I am on a quest for a zero-waste home and, although I have been very successful at cutting down the amount of trash I produce, I have yet to reach the level of Bea Johnson’s annual garbage can: a tiny glass jar. But if Bea Johnson can do it, so can we. She isn’t any different than the rest of us, she’s just more disciplined and focused on practising what she’s preaching: sustainability.
I don’t believe that you can create a zero-waste home overnight, but I do think that you can reduce your waste dramatically and quickly by creating a few simple habits.
1. Stop using disposables.
In the kitchen, ditch the paper towels, paper napkins, straws, garbage bags, plastic wrap and aluminium foil. You can replace most of these with cloth and eliminate the rest entirely from your kitchen without ever missing them. Personally, I have not used a straw since I was 12 years-old, I have never purchased Saran wrap or foil as I deem them pointless (a container with a lid works just as well as cling wrap), and I throw everything in my trash can without using a bag because, when you really think about it, it makes no difference whatsoever.
In the bathroom, forget about the nasty one-use Q-tips (they’re bad for you) and get yourself a bamboo toothbrush that you will decompose when thrown in the compost. Also, use up that box of tampons and/or sanitary towels before buying yourself a Diva cup or menstrual sponges. If you don’t like using cups, you can purchase or make your own pads with fabric in about 1 hour. I have used a cup and fabric pads for over 5 years now and I can attest that all of these are safe and clean to use if you have basic hygiene. And if you don’t think your monthly disposables make a difference in the scheme of the planet, well, you’re wrong; according to Slate, “The average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of ‘pads, plugs, and applicators’ in her lifetime.”
The best way to walk the talk of this non-disposable lifestyle is to envision millions of non-recyclable tampon applicators, coffee cup plastic lids, and balls of foil floating in the oceans among dolphins, turtles, whales, etc. That does it for me.
2. Recycle everything possible.
Most of us recycle glass, paper, and certain kind of plastic, but did you know that many facilities also recycle Styrofoam? Others also recycle “soft plastic” that is often not accepted in the recycling bags you leave on the curb every second week, i.e. bags lettuce, carrots, cauliflower and bread are sold into.
Do your research. The town you live in may not have a depot that accepts these items, but the city next to yours might and it only takes minimal efforts for you to keep them stored somewhere until you have enough to make it worth a trip.
Recycling may take up space and time, but it’s one of the most efficient ways to keep things out of the landfills. Take the example of Kamikatsu, a little town in Japan, where people sort out their waste in 34 different categories so that 80% of their trash is re-used, recycled, or composted. All of us can learn a lot from them.
3. Buy in bulk.
Before we can all have access to zero-packaging supermarkets, we’ll need to stick close to the produce, deli, and the bulk aisles of the regular grocery store. These are the only places where you’ll find food that is not packaged and nowadays you can find just about anything in the bulk section, i.e. shampoo, castille soap, peanut butter, oil, pasta, etc.
The most important part of buying items in bulk is to bring your own containers or bags. I always stuff my clothe grocery bags with little bags and containers to be filled with fruit, veggies, or bulk products and never take any plastic bags from the supermarket. I also reuse the twist-ties on which I write the item code. This may seem like an extreme move, but these little guys mostly end up in the trash can after a purchase. If you use a pencil to write the code every time, you can easily erase it and reuse it. Every little helps.
Composting your food scraps is an indispensable element of working towards a zero-waste home. Better even is bokashi composting, in which you can include meat and dairy products, banned from regular composts.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “33 million tons of food makes its way to landfills each year” and “food waste that goes to the landfill breaks down anaerobically and produces methane; methane is 21 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.” By composting, you can reduce your waste by nearly 40%, so it’s time to get yourself a composting system that works for your space.
5. Learn to say no to others and to yourself.
This may be the hardest step to take, but it is one of the most important ones when going zero-waste.
“No, thank you, I do not want this pamphlet.”
“No, thank you, we appreciate your offer to purchase something for the kids, but we have everything we need.”
“No, thank you, I do not want a free pen/t-shirt/fridge magnet/sticker/etc.”
When you are able to (politely) refuse free things, you are able to reduce the clutter in your home, and, in the long run, the amount of trash you’ll produce.
The same goes for impulsive buys, or “incredible deals”. Learn to say no to yourself as these purchase are likely to not be to your taste in a few months. It is especially true of clothing items.