Easy zero-waste tips for beginners
Zero to hero: A beginner's guide to living "zero waste"
Words— Jillian Vieira
Now that the Earth’s declining state can no longer be ignored, the zero-waste lifestyle has swelled outside its niche community to the increasingly eco-conscious mainstream. But what does this major step towards personal responsibility actually look like in practice? Here, a seven-step primer on adopting waste-free habits (that means no recycling, no packaging, no need for garbage bins at all) so you can start to make an impact now.
Resist the temptation to purge
Switching to the zero-waste mindset starts with what zero-wasters call a “trash audit”, an in-depth review of what you’re actually throwing away. Prepare for it to be an eye-opening exercise (you toss how many paper towel sheets in a week?), and though the urge to start fresh will be strong, it’s important to spare your existing culprits—for now. “You shouldn’t pitch something in the beginning just because it’s not eco-conscious,” says Michelle Genttner, co-owner of Unboxed Market, a Toronto-based zero-waste store that sells food and home goods. “You already spent the money, you already created the carbon footprint—use it, or upcycle it. That one item can live a lot of other lives.” Basically, going waste-free won’t happen overnight; instead, Genttner suggests using the time it takes to finish that jar of moisturizer or all-purpose cleaner to figure out exactly how you’ll replace them.
Take stock of what you’ve got
Any big lifestyle change comes with an eagerness to get equipped (see: every new gym membership and the subsequent activewear spree), but if there was ever a time to reject our ingrained consumerist habits, it’s now. Before your next grocery shop, do an inventory of what’s already in your house: a pickle jar is ideal for procuring dried goods, shoe bags make for perfect produce pouches, and that Tupperware stack living in the graveyard that is the back of your cupboard? Hello, new takeout vessels. One of Genttner’s customers even uses a clean pillowcase to bring home loaves of bread. “It’s about looking at your household items a little differently and getting creative with how you shop,” she says.
Unlike the one-stop shop experience at big box marts, buying with the zero waste lens on is like one big scavenger hunt. Farmers’ markets and their locally sourced, packaging-free bounties are a given, as are a growing number of refill depots and plastic bag-less bulk stores. But other eco-friendly alternative retailers might not be advertised as such, especially in communities where the movement hasn’t quite caught on. Tool libraries let you rent out a whole host of home improvement equipment with a membership, while thrift shops are good options for gently used (and sometimes brand-new) cookware, utensils and decor.
Practice saying no to waste
Our voracious consumption of single-use everything happens so often—and so inconsequentially—that we’ve become blind to it. Think about all the instances you’re offered a throwaway in your day-to-day life: your takeout order of steaming-hot dumplings comes housed in tinfoil and a styrofoam box. The cheesemonger places a chunk of taleggio on a sheet of wax paper whose lifespan is as long as it takes you to reach home. Curbing this excess is simple: identify the spots where you can reduce needless waste and intercept with a more green alternative. Preparing for these situations requires a well-stocked kit stashed in your bag at all times (think: a set of utensils, a reusable napkin, a mug and a container big enough to hold a meal). Disrupting the cultural norms will feel a little awkward at first, but Genttner suggests being straightforward—and unapologetic. “Try saying, ‘I brought my own container. I’m really trying to have an impact on what’s happening in the world and this is the way I’m doing it. Are you able to help by filling it up?’”
Learn what you can make vs. buy
If you want something, anything, you buy it—it’s the way we’re wired in this instant gratification world. Diving into this new life will require you to call on your craftier side. You’ll quickly learn that most of those “must haves” are just a project in the making, but even if you’re not DIY savvy, most waste-free substitutes don’t require a ton of ingenuity. Whip up some homemade toothpaste (seriously, it’s three ingredients), try an anti-inflammatory body scrub made from this morning’s coffee grounds or grow your own windowsill herbs in upcycled jars.
Find your zero waste community
You’ve made this commitment. The rest of your family and friends? Not so much. Stave off the remote island feeling by building a like-minded group to rally behind you. Lean on the imaginative hacks cooked up on forums or Instagram accounts like @zerowastehome and @_wastelandrebel_. Pop-ups also serve as a meeting point for newbies and more seasoned zero-wasters who are chock-full of been-through-it solutions. You might just get a new friend out it.
Remember that there's no perfection in zero waste
A fair warning: breaking up with our consumerist culture is incredibly hard work. Being mindful of your every purchase, your every interaction with the world is tedious, and if we’re being real, it’ll get tiresome. It’s in these moments where you might find yourself slipping up; maybe your pals are insisting on ordering in, or after a ton of research, there’s an item that doesn’t have the greenest alternative. But don’t beat yourself up if every good intention doesn’t go as planned—at the very least, you’re trying. “We need everybody doing everything imperfectly,” says Genttner. “Nobody has to live the perfect zero-waste lifestyle if only five or 50 or 100 people can do it—that’s not sustainable. We need everybody in. Even if you only remember your reusable mug today, it’s one less cup you’ve put in the world.”