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How To Reduce Packaging Waste large cardboard box overflowing with wasteful plastic wrap, foam sheeting, and paper cushioning

How To Reduce Packaging Waste

Introduction

If you look in your trash or recycle bin, you’ll notice a lot of what you’re getting rid of is packaging for other items. Food packaging is a major problem in today’s society, but this post is going to focus on how to reduce packaging waste from gifts, online shopping, and non-consumable items like housewares.

Gifts

To many people, gift giving is a very important tradition to show you care. The down side is it can create a lot of waste. Luckily, there are many ways to reduce packaging waste involved with gift-giving and and receiving.

Giving

When choosing gifts for others, first look for experiences that require no packaging whatsoever. Tickets to a movie, concert, or sporting event can be purchased online and saved to your phone. You can also go out to dinner, go for a healthy hike, or have a movie night in together.

If you still want to go the traditional route, be conscious about the materials your gift is made of and packaged in. Is there a glass alternative to that lotion you’re eyeing? Is there a toy that doesn’t come sealed in that razor sharp, scissor-breaking plastic (you know the kind!)?

Next head to the wrapping station. Does your gift even need wrapping? It’s possible to just dress up a gift without needing to hide it in a bag or under some paper. For example, I gifted some granola in a mason jar for Christmas a few years ago and tied some green and red yarn around the lid. Still festive and still low waste.

If you aren’t shipping the gift, try out furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping. Check out this useful guide to wrap a variety of different items. You can also reuse packaging you’ve received. Who doesn’t have a little stash of old giftbags? Lastly, you can repurpose paper grocery bags and decorate them with markers or crayons to use as wrapping paper.

If you are shipping, reuse boxes, envelopes (UPS has some that can be reused and resealed a second time) and packing materials (bubblewrap, air pillows, packing paper). You can also reuse old newspaper to help cushion the gift. You can either send the gift wrapped inside the shipping box, or just have that box be the wrapping.

Receiving

When holidays or your birthday are drawing near, be sure to inform potential gift-givers of your stance on gifts. Let them know you appreciate their generosity, but you would prefer no gifts, gifted experiences, low waste gifts, or a donation to a charity or non-profit organization. To reduce packaging waste even more, tell them they don’t need to wrap anything. You can also give specific suggestions of items or brands you support.

Online Shopping

Online shopping is a booming industry that just keeps growing, but with that is a growing pile of wasted packaging materials. You can shop online and still reduce packaging waste by shopping smart and doing a little extra work.

Let’s tackle the big one: Amazon. There are many ways to prevent unnecessary waste. If offered, bundle your items together so they all come in the same box. This is possible when the items can come from the same location.

Have you heard of Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging? These items come with minimal packaging and, if possible, ship in their original box instead of repacked into an Amazon box. Items in the program are mainly children’s items, office supplies, snacks, and batteries.

Finally, a hidden tip: you can request that Amazon put a note on your account to use as little packaging as possible. While this doesn’t guarantee you will always get less packaging, it doesn’t hurt and can only help. All you need to do is email cs-reply@amazon.com from the email your Amazon account is linked to and request they add this note to your account:

“I have an Amazon account under name@email.com. I would like to put a note on my account letting packers know I would prefer as little packaging as possible, especially plastic air pillows and bubble wrap. Thanks!”

As for other online retailers, try resale sites like eBay, Etsy, or the various fashion resellers (Poshmark, ThredUp, etc.) first. This way you can contact the seller and request minimal packaging. Resale sites are also better for the environment because you are giving new life to old items instead of increasing the demand for new ones. Some sites show seller location. This then gives you a better idea of where your items will shipped from so you can choose nearby sellers to reduce transportation emissions.

Non-consumables

This section is for reducing packaging waste outside of food packaging. Look for items packaged in recycled materials. If this is the case, it will usually say somewhere on the side or bottom. Most commonly it will be recycled paper or cardboard. Post-consumer content is material recycled after it has been used by the public. Pre-consumer content is reused waste material from the production process. 

Buy secondhand whenever possible because most items will not come with any packaging. You’ll also save money and not contribute to the demand for more new products. Check Craigslist or your local Facebook Marketplace or “Buy Nothing” pages. Hop over to your local thrift shops and check out what’s in stock today.

Ikea is a good place to shop for furniture because their items are packed flat to reduce packaging, and they have switched to using mushroom-based packaging in place of styrofoam. How cool is that? Check out my post on Sustainable Packaging Alternatives to learn more about this new packaging!

