This post may contain affiliate links which means I may receive an commission if you buy through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read my disclosure policy for more info.
With two kids and a husband who eats many of his meals on the go, the number of ziplocs and other disposables we were going through was just appalling. Even if we reused them a few times, or recycled the fairly clean ones, most of our disposables are headed to a landfill or the horrifying Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hoping to find some tips on how to stem this tide, I turned to Bea Johnson, a Mill Valley, CA homemaker and writer who describes in her book, Zero Waste Home, how her family of four limits their landfill discards to a quart jar per year! While some of her suggestions require a little too much time and effort to be practical for me (I am not ready to scratch-make mascara), her book got me to apply a critical eye to our disposables get us closer to zero waste. Like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (see here for a post on that), once I saw how much time, money and natural resources I was wasting, I couldn’t unsee it, and it’s changed my habits I hope for good. Here are my top five tips to get your family closer to zero waste.
Follow the Five Rs in Order to Get to Zero Waste: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
Hint. Recycling is not zero waste. I know I am guilty of thinking “oh, it’s recyclable (or compostable), no problem if it’s disposable!” But the ugly truth is that a tremendous amount of energy and natural resources goes into the production and then later recycling of a disposable product. Not to mention that many recyclables are not actually recycled because a bale gets tainted by the accidental inclusion of a non-recyclable product. Further, most plastics are only recyclable once. After that, they are “down-cycled” into non-recyclable decking, plastic furniture or other products that can never be recycled. And once those break, they are landfill-bound.
Compostables aren’t a cure-all either. Bioplastics and compostable materials need water, air and light to decompose, which isn’t available in a landfill. Johnson cites a study that found 25-yr old guacamole, hot dogs & newspapers in the middle of a landfill perfectly intact!
The first line of defense against this waste is to refuse disposable items in the first place! Free pens, swag, plastic bags at the supermarket, junk mail (PaperKarma is an awesome app for attacking junk mail), are all unnecessary. I also turned a critical eye on my purchases. Do I need to keep taking that probiotic in the blister-pack that doesn’t seem to do anything for me? What about that separate SPF lotion when I could just use the same one my kids use? Do I need those coffee pods or is it the frothy milk that I really love? Can I fix something or reuse it in another form before throwing it out? Do I need those tortilla chips that aren’t available in bulk? Well, yes, obviously I need the tortilla chips, but the other things are on the chopping block.
Listen to Your Trash
Watch what goes into your bins for a week and think about what you can do to reduce or reuse those discards. I found I am discarding a ton of plastic and food scraps, most of which is recyclable or compostable, but I am wasting all those natural resources in the making of the products (see this awesome short film on the labor that goes into food). Plus, I am in a rental so we haven’t been composting. So I started looking into an easy compost system (worms seem like a winner), and encouraging my husband’s love of making stock from our food scraps. I also took a day to tour our local bulk food options, and hit the farmers market for clamshell-free produce. Zero waste here we come!
Attack the Lowest Hanging Fruit First
This is the David Ramsey snowball approach. Efforts to get to zero waste can feel trying to boil the ocean because disposables are everywhere! It seems easier just to succumb to all of them if you can’t avoid all of them. But small relatively simple changes will build the confidence for bigger changes.
We went all-glass in our food storage last year to avoid toxic plastic leaching into our food, but I had really never considered shopping in the bulk food department. That was my first low hanging fruit. By bringing my own containers and cotton bags, I was able to get completely packaging-free flour, sugar, quinoa, couscous, olive oil, honey, and balsamic. It only took two extra minutes to get my containers zeroed out at customer service, and really, you could skip that step if your containers are lightweight or the products are relatively inexpensive and .5 lb isn’t worth it to you. Plus, I found the bulk prices were very competitive to the price of packaged products, even Costco’s!
My other low hanging fruit was produce bags. I even had reusable ones but stopped using them because the produce would get dried out in the fridge when not encased in plastic. Johnson suggests putting a damp towel in the produce drawer to maintain humidity and that small change has made all the difference.
For disposable towels, wipes, swiffers, etc, I started using the Costco bag of microfiber cloths that had been gathering dust in my garage. I just put a basket of them in the kitchen and we have used 1/10 of the number of baby wipes & paper towels since then. I cut one in half to attach to my swiffer and it works great.
Get the Whole Family Onboard The Zero Waste Train
My husband was a bit reticent to try this experiment since I just steam-rolled him with my enthusiasm, as usual. But once I let him air his concerns (reusable packaging has to be clear so as to easily identify the food, shopping can’t be more expensive or require trips to multiple stores), he was on board, and even sent me the link to that video above to include in my blog. I also couched everything as an experiment that we could just try temporarily to see if it worked for us. I boxed things up that we weren’t using and put them in the garage instead of just giving them away, and I only bought a few items (glass jars for bulk foods, a new sturdier grocery bag to hold them) to see how they worked out.
Scratch-Make What You Can
So this is tough. There is only so much time in the day and it is far easier to grab a pre-made product than make it yourself. But if you want to reduce your discards and save a lot of money in the process, scratch-making is the way to go. I suggest looking at your most-used pre-packaged products and attacking those first.
For us, it’s stocks, bread, and baby food. Stocks help eat up a lot of those food scraps I was discarding, and can be simmering on the back burner all evening. Making our own results in a far more flavorful, and less salty, stock than that we get in the non-recyclable Tetra-Pak cartons. Baby food can also eat up scraps, especially the veggies my toddler regularly leaves untouched on her plate. It’s easy to blend those up and freeze them in an ice cube tray for the baby to eat later, and they sell reusable pouches for on-the-go eating. Bread is more daunting, but I found a great bread recipe from Smitten Kitchen that promises to be forgiving so I think I’ll give it a whirl. And then there’s the guacamole for those chips…baby steps.
If you’ve made it this far in this super-long post, then you must be interested in cutting down on disposables! I encourage you to check out ZeroWasteHome.com for some great resources for reusable products to reduce your disposables. My unicorn is a reusable, non-plastic, lightweight, portable, see-through, replacement for ziplocs. I found these stasher bags which are fantastic but are expensive and only sandwich sized. I am adding to my collection slowly.
And that’s the key to this whole adventure, slow down, take a look around, and see what you can do to reduce your discards. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, but I found that just being more conscientious about what I was discarding made me more creative about how to refuse, reduce and reuse, so I didn’t have to recycle, rot, or landfill as much.
We are at a critical juncture on this planet where our actions really matter. We can vote with our pocketbook by purchasing reusable and packaging-free products. I, for one, want to be able to tell my children what I did to preserve this beautiful place for them and their children when they come asking in 20 years. I won’t be hitting zero waste anytime soon, but I will keep evolving my habits and thinking as much as possible by staying informed and doing the next right thing, even if it is a little more inconvenient.
What do you all do to reduce your discards? Let me know in the comments!
Join My Find Time to Thrive Email Challenge + Get a FREE Habit Tracker
Do you want to create healthy habits but can't find the time? Join my FREE 6-Day Email Challenge to Find Time to Thrive TODAY! Plus I'll send you my FREE HABIT TRACKER Printable!