In nature, there is no such thing as waste. In terms of the whole of history, until very recently all organic matter on the planet was consumed by something else, broke down until it became dirt, nourished the soil and plant life, grew into something else, and the whole process repeated itself.
Then people came along who built an economy on the concept of planned obsolescence. We are the only living creatures who make stuff that doesn’t give back to the earth. Too many of the things we make end up in landfills, where they can sit for thousands of years leeching toxins into the soil. A whopping .
But, it’s possible to live waste-free… or awfully close to it. Here’s how to start.
Much of what we consider waste is actually leftover food, which we put in plastic garbage bags and send to landfills. Organic waste makes up the . This “trash” is so compacted that oxygen can't reach it so most food scraps never receive the oxygen required for decomposition. All that food just sits there, not nourishing anything, becoming toxic as it absorbs poisons from all the other items surrounding it.
Starting a compost bin is a great way to reduce pressure on landfills while creating healthy soil to grow plants and food in. It’s simple to keep a vermicompost bin (with worms) under a kitchen sink, or a lidded bucket on the counter that you put your food scraps in. When bins become full, you can carry the compost to a tumbler or bin outside to turn into dirt. If you don’t have anywhere to put your compost or don’t have a yard, check with your local community gardens or gardener friends. Most are quite happy to receive compost!
We make things out of plastic that we call disposable—which just means something that is used until it’s no longer useful, to simply be thrown away. But there is no such thing as “away.”
Think of the energy that goes into making plastic cutlery, cups, and their packaging, only for the products to be used for one meal or cup of coffee and then be moved to a landfill. Is it not completely insane to have stolen so much energy, time and resources to produce something so temporary?
Go through your home and make a plan for using real silverware, glasses, travel mugs and plates. They will make your food taste better, store it better, and last for years instead of minutes. Keep a set of compostable cutlery in your purse, glove compartment or backpack. Or pick up that you keep in your desk or wallet so you’re always ready to grab a meal on the go without sacrificing the environment.
First things first: stop buying packaged, processed food. Most of our household garbage is coming from the packaging surrounding food we eat. Do away with that, and you’ve instantly done away with the lion’s share of your garbage (and made yourself significantly healthier).
We all know we should be bringing reusable bags to the grocery store to carry our unprocessed foods, whole grains and produce home in. It makes no sense to use something to haul products home that simply ends up in the garbage pail.
Many health foods stores and farmers’ markets allow you to buy by weight, and provide plastic bags or containers to put the food in. But they’ll also let you bring your own containers, and weigh them before filling them with items you’d like to buy. At checkout, a cashier can then subtract the weight of your container from the total weight.
Even if you can’t buy in bulk, bring your own bags for weighted produce at the supermarket. There isn’t any need to put tomatoes, avocados, peppers and onions in a bunch of separate bags that you’re never going to use again.
Paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates and paper cups are all insane wastes of energy. There are easy replacements for each.
Cut up old T-shirts, jeans and towels into manageable sizes to be used as rags. Newspaper can replace paper towels for draining fried foods, cleaning windows and greasing cookie sheets or muffin tins. Pick up a set of stain-resistant cloth napkins, make your own out of fabric scraps, or buy gently used napkins at your local thrift shop. Paper plates and cups can go the way of their plastic counterparts: nothing is as nice as the real thing.
As you advance in your waste-free lifestyle, you’re going to face a serious reckoning: many of your food products, toiletries, clothing, pet-care products and you’re your appliances come in excessive packaging and aren’t built to last.
There are some companies that sell toiletries in reusable containers or without any container at all (check out Lush’s ), or you can learn to make your own. Also check your local markets for handmade soaps and other products that don’t come with packaging.
It’s tempting, when you forget your reusable shopping bag, to just take a disposable one home—or to take your coffee to go in a Styrofoam cup because you left your travel mug on the kitchen counter. But going zero waste means learning to do without when necessary and not take short cuts. It’s not the easiest transition—you’ll quickly notice just how many times in a day you’re encouraged to take something home that isn’t reusable, throw something away, and buy something new.
Zero waste doesn’t mean you don’t consume or produce anything. It’s about doing these things in ways that doesn’t result in a wasteful byproduct. And with a little grit, imagination, and a willingness to resist, you can be living a zero-waste lifestyle with minimal effort.