Packaging Materials

Reuse and recycle packaging materials. Cardboard and paper are easily recyclable, but you can reuse them in many different ways. Cardboard boxes can be reused for gifts, storage, made into a playhouse for kids, and a million other things. A simple internet search will open up a huge variety of reuse and upcycling options. If unwrapped carefully, wrapping paper can be reused a second time. You can also use it to jazz up craft projects. Paper can be reused for crafts and papier mache projects.

Plastic cushioning materials can be reused again and again so long as they still have air. Local grocery stores will take back bubble wrap and air pillows for recycling in the same bin used to collect and recycle plastic grocery bags. UPS and FedEx stores may also happily accept bubblewrap, air pillows, and packing peanuts.

Receipts

Although not really packaging waste, receipts are an almost inevitable piece of waste that comes with shopping so I wanted to include a few tips in this post about reducing the amount you receive.

  1. Shop online so order confirmations/receipts are emailed to you
  2. Select for receipts to be emailed instead of printed at locations that ask (my library does this for example)
  3. Decline receipts (although many times one is printed anyway and just tossed)
  4. Avoid stores notorious for unreasonably long receipts (I’m looking at you, CVS!)
  5. Remember! Receipts are usually printed on thermal paper which contains BPA. For this reason, receipts are NOT recyclable as they can contaminate the entire batch of material. The batch may then be refused and sent to landfill or incinerator instead.

Conclusion

That’s a wrap! (Get it?)

Although packaging may not be completely avoidable in our society (yet), there are lots of ways we can reduce it and get as much use as we can from its materials. Want to learn more about sustainable packaging ? Be sure to check out my posts on Sustainable Packaging Alternatives!

How To Reduce Packaging Waste large cardboard box overflowing with wasteful plastic wrap, foam sheeting, and paper cushioning
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8 Reasons To Thrift Shop eco-conscious shopper on her tip toes looking for thrift shop treasures

8 Reasons To Thrift Shop

One of the first changes I made to start living more sustainably was thrift shopping, but there are so many reasons to thrift shop even beyond sustainability. At first it seemed a bit daunting, and how good can used clothes and items be? Answer: Pretty darn good!

I absolutely love buying secondhand. Not only is it really fun and satisfying when you find “that” item you’ve been looking for, but it’s the best way to purchase items from a sustainable point of view. I’ve found gifts for others, professional work clothes, genuine sports apparel, and good quality casual clothes, dishware, and shoes at thrift stores. All of this at far below market price!

Many people are turned off by the thought of secondhand items, but I have eight reasons why everyone should be thrifting.

1. Cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper

Because the items are used, they will generally carry a very reduced sticker price. Some examples: I have a couple pairs of jeans that cost $3-4 each. I bought a genuine Red Sox jacket for $8. My husband bought a long men’s overcoat for $28 with the original tag inside that said $375!

The savings don’t stop at clothing either. You can find very cheap working small appliances like toasters and mixers. We bought all of our glassware secondhand for about dollar per piece. Thrift shops also sell gently used furniture items.

2. Variety of colors, styles, and items

Unlike some other stores that sell certain clothing items or styles, the thrift store will have apparel from formal wear to graphic tees. Beyond clothing, you can find accessories, shoes, furniture, housewares, toys, etc. all in one spot! This means all your shopping can be done in one stop instead of wasting time, money, energy, and emissions running around to various stores.

The variety also helps spark inspiration. You will be drawn to certain things more easily than if the rack was filled with the same shirt in a few different colors in all the sizes. And you can find completely unique items that can’t be found anywhere else to give your wardrobe or home décor a special touch.

3. Fit and quality

Fit and quality are our next reasons to thrift shop. The good thing about used clothing is it’s already stretched and shrunk. The fit later will be true to how it is in the dressing room. I always hated buying an item, washing it, and having to give it away because it shrunk too much. Now I don’t have that problem!

You can also judge the quality of thrifted items much easier than new. If the sweater pills, it will likely already have some. If the shirt wrinkles easily, it will likely already have wrinkles. Toys that still work have already withstood rough play from other kids. So there’s far less guesswork that comes along with purchasing secondhand.

4. Boost trading economy

By buying someone else’s items, you boost the local trading economy. This reduces the need for companies to produce more new items. It’s all about voting with your wallet. If you don’t buy new clothing, demand goes down, and then companies will adjust and produce less to meet that new demand.

As a side note: In addition to thrift stores and consignment shops, there are other more direct options for secondhand shopping. Facebook Marketplace, Poshmark, and eBay are great online resources along with the traditional neighborhood garage sale.

