How I Pulled Off A Zero-Waste Lifestyle For A Full Year

When I moved to Amsterdam for a year, I saw the transition to a new country as a perfect opportunity to try living zero-waste. Here's how I pulled it off.


May 14 2019, Updated 4:46 p.m. ET

Waste is a hot topic in the world today, and for good reason. In 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, with one truck’s worth of waste being dumped into the sea every minute. I wanted to know if—and how—this might be prevented. 

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When I moved to Amsterdam in 2015 for my masters studies, I saw the transition to a new country as a perfect opportunity to commence some more environmentally friendly habits. One change begot more change; before I knew it, I spent a full year living a zero-waste lifestyle.

Here’s how I pulled it off, and how you can too.

I learned to stop feeling guilty.

Guilt about doing something wrong or messing up hindered my initial journey toward becoming zero-waste. It is so important to understand that transitioning to zero-waste does not happen overnight. You will make mistakes, and it’s perfectly fine. Remind yourself that we don’t live (yet) in a world that makes it easy (or at all convenient) to live without producing a bunch of trash. 

So don’t feel guilty: The fact that you’re trying is already fantastic!

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I went through my own garbage and took note of my habits.

This may not be the most glamorous part of the process, but trust me: It is definitely necessary. 

To cut down on your waste, you need to understand what you’re throwing away. And how better to do that than by exploring your bin? I classified my waste into four categories that I ranked from biggest to smallest trash production: 

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  • Food packaging 
  • Plastic bags
  • Takeaway packaging: cups, sandwich wraps, plastic boxes, and pizzas. 
  • Occasional waste: tickets, clothing labels, medication tablets, gift wraps, bathroom and sanitary waste. 
  • I discovered a vital trick early: Start with what’s easy.

    Starting small gave me tiny, daily victories that quickly grew into bigger accomplishments. 

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    I found that the easiest transitions to zero waste included the following:

  • Reusable water bottle: This was an investment that I have never, ever regretted. It allows me to have water for free, anywhere I go, diverts hundreds of plastic bottles from landfills, and my water is not filled with micro-plastics
  • Cotton bags: Like most people, the biggest struggle was remembering to carry it. I realized that if I put one in my everyday bag, I always had one on hand if needed (when you come back from work or class, for example). When I am purposely going food-shopping, I take as many as possible (six to eight) to use them for vegetables or fruits, and therefore can avoid the smaller plastic bags, too. 
  • Shopping at food markets instead of supermarkets: I was very lucky to have a food market three minutes  from where I lived, which offered plenty of seasonal vegetables and fruits. Once there, I was always asking producers if they could put what I bought into my cotton bags. Nobody ever said no.
  • Reusable coffee cup: I am not a huge coffee drinker, but this considerably reduced my consumption of takeaway cups, which, shall I remind you, are not recyclable.
  • Homemade beauty products: Making some of my own beauty products (mostly toothpaste and moisturizer) and buying only bamboo toothbrushes. 
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    Once I felt comfortable, I pushed it a step further.

    Taking easy, realistic steps was incredibly important to my process. These steps turned into leaps the further along I got — and the more accustomed I grew to my new habits. Transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle should not be excruciating! This is supposed to feel exciting and enjoyable! Here are the changes I made once I was comfortable with the changes outlined above: 

  • Like most women I know, once I started using reusable sanitary products, like washable pads and a sanitary cup, I never went back.
  • I seriously reduced my clothing consumption. Like many of us, I was not wearing about 30 percent of my wardrobe. I seriously reduced my purchases and bought only high-quality products with natural materials. Bye-bye synthetic fibers, and hello cottons, wools and silks! Since I was in Amsterdam I only bought clothes made in Europe — and bought second-hand when I could.  
  • I started buying food in glass jars rather than cans or plastic, which was a win-win, as I then reused most of the glass jars as glasses or containers. There was just no need to buy fancy new ones. 
  • I started purchasing all my dry food at a package-free store and therefore cooked much more. This encouraged me to take my lunch with me instead of eating out.
  • I dealt head-on with misconceptions about the cost of zero-waste lifestyles.

    A common misconception is that the zero-waste lifestyle is expensive. This depends on the way you look at it. True, the tools that usually allow you to be zero-waste are costly: plastic-free containers, water bottles, sanitary products. However, these are largely one-time purchases that save you tons of cash in the long run. 

    For example: 

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  • My water bottle cost me 30 euros when I bought it (about $35 USD). However, one plastic bottle a day is 2 euros. You make the money up in 15 days. 
  • Cotton bags are often given for free, or are very inexpensive, and last a long time. In most places in Europe, plastic bags come at a cost of 5p. So I can’t even imagine how many 5p’s I saved, considering I go food-shopping about twice a week! 
  • I think sanitary products might be my biggest investment. A Mooncup is around 20 or 30 euros, and a pack of reusable sanitary pads runs the same. However, a woman uses up to one pack of standard tampons or sanitary pads per month, often costing 3 to 6 euros per pack. Once again, the maths says it all. 
  • You buy less overall: I stopped buying so many items I didn’t need, takeaway foods, clothes or anything in-between. I saved a small fortune by avoiding impulsive buying.
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    I learned first-hand all the things I wish someone had told me. 

    You do not have to buy everything. The magic of the internet is that you can find DIY tutorials for almost anything. For instance, I sewed my own vegetable bags from an old cotton sheet (and believe me, I am not an expert at sewing). You can easily make sanitary towels, toothpaste, or a wide variety of beauty products. You also do not have to buy a complete zero-waste equipment: you probably already have cutlery at home, no need to buy special takeaway ones, and same for food containers. 

    You do not have to buy everything in one go. It took me six months to get the essentials. Today, I occasionally still buy things that I need to go one step further. It is a constant improvement. 

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    Do not be afraid to ask. When I started to ask bartenders not to put straws in my drink or waiters to put food in my container, I was not feeling confident about my move. Nevertheless, you realize with time that people often say yes and are even curious about why you’re doing that. So it’s all good!

    Do not beat yourself up. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is not to beat yourself up when things do not go according to plan. Yes, sometimes you’ll buy plastic when you don’t want to, you’ll forget your reusable coffee cup, or you will be in a place that does not allow you to purchase things the way you wish. And it’s fine. Focus on what you’ve been doing so far (see what you did with a reusable water bottle only!?), and learn from your mistakes.

    I have now moved to London, where being zero-waste is much harder. So I stick to what I’ve learned, use my essentials, and just try my best to live low-waste. What matters in the end is to try. Good luck!

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