Starting a zero waste lifestyle, step-by-step

Create your own zero waste kit -

I dove into the zero waste lifestyle in 2015 and never looked back.

But guess what?

I’m still not zero waste. (And will never be – more on that later.)

That being said, there are many, many actions we can take within our current system that will drastically cut down on our waste, reduce our carbon footprint, and just generally help us be better stewards of the planet. 

Let’s get into starting a zero waste lifestyle, step-by-step.

What is a “zero waste lifestyle”?

Many people jump into the zero waste lifestyle in the same way: you come across a pretty picture of a smiling woman holding a jar of trash that’s “all of her trash for 5 years”. Feeling equal parts inspired and intimidated, you start taking a look at your plastic waste. 

Maybe you even get started, but you quickly feel overwhelmed at all the changes you’ll need to make or the things you’ll need to buy. 

Don’t worry – zero waste living looks completely different from person to person. There’s no one right way to do it – and a “Mason jar of waste” is impossible.

Here are 3 things to know about a zero waste lifestyle:

1. Zero waste is never zero.

Let’s take a look at that jar of trash. Aside from the sheet impossibility for most people to produce that little physical trash (we’ll talk about that later), it also ignores the issues that are much bigger than packaging, like carbon emissions from travel or the water/carbon footprint of our diet, etc. 

Packaging is only the very tip of the sustainable living iceberg. But even if we focus purely on packaging, we’ll never get down to zero.

A zero waste lifestyle can never be zero because…

2. We live in a linear economy.

Zero waste was not initially a term meant for the individual which is why so much confusion about the practice tends to arise. We’ll talk more about what zero waste means as a co-opted term later, but suffice to say it’s impossible for the individual to go truly zero.

So when – despite your best efforts – trash goes into the bin, it’s more a function of a systemic problem than any personal failing.

The term zero waste started as an industrial concept in which products were designed with an end-of-life without waste. Instead of throwing it away or – best case scenario – recycling it, a product would be made either technologically or biologically useful again.

An individual cannot go zero waste without companies working within this model.

Zero waste is never zero. Never.

We’re all operating in what’s called a linear economy, where products are meant to have an end-of-life so you’re forced to re-buy them. We take raw materials out of the earth (not replacing them), manufacture products from them, and use them once before they’re discarded into the landfill.

What we want is a circular economy – an economy which moves away from finite resources and removes waste and pollution from society as a whole. It’s basically the antithesis to the current “use, abuse, and trash” linear system we currently live in.

Looking for a few quick tips to try after digging into this information? Try 50 sustainable habits to add to your everyday life!

3. Everyone has different access and abilities.

The zero waste movement can often feel judgmental. “How are you zero waste if you still eat meat?” “Wow, you have a lot of packaging in your groceries.”

The truth is that we all have different abilities to reduce our waste depending on our access and abilities. People with access to bulk stores can buy more unpackaged options, whereas people living in food deserts can’t. People with the privilege of extra money can invest in sustainable swaps. People with the privilege of time can save money by DIYing.

Having more knowledge and education means you can make more informed choices.

Focus on doing the most that you can do with your privileges. Don’t let your lack of access or ability deter you; use what you’ve got and remember – zero waste is so much more than plastic packaging! Use your excess (time, money, knowledge, etc.) to help others move towards a more sustainable lifestyle too!

How to start living zero waste for free -

Why are you going zero waste?

If you’ve ever tried to do a package-free grocery shopping trip or go a day without consuming single-use plastics, you’ll know starting a zero waste lifestyle isn’t easy. We’re all somehow motivated to go zero waste by an internal push of some kind. Each person’s motivation is different, but people tend to be spurred to zero waste for a few reasons. 

Read more:  The ever-growing zero waste Midwest guide

Maybe you had an “ah-ha” moment about how much waste we produce, a long consideration about how you interact with the world, or maybe you’re just a little bit curious.

