How to Live a Near-Zero Waste Life

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In one month I create less trash than the average US American creates in one day! This video shows how I manage to fit a months worth of my trash into a one-gallon zip lock bag!

A few years ago I would have been impressed by how little trash I create today but now it comes as second nature. It takes some self-control but for the most part it’s all habit that I truly enjoy. I’m never going back to the trash making lifestyle that I used to live! In the trash filled society that we live in today, it may seem impossible but with the right mindset it is totally possible to live near-zero waste.

Here’s how you can live a near-zero waste lifestyle like me and hundreds of thousands or millions of other people around the world:

Reduce! A zero waste lifestyle is as much of a mindset as it is practical actions. In fact transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle really begins with a change of mindset. In my opinion the most important word in this lifestyle is reduce. By reducing your needs and your consumption you will automatically see a huge drop in the amount of trash you are creating. Ask yourself, “Do I really need this or do I just want this?” I recommend simplifying your life if you want to be truly successful with a zero waste life. However, you can still reduce your waste drastically even without fully simplifying your life so if simplicity scares you please do read on.

Reuse! Always think reuse. How can you use something again rather than disposing of it? Try not to just reuse something once or twice, instead think reuse forever! Repurpose fits right into reuse as well. For example, if you find an old dresser that someone’s throwing out and you’re in need of a raised garden bed to grow some food, just lay it in your yard, fill it up with soil, and get planting!

Recycle! Once you’ve exhausted your options with reduce and reuse, then lastly recycle. Even though recycling doesn’t end up in your garbage can it’s important to try to minimize this as well since recycling is a very resource intensive process. Of course, recycling is far better than throwing stuff in the trash though. If you aren’t already recycling you can drastically reduce your trash just by recycling everything that you can. Check with your city what can actually be recycled and be dedicated to recycling everything that can be recycled.

Repair! Rather than tossing out those pants with a rip in it or the toaster with a stuck lever, just repair them! Sew up a rip in your clothes, get your shoes resoled, patch your bike tubes, and bring your electronics into a repair shop. The list could go on forever of the things you can repair rather than getting a new one. Because of planned obsolescence a lot of what we buy breaks in a ridiculously short amount of time and it is sometimes cheaper just to buy a new one because of our throw away society. So it may take some diligence to repair rather than toss things out.

Refuse! When someone passes you something wrapped in trash just say no. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean that you need it, so turn down the freebies if you don’t actually need it. Freebies are usually cheap crap that will end up in your trash sooner rather than later. This will take some guts but if you want to live a completely trash free lifestyle you’re going to need guts my friend.

With those basics zero waste tenets in mind, here are my top twelve tips to get your trash down from 4.5 pounds of trash per day (that’s what the average US American creates) to a ziplock bag per week or month!

Compost! This is a simple one that just about anyone can do. Food waste makes up a pretty big chunk of most people’s trashcans and simply by composting you’ll be able to decrease your trash by a lot. It can be done in very small spaces or you can compost at your community garden or a vacant lot if you don’t have space at home. Check out my composting guide for tips and to learn how to get started!

Say no to one-time use items! There is a waste free alternative for any one-time use items you may currently be using. Switch out bottled water for a reusable bottle and an at home water purifier. Ditch paper towels and napkins for cloth napkins that you can wash. Carry a hand towel with you so that you don’t have to use any paper towels while you’re out. Use a handkerchief instead of kleenex. In the kitchen replace seran wrap and tin foil with glass or metal storage containers. Even feminine products have a waste free alternative called a Diva cup or Mooncup. The list could go on and on but I encourage you to be resourceful and figure out a waste free alternative. The resource section at the bottom is where you can go for more details like this though.

Buy unpackaged food! Find a store in your area that has a bulk section. That way you can bring your own containers and fill up on all the bulk items like rice, pasta, nuts, seeds, cereal, flour, sugar, etc. Buy fruits and veggies that are unpackaged as well. Most of the time I visit the grocery store the only trash I have to take home is some stickers on the produce. You can even avoid this by growing your own food or shopping at the farmers market. This is one of the greatest ways to eat well too, because whole foods are typically far healthier than packaged, processed foods.

Bring your own! Leave your house prepared for the day so that you don’t have to fall into making trash. Carry a reusable water bottle to use if you’re ordering a drink to go or to avoid bottled water. Bring your own dishes and utensils if you’re eating at a restaurant that uses disposable items or if you’re going to a party with trashy options. Bring your own bags or boxes to the store. If you like straws you can bring your own bamboo or steel straw to the party or the bar.

