Zero Waste 101: A Complete Guide to Starting a Zero Waste Lifestyle

If you spend even a little bit of time learning about sustainability, you will likely come across the term “zero waste.”

The zero waste movement is becoming more mainstream, but what does it mean and how can you achieve it?

If you are new to the idea of zero waste, this article is for you.

Here you will learn everything you need to know in order to get started with a zero waste lifestyle, including:

Zero Waste 101

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What Does “Zero Waste” Mean?

Zero waste is a term that often refers to a philosophy and/or lifestyle that encompasses a set of principles aimed at reducing human produced garbage.

It is a branch of environmentalism focused on sustainability through the elimination of virgin material extraction (i.e. raw natural resource extraction) and the recycling of resources we have already extracted.

While the actual definition of zero waste varies by community, the goal of zero waste is usually the same: to eliminate trash from ending up in landfills, incinerators, and as pollution in our environment.

The term zero waste implies that we should eliminate 100% of the trash we produce, but the reality is that this is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most people.

Instead, the idea of zero waste (or a zero waste lifestyle) is an ideal that we should strive to to move towards.

Personally, I believe that zero waste is about empowerment and action, not perfection.

Even when you feel like there’s nothing you can do to solve the environmental crisis, you can still take small but impactful actions in your everyday life (like these) to help the environment.

The Benefits of Zero Waste

To understand why zero waste is important, you must first understand the problem: garbage.

In 2018, the EPA reported that Americans produced 292.4 million tons of trash, which averages out to 4.9 pounds per person per day [1].

Only 32.1% of that was recycled or composted, and 146 million tons (50% of it) was buried in a landfill [2].

You don’t have to be good at math to understand that this is not only highly unsustainable, it’s also insane.

America's addiction to consumption and a disposable lifestyle is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, land and ocean pollution, habitat destruction, and more.

The following are four ways that living a zero waste lifestyle can combat the destruction of our environment.

1. Zero Waste Reduces Our Climate Impact

A large amount of energy in the form of fossil fuels is required for manufacturers to turn virgin materials into new products [3].

In the U.S. alone, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 resulted from the production of new goods.

As you likely know, fossil fuels are a significant contributor to climate change [4].

When we consume fewer new products and practice the 5R’s of zero waste (see below), the demand for virgin materials is reduced and the energy needed to produce them is saved.

The EPA provides a fun tool called the Individual Waste Reduction Model (iWARM) tool, which will calculate how much energy you can save by recycling certain items.

This tool is great because it will get your mind thinking in terms of of how much energy you can save by recycling basic household items.

2. It Conserves and Reduces Damage to Natural Resources

We live in a world with a finite number of natural resources, but humans are extracting natural resources as if they are infinite.

The process of turning virgin materials into products involves environmentally damaging activities such as logging for trees, drilling for oil, and mining for coal and minerals.

These activities cause deforestation and habitat loss. They also ruin the aesthetic beauty we enjoy from pristine natural landscapes.

When we reduce and reuse, we help to conserve our natural resources and protect them for future generations.

3. It Reduces Pollution

The process of manufacturing new products from virgin materials not only pollutes our air with greenhouse gasses, but it also pollutes our water and significantly contributes to landfilling.

It has been well documented that industrial factories around the world often dump pollutants into streams, lakes, oceans, and other natural water sources where they pollute the drinking water.

The CDC reports that in some developing countries, 70% of industrial wastes are dumped into natural bodies of water [4].

Single use products are also a major source of litter, which significantly pollutes our oceans.

A horrifying 17.6 billion pounds of plastic is dumped into the word’s oceans every year [5].

If we could just learn how to reuse and recycle plastic, we could end the catastrophic damage we are doing to our oceans.

4. It Creates More Green Jobs

Going zero waste doesn't just benefit the environment - it significantly benefits the economy, too [6].

For example, when municipal recycling and composting programs are expanded, green jobs are created that involve the collection, transportation, handling, and processing of recyclable garbage.

If 75% of Americans recycled, it would create nearly 1.5 million new jobs by 2030 - that’s at least 9 times more jobs than landfills and incinerators create [7].

