On my #zerowaste journey this Lent, I've been making changes one at a time to lower my consumption and waste. "Zero Waste" can sound overwhelming at first, because truly creating no waste is impossible in a world designed for convenience and disposability. Still, I've been inspired to radically reduce my own waste and I've found that some of the changes truly are simple. They're also cost effective and healthier!
1. Water bottle
I own at least 7 reusable water bottles, and I only bought one of them. A few were gifts, some came as giveaways from events, and two were simply forgotten at my house so I adopted them (after a good clean). Oh, and I might have stolen one from my mom. All this to say, reusable water bottles are readily available and leave no excuse for using single use plastic water bottles. It's easy to say "one bottle doesn't make a difference" - but that one bottle adds up quickly, as we buy one million bottles per minute around the world. Even the best recycling efforts can't offset the devastation we're causing.
For three years during grad school, I brought my own lunch but never thought to pack reusable utensils! I often forgot any utensils at all, so I would grab a single use fork, spoon, and knife from the student break area. Now that I realize 6 million tons of single-use plastics get tossed every year, I made the switch to carrying my own reusable bamboo utensils and it's so easy!
I used to think plastic bags weren't too bad because I reuse them for my bathroom trashcan...but that just delayed their inevitable trip to the landfill. I couldn't pick just one statistic about plastic bags because each one shocked me. Since the average American family uses nearly 1,500 bags per year bringing reusable bags (and just tossing things into your purse!) could make a real difference. I also carry reusable bags for produce or simply put food directly into my shopping cart - why do I need to protect my apples?
Sadly, most "to-go" coffee cups have a plastic liner that prevent them from being recycle-able at all. For the average person, this creates 23 lbs of waste every year, plus the CO2 emissions. Now I carry my own travel mug, or I ask for a cup "for here" when I plan to sit for a while. At my local Philz, it saves me $1 every time! (Pro tip, I hold the lid while they fill it for health code reasons.)
5. Reusable food containers
Okay, this is the shift that moves you from casual "I just have a water bottle in my purse" to the "Oh, you're really into this environment thing" reactions. This one has an impact because, A) I love to eat out, B) I travel often and, C) I nearly always have leftovers. This makes for a lot of single use food containers in my life, which don't degrade well and contribute to the spread of "convenience culture" around the globe. So now, I'm trying to carry a container with me in case a restaurant doesn't offer reusable plates/bowls, and I keep some in my car for leftovers. I only wish I had started doing this when I lived in the South, land of styrofoam. This simple step also includes carrying a reusable lunch bag and skipping the Ziploc bags and plastic cling wrap.
6. DIY products
I started making some DIY home/beauty products at the dawn of Pinterest, when they promised me I could save money on my $12 makeup remover and stop supporting unethical companies, which is a big deal to me. No kidding, I bought the supplies for that makeup remover in 2011 and have never needed to restock. Then I made DIY face wash, laundry detergent, and toothpaste. I'm on a quest to replace all my home/beauty products. Doing this saves money and single use containers, though now my new step is trying to buy the ingredients themselves in bulk/reusable containers!
Did you know that in the U.S., we use 500 million straws a day - enough straw waste to wrap the circumference of the earth 2.5 times or to fill Yankee Stadium over 9 times in a year?! Me either - until I heard about the movement to ban plastic straws. When you order a drink, simply add "no straw" and think about how you saved that plastic straw from degrading into tiny plastic pieces polluting our water supply. I added a metal straw to my reusable utensil container and I use them for my morning smoothies!
8. Bulk Grocery Shopping
I've always loved the bulk bins, since I grew up shopping with my dad at the local co-op. However, I always filled up the plastic bags and then brought them home and dumped them into my mason jars to make my pantry look cute. Now I realize I can simply bring the containers with me! Bring the containers to the store, weigh the container empty, label the "tare", then fill with your granola or flour or chocolate covered pretzels (hey, there is a reason I loved the bulk bins as a kid!). You can write the PLU number on the container or keep a note on your phone. The cashier will weigh the final product but deduct the cost of the container itself. Here's a great guide to zero waste grocery shopping!
I'll admit, I have a lot of learning to do on this one so that eventually I can use compost to garden myself. For now, luckily, I live in a zero waste city, so I can put every single food scrap, plus soiled paper plates/cups/containers/napkins, into one big bin and the city will wheel it away every Tuesday. We keep a countertop compost bin that prevents smell and gives us a visible reminder to sustainably dispose of our waste. I used to throw it all down the garbage disposal (out of sight, out of mind!) but I learned that is not an eco-friendly option.
10. Second hand shopping
When we think about waste, we often consider the trash we can visibly see. But the products we buy create a lost of waste in production and the industries are skilled at hiding that cost from the consumer. I was shocked to learn that every pair of jeans I buy uses from 1,800 to 2,900 gallons of water in production! When I ordered some clothing online, I was dismayed when each item came individually wrapped in plastic. My retail manager roommate told me that every item arrives to the store that way too! Thinking about hidden waste doesn't even go into the hidden human cost in our products. This can be a bigger conversation about consumption, but one simple step is to thoughtfully purchase items second hand from local thrift stores, online marketplaces like Craigslist/OfferUp, or swap with your neighbors and friends.
PS. No Styrofoam!!
This is an add-on to the top 10 because we should do absolutely everything to avoid buying and using styrofoam products. A quick Google search will reveal the facts on how harmful Expanded Polystyrene Foam is. Less than 1% of styrofoam is recycled. It causes harm to marine environments, harm to our health, and while many say they use it because it's cheap, we now have many other comparable and cost effective options.
What steps are you taking to reduce your waste?