Living a Zero Waste lifestyle is more important than ever. With global warming knocking on the door and fueling the natural catastrophes in recent years — we need to act.
We need to close our eyes to consumerism and ignore the deceitful propaganda that attempts to convince us that more is better. More clothes. Technology. Food. Recycling. More of everything. We know the solution isn’t found in materialism.
With the current state of affairs, we must minimize waste.
However, I know from experience that’s not an easy thing to do.
It takes planning, discipline, and a willingness to learn.
Thank you for giving the zero waste lifestyle a try. In this guide, I’m going to show you how living zero waste is possible FOR everyone. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m also doing my best to minimize waste, and I’ve educated myself on the subject.
Hopefully, I can lay it down in a simple, easy to understand fashion. You’re probably vegan like me, and this just takes veganism one step further by minimizing waste!
Why A Zero Waste Lifestyle?
The regular American produces three pounds of landfill-bound trash a day.
When you multiply that number for 300 million, the truth becomes harsh.
What’s the health and environmental impact? Before we dig into the zero waste tactics, let’s first learn about the danger landfill represents to our planet… and health.
There are several landfill misconceptions I’ve learned about, and I believe putting that into perspective will help most people realize the severity of creating more waste.
For instance —do you think an apple is fully biodegradable when thrown into the landfill? Is plastic recyclable? Let’s start that conversation.
You’re free to jump ahead, but understanding how trash works can equip you with some pretty wise comebacks when someone critics your decision to go waste-free. 🙂
The Landfill Nightmare
A landfill is essentially a huge pit in the ground covered with a plastic liner that serves to protect the land from being polluted by the contents of the landfill.
This being said, the pile of trash called ‘landfill’ still produces a toxic, stinky liquid that poses a threat to our environment. This liquid is called leachate. It’s a mixture of rain, liquified food, and household chemicals spilled from containers. Leachate is hazardous, and in spite of the existing filtration system designed to keep leachate from seeping into the ground, leachate still manages to flood off into the surrounding ground and waterways.
Concentrating a pile of trash in one place also leads to another problem.
Methane gas production. And unfortunately, methane gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gases on our planet. A gas that prevents heat from escaping the atmosphere, leading to increased temperatures or global warming. Currently, landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions, with the first being animal agriculture.
The General Misconception
There’s a huge misconception among the general pop about landfills.
Most people believe the landfill is this one place where you send all the trash to, and as a result, it magically biodegrades… and disappears.
Unfortunately, landfills don’t work like that.
As you know, every sort of crap is sent to the landfill. From leftovers to banana peels, batteries and even household chemicals. And it’s a repeatable process until more trash is dumped on top of the trash until the former loses exposure to sunlight and oxygen.
Organic waste decomposes when broken down by other living organisms like fungi, bacteria, and other microbes. Yet, that can happen in two ways: aerobically (with oxygen), or anaerobically (without oxygen). Substances break down much quicker under aerobic conditions because the oxygen helps break down the molecules.
As a result, the trash that is buried underneath other trash degrades very slowly. In addition to that, because most trash is in a sealed, oxygen-free environment, the bacteria in the waste produces methane gas.
A team of garbologists found that, even after 20 years, one third to one-half of the food and yard waste was still in recognizable condition.
The idea that landfill is this sort of magical black hole is delusional.
I’m by no means implying that biodegradation doesn’t occur since leachate and methane are byproducts of decomposition…
… but easy compostable things like food and paper go to waste because they are buried deep rather than being converted into nutrients that could return to the soil.
Is Biodegradation In The Landfill Any Good?
Biodegradation in the landfill may not be a good thing.
The number of hazardous materials (insecticides, oven cleaners, nail polish, window spray cleaner) you can find in a trash bin is surprising.
When in the landfill, their containers are often broken, and end up mixed with different waste, creating a toxic goo that spreads throughout the landfill. For that reason —Garbologists worry that allowing these chemicals to seep into the ground may be harmful to the environment.
Outside The Landfill
Waste happens everywhere. Inside the landfill where organic scraps are wasted. As well as in places where trash bins are in plain sight.
Here’s the view off my apartment (even when two trash bins are located 3 meters away):
Litter found is eventually absorbed by the environment. Some of it ends up tangled in trees, and some are swept by storms before ending up in a creek or river. Something organic like an apple may decompose, but the majority of litter is made from stuff that doesn’t biodegrade. Plastic is a good example.
