Written by: Julie
I have not always been a Zero Waster. But, I have been conscious about the waste I produce and made sure things were being recycled properly. Looking back, I can see why I am attracted to this lifestyle. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have had compost bins and gardens my whole life. I used to collect soda cans, smush them and turn them in for cash with my Dad. I was taught by my mom and grandmother to reuse old clothes and items we had to sew new things like bags and blankets. They also taught me the importance of mending and fixing. My grandfather used to take us to the beach to make boats out of driftwood and other random things, picking up trash along the way. I learned at a young age how to take care of the waste I produced and the environment became sacred to me. I developed a feeling of responsibility to take care of the Earth because I need it to survive. In order for me to be healthy, it needs to be healthy, too.
We started to face a HUGE problem when we moved into a particular apartment complex. I directly experienced how lazy and careless my neighbors were. There was one dumpster area in the middle of about 200 apartment units with small trash cans at each mailbox. Everyday people would over flow the mailbox trash cans and make piles on the side. Or course, animals and birds would get into the garbage scattering it all over. We would walk through food scraps, dirty diapers, etc. just to get the mail. DISGUSTING!
Over at the actual dumpster site was even worse! There were mountains of trash everyday and probably still is. Dealing with this situation put things in perspective. This was a relatively small amount of people in ONE apartment complex, in ONE city of ONE state, of ONE modern country! The amount of garbage and things being thrown away that could be recycled or reused was maddening.
We engaged management, put signs up, moved the mailbox trash can to a different location, spent time trying to organize the dumpster area and took things to the thrift store that we pulled out of the mounatin. Nothing stopped the endless flow. We did make a difference, but not enough. We decided we did NOT want to contribute to that nightmare anymore!
About 2 years ago is when we really become a low waste household. I thought I was doing my best being conscious, composting and recycling. Then I realized by changing my buying habits and eating healthier I could make a huge impact in terms of filling my trash can. Becoming a Zero Waster is a slow process, but totally rewarding! I am so proud when I look at our trash can and see a date written on it from months ago! BTW we save a bunch of money, because having less waste means buying less stuff!
Here are MY top habits to produce less household waste.
- Compost: Stinky rotting food is a huge reason why the trash needs to be taken out each week. Not all your food waste can be composted, but a lot can. All the veggies scraps, fruit peels and cores go in the compost bin along with other random things you wouldn’t think about, but other uneaten food needs to be tossed. I keep a container in my freezer for that food so it is not stinking up the trash can. I simply empty the freezer container with any other meat packaging or scraps when I empty the trash. We have this tumbling barrel composter (image linked): with another hand made wooden garden box for when the barrel needs to be emptied. For my first run at composting I bought this Garden Tower Project (image linked): which is awesome because it is compact, a planter, composter and a worm farm! It fit nicely on the deck of our 3rd floor apartment (the one with the trash problem). Another important thing about food waste is to control your portions, especially if you have kids. We give smaller portions and offer more rather than make a mess of the food and have to throw it away. Also, they have to eat ALL the food on their plate to get dessert. FIRM!
2. Disposable Items: Tons of everyday items on the market are single use. Making small changes can end with big savings and less trash! We started with our paper towels. I have not bought paper towels since May 2012. Can you believe that I have 2 small boys and we don’t use paper towels!? It’s actually not hard once you get into the habit. I started by simple taking them off the counter. Next, I replaced the spot with a bunch of rags and cloth towels (in a cute basket) to use instead. Then, we slowly changed all disposable stuff to reusable items. Napkins, paper plates and cups, plastic baggies, plastic silverware, plastic wrap, dryer sheets, sponges, feminine products, straws, etc. I’m not saying I will never buy these things again, but I do try really hard to conserve what I have to make it last a super long time. I don’t use q-tips anymore. The rest of my family is not willing to give that up, but that’s ok. Any small amount of savings still counts! I write the date we start using items on any package to have an idea of how long it takes us to go through it. (CAUTION MAYBE TMI) I use “toilet cloth”, which is, you guessed it, not so papery toilet paper. Don’t worry, it’s not used for #2. My husband doesn’t use it but our 4 year old thinks it’s great.
