Start Going Zero Waste in 8 Easy Steps

Today I’m using this blog for something a little different: proselytizing about why you should reduce your plastic waste (and all kinds of waste while you’re at it).

Everyone I know is already concerned about climate change, but most of the people I know tend to talk as if climate action can only be done at the national or corporate level. The idea that individual consumer choices have no impact is really pervasive right now, and that really sucks! First of all, sometimes it’s worth doing what you believe in even if it won’t make a difference on a global scale. Second, the more people use their power as consumers to avoid single use items, the more major corporations will be pressured to change their practices as well.

If you’re not convinced that waste is a climate issue, I encourage you to do your own research on this. Only a tiny fraction of the plastic we put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled. The rest ends up being incinerated or sent to landfills, which are disproportionately located in the global south even though the U.S. produces the most waste. Organic material breaking down in landfills and trash incineration both produce greenhouse gases.

For more detailed and rigorously sourced information, I recommend checking out @zerowastechef on Instagram. You could also see if your city or area has a local zero waste group. My town does, and it’s a great resource for information on the harmful effects of plastics and other wastes, as well as strategies for reducing waste on a personal level.

The main reason I was resistant to the zero waste movement for a long time was because I thought it was inherently expensive. All I was seeing was the corporations who have co-opted the movement selling expensive plastic-free alternatives to items that don’t need to be replaced if they’re not broken, such as ice cube trays. Once I joined my local zero waste group’s Facebook group, I realized that authentic zero waste practitioners are invested in reducing consumerism across the board, and their methods save money.

Even so, moving toward being zero waste is still intimidating and hard. A lot of the really hardcore stuff I see other people doing seems way too time-consuming to be realistic for my lifestyle. I live in a one-bedroom apartment with no access to outdoor space, so I can’t easily compost or grow my own food. But there are steps I can and have taken to reduce my waste. And I’m here today to share some of those steps in the hope that this will make waste reduction less intimidating for the next guy.

Small disclaimer: I live with my girlfriend, and she has been the leading force on some of these actions. None of them would be impossible if you live alone or with uncooperative roommates, but I acknowledge that they might be more time-consuming.

  1. Stop using plastic wrap

Personally I’ve always found saran wrap cumbersome, but I know a lot of people depend on it. Instead of plastic wrap, try using beeswrap (washable beeswax coated cloth wrappers), silicone covers designed to go on open dishes or cut fruits and vegetables, glass tupperware, and, when all else fails, tin foil or wax paper. Tin foil can at least be wiped down and reused.

several bowls, cans, and other food containers covered with stretchy silicone lids
I’m not doing any product placement in this article but here are some silicone food covers you could hypothetically own!

2. Stop using plastic bags

This is one that I’m still working on, but so far I’ve reduced the number of plastic bags I use. The items described in #1 can also often replace plastic bags. Also, instead of flimsy sandwich or snack bags, I use sturdier quart bags when I do still need a plastic bag, so that I can wash and reuse them. Sometimes I get 10+ uses out of a single bag before it gets too yucky to be worth washing.

3. Save plastic containers that could be reused

This one might not be universally applicable, but here’s an example of what I’m talking about: there’s a local tofu company in my town that sells tofu in sturdy plastic tupperware with no film seal. After the tofu gets eaten these containers are amazing for food storage. Usually we store soup or stock in ours and freeze it, but they can also be good for vegetables. If you ever have the opportunity to buy food in containers like this, don’t throw them out!

4. Save food scraps to make stock

Speaking of stock, when you have a bunch of ends of vegetables left over from making dinner, or fresh herbs in the fridge that are about to go off, or chicken bones left over from a meal, stick them in the freezer. Then when you’re ready, you can boil them into stock! This reduces food waste and plastic/paper waste and saves money, because you don’t have to buy packaged stock.

5. Switch to a safety razor

Generally I’m not wild about buying new products, but the next time your plastic razor wears out, buy a safety razor with replaceable blades instead. I was worried I’d end up cutting my armpits to shreds, but it’s actually way easier to use than I expected, and gives a much better shave than a plastic razor at the end of its life. I don’t shave enough for plastic razors to be a big expense, but if you go through a lot of them, this will save you a lot of money. Get a safety razor that comes with 20 or so replacement blades to begin with. More replacements are really cheap after that. I haven’t yet replaced my plastic deodorant or shaving cream, but those are my next goals.

6. Save old sponges and toothbrushes

I also haven’t yet eliminated plastic sponges and toothbrushes, but when mine get old, I put them with my cleaning supplies. I can then use them for kitchen and bathroom cleaning. This extends their lifespan and reduces the number of paper towels and disposable wipes I’m using.

7. Make cloth napkins

Replace your paper napkins with cloth napkins. All you really need to do this is cut some fabric scraps into squares, but you can also hem them if you want them to be pretty. If you don’t have fabric scraps lying around already, you can sometimes find them for free or cheap at craft stores or secondhand shops. Also, if you have a local Buy Nothing group, you can probably get some from someone there. Our next steps will be making cloth produce bags for the grocery store.

8. Reevaluate how many facial creams and serums in plastic bottles you really need

In my opinion, everything I’ve mentioned up until this point has been pretty uncontroversial, but I know this item isn’t. I’m not going to go on my anti-skincare rant here, but I will say that my skin got way clearer when I stopped using cleansers and just started washing my face twice a day with a damp washcloth. I use moisturizer in moderation and go through about 1–2 bottles a year. When my skin gets particularly bad I use regular over the counter witch hazel, which is available in larger containers than more expensive products that basically do the same thing. Food for thought!

I hope these suggestions are helpful rather than nagging, but if they do sound nagging, I’m fine with that. I’m really discouraged by the way many people currently abdicate any and all personal responsibility for the ethics of their consumption habits. Yes, yes, there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism and climate change is driven by billionaires and corporations and the U.S. military, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless as individuals. Pretending we are just gives the corporations more power to dictate our choices and keep rotting the planet. So I hope you try out these tips and more. It won’t save the planet on its own, but the more of us do it, the bigger an impact it’ll have.

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I write a mix of serious and silly pieces about music, other media, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I’m interested in how history shapes culture.

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Ely Willard

Ely Willard

I write a mix of serious and silly pieces about music, other media, and whatever else strikes my fancy. I’m interested in how history shapes culture.

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