Today I’m very excited to talk about something that’s been a big part of my life this last year, but something that I haven’t really shared with anyone until now. That is, how I began transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle.
I want to talk about the quote above for a second, because I feel like it beautifully encapsulates so much of what I’ve been feeling lately. I’ve changed a lot in the last few years. At 28, I am a COMPLETELY different person than I was at 25, 24, 23, and so on. My mid-twenties have included a lot of personal growth, and many dramatic changes to my world views.
But with all those changes, also brought incredible feelings of happiness and confidence in who I am, and who I was becoming. I’ve never felt more myself, and never felt such a deep satisfaction before, with the direction my life is going. So even though I’ve changed a lot in the last few years, I know without a doubt that it’s all been for the better. I’m excited to share one of these changes with you today, and as I said before, it’s all about starting a zero waste lifestyle!
What Is A Zero Waste Lifestyle?
This post will be somewhat long, but I hope you find in it some useful information on how to start a zero waste lifestyle! At its core, zero waste is a philosophy that encourages recycling, minimizing waste, reducing consumption and trying to find sustainable, reusable, and environmentally-friendly solutions to how one lives. The four golden R’s of a zero waste lifestyle are:
I’ve been slowly but surely transitioning into this new way of living for the last year and a half. I finally feel like I have enough experience with it that I can write a full post about my tips, tricks, triumphs and failures. But first, allow me to share a few reasons why I think all of this change is meaningful.
Why Is A Zero Waste Lifestyle Important?
Plastic is terrible for the environment. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Plastic can’t biodegrade and it never fully degrades either – meaning it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic over time – but the plastic itself never disappears. Most of it ends up in the ocean…
Did you know that plastic trash is found in 90% of marine birds? It’s not just birds though, every animal in the ocean is eating plastic. Birds eat tiny pieces of broken down plastic thinking they’re bugs or fish, and then feed it to their young – who also die.
Above is a famous picture that circulated the internet recently, showing what a jellyfish and a plastic bag look like next to each other in glass bottles. Can you tell which one is which? Do you think a sea turtle can? Sea turtles eat tons of plastic bags thinking they’re jellyfish and instead poison themselves or choke to death. When plastic breaks down to microscopic levels (but again, never actually disappears) Plankton eat that microplastic, then small fish eat the plankton, then big fish eat those small fish, and so on, and the toxins from all that plastic bioaccumulate up the food chain making almost every creature in the sea toxic to eat – offsetting the natural ecosystem and food chain. These animals die horrible, painful deaths and it’s all caused by us.
It’s images and stats like the ones above that motivate me to do better, and be better. There’s a huge problem in the world with how we consume products and think of trash – and it’s one of the main driving forces for me to live a zero waste lifestyle.
I didn’t want this post to go down a dark path, but unfortunately the truth IS dark. After watching documentaries like A Plastic Ocean, The Story Of Stuff, The True Cost, Chasing Coral and more, I found myself facing a huge wake-up call with how I lived and consumed things. Not just myself though, but the world, and I wanted to start living differently.
Ok – enough with the dark stuff! I encourage everyone to dive more into these topics, and learn why a zero waste lifestyle is important for the health and future of our planet (which it is), but for now I want to spend the rest of this post focusing on all of the positives of living a zero waste lifestyle, and how it is has enhanced my life. So without further ado, here are the first few product switches that I made, to ease into a zero waste lifestyle!
1. Reusable Straws
Ah yes, the ubiquitous face of the zero waste movement – the straw! Plastic straws have been getting a lot of attention in the media lately, and it’s for good reason. Plastic straws (and other disposable, single-use plastics) are terrible for the environment. Over 500 million straws are used every day in America – that’s a lot of waste!
When I started to think about what disposable plastics I used in my life daily, straws instantly came to mind. I can’t help it – I love drinking through a straw! But with so many reusable products out there now, I knew there was no excuse for me to continue using disposable ones.
Above is a picture of my awesomely-colorful silicone straws I got from Amazon. Silicone is durable, high quality, food-safe, and can be used again, and again, and again.
There are many other options out there, such as stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, paper straws, but I decided to go with the silicone option. I do like how the stainless steel ones look, but I was worried about being careless and banging my teeth on them. This might not be an issue for most people, maybe I just drink like a savage, but I liked the idea of the nice, soft, bendy silicone ones. Plus the silicone ones I got are thicker/bigger, so I can drink smoothies with them!