Going zero waste also helps support businesses that sell products related to the zero waste lifestyle, such as United by Blue (and the other companies listed throughout this article and in the resources below), as well as repair business (e.g. tailors) and community sharing business (e.g. AirBnB).

4. It Increases Mental Wellbeing

The zero waste lifestyle is largely about reducing consumption and embracing minimalism (i.e. the practice of intentionally living with fewer possessions).

As hard as corporations and advertisers work to convince you otherwise, it has been well documented in various studies that there is a negative relationship between materialism and life satisfaction [8],[9],[10],[11].

On the flip side, people who avoid excessive consumption and the acquisition of material possessions report a higher sense of wellbeing and positive emotions [12].

You may have noticed this trend in your own life after purging your stuff during a move or donating your unused possessions to Goodwill.

As you start to practice zero waste, you will notice that you feel physically and mentally lighter.

Mindset for a Zero Waste Lifestyle

If you are excited to get started with zero waste after learning about the benefits…great!

Once you dive into learning practicing zero waste, all of the information can be a bit overwhelming.

Starting with the proper mindset will set you up for success now and in the future.

The following are some tips that I personally think will help you with your mindset before and during your zero waste journey.

Find and Establish Your Why

If you decide to start practice zero waste, you will likely be changing some aspects of your lifestyle and daily habits.

This may be a very small or significant change, depending on how deep you dive into the zero waste movement.

Like with any lifestyle change (e.g. changing your diet or starting to exercise), it probably won’t last very long if you don’t establish your “why” - your deep rooted reason for doing something.

“The WHY is the purpose, cause or belief that drives every one of us.” - Simon Sinek

Your why is what you should keep coming back to when you don’t feel like doing something that aligns with your purpose or beliefs.

For example, when you feel too tired to pack your lunch and consider getting take-away instead, come back to your why, and you might just change your mind.

Some great “why's" for going zero waste that you might consider include:

  • It angers and saddens you to see plastic and trash on your favorite trail.
  • You want the mental health benefits of living a more minimalistic lifestyle.
  • The state of politics nauseates you and you want to take action into your own hands.
  • You want to create a better world for your kids.
  • You want to add money towards your savings and take a vacation rather than blow it on disposable products.

Acknowledge that Zero Waste is a Practice

Think of the zero waste lifestyle as a practice that doesn’t necessarily have a goal, but that you can get better at over time.

A practice - as a noun and not a verb - is focused on daily behaviors and living in the moment rather than goals.

While goals can be useful and help you progress, they shouldn’t be the driving force behind a practice

For example, a yoga practice is not about the goal of achieving a certain difficult pose or level of fitness - those things are just the product of the practice itself.

It’s Not About Perfection

If you aim for perfection with zero waste (i.e. never producing any trash), you are setting yourself up for failure.

I'll be the first to admit that I am far from perfect when it comes to zero waste, but I'm working on it.

It is absolutely unrealistic to assume that you can live 100% zero waste in the 21st century unless you are living off the grid.

However, it’s better to do a little than nothing at all.

“Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.” - Voltaire

Even if you use one less plastic water bottle or disposable coffee cup a month that you used to, it’s still progress that should be celebrated.

Do the best you can, but don’t make yourself crazy in the process.

Accept what you can and can’t do, and move on if you slip up on your goals without beating yourself up.

And, as you learn about new and more advanced zero waste practices, take what works and leave the rest.

Accept That It Won’t Happen Overnight

Learning to live zero waste is a process.

Some simple practices like these can be quickly and easily started, but others like these will take more time - if you ever even decide to implement them at all.

Zero waste will become a lifestyle if you slowly build habits one at a time.

Start with one small tip or zero waste practice, get better at it, and then add in something new.

Don’t buy all of your reusable zero waste swaps at once.

Rather, purchase them as you need them (e.g. get reusable cloths once you run out of all of your paper towels).

It could take years or even a lifetime to get to where you want to be in terms of your zero waste goals, but the key is to slowly build habits and be patient with yourself.

Ignore the Media, Politics, and (Sometimes) Your Family

It’s extremely easy to get discouraged about trying to go zero waste when you read the news.

Between the recent rollback of environmental regulations and the terrifying statistics about climate change, you might start to feel like there’s no point to your efforts.

