June 28, 2021
Kudos to you for wanting to dig deeper into the zero waste (ish) lifestyle! First, I’d like to ask a little more about you.
Are you experiencing eco-anxiety?
You’ve seen the classic photos of a beach littered with plastic, or a helpless sea turtle with plastic straws stuck in its nose. You’ve probably heard somewhere that we are eating one credit card’s worth of plastic every week. It weighs on you: You worry about the plastic waste filling up our land and oceans, so you want to help. You recycle diligently (even religiously) and try to influence others to do it too. You fit as many items in a single plastic bag as possible at the grocery store. You follow sustainable brands on social media.
Then, you turn around, see an empty plastic water bottle, single-use utensils, even some styrofoam takeout boxes on your desk, and start to feel a bit...awful.
Two years ago, that was me. This strong feeling of cognitive dissonance, that I was still part of the very problem I worry about, that my actions were contradicting my values, drove me to start living differently.
I began Googling “how to reduce plastic waste” and was fascinated by the zero waste lifestyle. How had I not known this was possible? Sign me up. I’m so ready to learn about all the ways to reclaim my power as a consumer, to live as I believe.
After a few years of practice, I’m still getting to zero waste (ish). I make mistakes. I forget to bring my reusable kit from time to time. I take the occasional plastic boxes. But zero waste has completely transformed my daily rituals, my consumption habits, my relationship with physical possessions, even my view on money and happiness. I want to help you take action to calm this eco-anxiety, by sharing how I see zero waste.
Zero waste is not defined as clearly as, say, veganism, because our preferences and daily habits are vastly different. Here’s my best try: Zero waste aims to minimize dumpster-bound waste and encourages conscious consumption.
I must admit, zero waste seemed intimidating at first. My biggest breakthrough came with the realization that “zero” is an asymptote. It’s a target we will consistently aim for, but not fully reach, and that is okay. It’s not about perfection.
It’s about trying. It’s about consistency. It’s about consuming mindfully and making better decisions over time. It’s about having compassion for the planet and for yourself.
There were good days, when I felt like I was making a tangible difference. There were so-so days, when I forgot to bring my reusables and felt guilty for having to take disposables. There were also bad days, when I fought with loved ones over using plastic. Over time, I got better at looking at mishaps as an opportunity to improve, not a blame or shame game. If you’re ready to dive in, may I suggest eight actions for you to start building low waste habits:
Action 1: Consolidate trash cans.
Reducing the number of trash cans in your home has two advantages: to add more (annoying) steps to the act of throwing something away, and to make you much more aware of what is being thrown away every time you have to walk over to a can.
Action 2: Do a trash audit.
What do you do when you feel like you’ve overspent this month and want to cut back next month? Probably review your detailed credit card or bank statements first to identify the top money sinks. You’re doing a spend audit.
Same with trash. A trash audit can be as simple as emptying out a trash bag onto the floor and looking at the content, or taking a picture of each item as it goes in the garbage can over a week. You’re gathering data on yourself and seeing a pattern. For many people, their top trash leaders are uneaten food and plastic packaging.
Now, how do we stop throwing things (and money) away?
Action 3: Think in the 5Rs of zero waste. Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Rot.
Then repeat that sentence twice as fast to let it sink in. Still with me? Let’s unpack this.
Action 4: Refuse the things you don’t need.
It’s where most of the zero waste magic happens. This means saying “no thank you” to single-use items like disposable cups, plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic straws, Styrofoam boxes, maybe even business cards (although cultural awareness is key). This means turning down things that add little value to your life, like random freebies and junk mail (opt out for free). Saying no feels awkward at first, but gets easier and ups your confidence over time. In fact, I’ve been thanked many times for giving things back because hey, it saves them money.
Chances are, you can find reusable alternatives at home, without spending a dime. I take my insulated water bottle (an employer gift) everywhere, including on trips. I bring reusable plastic takeout containers (accumulated from my pre-zero waste days) to restaurants. I use canvas bags (trust me, you have one somewhere in a corner) at stores. My crafty friends would make their own fabric bags by repurposing old t-shirts and jeans.
This is also where I overhauled my entire personal care routine. I ditched toothpaste tubes and started brushing with toothpaste tablets. I swapped liquid shower products for concentrated waterless ones. This is also how Zebo came to be, to help you easily and conveniently do so too.