2. Reusable Produce Bags
Another common zero waste lifestyle swap that more and more people are becoming aware of is shopping with reusable produce bags! I purchased this cotton set from Amazon awhile back and have been using them for my grocery trips ever since. They can hold a surprising amount of stuff, and it feels really good not to use the plastic ones in the store. I didn’t take a picture of them, but I also have 5-6 of the big cotton grocery bags for containing all my groceries.
It did take a bit of getting used to – my main struggle was just remembering to bring them with me when I went out. Often times I would run out for an errand and then swing by the grocery store, but forget to put my bags in my car. I had to work on making it a habit, but now it feels like second-nature to grab them whenever I leave for the store.
Pro tip: If you run out of space in your produce bags while at the store – for things like avocados, oranges, onions (with a good outer skin) – Just put them right in your cart or big grocery bag! Again, this took some getting used to, but when you wash your produce when you get home everything gets clean anyway. So no need to put them in plastic before putting them in your cart.
3. Buy In Bulk
My next big change was to buy from bulk bins (and in bulk) whenever I could. Stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Fresh Thyme have great bulk bin sections with tons of variety. Even more common stores like Kroger are starting to have bulk sections.
In the picture is a sampling of some of the things I buy from bulk bins now with my reusable produce bags and (growing) mason jar collection. My stash right now includes chocolate nibs, raisins, pumpkin seeds, cashews and various nuts, dry beans, nutritional yeast, flour, rice, quinoa, and coconut shreds.
When I don’t have the option of buying from bulk bins, I try to buy in bulk instead. By this, I mean buying something in the huge quantities that you can get at places like Costco. When I get a bag of rice there it will not only last me a long time, but it also means I’m not buying rice in small plastic bags as often. Bonus: it’s also most often cheaper buying in bulk!
Is it always convenient to shop only from bulk bins? No.
Is it more expensive? At times, yes.
But I don’t believe that trying to live a more environmentally responsible life should be about our own personal conveniences. Yes it sometimes takes more time, more planning, but in my eyes it’s the right thing to do. One of my values that I try to live by is in doing what is right, not what is easy.
4. Plastic Free Hygiene
This next category is something I’m still working on: zero waste lifestyle swaps for common bathroom items. Once again, I took time to reflect on what kind of products I currently used, and then did research into alternatives. Something that easily came to mind was floss.
I actually struggled with this one a bit. The reason being: currently there are no zero waste vegan floss products on the market. Shia, from Wasteland Rebel has a really good write-up of the current zero waste lifestyle flossing options. To summarize though, your options are:
- Compostable, plastic-free silk floss. Not cruelty-free because silk worms are boiled alive in the silk manufacturing process
- Nylon floss without plastic packaging. A thread of nylon is extremely tear-proof though! Here is one gruesome example of a seal caught in some tear-proof threads…
Again, either you can buy vegan floss that will take 1-5 years to biodegrade (and hurt wild animals like in the photo link above), or you can buy silk floss (not vegan) that is completely plastic free, compostable, tears easily, and is biodegradable.
In the end, this photo made me choose to go with silk floss. Nylon threads may look innocent, but they are tear-proof which is a huge problem.
The brand I chose was Dental Lace. It’s a silk floss that’s biodegradable, comes in a little glass jar (easy for traveling), and a cardboard/paper box. They even sell refills of their floss so you can keep using the same glass jar over and over. The refills unfortunately come in plastic, but after all my research, I think this floss option is the best one on the market so far. If any completely plastic free silk floss products hit the market, I’ll probably switch brands. That, or maybe Dental Lace will stop packing their refills with plastic! That would be even better. 🙂
The second item in that photo above is a big bar of Bronner’s Castile bar soap. I’m in the process of switching over all my body wash, shampoo, and conditioner needs over to bars. Soap bars are great! You can buy them wrapped in paper, and they can last a really long time.
I still have a few conditioner bottles in my bathroom that I’m working on using up. But once they’re gone, I plan on buying only soap bars packaged in compostable, reusable materials like paper. Not sure where to buy shampoo or conditioner soap bars? Etsy is a great place to browse shops with tons of options!
5. Zero Waste Cleaning Products
The last section was about personal hygiene – this next section is about home hygiene. 🙂
In the back of the photo you’ll notice my white spray bottle with a green top. That used to be a cleaning spray, once it was all used up I took off the label, cleaned it out, and now I’ve repurposed it to be my all-in-one cleaning tool.
- 1 part white vinegar
- 1 part warm water
If you want to be extra thorough, you can add 1-2 tablespoons of liquid Castile soap.