5. Not supporting unethical production practices

This goes hand in hand with #4. By not buying clothing new from “fast fashion” brands, you are rejecting their production practices. Refusing to support these unethical companies and instead using my dollars to extend the life of items are my personal top reasons to thrift shop.

The clothing industry is rife with unsafe working conditions and very low pay. I suggest watching the documentary “The True Cost” if you want to learn more about how companies like Forever 21 and Old Navy can profit on those low sale prices. I cannot justify buying new items knowing others are suffering for my “great deal”.

6. Reduce waste

Buying items secondhand prolongs their lifetime and delays their final stop in a landfill. Thrift stores won’t try to sell you trash. The items in stock have plenty of life left in them. They’re just waiting for someone to give them a second chance.

And once you’ve finished with them, you can either re-donate or sell them if they are still in good condition or turn them into something new. Old clothing can be turned into wash rags, hankies, or patches. Glass and electronics can be recycled. Furniture can usually find a new home quickly.

7. Donating overseas can harm their economy

Lots of people donate clothing in the hope that it helps the less fortunate. Donated clothing to charities and clothing items that fail to sell in thrift stores often get sent to developing countries. Before the 1980s, Kenya had a thriving garment industry and imported donated clothing was distributed for free. Then donated clothing was being sold for cheap and the garment industry workforce has declined by over 96%. A couple years ago, a few African nations enacted clothing import bans, but they were then subjected to backlash in trade agreements with the US.

And when organizations send these garments overseas, they wrap them in giant plastic bundles like this. So not only will buying clothing secondhand prevent it from being sent either to a landfill or to a struggling country, but it will also reduce a huge amount of plastic waste and transportation emissions.

8. Fun

Finally thrift shopping if FUN. You never know what’s going to be in stock today, and you can usually count on finding something that puts a smile on your face even if you don’t end up buying it. Thrift stores are a big collection of random items. Maybe you’ll find “12 Days of Christmas” glasses (I did!) or a shirt with your elementary school’s name printed on it.

As they say “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Thrifting is sort of like a treasure hunt, but it’s best to go in without a specific item in mind. Look for a nice blouse for work rather than a cap sleeved red blouse with a v-neck. Maybe you’ll find that, but most likely it’ll be green or 3/4 sleeve with beading. But maybe that’s way better than what you thought you wanted anyway.

Conclusion

What are your top reasons to thrift shop? In addition to physical stores, what apps and websites do you use for online thrifting?

8 Reasons To Thrift Shop eco-conscious shopper on her tip toes looking for thrift shop treasures
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What Can I Recycle And Where outdoor blue recycling barrel with ‘Recycle Only’ placard

What Can I Recycle and Where?

Introduction

Contrary to popular belief, recycling isn’t the answer to solving our waste problem. There’s a reason it’s last in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan. But when you have to recycle, it can get confusing. What can I recycle in the first place? Where can I take things not accepted by my curbside pick-up? What do those numbers on my plastics mean? How can I make sure my recycling actually gets recycled?

When I started searching recycling in my area, all I could find was a short list of items and I didn’t understand what some of them included or excluded. So this post will contain plenty of pictures to be a more visual guide to recycling.

Paper

Paper is a very easy item to recycle, but not all paper can be recycled curbside.

CURBSIDE MAYBE RECYCLABLE TRASH
Printer Paper Newer Photo Paper Shredded Paper
Notebook Paper
(without binding)
Magazines Laminated Paper
Newspaper Mixed Paper Older Photo Paper
Cardboard and Paperboard  

Most paper items you use on a daily basis is recyclable. The equipment at the recycling plant is equipped to remove things like staples and paperclips so you don’t need to spend time doing that yourself.

Many people believe you can recycle shredded paper, but this is not the case. The pieces are too small and can clog and damage the equipment. A better use for shredded paper is adding it to your compost pile as browns. This goes for small paper scraps too.

Photographs may or may not be recyclable. Older photos were created using chemicals that contaminate the paper and make it unrecyclable. A way to test this is to tear the photo. If it tears in layers, the photo is old and contaminated. If it is cleanly tears like a magazine page, the photo isn’t contaminated with photographic chemicals. You should be able to recycle these newer photographs so long as your recycler/town accepts mixed paper.

Photo tear test for recycling
Photo tears like magazine paper so is a new photo that can be recycled with mixed paper

And what is mixed paper? Mixed paper is a paper grade encompassing things like mail, phone books, catalogs, and even sticky notes. Check with your town or recycler for these items.

