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Going zero-waste? Start here.

January 9, 2020

The most common question I get asked by folks looking to lower their waste is “Where do I start?” 

The zero-waste movement, and sustainability  in general, can feel daunting. When you start recognizing how much non-recyclable plastic we use every single day, it can leave you feeling moved to act, but it’s not always easy to know HOW to act or where to begin.

I’ve got a few tips to help you start on your zero/low-waste journey. 

And remember, it’s a journey. Don’t feel overwhelmed; we’re all in this together!

But first, let me throw out a few disclaimers:

  1. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s likely not going to happen within a year or two, either. I’ve been actively lowering my waste for the past two years and I still find myself using plastic. It’s bound to happen. So don’t fret. Give yourself grace.
  2. You will never be perfect. I talk about this a lot on my Instagram page, but I think it’s something we all need reminded of. Perfection isn’t the goal. When I first started out, I was beating myself up for forgetting to tell a waitress not to bring me a straw, for eating packaged snacks when I was in a rush and couldn’t find an alternative, and for not being “zero-waste enough.” I caused myself unnecessary anxiety and soon learned that zero waste is not about perfection… it’s about participation.
  3. Your resources dictate a lot. For some folks, significantly lowering waste isn’t realistic. Are there smaller things you can do that are better for the planet? Sure! But attempting to significantly lower your plastic use, without the proper resources available to you, is gonna be very tough. Make realistic goals and stick to them. It’s all about doing your best!

FIRST // Use up what you have or give it to someone else.

Drinking from a coconut in Thailand while using my stainless steel straw!

I hate this one. Everyone hates this one. Because it means you don’t have the zero waste aesthetic right away, and you may feel like you’re not really doing anything good for the planet. But actually, you’re doing the best thing you can do for the environment — you’re not wasting!

Before you go out and buy a bamboo toothbrush, use up your plastic one. Before you buy a shampoo bar, use up your shampoo or give it to a friend. Before you buy bulk coffee, use up your keurig pods or give them to a family member who will actually use them! 

Slowly add zero-waste products into your routine once you’ve finished your traditional products or have given them to a friend.

SECOND // Preparation is key.

Coffee in my to-go thermos.

The best advice I can give someone who wants to lower their waste is to prepare. Pack your lunch and snacks and a to-go thermos before heading to work, so you aren’t tempted to go through the drive thru or grab a candy bar from a vending machine on your lunch break. 

Make it easy on yourself and keep zero-waste options on-hand. Here are a few things to keep on you:

  1. To-go coffee thermos and water bottle
  2. Stainless steel straw
  3. Travel cutlery
  4. Hankie or reusable napkin
  5. Snacks in reusable containers (like Stasher bags)
  6. Multi-purpose balm (I make my own or I use Dr. Bronner’s all-purpose balm) that you can use on dry patches, chapped lips and even as a moisturizer on the go.

THIRD // Find zero-waste options that work.

Big fan of Ethique’s shampoo bars!

To stick with zero-waste, you’ve gotta make it fit your lifestyle. Start with easier switches.

  1. Bamboo toothbrush
  2. Bamboo or silk floss 
  3. A good quality thermos and water bottle
  4. Shampoo and conditioner bar
  5. Using a bar of soap instead of plastic packaged body wash
  6. Saying no to straws and/or bringing your own
  7. Menstrual cup instead of tampons and pads
  8. Keep your same phone case until it breaks and then invest in a Pela case
  9. Eat more whole foods that may come plastic or package free
  10. Reusable shopping bags and produce bags
  11. Safety razor
  12. Buy local

Start out making smaller changes that you can really stick with. It’s better on your wallet and it’s much easier to make into a part of your life.

FOURTH // Know how to properly dispose of your items.

Some items you find yourself using everyday may actually be recyclable! Your shampoo and conditioner containers, your milk jug, your aluminum foil and cans of sparkling water, etc. are all recyclable.

Check out my blog post about how to properly recycle plastic. You can find it here.

In the post, I list seven types of plastic recognized in the resin identification system. I also list what plastics local municipalities accept in their curbside pickups. That post was created in 2018 and different municipalities might have changed what they accept, so check with your local community about what you can/cannot toss in your recycling bin.

Although zero-waste living is about minimizing the amount of items you have that even need recycled or disposed of, it’s still important to recycle when you do use something disposable.

FIFTH // Quality, quality, quality

Think longer term. Buy items that you know will last. Sometimes an item that’s a little more expensive will actually be a better investment in the long run. That thing is likely the more sustainable option, too. 

I’m not saying go buy a bunch of expensive clothes from a department store or wherever else. I’m saying for certain key pieces … maybe a nice black sweater, a coffee table,  or a comforter for your bed that’s likely to last you many years is a better investment than a cheap Walmart alternative.

There are lots of sustainable clothing brands and ethically made decor and personal items, too. They may be more expensive upfront, but they’ll likely last you much longer than something cheaply made.

Think long-term; think sustainably.

*Note: this is where the resources disclaimer from the beginning comes into play. Buying more expensive items may not be realistic for you — and that’s ok! Only do what you can and don’t compare with others. You’re doing GREAT! 🙂

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Let me say it again…. don’t compare yourself to other zero-wasters — especially ones on Instagram and Pinterest who have perfectly photographed images and appear to live an immaculately waste-free life. 1. They, too, aren’t perfect. 2. Don’t compare yourself to anyone because that’s unhealthy and most often leads to negative thinking and decreased self worth. And 3. Remember that we’re actually all in this together! If everyone does a little bit for the planet, that’s a whole lot of good happening.

Give yourself grace, be patient, do your best and always keep a posture of humility. I’m proud of you for being you — exactly where you are. You should be proud of yourself, too. 😊