This post explores zero waste living. This lifestyle seeks to significantly reduce the amount of waste produced per person, per year.
The last 6 weeks of the year, known as the Holiday Season, is also the wasteful season. Americans produce 25% more garbage between Thanksgiving and the New Year than any other time of year. We’ll end by exploring what zero waste Holidays look like.
Be sure to download the Ultimate Zero Waste Planner to make sure overwhelm doesn’t undo your best-laid plans for a zero waste lifestyle.
Enjoy this quick overview of zero waste from our friends at Exploring Alternatives!
This post contains affiliate links based on my personal experience with products that support a seasonal lifestyle. As an amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I hope you find them useful.
What is zero waste?
Zero Waste is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. ~ Wikipedia
That’s a pretty simple definition for a lifestyle that can feel quite complicated at first. Once you begin pursuing the zero waste lifestyle, you’ll quickly become increasingly aware of just how influenced our lives are by ubiquitous disposables and single use products.
Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.” ~ Zero Waste International Alliance
The definition above from the Zero Waste Alliance is a good working definition because it places responsibility on everyone, from producer to user to policymaker, for creating a zero waste world.
The basics behind zero waste living
When researching the zero waste lifestyle, it becomes clear that there are a few fundamental principles that guide purchasing choices and waste options. Here’s an overview by topic.
Don’t purchase what you don’t truly need.
Seems obvious enough, but in this consumer society, we purchase for all kinds of reasons besides need. Give purchases a pre-determined waiting period, and make lists when shopping to ensure you only buy what you truly need.
Buy only what you do need.
This is the obvious extension of the first principle but takes it a step further. When you’ve decided its time to make a purchase, do your research. Buy the exact item you need for the purpose in mind, and buy the best quality you can afford.
How many cupboards and closets are full of items that really never quite functioned as intended and we don’t quite know what to do with them? How much food waste comes from uneaten leftovers and forgotten items in the crisper drawer?
Be a proactive shopper and there will be less waste to manage on trash day.
Reuse as much as possible.
Plastic bread and vegetable bags, glass jars, boxes, miscellaneous containers. These are all items quickly tossed into the trash can or recycle bin that can serve a multitude of functions in the home. Be sure to reuse and repurpose before tossing!
Recycling is not the cure-all for waste reduction that we’ve been led to believe. Did you know, for instance, that only 4.4% of plastics were recycled in 2018?
This is why recycling is not the first option when seeking a zero waste lifestyle. You just have no way of knowing for sure that what’s in the recycle bin doesn’t find its way to the landfill.
But, when there’s no other option, recycling is a viable option for your waste products.
Food waste is a huge issue in the United States. By food waste I don’t only mean the unused food products that go to waste on farms, in restaurants, and supermarkets. I’m talking about the actual waste products from making your daily meals.
Food waste that winds up in the landfill rots in an anaerobic process that produces methane gas. This gas impacts the ozone layer and negatively impacts current trends in climate and weather patterns. You can read more here.
Composting your food waste is an essential part of a zero waste lifestyle. I’ll be writing about this more in the near future because we’ve been composting t the farm for decades. For now, you can learn more in the video below.
Swap with more sustainable items.
Swap out lifestyle essentials for more earth-friendly products that serve the same function. Here are some examples:
- Bamboo toothbrushes for plastic ones.
- French press coffee maker for the automatic drip to eliminate the need for filters. The French press even makes a perfect pot of tea, so you eliminate tea bags which often contain plastics.
- Cloth napkins and tea towels in place of paper products.
- An old fashioned hankie in place of paper tissues.
Really, once you get started, the list of swaps is endless! Just think like gandma and use products as if its 1940!
Repair before disposal.
Designed obsolescence is a policy of designing products with a predetermined and limited lifespan. There has been a longstanding manufacturing principle to design obsolescence into a product so that consumers are driven to replace the product at predictable intervals.
To counteract this artificial end life of household products, learn how to make basic repairs.
There’s a great website, IFIXIT, that is a wiki-based, open-source resource for making repairs to almost anything. It’s awesome and I recommend it whole-heartedly!
Here’s their manifesto…
Know your why!
Taking up a lifestyle challenge like the zero waste lifestyle is not something that will go very well for very long on a whim.
It will be hard, confusing, and at times overwhelming.
To help counteract the possibility of coming to a complete stop before you even get started living zero waste, know your why.
To know your why is an endeavor to connect emotional responses to intellectual understanding.
Take some time to research, journal, visit landfills, drive around your community on trash pick-up day. This new knowledge and experiences will help you emotionally connect to the current waste problems facing the planet and local communities.
That emotional connection is your why and you should articulate it like an affirmation. You can pull up that why every time you come to an obstacle to your zero waste aspirations.
For me, my why came from a recent visit to the local dump. For you, it might be holding your new baby and wanting to do something tangible for her healthy future. Whatever your reason, make sure it is based on facts and deeply felt. That will help you go zero waste for the long haul!
