There are aspects of drastically reducing your personal garbage that frankly take some coordination and dedication to the cause. I know that for some, the whole idea of “zero trash” might make you want to stop before you even begin.
…Wait! Come back!
Instead of starting with the hardest thing for you – I’m sure you can easily conjure up what this is in your life – start with something easy. Here are five simple, low-cost ways you can dramatically reduce your personal waste today. Tough love time – ANYONE can do these things – whether you’re 19 and living in a college dorm or a family of four living in a house or apartment.
Just go for it and try one (or all!) for goodness sakes. Come back and tell me if you regret trying any one of these things.
Stop buying paper towels.
They are expensive and wasteful. I guarantee you have something in your home that you can cut up as a cloth replacement for disposable paper towels. Sew the edges if you want, but I didn’t bother and my cloths are still going strong years later. The occasional string coming off the edge doesn’t bother me, but you do you. Cotton t-shirts you’ve recently Kon-marie’d out of your life that are sitting in a box in the garage would work well. A flannel sheet or pillowcase that’s seen better days and it just taking up space in your linen closet is another good source of “un-paper towels.” Keep your last paper roll under your sink or otherwise out of sight as “insurance” for a little while. I can pretty much guarantee that 90%+ of the time you would’ve used a paper towel you’ll be just as happy if not happier that you used cloth. Keep a bag or bin in/near the kitchen to gather soiled towels. If they are soaking wet, let them dry before you toss them in the soiled bin. I drape wet un-paper towels over the side of my bin to dry before tossing them all the way in. You can also drape on the side of the sink if it doesn’t bother you. This cuts back on smells/stains/mildew.
Same goes for napkins. Seriously, stop buying paper napkins!
You might already have a stash of cloth napkins that you save for “special occasions.” Why? Your everyday life deserves a cloth napkin, friend! They are more effective – as in, your kids/family won’t need to use 27 during dinner – and they can be washed over and over and over again for years. If you’re groaning about more laundry, they add very little. I tend to wash all of my cloth items from “un paper towels,” dish towels, napkins and other misc small linens in the same load. If something happens to one of your napkins years down the line, “downgrade” it to be a part of your “un paper towel” stash. If you don’t have any cloth napkins, check out this post on where to get them. Any price point (seriously – I’ve found a pack of 6 at a secondhand shop in like-new condition for $1 and brand new at a store for $4.99) and any pattern can be found.
Make your own food.
Buying ingredients is always less wasteful than buying processed food, even if you have to get some ingredients in packaging. Look for paper packaging that can be recycled or composted, but even when something is in plastic, it’ll typically help you with many more meals than a box of processed food, so the product to trash ratio will be lower. Keep an eye out for “unpackaged” ingredients – aka, those that are in loose bulk bins that you can scoop into a bag. Bring your own cloth bag or re-use a plastic bag if you have to. You do not have to commit to making everything from scratch. The more you make, the more you’ll gain confidence in the kitchen. Start with simple recipes featuring ingredients and flavors you know you like. For example, making your own cheese sauce and pasta will be so much quicker (and more delicious) than you’d imagine. You might never go back to Mac and Cheese from a box!
Do not take a plastic or paper bag under any circumstances.
You do not need it. Most homes will not possibly be able to reuse all the bags that are stuffed in your pantry/under the sink/etc. in your lifetime. Or, if you do and you need a bag for some necessary situation (like disposing of something that is toxic/broken and can’t be recycled, etc.), I’m guessing you have a bag lying around from shipping packaging, chips, pet food, etc. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll definitely come up with some bags that you can use instead of plastic grocery bags. If you forget your reusable bags at the grocery store: Put all your stuff back in your cart and haul it out to the car if you left your reusable bags there. If you don’t have a reusable bag, buy one. I highly recommend getting a canvas/cloth tote* that can be washed over and over again. Those synthetic ones sold at many stores harbor bacteria and cannot easily be cleaned. Ask if friends/family have a reusable tote you can have. You definitely know someone who has an extra lying around. If you can, pick up one or more small foldable bags that you can stash in your purse/pocket/bag at all times for unexpected shopping trips. I like the ones made by Chico Bag because they’re made from recycled plastic and are really high quality, but there are lots of options out there. This “ban the bag” rule applies to every store, not just the grocery store. If you buy some pants, put them in your own bag or purse. Or just carry them out. You probably do not need another plastic GAP bag that you’ll store for a little while and then inevitably throw out.
Refuse to accept any unnecessary single-use items.
Just say no to that free pen, disposable plastic straw in your drink or anything else that is shoved at you that you don’t need or want. Bring your own reusable cup* for fountain soda or mug for coffee. “Paper” coffee cups are not recyclable or compostable because there is a layer of plastic on the inside. If you’re at a restaurant, make “no straw please” part of your order. You don’t have to “make a scene” to get what you want. Just be polite but firm and you’ll cut way back on the random bits that you end up owning for no reason and having to take care of even though you didn’t want them to begin with. This gets a bit trickier when items are offered by friends and family, but navigate the best you can.
Bonus tough-love advice.
Stop buying pretty much anything you use once and toss. It is a waste of money and waste of your time to deal with their disposal. Find reusable alternatives. Sometimes the reusable option might give you sticker shock but it is a one-time purchase that not only saves you money in the long run (or, many times, short run) but will free up headspace for more important and enjoyable thoughts. This might include replacing your cosmetic cotton rounds or balls with reusable cotton rounds. Make your own or buy on Etsy*. Even Target has them*. You can wash them over and over again (I throw the soiled ones in a mesh bag to keep them together in my washing machine) and they’ll last a long time, even if you use them to remove black eyeliner. Trust me.
*Disclosure: Affiliate links are indicated with an asterisk. Your experience on the destination site doesn’t change, but if you make a purchase I get a teeny tiny commission. Purchasing through my links just means you like and appreciate my recommendations. Thanks!