Resources for Beginners

10 Simple Ways Anyone Can Get Started with Zero Waste Practices

Have you ever considered practicing zero waste, but are unsure how to get started?

The zero waste movement is gaining momentum, but you may still be confused or intimidated about how to get started.

If you are new to the idea of zero waste, it is essentially a way of living aimed at eliminating trash that will end up in a landfill, incinerator, or nature.

You can more about why zero waste is important here.

I am a huge fan of zero waste because I believe it's one of the simplest, most effective ways that a single person can make a difference.

I put this list together to show you some of the first steps I took to reduce the amount of trash I produced.

They are still my favorite ways to practice zero waste everyday because of how easy they are to integrate into your life.

Don’t think of this guide as list of rules.

Zero waste is not about being perfect.

Think of it as a practice and get better at over time.

I’m certainly not perfect following everything on this list, but I’m practicing and getting better.

Hopefully this list not only help you get started with zero waste practices, but it may open your eyes to some of the greater issues related trash and waste - and what you can do about it.

Note: I don’t get paid to mention any the products I recommend. These are products that I personally use (often daily) and I truly believe in them.

10 Zero Waste Practices

1. Carry a Reusable Coffee or Tea Mug

If you are anything like me, you need to have a cup of coffee nearby at virtually all hours of the day.

This also means that you’re also grabbing coffee at the nearest coffee shop whenever you are way from home.

The problem is that every time you get a coffee at a coffeeshop, you end up with a paper cup will most likely end up in a landfill - especially if you are on the road and have nowhere to properly recycle it.

When I started to notice how much waste I was producing just from my coffee habit, it knew I had to make a change.

The simplest way to become an environmentally friendly coffee drinker is to carry a reusable coffee mug with you.

Whenever you go out for coffee, ask the barista to fill up your mug instead of a single use mug.

The best way to ensure you’ve got a reusable mug nearby is to keep one in your car and/or purse of backpack.

Always have a reusable mug nearby, and you will never need a disposable to-go cup again.

Think about where you spend most of your time away from home, and permanently plant a mug (or two) there.

Invest in one or a few that will last you for decades, if not the rest of your life (like this one), and you will keep even more waste out of a landfill.

2. Bring Your Own Grocery and Produce Bags to the Grocery Store

Have you ever considered how many grocery bags you have to toss after a trip to the grocery store?

Let’s say the average person who grocery shops only for themselves, once a week, comes home with 5 grocery bags after each trip to the store.

Over the course of a year, this would add up to 260 bags used by just that one person.

Most people toss out hundreds of grocery bags a year.

Really think about that for a sec - just by the simple act of bringing your own bags to the grocery store, you could keep about 260 bags out of the environment every year!

Think what would happen if only million people, a tiny fraction of our population, did that.

That’s a mind boggling 260 million bags a year.

Bringing your own grocery bags is even more important if you shop at one of the large commercial grocery chains that give you 500 plastic bags at checkout for 3 items (Safeway, I’m looking at you).

The easiest way to ensure you always have reusable grocery bags is to always keep them in your car.

After you unload your groceries, immediately put them back in your car so that you always have them for your next trip.

4. Carry a Reusable Water Bottle

It is reported that Americans throw away at least 35 million plastic bottles a year.

Reuters reports that 480 billion water bottles are sold worldwide every year - 1 million bottles every minute - and most of that isn’t recycled.

If you want a great visual of this, check out this article.

And, it takes at least 1000 years for a water bottle to biodegrade.

You could fill a book with the staggering statistics and negative consequences of using disposable water bottles.

Most people would agree that plastic water bottles are extremely bad for the environment. They end up in our natural water sources and parks, and dealing with them contributes to climate change.

To me, plastic bottles are the poster children for humanity’s single use problem as a whole.

So what’s the solution to the plastic water bottle problem?

Just carry a reusable water bottle!

It’s so simple, it’s stupid.

If find it astonishing how simple it should be to solve a problem that has such overwhelmingly negative environmental consequences.

Just by carrying your own water bottle.