The Most Dangerous Form Of Waste
Plastic represents 90% of all marine litter. And unlike apples, plastic photodegrades.
This is a process where plastic is broken down into tiny particles called microplastics. These tiny particles are then ingested by fish before entering people’s food chain.
The danger, however, lies in bioaccumulation — a process in which you absorb a toxic chemical faster than your body can expel it.
On top of that, plastic is not only a threat to us… but It’s also a threat to marine life.
- Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die every year.
- While 100,000 to 1,000,000 seabird deaths are attributed to trash.
Land animals are also at risk.
Raccoons, for example, have been found with their paws stuck on pop cans.
If we don’t reduce the amount of waste we make, we can’t expect the landfill (or our planet), to magically evaporate that waste.
Therefore, let’s start with the first step to a zero-waste lifestyle.
Before Getting Started On Zero Waste
Before you start reducing waste, you need to take a look at what’s in your trash bin.
A statistic that is often mentioned is this: on average, Americans produce four pounds of trash a day. Collectively, Americans generated 250 million pounds of trash in 2010. It has improved since then, but it still doesn’t beat the 2.68 pounds Americans generated in 1960.
As you can see the largest category of trash we produce is paper, followed by food scraps and yard trimmings.
Also… it’s important to note some numbers.
52.5% of trash ends up in landfills, 25.8% is recycled, 8.9% is composted and the remaining 12.8% is non-recyclable waste that is used to create energy. These percentages are averages, but if we dive deep enough, we can look at the areas we can improve, and this is relevant to reduce the amount of waste we make.
For instance, the recycling rate for aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic bottles are under 50%. This is something we can easily improve, as it’s easily recyclable.
Planning To Go Waste Free
This is the essential first step to a waste-free lifestyle.
If you live with your husband, wife, children or cousins, you must get them on board. Otherwise, you’ll have a hard time reaching your waste-free goals.
Once everyone is on the same boat, a waste audit is in order.
You’re going to find out what’s in your waste and work towards reducing it.
Once you know the biggest source of waste in your household, we’ll go through different strategies to deal with it.
The Importance Of Getting People On Board
Why is getting people on board important?
Well, going waste-free is like going vegan. It’s a complete lifestyle change where you’re operating very differently to other people. Imagine spending hours keeping your house waste-free, while other people just add to the amount of work you’re doing. It’s like writing articles and having someone undo your text.
List the reasons and benefits to a zero-waste lifestyle, and set up a family reunion so you can provide valuable arguments during ‘that’ conversation.
For example, aside from the environmental reasons I’ve mentioned earlier — there’s also the benefit of saving time and money, by learning how to be more self-sufficient.
It’s really easy to become obsessed with making no trash, to the point where your decisions revolve around keeping waste to the minimum.
Going zero waste shouldn’t affect your interactions with people, just like going vegan shouldn’t keep you from speaking with people with different views from yours.
Keep your ambitions healthy and don’t let fanaticism get in the way. Otherwise, you’re going to run into many issues in your waste-free journey.
Listen To Family Concerns
Note that not everyone can adapt to changes in the same way.
Therefore, if your husband (or wife) runs into a mental barrier… be open-minded. Listen to his (or her) concerns and take it seriously. Maybe they lack time due to the extra household chores, or maybe they’re being perceived differently by colleagues or friends and that is making them feel isolated. Tackle those issues and reassure them.
Running A Waste Audit
This first stage of going waste-free is very simple.
You’re going to spend one week surveying your trash output, by learning how much waste you’re producing in each room of your house. Then you’ll sort and measure the amount of trash you’ve produced in each room, and set up realistic waste reduction goals. This will allow you to hit your goals by knowing your progress.
In essence, you’re going to look at each room of your house, and track:
- How much trash is produced per room in one day?
- And how much that trash weights.
And then you’re going to take those measurements, and see how you stack up against the average American that produces 4.43 pounds of waste every day.
I’ve prepared a quick sheet, so you can track exactly how much waste you’re making in the different areas of your house. It’s pretty straightforward, but it should help you get the job done before we start setting up waste-reduction goals.
How to Set Up Waste Reduction Goals
Before you set up your goals, there’s one thing you should know.
This is something that will change your life eventually but take your time. It should take you a few months to fully implement this lifestyle, so you shouldn’t try to rush it, otherwise, you might burn out in the process.
