When I first became interested in the subject of how to reduce our family’s consumption of goods and, in particular, reduce our waste to the landfill, I found that lists created by other zero waste pioneers really helped. I admit, I scoured the Web at night when the kids were asleep and found lists upon lists of how others had outsmarted the system and found ways to reduce their waste. Mostly, they had returned to the basics, living a less consumer-oriented life, and had re-learned what their grandparents already knew. We’ve form-fitted those practices for our family’s lifestyle and without further ado, here’s our list (with a few explanations attached). Please send questions or comments as they all help to hone this list of simple steps and make it clearer for others:
1) Audit your waste: Take a week’s-worth of your trash (or even a day if you are overwhelmed) and separate it into compostables, recyclables (paper, recyclable plastics, glass, aluminum), plastic bags (polyethylene), and everything else. You’ll likely find that at least half is compostable, another quarter is recyclable, and the rest goes into the landfill. It’s that last bit that you’ll eventually get to analyze more closely, but first look at the other categories and see how you can improve upon getting them where they need to go.
2) Compost: If you can’t compost your own food scraps, see if someone else will, like your own town. Most cities and towns have a yard waste/organic waste pickup. This will reduce your waste to the landfill so much that your garbage bill will go down significantly. Guaranteed.
3) Recycle: Okay, recycling is not an end to a means (of buying unnecessary plastics) but it helps reduce waste to the landfill. Print out (or memorize!) your local recycling guidelines and keep it posted above (or on) your recycling bin. Any 3-year-old can sort the recycling from the landfill waste. But before you throw it in the recycling bin ask yourself whether there might be a better re-use for the item.
4) Polyethylene: I’m amazed how much of our waste is polyethylene – toilet paper wrapping, rice cake bags, cereal bags, newspaper bags, ziplock bags (with the zipper part cut out). Check out this list of what you can recycle at your local grocery store in the plastic bag receptacle.
5) Landfill trash: Now audit this pile of trash. Are you sure it needs to go to the landfill? Here’s a list I compiled for Bainbridge Islanders (it can be useful for anyone) noting the usual products of our material culture and how they can be responsibly disposed of or reused rather then thrown in the landfill.
6) Remove your trash bin from your kitchen: Put it in an out-of-the-way place so you have to think about it every time you designate something for the landfill. I simply put our compost receptacle and recycling in the space under our counter that was meant for “trash” and put the trash bin around the corner in the laundry room. It’s made a big difference for the whole family.
7) Create special waste streams: After analyzing your landfill trash, if you find any items that you produce enough of that you can designate a special waste container for, do it! I’ve done this for batteries, wine corks & bottle caps (freecyclers take them away), and Styrofoam.
8) All the other stuff: Have a bag hanging somewhere nearby where you can put all that other stuff that needs to be taken to a place for safe disposal and then once every 6 months take them to their final destinations – printer cartridges, prescription drugs, CFL lightbulbs, art supplies (like pie tins) for schools, etc.
9) Join Freecycle or a similar group: Anything that could have a second life should be freecycled. I’m amazed at what I’ve been able to freecycle. Total strangers drive to my house to pick up concrete blocks, old tarps, car seats, light fixtures, outdoor furniture, the list goes on. And, of course, I’ve received wonderful used treasures through Freecycle: waffle iron, veggie starts and perennials, booster seat, books for our children’s libraries in Nepal, glass canning jars.
10) Adopt new shopping habits: Always bring your reusable bags, including plastic or cloth produce bags and jars for your liquid bulk items (maple syrup, agave, tamari, peanut butter, olive oil, etc.) Refuse items packaged in plastic. It’s as simple as that. If you search around, there’s usually an acceptable alternative.
11) Buy in bulk: This is the single change in our shopping habits that has made the greatest impact on our waste. We buy 25 lb bags of flour, rice, lentils, beans, and pasta, among other items. But these are our staples that we cannot grow ourselves.
12) Grow/farm your own: If you have the space, grow a garden of greens and whatever else you love. Get chickens and savor fresh eggs every day. We even raise bees for the day when we can actually harvest our own supply of honey for the year. The more you grow, the fewer trips you have to make to the store.
13) Forage: I know it sounds crazy, but if you can learn what the great free foragable edibles are around you, you can reduce your waste by buying less. We’re proud to admit that a good percentage of our diet is from foraged food: blackberries, apples (although the town just cut down our favorite beach apple tree), water cress, nettles, bitter cress, oyster mushrooms, huckleberries, blueberries (from our home in New Hampshire), chanterelles, salmonberries.
14) Make your own: If there’s something you eat regularly, try to make your own so you don’t have to purchase the packaging along with the staple item. We bake all our bread, make our yogurt, and toast our own nut mixes. It’s a way of life so it doesn’t feel like a chore and our home made staples are much better than what we find at the store. Really.
15) No single-use items: Find re-usables to curb your habits. We now travel with our own coffee mugs, water bottles, glass straws, cutlery, and sometimes even plates.
And the end result? We fill one garbage bag of trash every 4-6 months.
Since first writing this article, nearly 2 years ago, I’ve founded a new startup company that has developed a zero waste app, where you can input the name of any item you have in your home or backyard and get great reduce, reuse and recycle results for that item. We now have over 5,500 items input, with wonderful solutions to help you make more sustainable choices about the stuff in your life. Please visit the app, called Trash Backwards, type in any item you want to either get rid of or reuse, and see the results! You can also browse by category. Here’s a sample of what you’ll see if you browse the Clean & Simple Category:
I hope you’ll have a chance to use the app! It has lots of humor throughout and great tips to keep you firmly on the path to zero waste.