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A decade ago municipalities were the only ones batting about the term Zero Waste. Today Zero Waste is the buzzword on every sustainable living blog. But what does it mean and how can you achieve it?

What is Zero Waste?

Although the zero in Zero Waste suggests the goal of this movement is to completely eliminate household trash and send nothing to the landfill, most proponents of Zero Waste acknowledge that generating absolutely no waste is close to impossible. Even if a family reduces their garbage to a single, pint-sized jar each year—as many ambitious zero wasters have done—they can’t completely control the making of products they use every day. That’s why most people have a more achievable goal in mind: to get as close to zero as possible.

The reasoning behind the Zero Waste movement is simple:

  • If you refuse to buy or accept products with wasteful packaging, the demand for those products will decline.
  • By refusing to purchase products stored in single-use plastic, you’ll help address our planet’s burgeoning plastics problem. You’ll also eliminate many toxins from your life and our environment.
  • By streamlining your shopping list and what you accept into your house, you’ll also streamline your life. You may find you have more time as a result—to do the things that matter.

The Zero Waste lifestyle may look different depending on where you live, but everyone can participate on some level. Urbanites often have more choices for bulk products or may be located closer to retailers willing to fill up personal containers. Rural residents may have more options for food production (backyard chickens anyone?). The goal is to do the best that you can with whatever resources you have.

Principles of Zero Waste

In her book, Zero Waste Home, writer and activist Bea Johnson shares five principles for Zero Waste living. These principles have become the rallying cry of zero wasters around the globe.

  1. Refuse what you don’t need. This prevents unwanted items from coming into your home and applies to all those promotional items you’re offered, along with things like junk mail and plastic straws.
  2. Reduce what you do use. This equals less waste overall.
  3. Reuse whatever you can. Can you extend the lifespan of something by mending, handing down, or repairing? Can you buy or sell second-hand? Reusing also means swapping disposable products for reusable ones that can easily be laundered instead of thrown away.
  4. Recycle what you can’t refuse or reduce. Saving resources from the waste stream by recycling is one option, but keep in mind that some items will not recycle indefinitely and will end up in the landfill at the end of their (often short) lifespan. These are the items that zero wasters try to avoid.
  5. Rot what’s left over. Composting food scraps, paper pieces, and wooden or bamboo toothbrushes returns nutrients and fiber back to the earth.

How to Get Started

A Zero Waste lifestyle starts with looking at your overall habits and trying to change those that generate waste. Here are some guidelines for those considering this approach for the first time.

1. Streamline what you bring into your home.

If we bring less through the door, our homes will be easier to manage and we’ll have less waste overall. This goes for the food we buy, the clothing we wear, the toys we permit our children to play with, and everything else in between. Bea Johnson once shared how she and her family sold their large home and moved into a small rental apartment, placing 80% of their belongings in storage while they searched for a new house. When the time came to move into their forever home, they realized they hadn’t missed most of those possessions. What had once seemed like necessities were no longer part of their lifestyle.

2. Shop at bulk food stores using reusable containers.

If you are lucky enough to have a Zero Waste store in your neighborhood, you’ll have access to a wide variety of unpackaged products, from dry goods to fermented foods to soap and hygiene products. If you are not so lucky, choose a local grocery store with the largest bulk food aisle. It’s also important to find a store that permits you to weigh (or ‘tare’) your own bags and containers before filling. Deducting the weight of your container at the till can mean substantial savings over an entire grocery order.

3. Refuse unnecessary products and promotional items.

Saying “no” can be challenging in a culture where we’re taught to be polite and take whatever’s handed to us. But the reality is that most promotional items are poorly constructed or made from cheap materials that won’t last long before breaking—ending up in the landfill before the year’s out. Most people will understand if you explain, without judgment, why you don’t need the item.

4. Carry your own containers for takeout.

In addition to bringing your own containers while shopping, carry your own set of reusable containers for eating on the go. You can bring them to work empty to fill with a takeout lunch, or fill yourself at home with delicious and nutritious foods. When you get home, pop them in the dishwasher or the sink, clean, and bring again the following day. Zero waste blogger Kathryn Kellogg itemizes what goes into her bag for some more ideas.

5. Reconsider some of your favorite products.

Can you replace some of the products you buy with others that come package-free? Many people who adopt a Zero Waste lifestyle find that they don’t need the variety of products they once thought they couldn’t do without. This includes some cleaning products, personal care products, and cosmetics.

