Getting Started: On the Road to Zero Waste
Our family has always been pretty environmentally conscious. We bought organic produce and natural products. We recycled everything we could. We composted every scrap of food. I was proud to live in San Francisco, a city that shares my values. Our town even provided us with compost bins! How many places do that? I thought we were doing a really good job.
Still, I was disappointed each week when our recycling bin was full to the rim. Most of it was plastic food containers and boxes from ordering stuff online. I had read that a lot of the plastic we put into the bin wouldn’t end up being recycled, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Then I read about the Johnson family in Marin, who had reduced their trash to just a quart a year. As I read about their practices and habits, a whole new world opened up for me. We were not powerless over the amount of waste we produced after all!
We started making changes and followed the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.
Refuse means to say no to things we don’t need, whether it’s free swag giveaways, samples or buying something.
Reduce means we get rid of the things we don’t love, use or need. We release them to free up space in our home. Reducing also enable others to acquire our unused stuff instead of buying something new.
Reuse means that when it makes sense, we repurpose something instead of throwing it away or buying a new item.
Recycle refers to recyclable things that can’t be refused, reduced or reused. This includes paper and cardboard, glass, metal and plastic.
Rot is the last option, which means compost what cannot be refused, reduced, reused or recycled. If it is organic material, it goes into the compost.
If you follow the Rs in order, you’ll be able to reduce your consumption and as a result, you will definitely reduce the amount you put into the landfill. It’s ok to make changes gradually and it’s ok if some changes don’t work for your family. Every bit counts!
By following the 5 Rs, our family has been able to reduce our trash by about 90% and our recycling by about 75%. Reducing our waste has so many benefits. Not only do we keep trash out of the landfill, but we use fewer resources such as oil, energy and water to make, package and ship new products. We also end up spending a lot less money in the process.
Tips to Get Started:
Invest in a reusable water bottle and a reusable travel/coffee cup. Get into the habit of filling your water bottle before you leave the house and bring your travel cup to the coffee shop. Or, if you have time, ask for your coffee or tea in a real cup and sit down to drink it.
Put together a little napkin and utensil set to carry with you so you don't have to use plastic utensils when you're out. This is as simple as taking a fork, knife and spoon and rolling them inside a cloth napkin, then tucking it into your bag or putting it in your car or your desk.
When grocery shopping, bring your own reusable bags, including bags for produce. Bring a few clean food containers and use them to stock up on dry goods from the bulk bin rather than buying pre-packaged items.
If you entertain guests at home, start building a collection of reusables to replace any disposables you use for parties. We host parties frequently, so I bought things like glasses, cups, plates and flatware gradually. Shop thrift stores, garage and estate sales and Craigslist to find deals. My collection of 40 forks and plates we use for parties only cost a few dollars at the thrift store. Our collection of stainless steel cups was a bigger financial investment, but I built it gradually and now we use them all the time. That’s how we did it, but in the end, it’s up to you to decide how to replace disposables in a way that works for you.
Do a little spring cleaning in your closet. Go through every single item and keep only the ones you really love and wear regularly. Donate the rest. (No cheating! Don’t wear it tonight just so you can say you use it!) After you tackle your wardrobe, you can move on to other areas of your home and office. I love the KonMari method for decluttering. It changed the way I approached the task and allowed me to be much more efficient.
Keep those glass jars from the grocery store. Clear one shelf to store them and use them to keep leftovers. You can also bring them shopping with you to buy from the bulk bins. You just have to write the weight of the jar down before you fill it. I use a washable crayon and write directly on the jar, but you can also enter it into your phone.
If you have kids, there is probably a lot of paper that comes home from school. We hang really special projects on a bulletin board for a short period, then we either recycle or reuse them. One sided paper can be made into notebooks. Drawings can be used to wrap gifts or to make cards. Little things like googly eyes can be removed and reused in future art projects.
We occasionally buy flavored yogurt in small glass containers. Last week, we planted succulent cuttings in a few of them. A friend uses them as juice glasses.
If you do buy things in plastic containers, don’t recycle them; reuse them! Wash them and use them to keep leftovers or even to pack food for lunches and snacks. Plastic produce bags can be washed and reused on your next grocery run.
Before you toss something in the recycle bin, think twice. Can you reuse it? You probably can.
If you simply cannot figure out a way to reuse a recyclable item, then put it in the recycling bin. Check locally to figure out what is recyclable in your area.
If you can’t Refuse, Reduce, Reuse or Recycle it and it’s food or organic matter (like wood chips, soiled paper, garden cuttings, etc.) then it can Rot. Put it in the compost bin. If your city doesn't collect compost, you can start your own compost pile. If you have a yard, it's easy to make or buy a small compost box. Then you can use the compost in your garden. Even if you live in an apartment, there are small composters that can fit on your fire escape or under your sink - and they don't smell.
What do you do to reduce your waste and consumption? Share with me in the comments.