If everyone stopped buying bottled water, we could make a huge difference.

These days there is a plethora of manufacturers that make awesome reusable water bottles.

Check out Nalgene, Hydro Flask, Klean Kanteen, Ecovessel, to name a few of the best ones.

My absolute favorite bottles are made by United By Blue, which you can find here. Not only do they make the most beautiful bottles, but what the company stands for is pretty awesome, too.

Some of these bottles can be quite pricey, but they quickly pay for themselves.

Think about it this way: if you buy 20 plastic water bottles which you will throw in the trash, you will have spent about the equivalent of 1-2 stainless steel water bottles that will last you for the rest of your life.

Also, bottled water is 600x more expensive than tap water.

This means that in the long run you will save tons of money if you choose to drink filtered tap water instead of bottled water.

5. Pack Your Lunch or Dine-in

We are all guilty of being too lazy to pack our lunch the night before work or a day of travel way from home.

I’m the first one to admit how much I prefer to buy lunch and get takeout whenever it is convenient.

Packing your lunch can, however, make a big different in terms of how much necessary paper and plastic waste you produce.

Think of all of the styrofoam, plastic utensils, paper plates, napkins, plastic bags, and other single use items that go into packaging a single takeaway meal.

My favorite zero waste lunch container is this extremely durable and adventure-proof Hydro Flask Food Jar, which I use whenever I'm working away from home or in the field.

If you do get takeaway, consider bringing your own reusable meal kit with utensils and other washable lunch supplies. My favorite meal kit is this United by Blue one. Tell the restaurant to keep all of the plastic you don’t need.

Alternatively, bring your work to lunch and dine-in so that you are not served with disposable plastic.

6. Use Reusable Food Wraps and Glass Containers

One of the best steps to take towards practicing zero waste is to ditch plastic wrap, Ziplock bags, aluminum foil, and other disposable food wrappers.

Instead, replace environmentally unfriendly plastic and aluminum food wrappers with beeswax wrap such as this.  

Beeswax wrap is essentially a piece of cloth covered in beeswax that is moldable and sticks to itself (like plastic wrap).

Try beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap to store your food.

You can use it to seal your fruits, veggies, and virtually any other food in order to extend its lifespan, or to transport snacks, sandwiches, or any other food you want to take with you.

The best things about beeswax wrap is that it is reusable, biodegradable, and compostable.

Just rinse it with soap and water, and it can be used again to store or transport food.

Also, consider using glass instead of plastic food storage containers to store any food that you don’t need to wrap. Glass food containers will not only last way longer than plastic ones, but they also don’t contain BPA and other harmful carcinogens that can leach into your food.

7. Stop Junk Mail and Go Paperless

We live in a digital world where we almost never need paper anymore.

Yet, most people’s mailboxes are still stuffed with promotions, catalogs, bills, and other unsolicited paper items.

It is estimated that 100 million trees [1] are used to make 100 billion pieces of junk mail in the US every year, and 60% of it ends up in landfills [2]

Even more disturbing, 51 million metric tons of greenhouse gases produced by humans can be attributed to junk mail. Thats equal to the emissions produced by 9 million passenger cars.

One of the simplest ways to go paperless is to get all of your bills delivered electronically.

Virtually every company that issues monthly statements (e.g. credit card, electricity, rent) will give you the option to receive electronic instead of paper bills.

The second easiest way to go paperless is to sign up for a service that will “unsubscribe” you to the junk mail you don’t want to receive.

A few such services include DMAchoice.org (a non-profit option that is $2 for 10 years of service), and PaperKarma (a more expensive but very cool app that will effectively stop junk mail).

8. Ditch Your Paper Towels

I’m not going to lie - I love using paper towels to quickly wipe up countertop messes and dry my hands.

Apparently, most Americans do. They use more than every other country combined [3].

It’s easy to quickly go through roll after roll without realizing that every small towel thrown in the trash has a subtle but cumulative impact on the environment.

In 2015, the EPA reported that Americans generated 7.4 billion pounds of waste containing paper towels and other tissue such as toilet paper [4]. That number is likely much higher now.