You might also live with someone like a family member or roommate who could care less about zero waste, and it can be hard to watch them toss out endless amounts of trash before your eyes.

But if you believe in what you are doing and keep coming back to your “why,” it will help you stay focused on what’s important to you.

You can only control your own efforts and behaviors, so focus on what you can control and not what you can’t.

The truth is that you are not alone in your efforts, and even the smallest actions can make a difference.

Find a way to drown out the noise and continue to stay true to what you care about.

How to Practice Zero Waste: The Five R’s (Key Principles)

There are five key principles, or R’s, of zero waste, which include:

  • Refuse
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle
  • Rot

While reduce, recycle, and reuse have been around for a while, Bea Johnson is often credited to expanding the list to include refuse and rot.

Think of the 5 Rs not as a list but a hierarchy of practices ranked from the first to the last line of defense against trash production.

As you will learn next, it is important to take a top down approach to zero waste, starting with refusing waste in the first place.


The first R is about two fundamental things:

  1. Not purchasing things that will create waste.
  2. Refusing accepting free and unnecessary items.

Avoid Wasteful Purchases

It's easy and convenient to purchase the cheapest five star rated products on Amazon, however, cheap, plastic, mass manufactured goods such as electronics, appliances, clothes break easily and are usually trashed after a year or two.

In the long run, it not only makes environmental sense, but it also makes financial sense to invest in products that will last for a long time (i.e. decades), if not forever.

Refuse Free Items

If you start to pay attention to what ends up in your trash, you might start to notice that a significant amount of your trash was given to you for free.

When we accept free items, we are approving of their production through our actions.

We also become complicit in a wasteful practice that leads the the pollution of our environment.

Alternatively, when we refuse to accept free things that we don’t need, it sends a signal to business and event organizers that we do not tolerate the environmental impact that useless items have on the environment.

Here are some free things that you can consider refusing:

  • All single use products, meaning anything you will throw away after one use including: straws, plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic wrap, etc.
  • Mini soap bottles and cosmetics at hotels.
  • Promotional items and “freebies” given out at job fairs, conventions, and other organized events (e.g. pens, plastic mugs, water bottles, toys, etc.).
  • T-shirts and other race swag given away for a run or race.
  • All junk mail.

Refusing free stuff will take practice and sometimes a little action on your part.

Here are some tips that will help you get better at refusing:

  • Carry your own meal kit (like this one) so that you don’t have to accept disposable items when getting food to-go. Ask the restaurant to leave out all of the plastic and paper items you wont need, like utensils and napkins.
  • Stop junk mail and go paperless. One of the simplest ways to go paperless is to get all of your bills delivered electronically. Also, consider signing up for a service that will “unsubscribe” you to the junk mail you don’t want to receive, such as or PaperKarma.
  • Say no to straws. When you order a drink, just say no straw please!
  • Carry your own reusable coffee mug. Just ask you barista to fill up your personal mug so that you can refuse the disposable one.
  • Refuse printed receipts. When possible, ask for electronic receipts to be emailed to you. Not only does it save paper but it will be easier to find if you need it!
  • Use your own bags to do all of your shopping, including grocery shopping, and refuse to accept paper or plastic ones at the store.


Commodities sold at Walmart, Target, Amazon, and other big box and online retailers are so cheap, many people in the U.S. don’t even think twice about purchasing them in excess.

Why not have three different types of cheese graters or nine decorative candles when they only cost $2.99 each?

The problem is that most of this cheap crap ends up in a landfill.

The primary idea behind reduce is that buying things new should be a last resort.

We can help prevent waste production and accumulation simply by reducing how much we buy in the first place.

Of course, many products must be bought new, but this is not always the case.

When you are thinking about buying something new, ask yourself these questions first:

1. Do I really need this?

More often than not, advertisements convince us that we need something that we actually don’t. Every day we are bombarded by expensive marketing campaigns aimed at getting us to buy things that didn't even know we needed.