At this point, we want to set up small goals we can easily track, and see a clear progression each month. Employ the tactics in this Zero Waste Guide, but don’t get too crazy with it.
Now that we know how much trash we make in comparison to the average American, we want to consider the three different levels of waste reduction:
- Beginner: Take it slowly. Make it your goal to reduce 25% of your waste output in the next three months. If you don’t want to constantly measure your bags, try doing it on a per bag basis. If you fill 4-5 bags a week, aim to fill three bags only.
- Intermediate: The next level is to cut your waste output in half. If you don’t have a composting system in place, try adding one to the mix. You’ll see food scraps and paper diminish taking less and less space in your waste inventory.
- Advanced: Some may not reach this level. But at this point, your goal is to reduce your waste output by 80-90%. It might sound impossible, but over time you’ll learn how the impossible is very doable.
Note that these are merely suggestions, as your number may vary.
The important thing is that you’re making a difference, and you should be proud of yourself regardless of the results you achieve. And remember, the first step of the zero waste lifestyle is to prevent waste from getting into your house.
Getting Started On The Zero Waste Lifestyle
The first stage of implementation is difficult, but also unique and exciting.
You’ll go out of your comfort zone, and repeat a specific behavior until that behavior finally sticks.
Don’t worry, I’ll guide you through it.
Let’s start with a few things you can do to better set up routines and make the transition to a zero-waste lifestyle smoother.
Building Connections In A Community
Why should you foster relationships in a community? When integrated into a community, it’s much easier to meet your zero waste goals. A big part of reducing waste comes from us making clever decisions. To make those decisions possible, we need local businesses to cooperate with us.
For example, if you bring a cloth bag for your vegetables, a local market should allow you to have a tare imprinted on your bags so that the cost of the vegetables doesn’t include the weight of the cloth bag. For those getting meat, they should be able to bring their stainless steel recipient and not have the butcher place the meat in plastic bags.
The biggest benefit of building these connections is so that your purchase requests can be accommodated time and time again. This also includes asking the staff in your favorite restaurant to place leftovers in a container. Or ask your favorite coffee shop to pour coffee into your pink reusable drink container.
We want to work hard to avoid throwaway packaging… and creating solid relationships within your community will allow you to do that.
Even if that means giving local businesses a call, and understand how you can work together to avoid waste. You will find that smaller businesses are often open to your requests… especially if it means having a returning customer.
Ignore The Naysayers
When you go against the norm, you are bound to find people that will criticize your choices and label you as a weirdo. This is why I’m telling you right now: embrace discomfort.
That’s the ultimate advice for those following a different path from the majority.
Most people won’t bother to understand even if you lay out the facts very clearly. In most cases, you will have to take the high road, and ignore any ill comments directed against you.
Or you can do it like me, and take pleasure in knowing the planet is being spared from additional garbage.
Be Prepared On The Go
Don’t let yourself end up in a situation where picking up a disposable plate is unavoidable.
Whether you’re going to work or travel to a new country, always make sure you have an urgency kit to avoid waste creation.
Having a bag with the following items in your car is pretty useful:
- Tupperware containers.
- One set of silverware.
- Glass straw
- Cloth napkin
- Travel mug for coffee (or something else)
- Water bottle
These items are useful in a scenario where you must eat and drink.
1st Step – Refuse Things You Don’t Need
Alright, the easiest way to prevent yourself from making more waste, is by actually keeping it from entering your house. Whenever you go outside, always think first before buying or accepting anything. I live in a small, touristy city, and each time I head down to the high-street, people are handing out flyers. If I were to accept every flyer, I would just be adding those to my trash can, and create needless waste.
It’s important to learn how to say ‘no”, and evaluate the importance of what you’re buying or accepting. Believe it or not, some people have a hard time saying no, and that leads to more waste and problems. If it makes you feel better, explain why you won’t accept the flyer, and tell them you want to avoid creating further waste by adopting this “new”, zero-waste lifestyle.
Saying “no” may come easy when it comes to strangers. But what about the people you care about? I’ve also struggled with this question, and it all boils down to being honest. Make them aware of your new lifestyle by showing them that you’re trying to avoid waste at all costs. If you create awareness, your family or friends will know what to gift you.
