Zero waste life can often seem like an upper-middle class white girl’s dreamland. Full of high-end products and white walls aplenty, many of us are complicit in presenting zero waste as some exciting fantasy world.
This trend can feel isolating. I’ve felt it and I am a middle class white girl. But in fact zero waste doesn’t have to be Instagram-worthy or high-end to be valid. Participating in the zero waste movement isn’t limited to a certain income and it certainly doesn’t hinge on fitting all your trash for years into a Mason jar.
I’ve partnered with some passionate people living a zero waste lifestyle to create a round-up of free ways to go zero waste. Without buying stuff from an over-hyped hipster store.
Use what you already have
- Glass jars. I pick them up for anywhere from $.50 to $4 at the local second hand stores. If you purchase glass jars in the grocery store, those work too! Perfect for toting snacks, storing food in the pantry/fridge/freezer, or even stocking up on bulk at the grocery store.
- Cloth Napkins. Whether they’re vintage cloth napkins (my style) or simple squares cut from an old t-shirt, it’s always helpful to have a stash of cloth napkins around. Save money (and trees!) by refusing paper towels and napkins.
- A hot/cold mug. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m absolutely lost without the ability to have a drink in hand at all times. When my husband’s travel mug broke, he immediately sniped mine. Fine – gave me a chance to spring for something I actually wanted! I got the KeepCup 12 oz* and I absolutely love it.
- A healthy tolerance to deprivation. I hate to say it, but starting a zero waste journey is not all about rainbows and butterflies. In fact, the recent months have helped me find one of the intangible zero waste essentials: a healthy tolerance to deprivation. Because here’s the thing: you either want to go zero waste or you want a life of luxurious convenience. You really can’t have both all the time.
Stop buying paper products for your house
The very cheapest roll of paper towels I can find at my local dollar store is $1.50. If you have a decent-sized household (especially with kids!), you could go through one of those rolls in a matter of days. Same for paper napkins.
Save some money and use rags and cloth napkins, instead. Chances are you already have some cloth napkins in your house, but you could also make them from clothes you’ve outgrown or extra sheets. Old towels or t-shirts are great to use in place of paper towels for messes.
Use old things so you won’t be upset if they get stained and simply add these new fabric options into your typical laundry routine. Saving a few bucks here and there doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but it can add up over time!
Say no to junk mail
Not only is it annoying and tends to pile up on tables, junk mail is such a waste of paper and a real hindrance to an eco-conscious house. Luckily, most junk mail newsletters/coupon books/etc. have a way to unsubscribe from their website. Check on the physical mail and you should find a site to start your investigation. If all else fails, call the number and you should be able to add your address to a no-send site.
For more specific ways to stop junk mail, this post is very helpful in laying out the ways you can both prevent junk mail and opt-out if you do end up on a list. It may take a while to process, but eventually you’ll stop being annoyed by so much junk mail.
Raid your house
Celia of Litterless shares:
You likely already have many things that can help you go zero waste without buying anything new. Grab a fork from your silverware drawer and bring it with you to stave off plastic forks; any old reused plastic container can sub in for plastic ziploc bags when carrying lunch or snacks on the go.
Considering items you’ve had forever with a new eye – particularly in the kitchen – can help you get started on going zero waste without buying a thing.
Join a local freecycle group
Why pay for the things you need if you’re on a tight budget and people have stuff sitting in their houses, unused? Opting out of the mainstream economy is not only good zero waste practice, but saves you money as well!
Find an official Freecycle group or join one of the many free groups on Facebook to access a ton of goods just waiting for a good home. Typically, you’ll have luck finding clothing, baby items, small kitchen items, and craft items. It’s also a good place to look when you’re doing home renovations – lots of people have old paint, tools, or even tiles/wood just hanging out in their garage.
Conserve your water
Taylor of Pforwords suggests:
Water conservation is not only important for the planet, but saves you money in the long run. Consider these tips for reducing water usage.
- Collect your shower water. As you turn on your shower and wait for the water to heat up, consider placing a bin to collect that water! Use it to wash dishes, water your plants, etc.
- Take shorter showers. Cut down on your time spent in the shower. I used to spend 20 minutes or more in the shower just pondering life while enjoying the warm water. I didn’t realize how wasteful I was being! The average shower uses 5 gallons of water, so if you save even just two minutes, you’ll be saving 10 gallons of water (and some money too)!