Mixed paper with magazine envelopes and mail
Mixed Paper example

Metals

CURBSIDEELSEWHEREMAYBE RECYCLABLE
Soda Cans Scrap MetalsAluminum Foil
Canned Food CansSharpsGas/Propane Tanks
Pie TinsPaint Cans
(even if empty)
Baking Trays Aerosol Cans  

Most metals can be recycled. Metal cans, tins, and trays can be recycled curbside so long as you rinse them clean. Some states have deposits on beverage cans so you can return them to the store and get back the 5 or 10 cent deposit you paid at time of purchase. The cans will say which states have this type of program.

You can bring scrap metal to private scrap metal recycling companies who will pay you for your material. Nonferrous metals like copper and brass are much more valuable than steel or aluminum.

Do not throw sharps in with your recycling OR your trash. Needles and syringes should be properly disposed of at collection sites.

Paint cans are also not recyclable curbside even when empty. Paint is considered a hazardous material, and cans should be picked up on a household hazardous waste day or brought to a collection site. Aerosol cans are sometimes accepted curbside with other metal cans, but may be considered hazardous waste just like paint cans.

Aluminum foil is recyclable so long as it is cleaned off; however, very small bits are too small to recycle. Instead gather bits together in a ball for recycling. Helium and propane tanks are not recyclable curbside, but some metal scrap recyclers may take them.

Larger balls of aluminum foil can be recycled but small pieces cannot
The ball on the left is large enough to be recycled. The bit on the right is not.

Composites

TRASHMAYBE RECYCLABLE
CanistersCartons

Composites are multi-material items. Canisters are the Pringles and Planters peanut containers that are a mixture of metal and paperboard. These items cannot be recycled; however, there are many upcycling ideas for these items to be used for organization and storage.

Planters peanuts canister that cannot be recycled
Canister example

Cartons are paperboard with a plastic waxy coating on the inside to prevent liquid leaks. Many places do not accept them, but you can check by typing your zip code into this website, although I cannot vouch for its complete accuracy. For instance, my town’s site says it doesn’t accept cartons, but Recycle Carton’s database says it does. Calling your town or recycling company will provide the most accurate answer.

Almond milk carton made from composite material
Carton example

Plastics

Did you know the recycling symbol on plastic does NOT mean it is recyclable? You heard that right. The recycling symbol with a number inside just indicates the type of plastic, which may or may not be recyclable in your area. Now let’s take a look at what those numbers mean.

Easy to Recycle

#1 and #2 plastics, PETE and HDPE respectively, are the most recyclable types of plastic and nearly always accepted curbside. Disposable plastic bottles and containers are usually #1 plastic. Cereal bags, milk jugs, and butter tubs are #2 plastic. #2 plastic is usually opaque.

Many retail locations accept #4 plastics, or LDPE. These are your plastic shopping bags, bread bags, and produce bags. The store will have a drop-off bin near the entrance of the store, bottle return machines, or customer service desk. Be sure the items are clean and empty.

This bin can usually accept the following plastic items:

  • #2 and #4 plastics
  • Bread bags
  • Shopping and produce bags
  • Cereal bags and cracker wrappers
  • Plastic films
  • Air pillows and bubble wrap
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Sandwich/Ziploc bags
#2 HDPE plastic cereal bag recyclable at store dropoff
#2 Plastic example

Harder to Recycle

#3 plastics, vinyl and PVC, can rarely be recycled. Check out this directory for recycler locations in the US and Canada. Common PVC items include plastic shower curtains and plumbing pipes.

#5 plastics, polypropylene or PP, is often not recyclable curbside, but there are many programs like Preserve’s Gimme 5 program. Preserve recycles these plastic items into their bath and kitchen products. Yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, and “microwave-safe” plastic containers are all #5 plastics.

#5 PP polypropylene yoplait yogurt container that is harder to recycle
#5 Plastic example

#6 plastics, polysterene or PS, are the foamy plastics. Bring foam packing materials to UPS stores for reuse. Some areas will recycle #6 plastics or you can check this directory from the EPS Packaging Industrial Alliance.

#7 plastics are in the “everything else” category and are hard to recycle, but some places do accept them.

You can learn more about the health risks associated with these various types of plastic here.

Electronics

Electronics and batteries can be recycled at various hazardous waste facilities or drop-off locations, but I have often seen churches and other organizations hosting e-waste recycling days. There are also those cell phone recycling vending machines that you see in malls which will pay you to recycle your phone.