By identifying why you’re motivated to go zero waste, you’ll be able to better understand how to succeed. 

What’s your zero waste motivation?

There are plenty of reasons to start a zero waste lifestyle, but here are a few of the main archetypes (you may be one, several, or something else entirely!):

  • The scientist: You find your motivation by hearing the cold, hard (terrifying) facts about climate change. You’re swayed by statistics – like numbers that show Americans create between 250 and 400 millions tons of garbage each year – and feel encouraged by definite, measurable reductions in your personal waste.
  • The animal lover: You found zero waste after sobbing uncontrollably over that video of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. You’re swayed by impassioned pleas for the planet and its furry inhabitants, and likely incorporate a vegan slant into your zero waste practices.
  • The money-saver: Your zero waste goals are driven by frugality, whether by choice or otherwise. While some zero waste or low-waste options may be a bit pricier, by cutting down on senseless, nutritionally-deficient foods you’ll likely end up saving money. Zero waste makes sense to you by comparing spreadsheets.
  • The aesthete: Your zero waste journey probably started by scrolling through a beautiful Instagram feed. You value beauty and aesthetics – what’s more beautiful than a pristine planet? Appeal to your sensuous side with the beauty of a pared-down, refined zero waste lifestyle!

Of course, you can feel motivated by a mix of these archetypes, so feel free to pick and choose from more than one. From identifying your main motivations for going zero waste, you should be able to think of different items/resources that will be able to help you on your zero waste journey (ie. documentaries, Instagram feeds, watching YouTube, meal plans, etc.)

Personal example: I am a scientist and a money-saver. I find myself highly motivated by numbers, so I make sure to track both my waste and how much I spend each month. By comparing those (hopefully!) decreasing numbers in a monthly spreadsheet, I’m able to stay motivated because I see myself going in the right direction!

So why are you doing it?!

Getting started

Now that we’ve got a firm basis on what zero waste really is, let’s get practical! Here are 3 quick-start methods to living the zero waste lifestyle.

6 simple steps for an at-home trash audit -

1. Do a trash audit

So what is a trash audit?

A trash audit is essentially a study of what kind of trash you make. This is obviously incredibly helpful for someone interested in the zero waste movement, as it sheds light on problem areas. But don’t be too hard on yourself – you’ll always have some trash because – remember? – we don’t live in a society with a circular economy.

Honestly, I think a lot of people will be shocked at the amount of trash they create absolutely unconsciously every day.

Think fast: what’s in your trash can right now?

You probably can’t answer that question, can you? That’s kind of the point. Once you get a full view of what you’re actually tossing through a trash audit, it’ll be far easier to pinpoint effective lifestyle changes to make in order to reduce waste.

How to do a trash audit

  1. Choose a length of time. A week is an excellent time frame. It’s not so much time that you get bogged down in an insurmountable pile of garbage, but it’s also long enough that you should get a decent slice of what your actual waste output is like.
  2. Choose the way you’re going to analyze your trash. By number of items? By weight? How will you divide it (compost, recycling, landfill, etc)?
  3. Start with just landfill trash. This means – ideally – having recycling and composting options set up in your home. Compost is a no-brainer since you’ll eliminate all the ickiness of trash; I’m able to do a trash audit simply because I don’t have to worry about sticking my fingers into a week-old apple core. (If you absolutely can’t compost, at least create a wet and dry trash.) Recycling should also be separated immediately just because there’s a chance it’ll get thrown away if it’s not sorted properly. I realize not everyone has time to dig around in their trash, especially if you create more than we do.
  4. Take notes on what you find. Measure how much trash you produced (and a spot for comparing your change later) as well as notes on what you see most often and a goal-setting area.
Starting a zero waste lifestyle, step-by-step -

2. Make a zero waste kit

A zero waste kit is a key part of a successful day-to-day zero waste lifestyle. These are the items I bring with me every day when I leave the house, regardless of where I’m going, to help me avoid single-use plastics.