Here are other things you can refuse using:
- Single-use plastics (Use a reusable cup in your visit to Starbucks);
- Freebies (Toiletries, food samples, swag bags from festivals or conferences, and more);
- Junk Mail (Avoid it by leaving a note on your mailbox);
- And more.
It’s difficult to refute convenience, but I think you can do it!
Rethink Your Shopping Habits
More important than avoiding the waste that steems from external circumstances is dealing with your whims. I have a very addictive personality, and thus it’s easy to get mesmerized with something and buy it. Telling yourself “no” is the actual challenge, and to rethink your shopping habits, means asking yourself questions:
- Do you need it?
- Will you need it one month from now?
- Do you have something similar?
- Can you use anything else?
- Can you use it at least three times?
Ask those questions, and take a moment to let your mind relax before making any decisions. Actually, sleep on it before making a decision. If you decide to buy something, then make sure to avoid packaging to create the least waste possible. Look for products that don’t have packaging like bar soap, food from bulk bins, and so on.
2nd Step – Reduce Things You Need
Some things you can refuse, because ultimately you don’t need them. However, the things you need are more complicated to bypass. That’s why the goal here is to reduce. By reducing, you have more mental clarity because there’s less clutter. And the impact you have on the environment can be as significant as avoiding single-use plastics, for instance.
If you’re familiar with minimalism, you know what reduction means. It’s focusing on quality over quantity and taking in an “experience” over just owning “fluff”. It’s thinking small, instead of swimming in luxury. Reduction encourages you to be more mindful about the things you need which help you rediscover your purpose.
Look at your waste audit, and let go of the things you think you need. For example, instead of getting a salad picker, you can use a fork and spoon to achieve the same goal. Ultimately, if you keep asking questions you’ll find more items you don’t need and even consider donating or selling old utensils, clothes, or electronics instead of eventually sending them to the landfill.
Reducing Shopping Activity
Another big element of waste reduction lies in restraining yourself when you shop. When you decide to NOT shop as frequently, you’re conserving precious resources and making old resources available to others.
Here are other things you can consider as well:
- Buy foods in bulk, and use your recipients;
- Ride a bicycle instead of driving a car to work;
- Rent or buy a smaller house;
- Use less technology, or stop constantly upgrading to the “new thing”;
- Avoid printing paper and keep it digital;
- And more.
Besides buying less, you should also shop wisely by choosing products you can reuse or recycle.
Another advice you can follow is to reduce potential waste by avoiding actions that lead to consumption. Watching TV, reading magazines, window shopping, or scrolling down through your Facebook feed can lead you to view heavily promoted content designed to exploit your emotions in exchange for your desire to buy something. Believe it or not, it’s effective the more you see it. Especially if it’s something you have bought in the past and love.
Controlling your exposure to social media (and other channels) will not only promote waste reduction but also increase your happiness. How? Marketing messages tend to explore people’s pain points, and thus exposing you to negative messages.
While you cannot always control it, reducing your exposure to those mediums helps you navigate through life with a clearer mind.
3rd Step – Reuse What You Need
Reusing means using the product in its original manufactured form several times. It’s maximizing a product’s life and saving the resources otherwise lost through recycling. You might have reused plastic bags in the past, but alternatives like tote bags are superior. At the same time, you must “reduce” their consumption, and figure out how many you need, otherwise you’re just overusing resources for extra bags you’ll never use.
That’s right, in the 3rd step, you’re also addressing wasteful consumption by using products you can re-use, and eliminate the need for packaging or single-use products. For example, using reusable bags eliminates the need for packaging, and bringing your reusable cup to Starbucks reduces the need for additional plastic or paper cups. Besides, you can also consider lending your products. Many items you have in your house stay unused for days, if not months.
Through borrowing, loaning, trading, or renting you can maximize usage and even make a profit. Thrift shops, Craigslist, eBay, and even Amazon are popular among those following a zero-waste lifestyle. There you can buy used products, and not waste resources to create new ones.
In addition, you can look for products you know can be repaired or repurposed at the end of their lifecycle.
List of Basic Reusables
|Insulated Cups||Rechargeable Batteries|
4th Step – Recycle What You Cannot Reuse
Recycling is what most people do to reduce waste, but earlier in this blog post, we discovered that sometimes it’s not the best option. Besides, not everything can be recycled properly. Plastic straws are too thin to be recycled, and thus petitions are held to ban its production and bring awareness to reusable straws.