If the electronic is still in working condition, I highly suggest selling or donating it to extend its usable life before getting recycled.

Conclusion

There are a lot of rules on recycling, and because it differs from town to town, you must take special care to ensure you are doing it right. Check out Earth 911’s recycling resource to search for recycling locations in your area.

Properly sorting your recycling is more important than ever now that China, who used to buy most of the world’s recycling, have raised their standards. Contamination from non-recyclable items or even recyclable items mixed together will result in buyers rejecting the lot. This leaves countries to deal with their own waste so the lot is usually sent to landfill or incinerated because there aren’t enough capable local recycling facilities. Check out my post on China’s Recycling Ban to learn more!

What Can I Recycle And Where outdoor blue recycling barrel with ‘Recycle Only’ placard
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50 Free Little Changes To Live Sustainably colorful socks hanging outside on a clothesline as a greener way to dry laundry

50 (FREE!) Little Changes to Live Sustainably

Introduction

So you want to live sustainably, but you don’t have much money to invest in all those zero waste swaps. Sometimes it looks like you need to spend green to be green. That’s definitely not the case!

Anyone can start reducing their footprint for free. I’ve compiled a list of 50 completely free ways to shop smarter, reduce resource use, extend the life of items you have, and reduce waste. Some of them will even SAVE you money!

Shopping

  1. Forego plastic bags when only buying a couple items
  2. Bring reusable bags shopping (any bag will do if you don’t have an actual “reusable” bag)
  3. Don’t give in to impulse buys
  4. Swap and trade with members of the community instead of always buying new
  5. Check your library before buying a new book, movie, video game, etc.
  6. Try your hand at repairing an item instead of tossing and rebuying (YouTube is a gold mine!)
  7. Ask for plastic-free packaging or reused packaging for online purchases
  8. Properly dispose of that packaging, recycle it, or return it to a UPS for reuse

Groceries and Cooking

  1. Choose imperfect produce to prevent it from being thrown out by the grocery store
  2. Skip the thin produce bag at the grocery store
  3. Plan meals to avoid overbuying/buying what you don’t need
  4. Avoid going to the grocery store while hungry
  5. Freeze and/or properly store foods to extend their freshness
  6. Skip meat once a week (or more!)
  7. Skip preheating the oven
  8. Use the toaster oven or microwave instead of the oven

In the Home

  1. Turn off the lights when not in use
  2. Utilize natural light over turning on a lamp during the day
  3. Turn off water when not directly using it (brushing, washing dishes)
  4. Flush only when necessary
  5. Put a stone/water jug in the toilet tank to reduce amount of water per flush
  6. Turn up/down heat and A/C a couple degrees
  7. Unplug small appliances when not in use
  8. Keep freezer and fridge full (use water jugs to fill in extra space)
  9. Learn to sew and mend your clothing
  10. Use both sides of the paper
  11. Donate anything you aren’t using and will not use in the future
  12. Upcycle objects you would otherwise throw out
  13. Use newspaper to wrap gifts or re-use gift bags

Cleaning

  1. Only run washing machine and dishwasher on full loads
  2. Wash on cold or warm instead of hot
  3. Air dry your clothing
  4. Use a wash rag instead of a sponge (any old cloth will do)
  5. Reuse old clothing or towels for cleaning rags
  6. Don’t shower every day (or at least take shorter showers)
  7. Shower with a friend
  8. Fill a bucket in the shower while waiting for the water to warm up and use to to water plants, do dishes, or flush the toilet
  9. Pick up litter you find outside

Out and About

  1. If it’s close, walk or bike there
  2. Don’t use the automatic doors if you don’t need to
  3. Take the stairs over the elevator if possible
  4. Say no to straws and plastic utensils at restaurants
  5. Use a reusable water bottle/bring a thermos or mug to get coffee
  6. Carry around a fork/spoon/knife from your kitchen drawer
  7. Refuse freebies and flyers, coupons, business cards, etc. (take a photo instead!)
  8. Use less paper towels (or none at all!) in public bathrooms to dry your hands

Company Choices

  1. Research companies before buying from them
  2. Contact companies about their practices and encourage them to do better
  3. Sign up for online billing
  4. Cut junk mail with optoutprescreen.com, DMAchoice.org, or contacting companies directly

Conclusion

Do you have any other free tips to share and help others live sustainably? Let’s keep this list going in the comments below!

Check out my post What More Can You Do For Our Future? for more ways to get involved without spending money.

50 Free Little Changes To Live Sustainably colorful socks hanging outside on a clothesline as a greener way to dry laundry

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