Making small but important choices daily helps keep sustainability at the forefront of your mind all the time. Plus, bringing reusables can be a great conversation starter!

Read more:  Break up with paper towels in 5 easy steps

I keep them all in a tote to make the transfer between bags easy; but don’t worry, it’s a small enough bundle it even fits in my small purse.

Your zero waste kit may include things like an:

Starting a zero waste lifestyle swaps - Polly Barks

3. Tackle 2-3 easy swaps and goals

Starting a zero waste lifestyle can – and is! – incredibly overwhelming. Choose one area to focus on, and identify 2-3 swaps you’d like to start with. Once you’ve mastered those, choose 2-3 new concepts to focus on.

8 simple zero waste 101 swaps include:

If you decide to go with tangible goals rather than swaps – awesome! Remember you can’t buy your way to a zero waste lifestyle! But be smart about your goals so you don’t get discouraged!

Remember: goals should be realistic, measurable, and time-sensitive.

Bad goal example: I’m not going to make any trash ever again. (Not realistic.)
Good goal example: I’ll bring my reusables and won’t use any single-use plastics this week. (Realistic! Measurable! Time-sensitive!)

Starting a zero waste lifestyle buying bulk - Polly Barks

5 more ideas to start living zero waste today

Ready to start zero waste living right now? Great, here are just a few more ideas to get you started:

  1. A year of zero waste, month by month
  2. 8 high-impact climate change solutions to try at home
  3. 50 critical sustainable habits to add to your everyday life
  4. 25+ amazing ethical alternatives to Amazon
  5. 20 ways to go zero waste at home when you can’t leave the house

Shopping waste-free like a pro

Bulk shopping can seem intimidating, but it’s actually a pretty simple process. (No bulk or unaffordable to you? See the notes at the end of this section.)

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Weigh any heavy jars. You’ll need the tare weight (weight of the container with nothing in it) of whatever you’re using. Weigh it at home, use scales in the store, or ask a cashier to weigh it. Write the weight where it’s somewhere easy to see.
  2. Shop! The easy part. Focus on food you’ll actually eat so none of it goes to waste. To reduce your water footprint as well as your carbon footprint, be sure to eat as plant-based as possible.
  3. Write down your product numbers. If you’re shopping from the bulk bin, you’ll want to make sure to write down the PLU number so the cashier can check you out. If you’re using glass containers, you can use wax pencils (easily removed) or just use the notes app on your phone.
  4. Check out. Steel your nerves and check out. Be kind, be courteous, and be prepared to watch them mess up the tare weight if it’s not something they’re used to. Watch your receipt! (I still make sure to go to the same 2 cashiers I’ve met who know me and know what to do, no shame in the game!)

Store won’t let you bring your own containers? I have two options for you! First, ask a manager. Sometimes cashiers are just afraid of getting in trouble for doing something they’re not sure about. Still a no? Second, reuse store containers forever! If they force you to use plastic bags or containers, bring them over and over again. Remember: zero waste living is much more than just worrying about one piece of plastic.

No bulk options around you? (Hint: we all have bulk! Unpackaged fruit and vegetables are totally bulk!) Here’s some guidance on what the most eco-friendly packaging options are!

Starting a zero waste lifestyle food waste - Polly Barks

Reduce your food waste

Food waste is a huge part of zero waste living! Globally, food waste creates 4.4 GtCO2-eq per year, or 8 percent of total anthropogenic (made by people) GHG emissions! Pretty shocking, for something most people rarely connect to climate change!

To put that into more understandable terms, the average US family wastes $640+ per year throwing away food! Globally, that’s about 1.3 billion tons of food thrown away every year.

Why does it matter? Well, most people think throwing away food is no big deal. It’s organic and it’ll break down in the landfill, right? 


Organic material like food needs oxygen to break down. Crushed under tons of other stuff in the landfill, food doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to break down. Instead it mummifies and releases methane, a greenhouse gas over 20x stronger than CO2.