6. Use up what you have.

Before replacing every item in your house with Zero Waste alternatives, use up what you have and dispose of the waste responsibly. Where possible, recycle the component parts. Make changes when it makes sense to do so. Zero Waste isn’t something that most people do all at once.

Zero Waste Room by Room

Kitchen

Ah, the kitchen. This is the room where many of us generate the most mess and waste, the place where we bring food packing into our homes and throw it away after we’ve unwrapped whatever’s inside. But what if you didn’t bring those things home in the first place, or swapped out trash-causing disposables and single-use plastics with things that could be reused or composted? Streamlining your cleaning supplies and revolutionizing your shopping list can help prevent most of the things that end up in your kitchen garbage from coming through the door. Here’s how.

Eliminate single-use or non-compostable products.

Replacing commonly used items in your kitchen with those that can recycle indefinitely or rot at the end of their lifespan will help you reduce waste immediately and over the long term. Here’s a list of likely items to swap for their Zero Waste counterparts:

Single Use/Plastic ItemsAlternatives
Paper towelsCompostable cloths (like Skoy)
Coffee filtersFilter-free coffee maker (French press or stovetop espresso maker)
Plastic dish scrubsDish cloth or natural wooden scrub brush with replaceable, compostable heads
Parchment paperOiled surface
Aluminum foilMetal baking dish with lid
Plastic wrap or wax paperBeeswax wraps
Sandwich bagsStainless steel lunch kit or beeswax wraps
Compost linersLiner-free compost pail or compost keepers
Plastic cutting boardsWooden or bamboo cutting boards
Plastic utensilsWooden or bamboo utensils
Disposable napkinsCloth napkins
Plastic storage containersGlass jars

Rethink your appliances.

Some appliances prompt us to use products that can generate waste if we aren’t thinking through our purchases. High-speed blenders may encourage you to purchase plastic-wrapped frozen fruit out of season for delicious smoothies. Your coffee maker may require disposable filters. Have a look in your cupboards and consider which appliances you use regularly and which ones you can live without? Can you find a filter-free coffee-making alternative?

Reduce your meat intake.

Some zero wasters have difficulty finding meat and cheese available package-free. Others can bring their own containers to the deli department of their local store and ask them to place the product inside (after weighing the container). If your store balks at putting meat or cheese into reusable containers or quotes health regulations prohibiting this practice, ask them to wrap the meat in paper instead. Reducing your intake of meat and cheese ultimately reduces the waste that goes along with them.

Streamline your cleaning supplies.

You don’t need a different household cleanser for every dirty item or surface in your home. White vinegar and baking soda work for most jobs and require fewer resources than multiple, individually-packaged products. For tough jobs that go beyond these ingredients, try a kitchen stone made from recycled glass recovered from landfills.

Adjust your food storage.

Cook and eat food long enough and you’ll eventually have to store it, whether in your pantry, fridge, or kitchen. Thankfully the same solutions that work in one location also work in the others. Glass jars, excellent for storing food when you bring it home from the bulk food store, also work in the fridge or freezer. Glass or stainless steel containers with lids also work and are easier to stack and fit together if, like many people, your freezer or fridge are full to bursting. Just remember that freezing food in glass requires the following precautions:

  • Choose wide-mouthed glass jars (no narrow necks). Alternatively use flat glass storage containers with fitted lids.
  • Always leave headspace at the top of the container, especially when freezing liquids. Food expands when temperatures drop and will break glass if it has nowhere to go.

Take charge of food waste:

Food waste accounts for approximately 45% of the average household’s waste stream. That means that composting, either through your local municipality’s curbside pick-up or your own backyard compost heap, is the single most important thing you can do to reduce the amount of trash you produce. If you live in an apartment and you don’t have curbside pickup, there are still composting options available to you.

Bathroom

Unlike the kitchen, the bathroom isn’t a haven for food products wrapped in single-use packaging. But personal care products are just as likely to come in a wide array of plastics, and many can only be recycled once before ending up in a product destined for the landfill. Eliminating these from your medicine chest will help stop the demand for these products and save you money. Here are some likely culprits.

Toothbrush:

Consider how many toothbrushes you’ll go through in a year, a month, your lifetime. Now multiply that by the number of people in North America: it really adds up. Unfortunately, plastic and electric toothbrushes aren’t items we can easily recycle and they usually get tossed in trash bins. Even worse, they end up in our oceans. Wooden or bamboo toothbrushes (like the ones created by Mable) are compostable and easy to find. If you don’t live hear a retailer, you can order them online through a membership program.

