Are you interested in finding out how to reduce your environmental footprint? If so, start at home. One of the easiest ways to lower your impact on the environment is to reduce the amount of trash your family generates.
While some households strive for a completely zero-waste lifestyle (producing a mason jar – or less – of waste each year,) this may require such drastic changes that you end up facing a family mutiny. Luckily, you’ll still find many easy ways to make improvements and reduce your household waste without dramatically changing your lifestyle. And these gentle changes should be sustainable every day of the year.
Keep reading to learn about simple changes you and your family can make to produce less household waste all year round.
A Brief Recap of The Waste Reduction Movement
Chances are you’ve seen a variety of public service and environmental agency campaigns about the social and environmental benefits of reducing waste. While there have been various movements and groups active around waste management, recently the “zero waste” movement has been getting attention.
At the turn of the century, the term “zero waste” referred to the idea that society could conserve resources and eliminate harmful byproducts of the manufacturing process through more thoughtfully designed and produced goods.
Inspired by this movement, lifestyle blogger Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home reimagined the term in 2009, encouraging people to modify household practices to produce no more than one mason jar of trash per year per household. This was a dramatic change from how much trash the average American household produced at the time.
Americans Produce Tons of Waste (Literally)
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 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018, according to the latest report by the EPA. That works out to around 4.9 pounds of trash per person each day.
The good news is that just under 94 million tons — which is over 32.1% 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. 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.
2. 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.
3. Say Goodbye to Paper Towels and Tissues
Paper products account for 23% 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.
4. Buy Food Staples and Supplies in Bulk
Buying in bulk means you’re using less single-use packaging, like plastic and Styrofoam containers. 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?
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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Donate or Exchange Unused (or Gently Used) Clothing and Household Goods
Whether you’re downsizing or doing a big spring clean, 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.
11. Compost Your Scraps
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans waste between 30% and 40% of food – an incredible number with lots of room for improvement.
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.
Read more: How to Start Composting at Home
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.
Have you found any tricks that could help readers adopt a zero-waste lifestyle? Share your top tips for reducing household waste in the comments below!