As the Scientific American says, “landfills account for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.—meaning that the sandwich you made and then didn’t eat yesterday is increasing your personal—and our collective—carbon footprint.”

Food waste put into the landfill is as bad as plastic in terms of how it breaks down!

What can you do to reduce food waste?

  • Audit your food waste. Conducting a kitchen trash audit is a great place to start. Knowing your weak areas is the first step to fixing them. Once you see what you’re wasting, either commit to not buying it anymore (seriously, you’re not going to eat that kale you buy…) or buying significantly less.
  • Buy final sale food, bruised produce, or dumpster dive. Plastic packaging is not the be-all-end-all of waste reduction. If you have the chance to rescue produce in a final sale – particularly tropical produce that has high travel miles or has a large water footprint – diverting that waste from the landfill is probably more effective than buying package free from a carbon emissions perspective.
  • Find a way to connect food wasters to people or organizations that need food. Drawdown notes that in higher-income regions, major food waste issues occur at the retail and consumer levels. Get in touch with your local food bank or any local food rescue programs going on to see where they need help. Alternatively, get started with an app like YourLocal or Glean that connects food waste with organizations that can accept it.
Read more:  33 easy ways to start zero waste living

If you do produce food waste (which we all do at some point!), what’s the answer? Well…

Easy home composting -

Start composting

Composting is such an important part of zero waste living, but it can seem so scary! Don’t worry, it’ really doesn’t have to be.

Whether you choose a worm bin (great for small spaces!), a bokashi bin, or just a big old compost heap, diverting your food waste from the landfill has far more impact than worrying over a piece of plastic packaging!

Whether you have a huge backyard or live in an apartment, there’s a composting answer for you

Starting a zero waste lifestyle community - Polly Barks

Find your zero waste community

Community is such an important part of a zero waste lifestyle! Not only can you spread your influence beyond just yourself, but you’ll also have a like-minded group of people to help keep you motivated and excited about your lifestyle changes.

Here are 4 ways to start building your zero waste community:

1. Join an online group.

If finding an IRL group sounds too intimidating or difficult at first, no problem! Link up with an online group, whether that’s getting to know some people on Instagram and popping into their DMs or joining Facebook groups.

Good zero waste lifestyle Facebook groups include:

But once you feel more confident in your zero waste habits, I’d highly suggest you…

2. Start a local zero waste group.

Online community is great. However, having a local zero waste group can be even more vital to the success of your zero waste journey. Having a group of locals to ask “hey, where can I buy this?” or “want to meet up for a coffee?” is incredibly powerful.

But chances are if you’re not in a larger city in a relatively progressive area, a local zero waste group may not exist yet. Take your zero waste lifestyle to the next level by being the one to get it started.

Check out my post for a step-by-step guide to beginning a zero waste community.

3. Host a zero waste workshop.

It’s all well and good to read books and blog posts describing a lifestyle and how to live it, but it’s another thing entirely to experience it for yourself. I know personally zero waste workshops opened my mind to exciting possibilities and empowered me to make tangible differences!

Creating something themselves gives people pride of ownership. Not only will they be more likely to utilize the product itself, but they’ll be much more willing to talk about it to friends and family. One more diabolical way to spread the word of zero waste!

But I’m not an expert, I hear you say.

That’s totally OK! 

When I started teaching workshops, I wasn’t an expert either. (I’d contend I’m still not.) But what I did have was a passion for zero waste and a skill/DIY that I’d perfected by trial and error.

Make your own deodorant? DIY it! Know how to mend holes in clothes? Host a sew-along!

You may not know anything, but a workshop is a great way to share what you do know and figure out what other people want to know. Here are some other ideas for zero waste workshops!