The 5 R’s
These principles are sometimes given in the ‘5 R’ format:
Getting Started with Zero Waste Living
It’s taken you a lifetime to create the habits of consumption and waste you have today. Be gentle with yourself as you take up the zero waste lifestyle. Like most important things in life, if you try to go all-in for immediate results, you’ll probably give up because the daily obstacles will be too great a burden.
Use these steps to create a journey to zero waste that works for you and your family.
Assess your waste
Just before you are going to put your trash out for the week, break it down. See exactly what you are throwing away. Put on some plastic gloves and go through your rubbish and recycling. Take an honest inventory.
I’m big on journaling and recommend starting a waste journal and log.
You can download the Ultimate Zero Waste Planner by using the form below!
Prioritize your efforts
After your waste audit, choose one area where your zero waste efforts will give you an easy win! Small wins will go a long way in keeping you in the game over the long haul.
The Ultimate Zero Waste Planner was created based on our experience. Use the form to download yours now.
When we conducted our waste audit, Bob and I learned that our drinks make the most waste in our household. Beer and wine bottles, bags for coffee beans, nut milk containers, etc. So, that’s where we started.
Our trash service does not recycle glass, so we moved to growlers of beer and cans of wine. Next, our local coffee raster has a reusable container for coffee beans, so we purchased one and use it regularly. We still haven’t figured out the nut milk and cream containers because we’re not ready to add making our own to weekly chores, but we’re working on it.
Starting easy made us feel successful and ready to take on more complicated zero waster projects. I recommend you do the same!
Use what you have first
Bottles of shampoo, laundry detergent, makeup, etc.
Use these things up and research the best way to dispose of any containers that can’t be reused. Also use the time you are using them up to look into zero waste alternatives, then swap them out as you go.
No more single-use items!
Promise yourself no more single-use items.
No more coffee in to-go cups, straws, or plasticware.
While you are working out what you will need in this new zero waste journey, simply stop adding to the waste you are currently creating.
This means traveling with water bottles, your own flatware, and any other items you find yourself frequently using that are disposable.
Food waste and composting
Using the information above, and other resources available, begin learning how to safely compost your food waste. If you live in an urban area, this may take a good bit of research, talking to neighbors, and joining online groups to figure out. a system that works for you.
Slow and steady sets the pace with big undertakings like creating a zero waste lifestyle. Implementing a well-planned system ensures you will actually use it day in and day out.
Remember, zero waste is a process
It won’t be until you begin your zero waste lifestyle journey that you fully grasp how much trash your current lifestyle generates. At least that was the case for me!
Begin the journey by remembering it is a process of discovery. You’ll discover ways you create waste. You’ll discover alternatives. It will probably take us all a lifetime of learning and relearning to become truly zero waste.
Disposing of obsolete or unwanted items
Old electronics and batteries are a particular challenge in the zero waste lifestyle.
I still have a drawer of spent AA batteries that I need to find a safe way for disposal.
When I was making those trips to the dump that started this who zero waste project for Bob and I, I learned that computers and televisions are recycled in our area. There’s a $10 fee per item for the drop-off, but they are broken down into component parts and salvaged for raw materials for future use.
Eart 911 has a searchable database to help users find eco-friendly disposal options for many household items. Bookmark this resource, it’s very helpful!
Shop second hand first
Thrift shopping no longer carries the stigma that once surrounded it. As more and more people seek to reduce wasteful spending or create less waste, thrift store shopping is becoming more common.
Our home is almost completely furnished and supplied with antiques. Flatware, dishes, drinking glasses, sheets, and blankets…you name it, it’s most likely been used by someone else first.
For me, this option had more to do with quality. I just can’t stand to buy most modern, massed produced items because they are so cheap, flimsy and ugly. Thrift stores, junk shops, antique malls are teeming with kitchen utensils, knick-knacks, and almost any household item you need in your zero waste home.
Check out Polly Barks’ Zero Waste Thrift Store Shopping Guide for more ideas about how to get the most from your thrift shopping adventures!
A waiting period between purchases
Sometimes reducing consumption and waste is as easy as giving yourself a waiting period between wanting something and making the purchase.
During the waiting period, see if you already have items that meet that particular need.
Next, research online for a used or second-hand option for the purchase. I love the local yard sale page for my area on Facebook. I’ve both bought and sold items using it.
This habit won’t only get you closer to your zero waste goals, it will be a lot easier on your wallet as well!
Become a maker
This is my absolute favorite part of zero waste living.
We make so much ourselves and are constantly adding to our crafty ways.
I’ve just crocheted my first sweater, and am crocheting washcloths and hand towels for Holiday gifts.
We make our own kombucha, a multitude of ferments, natural sodas, candles, and most of our daily meals.
The relationship between a maker and their product is very intimate, and that alone reduces waste.
Lifestyle and Possesions that Matter
Zero waste living is a quality lifestyle. When we take the time to make our purchases from a conscious place, we automatically find the quality of the craftsmanship of that item is improved.