Here are some tips to help you limit impulse and unnecessary spending:

  • Unsubscribe from all promotional emails. It took me a while to eliminate 100% of my marketing emails, but I finally did and it's one of the best things I’ve ever done. It reduces the temptation to mindlessly shop and it will prevent you from feeling like you are missing out on good deals. Buying something you don’t need is still more expensive than missing out on a good deal.
  • Whenever you have the urge to mindlessly shop online, have an enjoyable behavior to immediately replace it, such as going for a walk, getting a snack, meditating, reading, etc.
  • Avoid advertisements as much as possible. For example, mute or fast forward through TV ads and use an ad blocker on your web browser.

2. Can I find this item used, secondhand, or pre-owned?

Most outdoor and photography equipment can be purchased “used” for a fraction of the cost and in almost new condition.

For example, Patagonia, one of my favorite outdoor clothing companies, has an amazing website called Worn Wear, where you can buy gently used, repaired, and recycled Patagonia clothing.

Another one of my favorite ways get used gear and clothes is at REI’s Garage Sale, where REI sells returned gear that it can’t sell for full value. This is a gold mine for pre-owned new or lightly used outdoor gear.

Also look for consignment stores like GearX, and online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist, as you will likely make amazing finds of stuff that people bought but never used.

3. Do I already own something like this?

Often times, we are tempted to buy a newer, shinier version of what we already have.

The best example I can think of is the smartphone.

Tech companies like Apple and Samsung spend millions of dollars convincing us that the new model is better than the last one - but is it really? I’d say no, but these companies are generally successful at convincing the population otherwise.

If you already own something and are considering a newer version of the same thing, consider if it's truly worth it or if the one you already own is just fine.

Most of the time, the things we own are really just as good as the latest, “greatest” versions of the same thing.

4. Can I repair the one I already have?

When you own something that breaks, it can be easier to just toss it and get a new one.

I used to be guilty of purchasing a new coffee maker every few years when the relatively cheap ones I bought would break.

But if you truly care about living a zero waste lifestyle and reducing your environmental impact, it is better if you fix, rather than trash, your stuff when it breaks.

5. How long will this item last me?

A major part of reducing is prioritizing quality over quantity.

It is tempting to purchase relatively cheap products that will do the job in the short term, but most cheap commodities are not designed or built to last more than a few years.

Most commodities sold today - from clothes to appliances - are intentionally designed not to last.

Investing in quality products that will last for decades, if not a lifetime, will not only keep more junk out our landfills and environment, it is also a smart financial decision.

Try to purchase the highest quality products you can afford, especially ones that will last forever.

For example, I have a $30 Yeti Tumbler that some may scoff at as overpriced.  However, I’m certain that this mug will still be in like-new condition in 50 years, and that I will never have to send another paper to-go cup or cheap tumbler to a landfill.

6. Can I make my own?

You can significantly reduce the amount of bottles and wrappers you have to toss out by making household items (e.g. cleaners and cosmetics) instead of purchasing them.

There is a ton of everyday stuff that you can make simply and easily at home with a small amount of time and effort.

Here are some examples of simple things that you can make at home:

  • All purpose cleaner (and most other cleaners)
  • Disinfectant
  • Dish and pot scrubbers
  • Dryer sheets
  • Energy bars

The list of zero waste DIY projects and ideas is only limited by your imagination.

See the resources section (below) for more.


The reuse principle is primarily about valuing the things you already own and giving them a second (or third or fourth…) life.

Reusing is accomplished by avoiding single use products as well as repurposing and repairing stuff that you already own.

Replace Single Use

One best ways to practice reuse is to replace single use products with reusable products.

For example:

  • Replace plastic food wrap with beeswax wrap and glass containers.
  • Use washable/reusable plates, cups, utensils, and other dinnerware instead of disposable versions of the same items.
  • Use rechargeable batteries instead of disposable ones.
  • Use washable cloths instead of paper towels.
  • Use dryer balls instead of dryer sheets.
  • Use a french press instead of coffee pods.
  • Switch from disposable razors to safety razors.  

As you can imagine, the list of disposable items that can be replaced with reusable items is long.

Making reusable swaps for disposable items starts with becoming mindful of what you throw away every day, and then doing some simple research to find a more sustainable replacement.


Like the principle of refuse described above, repairing your stuff is also a central part of the reusing principle.

Some companies make it incredibly easy to get the products they sell repaired, so its good to do some research and prioritize shopping at such companies.