All of this paper towel use means hundreds of thousands of trees killed and millions of gallons of water wasted to create them. Then, most of these billions of pounds of paper towels end up in a landfill.

According to the company Zwipes, 544,000 trees could be saved every year if every U.S. household used one less roll of paper towels.

The simple solution is to use reusable cloths.

My favorite reusable cloths are microfiber cloths like these, but you can find a myriad of different fabrics and styles out there. Check out these very cute and highly rated UNpaper Towels.

I use them to clean not only my kitchen, but the entire house. Place used cloths in a designated bag when dirty, then wash and reuse.

And, if you ever need to use a paper towel to dry your hands (like a public restroom), you can easily keep 571,230,000,000 pounds of paper out of a landfill by watching using the simple technique in Joe Smith's TED Talk.

9. Get Your Clothes Repaired or Recycle Them

The clothing industry is one of the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet, contributing to about 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater [5].

What’s even more alarming is that it is estimated that 85% of all textiles go to a landfill every year [6].

Before you toss that sweater with a hole in it, take it to your tailor to get it fixed.

Or, if you really hate the sweater, cut it into squares that you can use as cloths to replace paper towels.

Get your clothes repaired or recycle them.

Better yet, consider purchasing your clothing from a company such as Patagonia that has a clothing repair and recycle program.

One of the reasons I love the company Patagonia so much (and who doesn’t by the way?!) is because they will take back any piece of damaged clothing and repair it - for FREE!

Patagonia also has an amazing website called Worn Wear, where you can buy gently used, repaired, and recycled Patagonia clothing.

You can even trade in your clothes for store credit, which means your old clothes will be recycled and your new ones will probably last for decades.

Patagonia’s philosophy is one that I believe every clothing manufacturer and consumer should adopt if they want to move towards a more zero waste lifestyle.

10. Use Bar Soap Instead of Bottled Soap

Other than the kitchen, the bathroom is probably the second biggest source of your trash that ends up in a landfill.

The list of zero waste practices in the area of cosmetic, beauty, and hygiene products is a long one, especially for women.

If you’re like me, you have an entire bathroom counter or shelf (or two or three) filled with products.

The problem is that virtually all of these products come in small plastic bottles or containers that quickly become garbage.

The absolute simplest swap to start with in the bathroom is using bar soap instead of bottled soap.

Bar soap is usually packaged in materials (e.g. paper) that are compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable.

You can probably find your favorite brand of liquid soap made as bar soap.

This bar made by the Seaweed Bath Company is my favorite.

And if you must have liquid soap, consider purchasing a giant bottle of liquid soap concentrate that will last you forever, such as a gallon of (and my all-time favorite) Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap.

Once you switch to bar soap, start to notice what other everyday items you can switch to that have non-plastic packaging.

I’m definitely not 100% zero waste (yet) when it comes to cosmetics, but I’ working towards it.

Even just a slight reduction in cosmetic waste per person can have a big impact.

Remember, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about chipping away at the problem and getting better over time.

10 simple zero waste practices

3. Ask For "No Straw" at Restaurants

I’d say this is probably the simplest tip on the list because it literally requires no effort or money.

If you don’t have a medical condition that requires you to drink from a straw, then you don’t need a straw to drink a beverage.

It is estimated that Americans alone use 500 million plastic straws a day, which contributes to the nearly 93 million pounds of plastic thrown away by Americans every year.

If you want to reply understand why that’s a major problem, read this and this.

If you’re not convinced that straws are bad, watch this video of scientist pulling a 4 inch plastic straw out of the nostril of a sea turtle.

Unfortunately, this is not the only disturbing video of its kind.

To solve this problem, it literally only takes saying "no" to straws.

The only effort this will take is simply remembering and making it a habit.

The most effective way to start a new habit is to have a trigger that always precedes a behavior.

Let the trigger of ordering a drink immediately initiate the habit of saying “with no straw, please!”

And if you absolutely must have a straw, carry a reusable one with you in your pocket or purse, like this one or this one.

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