Distilled white vinegar is an excellent non-toxic cleaner. It can effectively replace almost every chemical cleaner in your household, which is what I do now.
To add a nice scent, I add orange and lemon peel scraps to my big jug of white vinegar that I keep under my sink. This infuses the vinegar to have a nice citrus smell that I love! When my green-cap spray bottle runs low I simply refill it up with the recipe above and get to cleaning. I use this in my kitchen, bathroom, on surfaces, windows, etc. etc. On top of being easy, and cost-saving, I don’t have to worry about buying more plastic bottles of cleaning products every few months that will eventually just end up in a landfill.
- 3/4 cup liquid Castile soap (like Bronners)
- 2.5 cups water
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 2-3 drops of a scented oil (optional)
When my last hand soap pump in my bathroom ran out, I washed it out, removed the label, and now refill it when I need to with the recipe above. I do this for our hand soap pump in the kitchen too. The baking soda helps to add thickness, and the essential oil is used to add an optional scent. Other than that, the recipe is really just Castile soap and water! So easy!
Once my current liquid soap bottles have run out I plan on switching to using only bar soap (since it has no plastic packaging) and using the cheese grater/boiling method for turning solid soap to liquid. I’m not ready for that change yet, but I hope to incorporate it into my zero waste lifestyle cleaning routine soon!
6. Reusable Menstrual Products
This next section is just for the ladies. So guys, feel free to skip this part!
This may be a bit of TMI – but I think talking about reusable menstrual products is important, even if it is a slight cultural taboo. When I stopped to think about it, every month I seem to go through a sizable number of disposal pads and tampons. But when I stopped to REALLY think about all of the single-use plastic I use in my life, I had to wonder, what impact is my cycle having on the planet?
Did you know that close to 20 billion sanitary napkins, tampons and applicators are dumped into American landfills every year? Or that it takes centuries for tampons and pads to degrade in a landfill? Or that the average woman generates 250 to 300 pounds of period-related product waste over her lifetime?
That 250-300 pound estimate doesn’t take into account the materials and energy used to create the product though – which is both resource and chemical-intensive.
The good news is, there are zero waste lifestyle alternatives! I’ve been using a menstrual cup and reusable pads for almost a year now, and I can say without a doubt I am so happy I made the switch.
Not only am I saving all that plastic from ending up in a landfill and the ocean, I’m saving money and hassle every time my cycle comes. Unlike tampons, you cannot get Toxic Shock Syndrome from menstrual cups, and they can be used for 12+ hours at a time.
Reusable cotton pads can be thrown in the wash right alongside your underwear and other dirty laundry, and they come out clean and fresh with ease.
I could go on, but I’ll leave this topic be for now. All I can say, is managing my cycle has never been easier, and I can’t recommend these zero waste lifestyle products enough! I chose to go with the Lunette cup, and bought reusable pads on Etsy (there are endless styles to choose from and customize exactly what you want). Also, I highly recommend checking out Precious Star Pads on Youtube – she’s young but has a fantastic channel that talks all about reusable menstrual products! Her videos were a great source of information when I was first learning about and researching all this stuff.
7. Shop Secondhand
I made a resolution this year – I decided that for the entire calendar year of 2018 I would buy any clothes I needed (with the exception of intimates like socks/underwear) secondhand from thrift stores. I’m not a big shopper in general, but for the few things I’ve needed I’m happy to say that I have held true to my goal!
If you’ve ever seen the documentary The True Cost (available on Netflix, highly recommended), you know that the fashion industry, especially the fast fashion industry is incredibly destructive and wasteful. If you haven’t seen that documentary yet, PLEASE DO.
The world now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. The average American generates 82 pounds of textile waste each year. That adds up to more than 11 million tons of textile waste from the U.S. alone. We need to stop thinking of the things we wear as disposable. This means buying secondhand, and repairing our items when they take on some wear and tear.
We are also increasingly disconnected from the people who make our clothing, as 97% of items are now made overseas. There are roughly 40 million garment workers in the world today; many of whom do not share the same rights or protections that many people in the West do. They are some of the lowest paid workers in the world, not to mention that slave and child labor is rampant in this industry as well.
So, in an effort to reduce my clothing waste, stop supporting unethical businesses, and be more responsible with how I buy things, I decided to only shop secondhand from now on. It’s environmentally friendly, frugal, fun, and I’ve never had any problems finding cute, quality items in my size and style!