Again, my favorite example is the clothing brand Patagonia, which has the most amazing clothing repair program.

All you have to do is drop a damaged item of clothing off at their store or mail it to them, and they will repair it and send it back to you. The entire service is absolutely free.


Repurposing an item means using an item for something other than what it was originally intended to be used for.

This is where you can get extremely creative, as there are endless possibilities for how you can repurpose your stuff.

What you repurpose and and how you repurpose it will be unique to you.

Some tips to help you get started include:

  • Cut old t-shirts into squares and use them as reusable cleaning rags.
  • Reuse glass jars that food was purchased in (e.g. spaghetti sauce jars, jam jars, wine bottles) and using them for drinking glasses, food storage containers, or flower vases.
  • Cut up an old yoga mat and use it to line your kitchen shelves or keep in your car to us as a traction device in the snow.

For a more extensive list of repurposing ideas, check this one out.


When you are practicing zero waste, recycling should be a last resort, not a first line of defense.

Before I learned about zero waste, I thought recycling was the best way to keep plastic out of the environment, but then I found out that it is not a harmless process.

The process of recycling often requires a lot of energy and water, which contributes to air and water pollution.

Also, even if you put a recyclable in your recycling bin, it might not end up getting recycled.

Recycling your trash is, however, better than sending it to a landfill.

Ideally, if you have practiced the first three R’s (described above), you will have minimized how much you need to recycle.

Here are some guidelines to help you ensure that your trash is successfully processed at your city’s recycling plant and doesn’t end up in a landfill.

Follow Your City’s Recycling Program Rules

Not all trash sent to recycling plants is accepted.

Do your research and check your municipality’s guidelines for recycling, as these may vary from city to city.

Every city that has a recycling program typically provides information regarding what is accepted. You can find an example of what I mean here.

A simple google search of your city and the word "recycling" should point you in the right direction.

Don’t Recycle Compostable Plastic

You have likely visited a restaurant that provides compostable cups, utensils, and other single use items.

While these items are thought to be more ecofriendly, they can actually do more harm than good if they not disposed of properly.

The problem is that adding a compostable item to your recycling can contaminate an entire batch of recyclable items.

A contaminated batch wont get recycled, so be sure to separate out compostable plastics.

Empty and Rinse Your Recyclable Trash

If a recyclable item contains or is covered in food, it may get tossed at the recycling plant and end up in a landfill.

You will increase the chances of your trash getting recycled simply by rinsing the trash you want to recycle.

It's okay if the items are not perfectly clean or spotless.

Don’t Bag Your Recyclables

If you collect your recyclables in a bag and then dump the bag in your recycling bin, it may end up in a landfill.

Empty the bag or whatever you use to collect your recyclables directly into your recycling bin.


The last R is called rot, but it’s really about composting.

Anything that was once alive or came from a living thing can be composted, including food.

A staggering 80 billions of pounds of food goes to waste every year, and most of it ends up in landfills [23].

In addition, food that ends up rotting in landfills ends up producing methane, which is a very potent green house gas.

There is a much better solution to throwing food in the trash, which is to compost it.

Composting is the process of recycling organic matter (e.g. food) by turning it into compost, a nutrient dense substance used to fertilize soil.

Benefits of Composting

It’s easy to toss out your food in the trash, but composting food and other organic material will go a long way to help the environment.

Some of the benefits of composting include:

  • It will help keep billions of pounds of food from ever entering a landfill and polluting the environment.
  • It will reducing methane emissions and aid in carbon sequestration.
  • Compost can be used to fertilize soil and it reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

What Items Can Be Composted?

Virtually all food and many organic materials can be composted.

Some items other than food that can be composted include:

  • tea bags
  • coffee filters and grounds
  • leaves and grass clippings
  • natural fabrics and materials such as cotton, linen, silk, wool, bamboo, and wool

It is important to do your research to make sure that a piece of trash is compostable before you throw it away in your compost bin or send it to a composting facility.

Some organic materials are contaminated with toxins that cannot be composted, such as glossy or colored paper.

However, some companies make compostable alternatives for everyday, typically plastic-based products.

