jar (or less) of waste each year may seem impossible, but many easy and effective ways to cut down exist.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines trash, or municipal solid waste, as things people throw away after they’ve used them. That includes food waste, product packaging, and even household goods, like old furniture or broken appliances.
Each family and household is different, but if you’re anything like the average American, you get heavy use out of your trash can. In fact, Americans produced 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2017, according to the latest report by the EPA. That works out to around 4.5 pounds of trash per person each day.
The good news is that 94 million tons — just over 35.1% of the country’s waste — is recycled or composted, rather than sent to a landfill.
11 Steps to Become a Zero-Waste Household
Reducing your household waste doesn’t mean you need to stop buying things or do without. You simply need to make waste-wise choices.
Replacing single-use items with reusable products, for example, helps reduce not only your waste but also the money you spend. For retirees with a fixed income, that can make a big difference.
1. Say Goodbye to Paper Towels and Tissues
Paper products account for 25% of landfill waste, according to the EPA report cited above. While your family probably won’t embrace reusable cloth toilet wipes, it’s pretty easy to replace paper towels with cloth kitchen towels. While you’re at it, it might be time to rethink your tissue use. As long as you wash them after use, hankies are a great alternative.
2. Buy Food Staples and Supplies in Bulk
Buying in bulk means less single-use packaging, such as plastic and styrofoam containers, lands in your trash can. It also typically results in fewer trips to the store and more money left in your bank account at the end of the month. In fact, the University of Southern Indiana estimates that 10% of what you spend covers the cost of packaging. Who doesn’t want to save 10 cents on the dollar?
3. Choose Digital Over Paper Products
Another way to reduce the amount of paper your family wastes is to choose digital over print whenever possible. While you can choose to buy the Kindle edition of the latest book by your favorite author, it’s especially important to do so for your weekly newspaper and monthly magazine subscriptions.
4. Opt-In To Receive Paperless Statements
If you haven’t already done so, ask to receive paperless statements and bills from your service providers. Many financial institutions now offer paperless credit card, investment, mortgage, loan, and line of credit statements. Utility and telecommunication companies similarly send bills and usage statements through email.
5. Donate or Exchange Unused (or Gently Used) Clothing and Household Goods
Whether you’re downsizing or tackling a declutter challenge, hold off from tossing your unwanted clothing or household goods. If they’re unused or still in good shape, you can donate them to a local charity. For example, you could drop them off at a thrift shop, such as the Salvation Army or a Goodwill store, or offer them for free through a local “swap-n-shop” or Freecycle. If you’ve recently retired, you could even consider donating your gently used professional clothing to a nation-wide charitable organization, such as Dress for Success.
6. Compost Your Scraps
Americans get rid of 1,200 pounds of organic matter per person each year, according to a report by the University of Southern Indiana. Instead of throwing your coffee grounds, eggshells, and vegetable peelings into the trash, consider composting them. It’ll help you take big strides toward your goal of becoming a zero-waste household. Plus, you can use the resulting soil in your backyard garden. If you don’t garden, check with your regional waste-management facility to see if you can contribute your compost to a local community center.
7. Swap Plastic Bags for Reusable Cotton Shopping Bags
One of the first steps you can take on your journey to become a zero-waste household is cutting the number of plastic bags that make their way from your trash can to the dump. Swap out plastic bags with reusable cloth bags to accomplish this goal. Not only do they make great grocery bags, but they can also be used for bringing your book and towel to the beach.
8. Replace Plastic Wrap and Sandwich Bags With Better Alternatives
Plastic wrap is one of the single-use household items that frequently gets tossed. The good news is that there are many better alternatives. For example, you could invest in a few cloth bowl covers, which are great for leftovers, and beeswax wraps to wrap around food products, like sandwiches. (Bonus: Beeswax-coated cloths keep food fresh longer!) You can buy these online or, if you’re handy with a sewing machine, make them at home.
Next time you’re at the supermarket, check out the bulk food aisles. You should be able to find everything from breakfast cereals to baking ingredients, such as sugar, flour, spices, nuts, and dried fruit. Eventually, you could even try shopping at a grocery store that only sells in bulk.
9. BYORC: Bring Your Own Refillable Containers
The one downside of the bulk-foods section is that it encourages using plastic bags to store each type of food. You can cut down on this waste by storing bulk foods in refillable glass or plastic containers, such as mason jars. Just don’t forget to bring them with you to the store, and make sure you don’t pay extra for the weight of the container.
10. Say No to Disposable Beverage Containers
Another easy way to start working towards a zero-waste home is to avoid buying drinks in disposable plastic or styrofoam containers. Instead, choose reusable water bottles for cold drinks or travel mugs for hot beverages.
11. Bring Your Own Reusable “Doggy Bags” for Restaurant Leftovers
Enjoy a dinner out but couldn’t finish your meal? Many restaurants still offer to package up your leftovers in styrofoam containers so you can enjoy the rest of your meal at home. To avoid accumulating more trash, bring along a reusable plastic or glass container to store your leftovers until you’re ready to eat the rest of your meal.
Keep Your Zero-Waste Journey Simple and Gradual
Don’t make trash reduction at home complicated. Instead, focus on small changes and quick wins that are relatively painless. Start by giving up single-use plastics or increasing the number of reusable products if your home. Then replace paper products with cloth, where possible. Eventually, those small changes will add up to dramatic waste reduction.
Going zero-waste should be sustainable for your family. If you suspect your spouse, or another household member, might balk at a waste-reduction tip, choose a less drastic one to focus on at first. You don’t need to “do it all” in one day. Introduce the changes gradually — just one or two each week, or even month, based on your family’s comfort.
And don’t feel bad if you fall short of a true zero-waste household. One mason jar of waste per year is a lofty goal. Instead, compare yourself to the millions of Americans who produce tons of trash (literally). Remind yourself how far you’ve come.