Want to know how to build a zero (or low) waste lifestyle? Obviously there is not one singular path, but below are a bunch of suggestions to phase you in to creating zero waste habits and taking actions that will be easy on the wallet, light on the planet, and weighty in its impact.
First, a few quick principles that I wish I knew before going zero waste (read more about these principles here):
- The system (our culture!) is set up for wasting, so just do your best and don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Though we need systemic change to realize a true Zero Waste world, each step we take as individuals creates demand and possibilities and helps us work toward larger scale efforts. Your actions make a difference!
- Zero waste is a process, not an end point – just keep working on the next steps!
- The most sustainable option is almost always what you already have! You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money or get fancy stuff to reduce waste.
- Low waste is a priority, but there are other priorities and considerations for your purchases and actions as well – like buying local.
- Zero waste is not just for white people. The ideals behind the authentic concept of zero waste have existed for thousands of years across many cultures (check out this video to learn more) and models itself after the natural world, where there is no such thing as waste.
How to move toward Zero Waste – a staged approach!
1. Get informed – without overwhelming yourself! Waste can be a devastating topic, so while we recommend exploring resources and learning some new things, we also caution that too much research can be paralyzing. Try mixing in some more hopeful resources, and be gentle with yourself as you continue to learn and grow. There are great podcasts, webinars, videos, books, documentaries, and other resources available; if I had to pick one, The Story of Stuff (both the videos and the book) is a great place to start!
2. Establish your “why.” What excites you about the prospect of living in a zero waste world?Think about the things you want to avoid or improve (i.e. pollution, health, environmental racism, etc.) as well as your vision for a better world. Put your ideas on paper so you can refer back to it and to help guide the steps that are most important to you.
3. Refuse and reduce! Make a commitment to consume less – it’s the highest priority in the waste reduction hierarchy. Go through this flow chart or ask yourself questions before making purchases and accepting items, such as:
-Do I really need it? Can I use something else I already have instead? Can I borrow it instead?
-How many times will I use it?
-Can I buy it used or refurbished instead of new?
-Is it long-lasting? Is it repairable?
-How will I dispose of it? Is it reusable, donatable, repairable, repurpose-able, recyclable, and/or compostable?
Also, refuse other things you do not need – say no to freebies at events and stores, opt out of junkmail, ask for no straw in your drinks, shake-dry your hands instead of using paper towels in public restrooms, etc.
4. Make some simple swaps. A good place to start is what’s known as “the big four”: water bottle, coffee cup, grocery bags, no straw (or reusable straws). If you’ve got those dialed, check out these “advanced” Zero Waste Kitchen and Bathroom Swaps, and move on to Phase 2 for many more “advanced” swap ideas.
5. Do a personal waste audit to identify your personal “priority waste streams.” It really helps to know what you’re wasting right off the bat to inform how you move forward from here.
6. Make “advanced” swaps! There are many options for sustainable swaps, so do some research, try some things out, and have fun! Check out a swaps list like this one, an Instagram page like this, or a zero waste YouTube channel like this for ideas.
7. Repair. When one of your belongings breaks, explore repair options before buying a new one. Learn repair skills yourself, or support local repair businesses. To get started, check out: mending skills; repair tips & tutorials; local repair services; and virtual Fixit Clinics!
8. Reduce food waste. According to the USDA, between 30 and 40% of food grown for human consumption in the U.S. is wasted, and the majority of this waste is generated at the household level. The good news is that most of this waste is avoidable! By planning ahead with shopping lists and meal prepping, storing food properly, and using your leftovers, you can reduce a lot of food waste. Check out Save the Food for more food waste reduction tips and tools.
9. Compost. There are several options for diverting food waste – you can subscribe to a compost collection service, drop off food waste at Garden City Compost, compost with a community garden, build an indoor worm bin, or compost in your backyard. Explore some of these options and try out what you think is best for you! In addition to diverting food waste, learn how to recycle and properly dispose of other waste streams with this local “What Do I Do With…?” tool.
10. Reduce waste at the grocery store. Some packaging is unavoidable, and not everyone has access to affordable package-free or low waste grocery stores. Do what you can, such as: using reusable grocery and produce bags, buying loose instead of pre-packaged produce, shopping the bulk section, buying minimally-packaged and plastic-free items when possible (for instance, choosing the flour in a paper bag and the peanut butter in reusable glass). When package-free is not an option, try buying in larger quantities (if it is shelf-stable or can be frozen) to minimize the amount of single-use packages you are consuming. Check out these tips for life without bulk, and watch this plastic-free grocery haul for more tips! There are also low waste online grocery and personal care product shops. Check out Fill More Waste Less, Wally Shop, and Loop if you think this might be a good option for you.
11. Buy better. One of the very first priorities in the zero waste space is to buy less. But another important step is to buy better. When you can, prioritize things that are secondhand or upcycled, long-lasting and repairable, ethically and sustainably made, locally produced, non-toxic, made of recycled materials, and/or recyclable or compostable. Check out these thrifting tips (also the Thrifts & Tangles YouTube channel!) and sustainable and ethical clothing brands, and be on the lookout for third-party certifications like these. Research your products and their ingredients with tools like the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
12. Make your own! Try your hand at homemade items. A lot of packaged products can be made at home with a few simple ingredients. All-purpose cleaner is one of the easiest – one part white vinegar, one part water mixed together in a spray bottle (you can also add a few drops essential oils of your choice for fragrance and extra disinfecting power). More DIY recipes are available here, and here are some great food recipes.
13. Reduce toxins. Many of the previous steps already involve reducing toxins (making sustainable swaps, composting, buying better, and making your own products); take it one step further by specifically tackling other toxins, like microplastics. There are many “hidden” or lesser-known sources of plastics in our world, many of which contribute to plastic pollution – synthetic clothing, car tires, cigarette butts, paint, etc. Reduce the consumption and impact of these sources by making changes such as installing a microplastics filter on your washing machine, avoiding synthetic clothing (like polyester, nylon, spandex, etc.), using loose-leaf tea, cutting back on and properly disposing of cigarettes, using natural laundry and dishwasher detergents, using natural or water-based paints, and more.
14. Connect with zero waste communities on the local, national, and international levels. There are so many individuals, organizations, and groups – both in and outside Missoula – to learn from, be inspired and empowered by, to share resources with, and to serve as tangible examples of zero waste in action. Get started at zerobyfiftymissoula.com. Here are more resources and community connections.
15. Get involved in zero waste organizing, planning, and policy. Volunteer at (or organize!) zero waste events; encourage your workplace, school, or local business to implement zero waste systems, start a community compost, etc! Learn about these and other opportunities by connecting with Zero Waste Missoula.
And last but certainly not least… Continue learning and evolving! Zero waste is a journey, so be ready to continuously be challenged, learn, and adapt.
For more zero waste tips and resources, visit zerobyfifymissoula.com