Action 5: Reduce the things you think you need.
Cliched but true: Less is more. This means leaning into minimalistic consumption, and away from the culture of use-and-dispose. This means reclaiming your power as a consumer. I didn’t want to keep swiping a piece of plastic to feel better, happier, sexier, more validated, or whatever else marketers had primed me to believe anymore. Easy ask: Just procrastinate on your shopping cart (even Zebo’s). Harder ask: Reevaluate why you feel the impulse to shop. What gap is being filled here?
Other than materialistic consumption, we can also consider reducing gas consumption, by taking fewer car trips to walk, bike, or carpool instead. Or reduce water consumption, by fixing that leaky pipe, shutting faucets tightly, taking shorter showers, wearing natural fibers (like wool) more and using a highly effective detergent so that you can do less laundry. Or reduce energy consumption, by unplugging electronics at night, perhaps swapping TV for a board game or a walk outside.
Action 6: Reuse the things you do need.
Reuse is my favorite R, because I believe inefficiencies create waste and efficiency is the highest form of beauty. At its core, reuse is identifying inefficiencies, eliminating them, and creating beauty.
This process truly sparks KonMari-approved joy and creativity in me. Things like skipping the ceramic wrap and using a flat plate over a bowl of leftovers. Things like buying what I need pre-owned instead of brand-new. Like repairing holey socks, and repurposing old items to extend their life. For everyday consumables that require regular replenishments, like toothpaste and cleaning detergents, I choose products that are either naked or packaged in compostable materials (more on this in the fifth R, rot).
Personally, I’ve reaped significant financial benefits from reducing and reusing, and nearly doubled my savings rate in two years.
Action 7: Recycle the things you no longer need.
When I talk about zero waste, people like to say “We recycle a lot too!”
It’s a good start. Recycling is like your emergency ramen stash: passable and better than nothing, but by no means the best. Recycling is a highly resource- and labor-intensive process. While some recycling facilities have machines to sort through materials, more often than not, workers manually do the job. A perfectly recyclable material may also get thrown out because it’s not faring a good market price. All in all, don’t equate recycling to low waste. You’ve got to hit the three better Rs first.
When we do recycle, let’s not “wish-cycle” because unrecyclable stuff can contaminate the entire bin. Paper, metal, and glass should generally be clean before they go in the bin (no oily pizza boxes please). I highly recommend Googling the specific recycling guidelines in your city.
For electronics, your city likely organizes a hazardous waste drive several times a year, where you can drop off your broken batteries, cables, headphones, and other electronic devices. For fabrics, I’ve found little transparency on how textile recycling works in the US and discovered that even clothes donated to charities can end up in the incinerator or landfill. So I do my best to reduce shopping and reuse clothes.
Plastic recycling is a lot trickier than most think. If you’re strange like me and happy to spend three hours reading detailed studies, here is a good one. If not, the one-sentence summary is that refusing plastic in the first place is the go-to.
Action 8: Rot or compost all organic waste.
Since fruits and veggies naturally break down, it shouldn’t matter if I tossed them in the trash, right?
I wish. When organic waste like fruits and vegetables decompose without oxygen (aka in a landfill), a monster by the name of methane is released. Its warming power is magnitudes stronger than that of CO2. If CO2 is a grizzly bear, methane is Godzilla.
How do we curb this monster? Compost. If you have a backyard, trench composting your organic waste is a free, excellent way to get nutrients for your lovely flowers or plants. If you don’t mind vermi-friends indoors, worm bins are easy and discreet. If you live in an apartment, look up residential compost pickup services, or call up local community farms and ask if they need household compost. Better yet, start your own community garden!
More actions for the overachievers
- Donate to reputable, certified reforestation projects every year, like Eden
- DIY everyday essentials like soap and detergents with local, package-free ingredients
- Educate and help family and friends reduce waste
Ordinary habits can achieve extraordinary results. But your practice of zero waste will look different from mine, because you have unique needs, priorities, and aspirations. Zero waste is a highly personal process.
Zero waste is also a mindset, a way of life. It embraces your individuality, your imperfections throughout the journey.
What does your zero waste look like?
Back to my 5Rs and BTS playlist,