A guide to zero waste living - and where to start
The zero waste lifestyle is all about simplifying your life by reducing your waste. It’s a way to be kinder to the planet and your body through what you do, eat, buy, wear, and use everyday. Don't be intimidated by the word "zero" - it's more of a guiding ideal than a realistic end-point. This lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight, but it can start with a few simple changes. These are our top tips for getting closer to zero waste.
One thing at a time
To begin your zero waste journey, start by going room by room and analyzing the waste you're creating in your own home. It's a great way to start because it makes the project a little more manageable and gives you a better idea of how you can reduce. Getting familiar with what goes in your waste bins will equip you for the next steps in your journey.
Once you've completed a waste analysis over the course of a few weeks, you can start reducing your waste by reusing and upcycling the things you have, like making reusable shopping bags from old pillow cases or using glass jars from sauces or spreads to hold your bulk foods. Rather than throwing away what you already own, like old makeup or plastic bags, use them up and wait until you run out of something to choose a more sustainable alternative. This approach also gives you time to research and make decisions; after all, if a reusable is going to be by your side for a long time, it needs to be the right fit for you. By making small changes over time, you'll have an easier time building habits, you'll spread out any spending, and you'll create the lifestyle that's right for you.
There are some changes you might want to make sooner rather than later. Making the move towards organic produce to reduce chemical pollution, and nontoxic food storage like glass and metal are beneficial to your health. If you wear a lot of synthetic clothing or athletic wear, it's a good idea to get a Guppybag, which collects microfibers before they get into the water system. Another first step might be your skincare - we like to make sure anything we put directly on our skin has natural, non-toxic ingredients. Things like deodorant, face lotion, and face soaps are all good considerations, since they absorb into your skin. If you decide to get rid of hard-to-donate items like personal care products, Buy Nothing is a great resource for finding new homes for your discards.
Reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle, rot.
The 5 R’s (as written by Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home) are a great system to start pursuing a low waste lifestyle. It all starts with reducing what you need and refusing to bring certain items into your home. Less stuff means less to take care of and less potential to create waste. If you refuse to choose single-use items or plastic items or excess packaging, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of trash you’re making day to day. Reusing what you have is a much more sustainable option than buying new, so upcycle what you have and see what in your home could be repurposed. Reusables are so key to a low waste lifestyle. It’s a return to the way things used to be done. What you can’t reduce, refuse or reuse should be recyclable or compostable (rot).
Graphic by Casey Callahan for Eco Collective TM
Bring your own reusables
A lot of waste happens when you’re out and about. Coffee cups, to-go containers, single use utensils, napkins, paper towels… Low waste living takes a little habit building and a lot of planning ahead. Find a thermos that can work for coffee, juice, water, whatever you enjoy throughout the day and then get in the habit of bringing it with you. Carry a reusable food container with you to bring home leftovers or pick up your lunch from the hot bar. In a pinch, you can always order “for here” to avoid the trash that often accompanies takeout. We have also found that a reusable utensil set comes in handy for eating on-the-go.
Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective
Buy in bulk
A big percentage of household waste is plastic packaging from processed foods or grocery store staples. If you’re starting to reduce your waste, check if your local grocery store has a bulk section where you can use your own containers like glass jars or cotton bags to fill up on grains, beans and snacks. Most grocery stores in Seattle - even chain ones like Fred Meyer - offer things like rice, quinoa, oats, flour and beans in their unpackaged section. If you’re curious how to tare your containers or use the bulk bins, we made a video. We like to say “shop the perimeter” of the store - produce, the deli, the bakery, and the bulk section are all great sections of the store for zero wasters.
Choose local and organic when possible
Think about the footprint of each item before it got to you. How many miles did it travel to get to your hands? Is it from a small farm or a big factory? Is it organic or non-GMO? There’s a lot of misleading packaging these days, but if you can narrow down what’s important to you and what has the most impact, you can continue to match your spending to your values wherever possible.
Every year, the EWG releases a list of the top twelve types of produce that you should buy organic (the fruits and vegetables that are being sprayed with more potent pesticides or that have the highest chance of harm from digestion). This short list can help you balance your budget and choose the highest impact items to shop organic. With produce, wine, and flour, organic choices can go a long way towards a more sustainable future. Not only are pesticides harmful for our health, but they have a negative impact on the health of workers and on local soil and water streams. Plus, a study from Newcastle University showed that organic food has more nutrients and antioxidants! Places like Grocery Outlet or Costco often have organic choices that are a little more cost friendly.
Photo by Genevieve Livingston
Almost everything you could need already exists in the world. Why buy new when there are perfectly good, lightly used items to choose from instead? Shopping secondhand supports a circular economy where things are repurposed or regifted rather than being thrown away. It also saves the extensive resources like water, carbon, and materials that go into producing new. We have an abundance of thrift and secondhand stores in Seattle, for everything from clothing and outdoor gear to kitchen items and furniture. One of Eco Collective’s owners, Summer Hanson created an awesome map of secondhand shopping locations around Seattle.
Switch your bath and body items to low waste alternatives
If you’ve ever taken a look at the waste you or your household produces, you’ve probably noticed a lot of items from the bathroom, like toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, deodorant containers, and shampoo bottles. There are sustainable alternatives that are made of biodegradable or reusable materials and it’s all about finding which swaps will work for you.
One way to do this is every time you run out of something, look for a more earth friendly alternative - this spreads out the investment of time and money and you get to try new things and incorporate lasting changes into your routine. Some ideas for where to start? Replace your deodorant with an alum stone or trade your tube of toothpaste with toothpaste tablets. Use compostable floss or swap your plastic bottles of haircare for a shampoo or conditioner bar. Instead of disposable razors, try a safety razor. Check your local health foods store for some earth friendly options and visit our stockists page to find Eco Collective products near you.
Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective
Time after time, leading a sustainable lifestyle is about being mindful. Being intentional about what you bring into your home and the waste you create. Thinking about each purchase and aligning your actions with the kind of future you want to create. You can’t go zero waste overnight but with a few gradual, conscious shifts, and a regular practice of being prepared on-the-go, low waste living becomes a lot more attainable - and enjoyable.