Anyone can grow something edible, no matter where you live. Chances are you have a container and a place to dig up a bit of dirt and maybe even some seeds! While it depends on how much light you get and how much space you have for the plant to grow, there’s definitely an edible plant for your space!
If you don’t have seeds, ask around to family, friends, and coworkers. (Or even post on a local Freecycle site!) Plenty of people have packets of seeds sitting around that they’ll never actually use.
If you have a sunny spot, you’re good to go – your options are almost endless. If you have a particularly shady apartment (been there), check out some of these options that don’t mind shade: beets, broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes, and spinach.
Get creative with jars and bags
From Weck jars at $4-6/jar to 100% cotton muslin produce bags at $11 for three bags, many earth-friendly zero waste essentials are hardly budget-friendly and therefore simply not accessible to those living on a budget.
To acquire a useful glass jar collection on a budget, always buy glass jars with food in them. Pasta sauce is the easiest way to start. Trader Joe’s, Walmart and dollar stores all sell pasta sauces in glass jars for reasonable prices. Check out international markets and the clearance aisles of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls for discounted imported “specialty” foods in glass jars, then reuse those jars.
If you work in a restaurant, ask the kitchen staff to save empty glass jars that they would otherwise throw away. Restaurants buy in large quantities, so you just might score some extra-large glass jars for free.
For produce bags and market totes, turn any square of cloth into a multi-purpose bag with the traditional Japanese fabric-tying technique furoshiki. “How to tie a furoshiki bag” will return abundant tutorials for this no-sew method of tying fabric scraps into practical bags for carrying almost anything.
Find ways to reduce your food waste
Studies estimate the USA wastes anywhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of all the food made for human consumption. While you may not be able to tackle food waste on a larger scale, you can deal with food waste in your own home. Not only will you be honoring the energy needed to grow your food, but you also stop wasting your hard-earned money.
Some simple ideas to reduce food waste include:
- keep food visible. Whether it’s on your counter or in the fridge, make sure all of your food is completely visible. How many times have you shuffled things around in the fridge to find a moldy container of food or a wrinkly vegetable? The worst.
- don’t re-buy the items you waste. For a long time I was buying heads of lettuce even though they got wilty before I ever used them. Eventually, I stopped and just bought the other greens I’d actually eat. Don’t buy items because you think you’ll use them – buy what you know you’ll use.
- don’t worry about expiration dates. Expiration and best-by dates are general guidelines that companies push up as fast as possible to get you to buy more. If the food smells and tastes fine, it’s probably OK. Products don’t magically go bad the day after the expiration date.
Use your voice and practice refusing
Kieran from Semi-Sustainable Man says:
One way that you can contribute to the zero waste movement at no cost is to use your voice.
Straws are a good example of how this happens. How many times has your drink come with a straw? You may not have wanted it but now it’s in your glass and you feel obliged to use it. An easy way to stop this is to remember to say ‘no straw please’ every time you order your drink.
Whether it is plastic cutlery, straws, coffee cups, plastic bags, or flyers, remembering to say no is the first step to reducing your consumption of these single use items. Being proactive about these things will help reduce the amount of waste you produce.
Don’t be shy or embarrassed when asking these things. You may receive weird looks, but if you explain why you are doing it I’ve found that most people understand and are happy to help.
Spend time volunteering
Lindsay from Zeroing In writes:
When you start the zero waste lifestyle, you try to stop sending trash to the landfill. This is feasible for some, but not for all. As a result, many feel as if they can’t commit to the zero waste lifestyle. What if I told you that there was more the movement than the trash we produce?
When I was 10 years old, I volunteered with my mom and sister at a local book fair. Now at 23 years old, I continue to volunteer for 2 hours a week with pets who need a new home. This doesn’t sound like a big commitment, because it really isn’t. If you have 2 hours to go shopping, then you have 2 hours to volunteer.
But I’m zero waste, isn’t that enough? Well, what does zero waste mean to you? By becoming a volunteer, you are able to help educate, inspire, and advocate for the lifestyle even more than bringing around your Mason jar.
Do only what’s sustainable for you
Whether you utilize these tips or others you find out about, make sure you’re only doing what feels natural and sustainable for your lifestyle. The quickest way to fail in your zero waste efforts is to try to do something too difficult or do too much all at once.
Instead of taking on the things you think you should do, tackle issues that are both important and accessible to you. Especially at the start of your zero waste journey, where it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed.
Start small and work your way up to bigger and more adventurous things. No one is judging your efforts as much as you yourself are, so give yourself a break and do what you can.