For example, Brush with Bamboo creates compostable toothbrushes and other personal hygiene products that can be composted. A simple swap from a plastic to a bamboo toothbrush can keep billions of plastic toothbrushes out of the environment.

A quick google search of whether your item can be composted will usually help you decide if something can be composed or not.

How to Compost

There are a few ways that you can practice composting, which include:

  • Learn how to compost your own food and organic material and set up a composting bin on your balcony or backyard.
  • Drop your food and compostables off at a local composting facility.
  • Sign up for a composting service that will pick your compostables up from your house.

Choose the composting method that best suits your resources and lifestyle, as one method might be more feasible (or just easier) for you than another.

To learn more about composting, including its benefits and how to compost at home, visit this EPA resource.

Resources to Help You Live Zero Waste

Here are some of my favorite resources to help you on your zero waste journey.

Zero Waste Lifestyle Blogs

There is an incredible wealth of information about how to live zero waste on zero waste lifestyle blogs.

One of the best ways to learn how to go zero waste is from someone who already lives it.

The authors of these blog share hard-earned zero waste tips, skills, and other valuable content from their own experiences.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it some of my favorites to get you started.

  • Zero Waste Home: Considered the original zero waste blog, this blog was created by Bea Johnson, who is often credited with starting the modern zero waste movement. This is some of the best advice out there from the woman who is leading the zero waste movement.
  • Going Zero Waste: Created by Kathryn Kellogg, this is one of the best lifestyle blogs aimed at helping people live more zero waste, sustainable lives.
  • Wasteland Rebel: Shia Su, the creator of this blog, is an inspiring zero waste advocate who quit her corporate job and went from living the average consumerist lifestyle to fitting her entire yearly trash into a quart jar. I love how down to earth, authentic, and practical this blog is.
  • Trash is for Tossers: Founded by Lauren Singer - who went viral in 2012  for fitting a year’s worth of all of the waste she’d created in one 16oz mason jar - Trash is For Tossers is an amazing resource to help you reduce your waste, live zero waste, and have positive environmental impact.
  • Sustainable Jungle: While not entirely focused on zero waste, this sustainable living blog has some great zero waste specific content where you will find tips, trick and hacks to help you live more zero waste.
  • My Plastic Free Life:  Like the name implies, this blog focuses specifically on helping you eliminate plastic from your life. Beth Terry, the blogs creator, shares awesome tips and guidance to give you a comprehensive resource for plastic-free living.

Zero Waste Stores

There are a number of great online stores that sell plastic-free items and products that can help you reduce your own waste.

These stores aim to make zero waste living simple.

You will find everything from reusable and compostable items like reusable meal kits and compostable toothbrushes, to package-free products.

While there are many zero waste stores out there, these are my top suggestions:

  • Eco Roots: This is one of the best online stores that focuses specifically on zero waste products. They sell everything from kitchen supplies like bamboo scrubbers and cutlery, to cosmetics like shampoo bars and lip balm. Everything is sold and shipped in 100% recyclable and compostable packaging.
  • Zero Waste Store: Like the name implies, this store is also focused on zero waste living. I love this store because it has a huge variety and selection of products that can help you live zero waste. They even have a section called “zero waste newbie” which is a great place to start when you decide to replace your single use items with reusable ones.
  • Package Free Shop: This is a wonderful zero waste site that was created by Lauren Singer, the Trash is for Tossers blog (see above) founder. This site also has a huge variety of zero waste products - essentially everything you need to become zero waste. One of things I love the most about this site is the “zero waste kits.” These include zero waste items related to a specific theme or activity, such as meal kits, oral hygiene kits, and even fur baby kits for the pups.
  • Etee: Etee stands for “everything touches everything else.” This is an awesome company that focuses on eliminating plastic. They only sell products made with 100% biodegradable, natural materials, and ship everything with  plastic-free biodegradable packaging.

Learn How to Make Your Own Home Products

One thing you might consider if you are serious about zero waste is making your own cleaners, simple cosmetics, and other household products.

When you make everyday products at home rather than buying them at the store, you save money and reduce plastic waste.

There are many household products that are simple to make, made of natural, biodegradable ingredients, and often just as effective as the store bought versions.

DIY and handmade projects may or may not be your thing, so as always, take what works and leave the rest.