Toothpaste:

Zero Waste alternatives to toothpaste abound, but be careful you’re not replacing one disposable package with another. The simplest way to brush your teeth is to use baking soda straight from your bulk jar (or a compostable, cardboard container). If you dislike the taste, add a little xylitol or stevia powder purchased in bulk.

Shampoo and conditioner:

Buy shampoo and conditioner in bulk using your own pop-top glass bottles. If these aren’t available near you, consider the solid shampoo and conditioning bars now sold package-free by a variety of manufacturers.

Shaving cream:

Rechargeable, electric razors eliminate the need for shaving cream, and in some cases, replacement blades. However, since electric razors don’t last forever, some people still prefer stainless steel safety razors. A simple mixture of coconut oil (or jojoba oil) and aloe vera gel works well as a shaving cream replacement.

Menstrual products:

If you’re using disposable menstrual products every month you could be creating a mountain of trash. Most pads are made from 90% plastic while liners generally include rayon and plastic. (To calculate the potential impact over your lifespan, try this menstrual waste calculator.) Reusable menstrual products like washable cloth pads and menstrual cups slash waste and prevent harmful toxins from coming into contact with your body during a period.

Makeup:

Most cosmetics come in non-compostable packaging. Thankfully a few visionary companies are paving the way with wooden, cardboard, or refillable options. The easiest way to zero waste your makeup routine is to confine your products to those purchased in bulk from your local dispensary or health food store. Or substitute edible ingredients like cocoa powder for blush and bronzer and edible oils for moisturizer. One simple and effective day moisturizer recipe: two parts aloe vera gel and one part jojoba oil. At night, the jojoba oil can go on straight since it’s non-comedogenic. Many dispensaries now sell this carrier oil in bulk or will refill a previously purchased glass bottle.

Deodorant:

Purchasing package-free deodorant is getting easier now that deodorant sticks or bars are available from many retailers (think soap bars for your underarms). You can also use the deodorant stones. The active ingredients in these products are mineral salts—particularly potassium alum—which work to prevent odour causing bacteria. You’ll still sweat, but you won’t smell. One application lasts 24 hours. Just be sure to apply when your skin is wet.

Laundry Room

Reducing the amount of laundry you wash is the first step to making less waste in the laundry room. The fewer items you launder, the less soap you’ll need—and the more time you’ll have to spend doing something other than laundry.

To reduce the number of loads you wash every week, review your laundry routine. Many people find they can wash fewer towels by instituting a ‘one or two towels per week per person’ rule (depending on how dirty your family members get during the day). Others find having their children taking care of their own laundry drastically reduces the amount of clothes that end up in the clothes hamper. Find what works for you, and then try these alternatives to commonly used laundry products:

Laundry soap:

Purchasing laundry powder or liquid laundry detergent in bulk is one of the easiest options. An alternative to bulk laundry products is the lowly soap nut (or soap berry), grown in the Himalayas and marketed for laundering everything from clothes to diapers. Originating from the Sapindus mukorossi tree, soap nuts contain saponins that lather when agitated. Place 3-5 soap nuts in muslin bag, toss in the wash, and wash as normal. (Soap nuts work in both warm and cold water, but generate more lather in warm water.) You can use the same soap nuts four or five times before tossing them in the compost.

Fabric softener:

Add ½ cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener compartment of your washing machine. Your clothes will come out smelling fresh without any trace of vinegar. Better yet, skip the fabric-softening step to save time and resources. In many cases, fabric softening isn’t necessary.

Stain remover:

Most stains will lift with a mix of water, castile soap, and a small amount (1-2 tablespoons) of hydrogen peroxide. Baking soda, vinegar, and water is another good, all-purpose stain remover. For greasy stains, a small amount of cornstarch, castile soap, and water can help. Lay white fabrics to dry in the sun after rinsing to help lighten the stain. Refrain from placing stained fabrics in the dryer since heat sets many stains permanently.

Dryer sheets:

Opt for wool dryer balls. These not only save you money on purchasing dryer sheets, they also save electricity on every load by rapidly absorbing water from your wet clothing in the dryer. When the clothes are dry, simply lay out the balls where they can dry or keep the dryer lid open to increase air circulation. Repeat with every load. You can also add 2-3 drops of essential oil (lavender, peppermint, or geranium are some favorites) to your dry balls to lightly scent your laundry. Reload the balls with new drops after three loads.

Bedroom

The bedroom should be a haven for rest and relaxation, but too often it’s the home of piles of dirty laundry and stacks of items we’re trying to store or organize. The following tips can help you reclaim your bedroom and limit the waste you generate.