When we learn to make repairs on our household items, we have a deeper sense of ownership and appreciation for those items. We become even less likely to mindlessly dispose of it.
The zero waste community
Thanks to the internet, you don’t have to go the zero waste journey alone.
Search Meetup, Facebook, and other social media platforms to find a zero waste community right for you and your goals. You don’t have to go it alone!
Life is always better with friends!
Industry, Production, and Waste
This post puts a great deal of burden for rectifying the current waste production crisis on the consumer. At the end of the day, though, its really an issue of the corporate culture. Modern production practices are geared toward the manufacture of cheap, disposable mass-produced items.
This will only change when consumer demand and policy changes. While the trends are certainly moving in the direction of quality products made from recyclable and recycled materials, modern industry has a long way to go.
Your consumer demand is a powerful tool in making these much needed industrial changes occur even faster.
Privilege and the zero waste movement
Researching this post was enlightening. There’s a universe of information out there to help you navigate the specific concerns you have in creating a zero waste lifestyle.
But, this article by Model 4 Green Living is exceptional among those resources. The author, Renee Peters, offers a hard-hitting analysis of the zero waste movement as a lifestyle choice only avialble to those of us with the time and resources to make the choices described in this blog post.
For most of the people in the world, just making it through the day is complicated enough. They do not have the time or resources to address the society-driven waste they create in their daily lives. Producers and policymakers need to be driving change from the top so that everyone has easier access to sustainable choices in their daily lives.
Zero waste living and zero waste holidays
Americans create 25% more waste in the last 6 months of the year than at any other time. It comes to about 1 million extra tons a week, says Stanford’s Department of Recycling, Land, Building and Real Estate.
Be smart and conscious during the holiday season and feast, gift, and celebrate with as light a footprint as possible. Here are some ideas to create less waste or zero waste during the Holidays:
- Give gifts that do not require packaging.
- 2.6 billion holiday cards are sent each year, and most will end up in the landfill. This year, send an e-card, make a phone call, or create a handcrafted note that is more likely to be cherished.
- As always, take reusable bags with you when shopping.
- ‘Wrap’ gifts in reusable shopping bags.
- Give experiences rather than gifts from shopping malls. Passes to parks, gift certificates to restaurants, a day of hiking together. The options are only limited by your imagination.
- Be a maker or support a maker. Handcrafted gifts support the local economy as much as they help reduce waste.
- Use Energy Star certified indoor lights and LED outdoor lighting to reduce the amount of energy you use when decorating for the holidays.
Use this infographic from Sustainable America for even more ideas on how to live zero waste during the holidays!
Be a friendly zero waste activist!
Finally, when you begin making zero waste choices in public, you will quickly become a zero waste ambassador of sorts.
You may very well be the first zero waste person the check out clerk, food service person, or wait staff has served. Be friendly and responsive to their questions. They might just form their opinion of the entire movement based on their interaction with you.
If you have a favorite restaurant, coffee shop, or bakery that is serving their products in wasteful materials like styrofoam, I recommend addressing the issue in a follow-up email. Rather than make a scene at the time of service, take the time for a thoughtful email that expresses your enjoyment of their product and recommendations for alternative packaging. I think this approach meets with less resistance.
We do catch more bees with honey in this long game of building a zero waste culture.
Looking to lessen your footprint on the planet? Check out this guide to the best vegan cookbooks of 2019!
While you are exploring ways to lessen your footprint on the planet, consider adding a few more plant-based meals to your weekly diet. To help you not be overwhelmed, I created this list of best selling vegan cookbooks by category, including for beginners, for meat lovers, and for athletes.
The post also lists the top vegan blogs and podcasts to help you better understand vegan cooking techniques, philosophy, nutrition, and the entire lifestyle.
The Seasonal Living Framework
If you like thinking this way about your lifestyle choices, I invite you to explore the Seasonal Living Framework. It’s built upon four pillars: gardening, cooking, personal wellness, and activism.
There’s a party happening and we’re waiting for you to arrive!
We also gather over email once a week to focus on one specific garden, kitchen, or wellness topic in-depth, with lots of step-by-step how-to’s. The best way to jump into the email conversation is with the Seasonal Living Workbook, you can download it here and explore the seasonal living framework with an email course!
So much love and free information in one place, but it’s not the same without YOU!
- What is a zero waste lifestyle?
A zero waste lifestyle is a daily living practice that seeks to completely eliminate waste – trash, recycling, dumping – from our lives on a daily basis.
- What are some basic aspects of the zero waste lifestyle?
The zero waste lifestyle starts with an audit of your current trash and recycling. From there, you can begin to tackle the amount of garbage you produce through simple practices like refusing to use single-use items, composting food waste, and shopping at thrift stores.
- What is the Zero Waste Planner?
The Zero Waste Planner is a free download from Lorrie Season that will help you audit your current waste situation, learn the basic principles of the zero-waste lifestyle, and incrementally work toward a life that produces little to no garbage.