by Ariel Russell
I’ve been passionate about living sustainably for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me how to sew, garden and do my own canning since I was a girl and she was always an avid recycler. Lessons I took with me into adulthood. While I still loved to make as much of my own stuff as I can, grow and can my own food, etc. I considered myself pretty well-informed about our climate crisis. But it wasn’t until after my son was born in 2019 that I really started to take it seriously. While on maternity leave, I rewatched the 2016 Leonardo DiCaprio film, Before the Flood, and a few others that illuminated the urgency of the climate crisis for me. I found myself thinking, “Oh man… this is the world my son is going to inherit!” and that gave me the motivation to do more. My husband and I found ways to decrease our household’s carbon footprint and we continue to take gradual steps to decrease our impact more and more, a big part of which is becoming a zero waste home (or at least a low-waste home).
The Problem of “Stuff”
With a throwaway culture that encourages single-use plastics and the continued consumption of the newest, best “toy” (e.g., upgraded cell phones, the latest computers), we’re generating more stuff than the system can handle.
The U.S. EPA estimates that around 42% of greenhouse gas emissions are created by the production of said goods, food, and packaging. As a result, “reducing, reusing and recycling can be a key part of a climate change strategy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” notes the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
But as I realized on this journey, we shouldn’t just jump to the “recycling” part. It’s become clear in recent years that the recycling system (at least in the United States) isn’t working. As consumers, we can make a concerted effort to reduce and reuse.
We can do that by committing to zero waste living.
What is Zero Waste?
Zero waste living is the practice of trying to eliminate as much of the waste we produce as possible.
If you are new to the world of zero waste, it can be daunting to realize that your lifestyle depends on a multitude of products that have lower-impact alternatives. Realizing how much good zero waste living can do, it can be tempting to jump in head first, but it’s not always sustainable and can quickly become overwhelming.
To avoid early burnout, pick just one thing to start with and implement it for as long as it takes to become fully integrated into your routine. For example, use reusable canvas bags for the grocery store and travel mugs for your hot beverages. (note: I realize that during Covid-19, many coffeeshops don’t allow travel mugs, but some do and will just pour your drink into your mug for you, so make sure you ask just in case).
Start by Getting into the Zero Waste Mindset
It’s helpful to be aware that zero waste living comes with some very real challenges. Particularly, convenience culture where we’ve become accustomed to ordering anything with three clicks and getting it in two days.
But this approach plays a major role in our climate crisis. To be able to transition into lower-waste living, you’ll have to accept that it may take much longer to acquire the things you want, and that’s okay!
It’s also okay to get overwhelmed or be too hard on yourself if you can’t incorporate zero waste 100%. Give yourself grace and be patient. This is a lifelong pursuit, and the earth will benefit most from the changes you are able to sustain.
To get started, a helpful tool is the Buyerarchy of Needs Pyramid (see image). Start from the bottom of the pyramid (“use what you have”) with every purchase and see if you can start to think outside of the box, and step out of your routines. You may see a change in the way you view your families “needs” altogether.
Sharing is Caring
Our consumer culture, under the umbrella of capitalism, tells us that we should own everything, but there’s a lot we can share or borrow. The key is to start local, at the neighborhood level.
Neighborhood tool libraries and Buy Nothing Groups are examples. The Buy Nothing movement, in particular, has taken off worldwide by encouraging cutting waste through gifting, sharing, borrowing, and community-building at a hyper-local level (administered through closed Facebook groups). If your neighborhood doesn’t have one, maybe you can start one!
If I need something, I like to set a rule that I will check a local online group and two thrift stores before I buy something. I often find that in the week or two I took to search for it I find a creative alternative or discover that I never really needed it in the first place.
Your Grocery Cart
Food and grocery purchases are a huge part of single-use plastic waste. So start by opening your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer and ask yourself these three questions:
- What are some plastic wrapped products your family consumes the most regularly? I recommend making a list.
- Can you find that product in the bulk section?
- If not, how is it made? If it’s something you can make yourself without generating too much plastic, make a list of those foods.
Some things take more tools and time than you have and aren’t feasible. However, many things are much easier than you might think. For example, I found that making my own tofu was a bit too labor intensive for my schedule, plus it required a tofu press which I didn’t have. However almond milk and vegan butter were quite easy!
When buying in bulk, bring your own containers so that no new materials (e.g., plastic or paper bags) are used to get the food to your house. Check out the list below for products to stock up on for bulk food purchases under “Reusables.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, since many stores don’t allow you to bring containers from home, opt for paper bags or compostable produce bags instead of plastic bags. If the only other option is plastic, check to see if there’s a collection location in your area. If you are in the US a great resource is https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org.
Note: don’t assume that your grocery store doesn’t allow reusable containers or bags because of Covid, make sure to look into the policies as many have resumed allowing such items as tote bags as long as the customer bags their groceries.
“Refilleries” are a great concept to come from the zero waste movement. These companies carry bulk household products such as cleaners, laundry soap, dish soap, shampoo, toothpaste tabs, lotion… you name it! If you can’t find a refillery near you, you can still refill many of these household products at your local co-op or natural foods store. If they don’t carry them, make the request!
If a refillery isn’t an option, try making household products yourself. Dish soap is the base for many home cleaners, so consider buying a bulk quantity that you can use to make multiple other products with. You can also refill your vinegar in the bulk section of many stores. This video has 19 super easy DIY home cleaning product recipes!
Hopefully, you already have reusable dishware and silverware and have ditched plastic water bottles, but did you know there are clever reusable solutions to nearly every single-use home product available?
Cloth towels (in lieu of paper towels) are probably the most popular, but there are reusable facial tissues, disinfectant wipes, sponges, Swiffer covers, sandwich bags, food wraps. You name it!
While these products are amazing, they still take energy to produce. So before you buy everything on this list, make sure to use what you already have for the remainder of its useful life. Wash and reuse your ziplock bags until they burst at the seams! When they do, here are some zero waste products. I provide many of these products in my own store, first see if you can find these products locally before ordering online.
- Cloth Paper Towels
- Scrub Brush
- Utensil pouch
- Facial Tissues
- Beeswax Wraps
- Stashers Bags
- Metal Straw
- Swiffer Covers
- Disinfectant Wipes
- Facial Rounds
- Mesh Produce Bags
Find Inspiration and Information from other Zero Wasters
Surround yourself with people that inspire a low or zero waste lifestyle. There are tons of devoted people out there spending their days cooking, crafting, figuring out recipes, and making low waste living easier and more accessible.
A great way to be inspired by and get ideas is to subscribe to zero waste blogs, follow zero waste influencers on instagram, and before you know it you’ll start thinking like a zero waster!
Here are some great zero wasters on Instagram to follow:
- @naturally mermaid
You Can Do It!
As I mentioned before, the most important thing to remember is that change takes time and repetition.
Like any human, my family has fallen off the zero waste wagon and gotten back on again many times as we adjust to life as parents, life during a pandemic, etc. But we always have our little teacher, our son, to motivate us to get back on and do whatever we can to leave him with a better world.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to lower your waste. Just commit to what you think is manageable for your lifestyle, make compromises where you can, be patient with yourself when you inevitably fail, and then try, try again!
Stay tuned for the follow-up post about Zero Waste Travel!
Ariel Russell is the founder of Saged Home, a sustainably focused Etsy shop that provides handmade reusable alternatives to single-use home products. She’s by no means an expert in sustainability, just a crafter, maker and mother on the life-long journey to living in harmony with the earth. Visit her Etsy shop at SagedHome.Etsy.com
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