Here are some websites to help you get started with DIY plastic free products.

DIY Cleaner Recipes and Household Products:

Wellness, Hygiene and Cosmetics

Pro Tip: a pinterest search of zero waste products will give you endless ideas.

Add Some Zero Waste Books to Your Library

A book are great because they are comprehensive and more in-depth than websites.

Here are the best books to start with as you embark on your zero waste journey.

  • Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson: This book was written by the woman credited to having started the modern zero waste movement. Like her blog Zero Waste Home, this book is essentially a comprehensive guide to the zero waste movement. If you could only have one zero waste book, it should be this one.
  • 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg: Written by the founder or the Going Zero Waste blog (see above), this book contains practical zero waste tips, advice, DIY recipes and more.
  • A Zero Waste Life: In Thirty Days by Anita Vandyke: This is a great book to get if you are feeling overwhelmed and want a more daily, step by step approach to zero waste. In this book, thirty simple rules are introduced one day at a time in order to make zero waste more manageable.
  • Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home by Julia Watkins: Another top book in the zero waste and sustainability category, Watkins teaches how to eliminate waste in ever area of your household. This book includes practical swaps, checklists, projects, recipes, and more.
  • The Zero Waste Solution by Paul Connett: This book is not so much about tips and tricks; rather it spotlights to problems related to overconsumption and the solution that zero waste practices can offer communities. Connett  write about the world’s most successful zero-waste initiatives, and what we can learn from them.
  • Waste and Want by Susan Strasser: This isn’t technically a zero waste book but I threw it in because I found it fascinating. You also can’t truly understand why zero waste is so important unless you understand how we got here. This book is about the history of trash in America, and how the simple act of throwing things out has transformed American society. Who would have thought the history of trash is so interesting!

A Brief History of the Zero Waste Movement

The idea of reducing and recycling waste has been around for centuries.

Indigenous peoples such as Native Americans are often cited as the original environmentalists and practitioners of a zero waste lifestyle, as they understood that they were part of an interconnected ecosystem and made very little changes to the environment prior to European contact [13].

Even as colonization and industrialization of the Western world progressed throughout the 19th century, trash was nearly nonexistent.

During this time, most things were reused in an effort to conserve goods and money. The idea of buying something disposable and trashing it after one use was unheard of.

If you had trash, there was no municipal dumpster behind your house or a garbage service to take it away, so it would pile up in your residence if you didn’t figure out a way to reuse, fix, clean, or repurpose it [14].

For this reason, the zero waste lifestyle was the norm back then (not the exception like it is today), and people were good at it.

Any garbage that couldn’t be reused was either burned or buried outside of town [15].

Over the last 120 years, however, Americans started to produce and consume more, and at a rate the world has never seen.

Disposability and convenience became the norm throughout the 20th century.

This shift began with the first appearances of landfills, dumps, and municipal garbage collection services in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century [16], [17], [18], [19].

It was around this time that it became easier and more convenient to throw a piece of trash away, and Americans got hooked.

It wasn’t until a period of social upheaval in America during the 1960’s and 70’s that environmental activism surged and recycling programs started to appear [20].

The popularity of recycling and municipal recycling programs really took off in the 1970’s when landfills started to fill up and recycling started made make economic and environmental sense  [21].

A poster from 1971 encouraging recycling. Source: Library of Congress

In the 1980’s, the first appearance of term “zero waste” likely entered the American vocabulary. The term - or idea at least - is often attributed to Daniel Knapp, who popularized his concept of Total Waste and later went on to found a recycling company called Urban Ore [22].

Over the next few decades, Daniel promoted his idea of Total Recycling. The idea gained popularity among environmental groups, activists, and even some legislators in America and abroad.

Around 2010, the “zero waste lifestyle,” a modern take on zero waste living, became popularized and is largely credited to a French-American woman named Bea Johnson, who shared (and continues to share) her personal journey of going zero waste on her blog Zero Waste Home.

In 2013 Bea published Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing your Waste, which is essentially a guide to the zero waste movement.

In this book and on her blog, Bea shares her method called the 5 R’s of Zero Waste (see below), as well as many of the other tips, tools and practices to help people live zero waste in the 21st century.