Sleep natural:

If and when you’re replacing bed linens and pillows, opt for natural materials that will compost at the end of their lifespan. This includes wool, cotton, and bamboo.

Streamline your clothing:

Both zero wasters and minimalists advocate simplifying your wardrobe for sheer practicality. Since most people wear between 20 and 30% of their wardrobe and let the rest sit unused most of the time, it makes sense to free up some closet space by taking a hard look at what’s inside. Tidying guru Marie Kondo suggests laying out every item of clothing you wear on the floor or bed, and then picking up each piece individually and asking yourself, “does this spark joy?” If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘probably not,’ it’s time to send that item to the thrift shop or rag bag.

Create a capsule wardrobe:

Other proponents lean towards the capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is a small collection of well-made items that coordinate easily with one another, making numerous outfits from a few carefully chosen pieces. Create your capsule wardrobe by selecting anchor pieces in neutral colors. Next, choose one or two theme colors (that go together) and retain tops and scarves to match. Finally, add one or two patterned pieces, a few accessories, and you’re ready to go. Capsule wardrobes usually include fewer than 30 pieces in total (including shoes, accessories, and clothing).

Limit shopping:

If you limit your shopping to once or twice a year, you’ll be less likely to add unnecessary items to your wardrobe. You’ll also extend the usefulness of the clothing you already have. Checking out thrift stores and locally made cooperatives is a great way to avoid the impact of fast fashion and its associated waste.

Learn how to mend:

Darning a sock isn’t as hard as it sounds, and sewing up a seam or running in a shirt can often give a piece of clothing new life. For more information about extending the life of your clothing, read Tips for Sustainable Wear.

Zero Waste Outside the Home

Many of the practices you follow inside your home can work when you step outside your regular routine. Here are a few Zero Waste suggestions to extend your trash-crashing skills.

Eating out:

Choose restaurants that supply you with real dishes to avoid the waste associated with fast food. If you’re on the go and want to stop at a food vendor to save time, bring your own stainless steel food kit to fill. You can also tote stainless steel cups with straws or other reusable beverage containers to keep your waste at a minimum. For flatware, consider keeping a reusable bamboo cutlery in your bag or car, along with a washable travel napkin. These are light and easy to wash.

Kids:

Children seem to attract stuff. When they’re not leaving their own trail of plastic toys and other detritus, the universe seems determined to load them down with cheap promotional trinkets or other giveaways. Starting from a young age with things like giftless birthday parties makes things easier, as does refusing to purchase or accept items with a short lifespan. Follow the same principles for their wardrobes as you do for your own, and spend quality time on parent-child activities that enrich through experience rather than stuff. If your children attend school, pack school lunches in reusable lunch kits or beeswax wraps.

Entertainment:

While your local movie theatre may not permit you to bring your own food to the show, you can bring your own water bottle and often, snack container. You can also spend your free time outside taking a walk in the woods, having a forest bath, or enjoying other outdoor entertainment.

Shopping:

The Zero Waste principles of refuse, reduce, and reuse come into play more than ever while shopping. As noted in previous sections of this guide, shopping in bulk or at thrift stores is the best way to eliminate trash from your buying habit. Taking along a trusty zero waste shopping kit is another. This could include:

  • Reusable fabric bulk bags: Sew bulk bags from muslin cotton and produce bags from cotton mesh. Or buy pre-made sets to suit your needs. A single person shopping for a week’s worth of groceries will use five to 10 bulk food bags per week, along with another three to five produce bags. A family of four will need 10 to 15 bulk food bags and five to seven produce bags weekly.
  • Clean jars with lids: Take along wide-mouth Mason jars for honey, soaps, nut butters, and coconut oil. You can also use jars or glass, pop-top bottles to refill shampoo, conditioner, olive oil, and other liquids.
  • Spice containers: Small stainless steel containers with snap-on lids work well for refilling herbs and spices. You can also take along your clean spice jars.
  • Washable wax crayon: Depending on the policy of your local bulk supplier, you may or may not need something to mark store numbers on each item. A washable wax crayon is a useful tool.
  • A shopping basket or reusable shopping bags to put all this into.

Take the Zero Waste Challenge

With so many options for reducing and eliminating trash, the Zero Waste movement is ushering in a new era of thoughtful consumption. In the past five years alone dozens of Zero Waste stores have opened around the globe. From Montreal to New York to Copenhagen, word is getting out. Now the question remains: how close can you get to zero?