Zero-Waste for Beginners: A Practical Guide

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written by Sarah Wise-Leach

I first heard about going zero waste when I stumbled upon a video of Lauren Singer, a major figure in the zero waste movement, describing how she reduced her waste so much she can fit a year’s worth of trash into a mason jar. She went zero waste and completely plastic-free as a way to resist the oil and gas industries, the largest proponents of the environmental damage contributing to climate change. She is one of the best resources for those looking for guidance in going zero waste. Her store, the Package Free Shop, is a one-stop-shop for replacing disposable and plastic items with reusable options. On her blog, “Trash is for Tossers,” she gives great advice that helped me first begun to transition into reducing my waste. The author of Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson, is another fantastic resource. Her book is a complete guide on how to live zero waste as a whole household. They are great resources which I would highly recommend for anyone pursuing a low waste lifestyle going as low waste as possible. If you are new to the low waste movement and are looking for some places to start making small changes in your life, here are some of the first steps I made:

1.     Auditing my trash

Lauren Singer recommends the first step anyone should take to begin a zero-waste journey is to conduct an audit of their trash. Over one week, I put all the trash and recyclables that I had collected daily into one trash bin. Then, I sorted through it taking note of what kinds of trash I had consumed. As I was sorting, I asked myself these questions: What kind of trash am I seeing the most of? What plastic products am I consuming? What recyclables did I use where I could’ve opted to use a reusable container? What am I learning about my habits?

2.     Replacing items with package-free items as needed

I found that as soon as I decided to go zero-waste, I was so excited that wanted change to happen immediately. I was warned by my zero waste friends that it’s equally important to use up everything that you bought pre-zero waste as it is to replace those things with zero waste alternatives after they are empty. I found that it was tempting to recycle all the plastic in my house and switch all my products out for eco-friendly options right away so that my house would look and feel as environmentally friendly as I wanted it to. However, I needed to be patient as I used up my pre-zero waste purchases so that I was only buying new products when I needed them, and not just because I really wanted that cute bamboo toothbrush and I felt embarrassed using my plastic one. I found that I needed to keep myself from getting caught up in the aesthetic of my home being zero-waste. Before I went out to buy a set of glass mason jars, I needed to look at the plastic containers I had that could be washed and reused.

3.     Making products at home

One of the easiest ways to avoid packaging waste is to make your own products and it’s also one of the ways that going zero waste can help you save money! I sorted through dozens of recipes and made numerous batches of deodorant and toothpaste until I found ones that made me even happier than the store-bought alternatives. Here are three of my favorite DIY zero-waste swaps:

○      Deodorant

■      1 tbsp beeswax           (can be bought in bulk on Amazon)

■      2 tbsp baking soda     (can be traded for bentonite clay)

■      2 1/2 tbsp coconut oil

■      1 tbsp sweet almond oil

■      10 drops of essential oils

●      In a double boiler, melt and mix coconut oil, beeswax, almond oil, and baking soda together. Add essential oils last. Any essential oil can add nice sent, so use whatever is your favorite. I tend to use lavender in the winter and peppermint in summer. A batch will last me 6 months with daily application.

○      Toothpaste

■      2 tbsp coconut oil

■      3 tbsp baking soda

■      30+ drops peppermint oil (to taste)

●      Melt the coconut oil in a double boiler then mix in the baking soda and peppermint oil. A batch will last me 4 months with daily use.

○      Laundry detergent

■      1 cup liquid castile soap

■      1 cup baking soda

■      2 cups water (make sure it is distilled)

■      1/3 cup salt

●      Add all ingredients into a bottle, secure the cap, and shake. Shake before each use. Use one ¼ cup for medium loads; ½ cup for large loads.

My laundry detergent recipe uses one of my favorite products of all time: Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap. Although I had to buy this soap in a plastic bottle, it is my zero-waste ally because with this soap I can wash my face, hands, body, house, vegetables, dishes, and laundry. It can be used so many ways, that buying this soap in bulk has replaced a dozen other items in my house.