As you know, recycling is but a small part of effectively reducing waste. The most significant steps happen outside your house by curbing consumption, which eliminates a lot of the recycling you have to do.
While recycling is also an important step in this guide, it’s not the most sustainable form of waste reduction because many elements are at play. There needs to be a combined effort between consumers, manufacturers, recyclers, and municipalities that leads to further resources being used to convert plastic and transform it into a brand-new product.
Instead, if you work through these steps in order, you can dramatically reduce the need for recycling. This may not be an interesting approach for industries earning their share via recycled materials. But recycling something like plastic is not as viable as people think. Some plastics that get recycled (namely Polyethylene terephthalate & High-density polyethylene) are downcycled and still end up in the landfill.
Does That Mean We Shouldn’t Recycle?
No, you should. Recycling is still a better option than simply sending something to the landfill.
It saves energy, resources, and diverts further waste from getting sent to the landfill. Plus, it creates a demand for recovered materials, which empowers the economy in the long-run.
Also, it allows you to make better buying decisions based on the things you believe are most recyclable. When you buy a new product, you must consider one that is reusable and useful when its lifecycle is over. Ultimately, we want to use materials that can be recycled over and over (paper, aluminum or glass) and avoid downcycled materials like plastic.
5th Step – Composting At Home
Composting is the process of recycling organic waste by allowing it to naturally decompose over time.
You’re recycling waste that would otherwise go to the landfill, where its decomposition would be hindered by the lack of oxygen and sunlight, which would lead to further water and air contamination.
The most common composting system is a worm bin. You feed worms with organic waste, and then the worms transform that organic waste into nutrient-rich properties that can be reused or returned to the soil. Usually what you get after the decomposing process is rich soil, which you can use to grow your houseplants or sell for a profit.
This being said, there are a few things you must take into consideration before composting:
- Do you have a yard? Do you live in an apartment? The composting system you adopt in the future depends on the type of space you live in. No point in owning a big bucket of worms if you live in a small apartment.
- Depending on your goals (selling compost, or simply recycling organic waste), you may want to either set up a free composting system with homemade materials or buy a commercially available one.
- If you care about aesthetics, you should make it so that your composting system blends well with your decoration.
- Most composting systems process veggies, fruits, and other common sources of waste like coffee grounds. But if you want to decompose toothbrushes made from bamboo, you may want to consider more advanced devices.
- If you’re vegan, a simple composting system will do it since you will not be decomposing bones from meat. However, if you have omnivore guests who bring their food (i.e: meat), don’t throw their food into the composting system. Otherwise, you may attract rodents, foxes and other furry animals to your yard.
I’m not an expert in composting systems but I know that the most obvious difference between each lies in the temperature. Lower temperature systems take longer to decompose, which is what you will have if yours is homemade.
Most People Start Composting in The Kitchen
Before you start composting, you must first gather compostable materials. It’s easy to set up a system in your kitchen so that you can start collecting those right away.
Here are some of the things you need to get started:
- Large container: Getting a large container reduces the number of times you need to go to your compost system. Most people use regular trash bins to collect their compostable materials, but sometimes forget that mixing organic waste with non-biodegradable waste will only make your composter smell bad. That’s something you might want to avoid.
- Blending in: While it’s hard to hide a large container from sight, you should do your best to blend it in with the rest of the house. Sometimes what keeps people from composting is the fact it looks ugly… and because it smells. This said, if you keep it hidden under a counter and don’t mix organic waste with non-biodegradable stuff… you should have no worries.
- Make it easy to access: Sometimes we might feel too lazy to separate biodegradable waste from non-biodegradable waste. In that case, keep your containers close by. Some people have a slide-out container under their kitchen sink for each time they throw away food remains.
At the same time, make sure the compost system can compost the things you’re planning to compost.
Building A Simple Compost System
I believe it’s easier to watch a video than actually follow a written tutorial on how to build a compost system. For that reason, I’ve included this video by Huw Richards, because he actually makes it really simple for anyone to understand.
Once you’ve built your compost system, then it’s a rinse and repeat process that will allow you to minimize waste. But remember, going zero-waste takes time. It might take you months or years until you’re able to do everything efficiently. And you don’t have to everything perfectly at first. If you do things step by step, then before you know it, you’ll have made massive progress in your zero-waste journey!
Top 2 Vegan Recommendations in 2021
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