How to Start the Journey to Zero Waste Living

A reusable grocery bag with produce in it.

Most people don’t like to think about trash. It’s smelly, it’s disgusting, and it tends to be forgotten as soon as it’s tossed into the waste bin. The problem is, when we do take the time to think about it, we each throw away between three and four pounds of it a day. That quickly adds up to a lot of trash going into our landfills. Much of this waste is made of plastic and other materials that can take hundreds of years to decompose, leaving behind harmful chemicals that leach onto the soil and contaminate the water.

A landfill with a bulldozer in the background.

Zero waste living is a relatively new trend that aims to change the way we look at trash. This lifestyle is for anyone who wants to help the environment, save time and money, and become more self-sufficient. There are many ways to reach this goal. Most people start with the basics and then discover new ways they can cut back on waste as they go.

Reduce Your Intake

Think about the things that end up in the trash, and then determine how you can reduce those things before you buy them. Instead of using single-use products like paper plates and plastic cups, use washable, reusable ones. Switch to cloth or mesh grocery bags. Pay attention to packaging and choose merchandise that has little to no extra plastic or cardboard to throw away.

A shopper scooping up nuts in a grocery store.

Try to buy most things in bulk. This will minimize the amount of waste while saving money in the long run because most items purchased in large quantities cost less. When grocery shopping, buy fresh whole foods when possible, as opposed to frozen food in packaging or canned fruits and vegetables. (Or if you're feeling ambitious, how about starting your own garden?) Look for nuts, seeds, and other pantry items like rice and quinoa that you can use your own reusable containers to fill at the store.

Reduce food waste by buying smaller quantities more often so you don't over-purchase and risk something expiring before you can get to it. Turn overripe fruit into jams, jellies, and breads. Cook leftover vegetables and meats into soups and sauces that can be eaten right away or frozen for a quick meal on a busy night.

Recycle What you Buy

One of the best ways to begin the process of creating virtually zero waste is to enhance behaviors that are already popular, such as recycling. Pay attention to the products you buy—are they easily recycled? Everything from bathroom products like shampoo and toilet paper to plastic food containers can be recycled. Take the time to check labels to ensure that any plastic, glass, cardboard, or metal containers you buy are recyclable.

A stack of newspaper and glass bottles on a counter waiting for a mom and daughter in the background to recycle them.

It's also important to use products that are made with recycled materials. If you buy paper towels made with post-consumer recycled paper, the linear chain of consumption to waste is diminished and a positive cycle is formed. If you must opt for single-use products, try to find ones that are recyclable or compostable.

Set up a Compost Bin

Keeping compostable items out of the landfill makes a big impact on the amount of waste generated. Many items can be composted. Things such as fruit peels and rinds, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, and dryer sheets can be tossed into the compost bin and turned into nutrient-rich fertilizer for plants and gardens.

A wooden compost bin.

If space is not an obstacle in your yard, create an entire composting area complete with different sections to handle the stages of decomposition. If there is limited room, a simple storage bin with holes in the bottom will suffice, but be sure to add red worms to ensure that the waste is broken down in a timely manner.

Reuse or Repurpose What Might get Thrown Away

Making use of items that are usually thrown away is an excellent way to cut back on the amount of trash produced by a household. If containers are made of non-recyclable materials, use them to store things like office supplies, seeds and gardening tools, and craft items; the possibilities are endless. Instead of trashing old sheets, towels, and t-shirts, cut them up and turn them into cleaning rags. (Check out this tutorial on repurposing an old tire into a piece of furniture!)

Clothing donation.

The more you do it, the more you will figure out new ways to repurpose. If you can’t figure out a way to reuse something, donate it instead of throwing it away.

No matter how big or small, any effort to reduce what goes into the landfill is a step toward living a less wasteful, more healthy lifestyle.