He has his own pattern of toilet cloth and has only mistakenly thrown in it the bowl once or twice! I don’t know if you have ever seen a child take toilet paper off the roll but it’s usually about 10 squares to wipe off a tiny droplet on the toilet seat, so having his own toilet cloth saves SO MUCH toilet paper.
3. Packaging: Obviously, most food comes in packages and if you get take-out…..FORGET ABOUT IT! It makes me sad how much packaging is involved with take-out-food. Anyway, when shopping, we bring our own grocery bags and produce bags. If I happen to run out of produce bags, the veggies simply don’t get put in one (gasp!). I rarely buy things in clam shells, ESPECIALLY now that China isn’t taking them to recycle anymore. We avoid the clam shells by either not buying the item or choosing produce sold in a paperboard container. We love to pick TONS of berries when they are in season and freeze them for later.
The grocery store we go to offers spinach, salad green, fresh herbs and many other things in bulk. (praise God). I look at the packaging to see if it is recyclable. If not, I usually am able to find an alternative. If we do get something in a non-recyclable plastic package I cut it up into tiny pieces (a great chore for my 4 year old) so it takes up less space in the trash can. We buy as much stuff as we can in bulk and bring our own containers for dried beans, nuts, seeds, oats, etc. I struggle with this one because I have found comparable items at a box store for cheaper. So, I weigh my options and sometimes take the hit with the package to save money. Buying in big quantities is also good. I keep a small reusable bag in my purse to cover random purchases and a container in my car in case we have leftovers at a restaurant.
4. Refuse: This topic is proactive. For example, I know the routine of certain restaurants and other stores we go to. I know what waste they hand out like little butter packages, straws, plastic bags, etc. I try to tell them in advance that I don’t want it. Always be polite when refusing things. Tell the cashier you have a bag before they start your transaction. That way you have a minute to pull out your own bag. This is a fantastic opportunity to tell people about zero waste! Also, bring your own cup to coffee shops or, to save money, make your coffee at home. Pack your lunch (with reusable containers, of course) so you aren’t tempted to eat out with coworkers. By thinking ahead, where you’re going and what you’re doing, you will save on waste. Keep extra containers and whatever else you tend to forget, in your car.
5. Cook/Make from Scratch: We don’t eat much processed food. I like to cook from scratch mostly because I think it’s a healthier option. It just so happens that raw foods have less packaging and tend to be less expensive. This way of thinking has spilled over into other areas of our lives like the bathroom, cleaning products, laundry, etc. We make some personal care products like toothpaste, mouthwash, lip balm, lotions, deodorant, room sprays, etc. We make our own laundry detergent from large quantities of oxy-clean, baking soda and washing soda. These items come in either a cardboard box or a plastic bag rather than the big plastic jug that is over priced. We use it to wash everything including cloth diapers. I regularly make peanut butter but I go through spurts of making other things. After almost 3 years, I recently stopped making yogurt from milk in returnable glass bottles. I had a good run of making bread until I found out Dave’s Killer Bread has an outlet store not too far away! I plan to get back into it when we move. I understand that I can’t do it ALL even though I would like to. I have learned to have mercy on my self through this journey.
6. Buy Used: When you need or want something check out thrift stores, craigslist, eBay, estate sales, yard sales, “buy nothing” facebook pages and any other place you know of that has used items. Also, borrow or ask friends; you may be able to trade!
This is a forever evolving journey. It is easier for us now that we have a routine but time is ticking for life to happen and we will figure out new ways. I hope this answers some of your questions about zero wasting. Remember this is a personal adventure for everyone. People use and need different things. To get started, go look what’s in your trash can! GOOD LUCK