4. Host a letter-writing campaign about a local issue.

A big part of zero waste living is complaining about companies that you can no longer support because they don’t align with your zero waste lifestyle, ethics, etc. But rather than silently ghosting them (sorry, but they won’t notice a lack of $10 here and there), let them know why you’re not supporting them.

To make it even more powerful, get together a group of people with similar ethos to write multiple letters. Our power grows with each voice we add to our actions!

Starting a zero waste lifestyle more than plastic - Polly Barks

Why a zero waste lifestyle is more than plastic

While reducing your dependence on plastic packaging is so important, we must remember that there are systemic issues far larger than just a plastic bag. 

Read more:  Must-read zero waste books: the definitive 25

If you have the time to worry about bulk shopping and going plastic-free, you likely have a great deal of privilege. This isn’t inherent a bad thing, but we need to remember that not everyone has the same ability to access farmers markets, bulk aisles, or even fresh food – or clean water! – at all.

Having privilege means we need to do more for the sustainability movement and continue to educate ourselves on the issues (and solutions) we can support as sustainability advocates.

Here are just a few of the intersectional issues at play in the zero waste movement, as well as some guiding resources to get you started:

Environmental racism

Environmental racism directly intersects with the zero waste movement when we talk about access (or lack thereof) to affordable fresh food, safe soil to use, air to breath, and water to drink. If you think the fact that “race – even more than class – is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country” has nothing to do with zero waste, you need to rethink your philosophy. Read more about environmental racism and zero waste.

Climate catastrophe and family planning

As we all know from my favorite book ever (Drawdown), pursuing gender equity isn’t just noble – it’s one of the most effective ways to reduce our global carbon emissions! As GEO 6 reports, “when women are accorded equal voice in environmental decision-making, public resources are more likely to be directed towards human development priorities and investments”. Gender equity comes in menstruation education, general education, and entrepreneurial empowerment, among other things.

Frontline communities

A frontline community is a community likely to experience climate impacts first and worst. Most likely these communities are majority BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) and low-income. Most of the time these frontline communities are contributing least to the environmental disasters but face the harshest consequences. Learn more about frontline communities and their activism.

Zero waste and disability

The convenience items able-bodied people can toss aside relatively easily may be essential living for others. As we reimagine our systems, we need to ensure they remain accessible to everyone. We cannot prioritize broad goals over the very real experiences of other struggling in an unjust system. Hear more about how straw bans highlight the zero waste and disability divide.

These are just a few of the biggest intersectional issues you’ll encounter when you begin exploring zero waste. Use the resources below to keep learning!

Starting a Zero Waste Lifestyle step-by-step -

Resources for zero waste living

Don’t stop here! The only way we grow and progress in our zero waste lifestyle is if we continue to educate ourselves. Here are some books and websites for zero waste living.

Zero waste books

  • Zero Waste: Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash by Shia Su | AKA Wasteland Rebel on IG. This book is a lovely jaunt through the basics of the zero waste movement with an emphasis on simple hacks and DIYs to make the move towards less waste feel more achievable. Great for beginners.
  • Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken | I love this book, and will probably be purchasing it because I’ve wanted to refer back and make notes so many times. It’s a solution-driven narrative that makes you feel positive about fighting climate change. Hawken presents a change and then talks about its effects – an amazing way to engage with different individual and global solutions.
  • Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet by Kendra Pierre-Louis | This book resonated with me because I have a big problem with how the eco-movement has been so easily taken over by people looking to make money. As the book itself says “buying better is only the first step toward true sustainability” and we’d all do well to remember it. 
  • The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear by Rev Dr William J. Barber II | While I’m not entirely on-board with using nebulous moral justifications to base movements on, I really respect Rev. Barber’s goal of fusion politics, ie. recognizing not our differences but our common oppressor. Part story, part practical guide for organizing, this is a quick, worth-it read.

For a full list of zero waste book resources, check out this post.

Zero waste websites

And that’s that! Just a few, super-important ways to get engaged with a zero waste lifestyle. Best of luck!