4.     Buying package-free products

○      I am incredibly lucky to live in a big city like San Diego where I can find stores that sell their items package-free. Living zero waste makes shopping at most grocery stores nearly impossible, which is why I immediately fell in love with the bulk section at Ocean Beach People’s Market. They have so many items that are difficult to find in bulk other places like spinach, olive oil, honey, almond butter, peanut butter, loose-leaf-tea, coffee (they have beans from local roasters, too), even bee pollen! Finding a grocery store with a good bulk section is vital to cooking zero-waste.

○      For everything household and body related, I can go to Sonora Refillery. They have all the essential tools for living zero waste: produce bags, metal food containers, shampoo bars, and bamboo toothbrushes. They also sell glass jars that can be used for their bulk liquids. You can return again and again to refill your lotion or conditioner without ever using any packaging! However, if you’re not in a city with stores dedicated to selling items package-free, there are some mainstream brands that offer package-free options. In their stores, Lush Cosmetics sells soap, shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion package-free. Unfortunately, sometimes you may not be able to find items you need without packaging, and in those cases, the best you can do is to opt for metal or glass containers, because materials like aluminum and glass can be recycled multiple times without losing their structural integrity. Lastly, if you cannot avoid plastic packaging, always try to buy in bulk containers (like I do with Dr. Bronner’s Castille soap). Buying one large bottle saves the plastic wasted from buying multiple smaller bottles.

If adopting low waste practices in all aspects of your life isn’t feasible for you, it’s great to start cutting down your waste in just one part of your lifestyle. In my last post, “Rethinking Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” I talked about how a good place to start when reducing your personal waste is with your wardrobe. Because of the prevalence of fast fashion, our closets tend to be one of our biggest waste weaknesses and a good place to begin practicing thinking in terms of reducing. The fast fashion industry is a huge consumer of water, energy, and other natural resources, as well as a major producer of waste, churning out millions of items of clothing for every one of the fifty-two “seasons” the industry is now structured around. The best way to resist the fast fashion industry is to build your wardrobe intentionally, avoiding the three major traps of fast fashion: buying items that are not practical for your lifestyle, not versatile in your wardrobe, and not durable over time. A helpful framework to begin practicing these habits is by adopting a capsule wardrobe.

Structured in a way that believes less can be more, a capsule closet values quality and versatility over quantity. The idea is that consumers can focus on maintaining a fewer number of items of higher quality that will serve them better over time rather than being overwhelmed by a cluttered wardrobe, filled with cheap and disposable items. This is possible by curating a closet in which the items are easy to wear, pair with each other, and will last the wearer a long time before needing replacing. There are many great resources for creating a capsule wardrobe including Courtney Carver, the creator of Project 333, a minimalist fashion experiment that challenges people to dress with thirty-three items or less for three months. You can find the details for that challenge on her blog “Be More With Less” as well as her other tips on living a more simple life. Another blog, “UnFancy” by Caroline Joy, helped me create my first capsule wardrobe and educate me about sustainable brands. In resisting fast fashion, the capsule wardrobe movement also brings more attention to clothing brands that have sustainable and transparent business practices. When I need to buy new clothing, I only buy from businesses that have fair and transparent labor and environmental practices; however, the most eco-friendly method of consuming clothing is to buy second-hand. Buying second hand is the best way to avoid producing more waste, getting multiple lifetimes out of the same footprint a garment created.

These are my best practical tips for beginning a zero-waste journey, but the best tool in your arsenal is passion. Living zero waste is difficult. It takes energy and time and patience. Most of my journey has been about forming habits: the habit of bringing my utensils with me everywhere, the habit of resisting buying coffee if I don’t have my bottle with me, the habit of washing my laundry more because I clean with rags instead of paper towels now. Being passionate about the lifestyle changes I am making is what gives me the energy to build and maintain these daily habits. I found that reminding myself of why I am doing what I am doing is just as important as all my other habits.

Logan AvantZero-Waste