Refill! Join the refill revolution and refill anything that comes in a bottle. You can refill laundry detergent, dish or hand soap, personal body care items, household cleaning products, and so much more. Find a local co-op or bulk store in your area where you can do this. If you can’t find one of these near you then the next tip is for you.

Make your own! The more stuff you make on your own typically the less trash you will create. You can make your own toothpaste, body moisturizer, laundry detergent, and cleaning products for example but the list here could go on for days.

Purchase used stuff! Most things you buy at the store come in packaging so buying things used on craigslist or at thrift stores is a great way to avoid this form of waste. Another great thing to do is trade with your neighbors and friends for the stuff you need. There is a good chance that what you need is sitting around in the house of someone you know.

Buy quality stuff!  I mentioned repairing as one of my tenants to zero waste but you can prevent having to repair your stuff by buying quality products in the first place. It’s worth spending the little bit of extra money to get something that will last a lifetime or a decade rather than a few months.

Take care of your stuff! This is actually the most challenging aspect of zero waste living for me, but taking care of your stuff will help you to create a lot less trash. Simply do your best to make your stuff last longer by using it correctly and taking good care of it. When you know what you’re doing is not right, stop doing it and fix the situation. For example, if your bike tire is rubbing the frame of your bike in a weird way figure out the problem before it gets worse and you break your whole bike. This example applies to anything, whether it be your car, washing machine, or your jeans dragging on the ground.

Be grateful! Rather than feeling like you always need the newest version and trying to “keep up with the Jones’s” just be grateful for what you do have. If you are reading this blog, then you are a lucky person to be where you are. The truth is you probably have everything you NEED and if you don’t, what you probably need is not more stuff, but more friendship, love, connection, experiences, activities, or something of the like.

Make trash inconvenient! One summer I decided to bike across the United States and I made a rule that I had to carry every piece of trash with me that I created. Because of this I managed to create just two pounds of trash in 104 days. Here’s a photo of the trash when I arrived in Vermont:

Zero Waste 2

I knew that if I had lived like the average US American my bike ride would have been miserable. When I got home, I started to make trash again so I decided to get rid of trashcans in the house. Both of these ideas made me reduce my trash drastically because it became a burden on me to create trash.

Monitor your trash!  This one really should come first because if you don’t know what trash you are creating then how are you ever going to stop making it? When you decide that you want to live a waste free lifestyle take a look in your trashcan and see what’s in there. Then simply follow all the guidelines in this blog and the resource section to find an alternative.

With a slight change of mind it’s all pretty simple stuff. Living a zero waste lifestyle will most likely save you a ton of money, increase your health and happiness, and drastically reduce your negative impact on the earth. With a few years of practice, I have gone from your standard trash-making dude to a model for near-zero waste living. It has taken a lot of practice and continual reevaluation of my life and looking back now I realize that it was a continual process jumping from stepping stone to stepping stone. I am by no means a zero waste guru, but there are some people out there that are. I hope this guide serves you really well and I encourage you to use the following resources for all the little details as well as more inspiration and viewpoints on living a trash free life!

Resources that I recommend:

The Story of Stuff has been one of my greatest inspirations since I first woke up in 2011 to the trash I was making. Their short film is an absolute must watch for anyone who wishes to understand the problem and be a part of the solution. Their Facebook page is an awesome resource of information and inspiration.

Trash is for Tossers is a website by Lauren Singer that helps you to live a near-zero waste lifestyle. All of the trash she has created since 2013 fits into a single mason jar. She’s pretty incredible and this blog is a seriously helpful tool for anyone who wants to create less trash. Follow Lauren and Trash is For Tossers On Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!

Zero Waste Home is the zero waste life of Bea Johnson and her family. This website has a plethora of information and will answer just about any question you have about living zero waste. She is one of the founders of the modern day zero waste movement and has two kids so she’s especially helpful for people with children. Follow Bea Johnson and Zero Waste Home on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube!

We Hate to Waste is an excellent website and community that teaches and inspires a no-waste mindset. This is a great resource for anyone who wants to live in a less wasteful world Follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

Life Without Plastic is “The one-stop shop for safe, high quality, ethically-sourced, Earth-friendly alternatives to plastic products for everyday life” You can get everything you need for a lifestyle that creates less trash!

Photo and video credit: Brendan McCourt

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