When it comes to secondhand, I’ve mostly focused on clothing. Eventually I’d like to switch all of my shopping over to secondhand – as much as is practicable and possible for me. Need a new desk chair? Visit your local thrift store! Need some new plates? Thrift store! Looking to buy a rice cooker? Check your local thrift store! You get the picture. 🙂
As a side note, besides starting a zero waste lifestyle I’ve also been an avid minimalist for years now (I recommend The Minimalists Podcast as a good introduction to the minimalist philosophy). I’ve wanted to write about it for awhile now, but I think I’ll save it for its own post. To summarize though, buying less and buying secondhand when I do buy ended up being a great blend of my minimalist and zero waste ideals, so the change to shopping secondhand was not hard for me. For most people, I think it is an easy change to make! And speaking of secondhand, checking your local craigslist listings can be a great way to buy secondhand too.
8. Bike Commuting
This next change was sparked by a few ideas I had all at once – but wanting to be more environmentally conscious was one of them!
Over the last 4 months I’ve been slowly trying to transition all of my commuting over to biking. When I first set out to write this post, I intended on writing a ton about this, but then I decided to save it for its own post. I have a lot (of positive things) to say about it!
All I will say for now, is that it’s been nothing but a positive change for me. I’m not 100% switched over yet, but I’d say right now I’m doing about 70% of my commuting by bike, and 30% by car. I’m really proud of that! I have two pannier bags that I use for hauling groceries and other random things, which has been a big help.
If you’re at all curious about bike commuting, I say give it a try! It’s way more environmentally friendly since I’m not burning as many fossil fuels anymore, it’s saved me a ton of money in gas and car maintenance, and it’s improved my health. I now bike an extra 15-20 miles every week!
Bike commuting may not exactly fall under the “zero waste lifestyle” umbrella, but I wanted to include it anyway since it was a lifestyle change I made around the same time I started trying to live more responsibly.
Perfection Is Not The Goal
Plastic products are everywhere. We use them every day in our homes, schools, offices, and travels. Our modern world has become so dependent on the convenience of mass-produced, readily available plastic products — like disposable bags, bottles, and cups — that it’s hard to remember the world was once plastic free. Our overwhelming reliance on plastics has created environmental problems such as crowded landfills, groundwater contamination, and ocean debris that future generations will still be cleaning up.
I think trying to live zero waste lifestyle is incredibly important, but perfection should never be the goal. Just like with any kind of ideal or goal, perfection is impossible. I’ve made mistakes on this journey, and I’ll continue to make mistakes. I’ve bought things with the intention of reducing my plastic waste, only to find out the “zero waste” item I purchased came wrapped in plastic – wah wah… I’ve had times where I’ve forgotten my cotton produce and grocery bags at home when I meant to bring them with me. I’ve also yet to find a zero waste solution to buying water bottles when I’m on foreign trips. Obviously I use a reusable water bottle at home, in my day-to-day travels, and domestic traveling. But when I visit a country with unsafe drinking water? Well, like I said, I’ve yet to come up with a zero waste lifestyle solution to bottled water in foreign countries. 🙁
Pets are another area that I’ve struggle with to date. While I’ve stemmed the flow of plastic bags in my life by using reusable grocery bags, I still have a use for them when it comes to cleaning out the cat’s litter box (cat waste cannot be placed unprotected in a dumpster, or with paper bags for example). I’ve done research, and so far it seems like partial solutions exist, but nothing truly zero waste exists in that realm yet.
Regardless, transitioning into a zero waste lifestyle is something I’m extremely enthusiastic about. I’m very happy with every change I’ve made so far, and look forward to continuing this journey in the future!
Yes, I will make mistakes as I learn, but I never want to stop trying to be better. The planet doesn’t care about how living a zero waste lifestyle may be inconvenient at times (which it can be, I won’t sugar coat that). It needs help, and it needs all of us working together to change how we buy, consume and use things.
Embracing A Zero Waste Lifestyle
I feel strongly that everyone has a responsibility to know what their consumption decisions are costing the rest of the world. It’s that very thought that drives me to make these changes in my life, and encourage others around me to explore it in their own lives. It can be hard at times, but it’s incredibly rewarding to know that I’m living a life in line with my values every day by trying the best I can.
If anything I said in this post inspires you, please leave a comment below! I hope it’s been informative, helpful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about what a zero waste lifestyle means to you.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for any change you have made, or plan to make that will be better for the planet we all share!
Remember, it’s never too late to make changes, and no change is too small.