Zero Waste 101

Today’s post come as requested by my best friend and her little sister. To be honest, I still consider myself a beginner in the zero waste world. I am by no means perfect (by which I don’t mean I accidentally use a straw every now and then, frankly, I sometimes just decide that the temporary pleasure of soda from a fast food chain or prime rib for Christmas dinner is worth a lapse in my morals). Despite my lapses, I’m still pretty proud of the changes I’ve made in my life over the past few months, so if going zero waste (or at least reducing your waste) is one of your goals for the new year, here are my recommendations for how to start.

1: Find your motivation

Going zero waste in a culture as materialistic as the United States isn’t always easy when social media, advertisements, and people around us are constantly trying to convince us of the new things we need. I’ve found that for any big lifestyle change to stick, I need an ah-ha moment. For me, it was the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Faced with a President-elect that called climate change a hoax, I knew I needed to do something to shake up my everyday life and undermine him, even it was just by a little bit. I also live with the goal to leave the planet a better place than it was when I got here. It’s something I try to do in my personal and professional life and realized that living sustainably was a missing part of the equation. Maybe for you, it’s saving money, or avoiding potentially toxic synthetic chemicals, or transitioning to products that don’t use animal testing. Find your motivation and hold onto it, it’s going to be what makes it easier to give up the crap we’re used to having around us.

2: Find a community

Living a liberal-minded community, it hasn’t been hard to find people that support my new lifestyle, but I still think it’s important to find support from people that are on the same path. There are tons of people sharing their zero waste lifestyle on blogs, YouTube, and Instagram. Some of my favorite people online include Kate Arnell’s YouTube channel, EcoBoost, Marguerite at Waste Not Want Not, and April at Zero Waste Dork on Instagram (who also lives in the PNW). Not only is it encouraging to know that you aren’t alone on a zero waste journey, I’ve been able to find plenty of advice from the various people I engage with online.

3: Things to buy

Take some time to think about the things you buy regularly. What do you need, what is a convenience, and what changes can you make? This list will be different for everyone based on your lifestyle and your level of responsibility for maintaining your home. I would say the best place to make changes is to your bathroom/personal care regime as these products are less likely to be shared across multiple members of a household (unlike kitchen goods) and are used frequently.

I’ve become a bit of a nut about bar soap, solid shampoo, and natural deodorant. It has been incredibly rewarding to go through my bathroom and start to get rid of all the plastic that I’ve accumulated over time. Solid soaps and other personal care items are easy to find at co-ops, natural food stores, and of course LUSH, but I’m also starting to see them pop up at places like Target and drug stores. Just be sure to look for minimal, plastic-free packaging.

I also recommend reusable water bags, coffee mugs, grocery bags, and produce bags. My cutlery set and reusable napkins have been a great addition, but you don’t need to buy these new like I did. Look for cloth napkins around your home or at a thrift shop. And take pieces of silverware from your kitchen you’ll need for lunch or snacks throughout the day and bring them home in the evening.

4: Shop second-hand

We all know that fast fashion is bad. It’s made with cheap ingredients, by underpaid factory workers, and fast fashion chains are notorious for stealing designs from small artists and using those designs to make money. Unfortunately, ethical fashion can be very expensive. I love the idea of buying clothes made in the US that use sustainable fabrics, but I’m not at a place where I can afford a $200 sweatshirt from Reformation. I’m now shopping almost exclusively second-hand (with the exception of undergarments and a sturdy rain jacket I purchased that will last me for years). Shopping second-hand is a great way to find gently used pieces for a reasonable price and reduces the likelihood that you will wear the exact same clothes as everyone else that shops at Forever 21. The most important thing to remember when shopping second-hand is to plan accordingly if you have a big event on the horizon. Go to the shops around you more regularly and ask the shop owners if you are looking for something in particular. A friend of mine runs a wonderful thrift shop in Tacoma and I’ll turn to her when I’m looking for some extra mason jars or cutlery. If she doesn’t have them in the shop, she messages me if something comes her way so I can pick up what I need. Building relationships with local businesses is a great way to support your community and get what you need to live a zero waste life.

5: Go car or meat-free at least one day a week

Living zero waste is about making changes to your lifestyle, not just your purchasing habits. Changing your driving and eating habits are great ways to reduce your personal carbon emissions. I haven’t had a car for the 7 years that I’ve lived in Tacoma, a city that does not have the best public transit. While I do want to get a car this year, I am grateful for the fact that living without a car taught me how to navigate my city by bus and foot. You don’t have to give up driving completely to be zero waste, but try to drive less frequently. Challenge yourself to not drive one day a week or to stop driving to places that are within reasonable walking distance, then, get familiar with public transit in your city.

I’ve already written about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with eating meat. Eating meat is a touchy subject in the zero waste movement (some zero wasters are strict vegans while others purchase grass-fed, package-free meat from a butcher in order to reduce their waste) but, as with most things, I chose to land somewhere in the middle. Giving up meat, even for one day a week, is a truly easy way to be kinder to the planet. As the zero waste lifestyle becomes easier, you can decide how much you want to transition meat out of your diet. If your income allows it, I’d also recommend prioritizing locally grown, seasonal produce.

There is no one way to live zero waste, but all of us have the capacity to reduce waste in our daily life. I believe we all have the personal responsibility to care for the planet since we are just one of many billions of people, plants, and animals that need Earth to be a hospitable place. But remember, none of us is perfect and be forgiving of yourself when you stumble, each small step along the way will add up.

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