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15+ Low Impact Hobbies To Try Today A pair of black binoculars on an open bird identification book

15+ Low Impact Hobbies To Try Today

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the impacts of how you have fun? Sometimes our hobbies can be synonymous with create waste. But it doesn’t have to be that way! I’ve come up with this big list of low impact hobbies that are organized from low impact to least impact so you can find something fun and exciting to pick up without the guilt of waste.

Since many people have more time on their hands thanks to the quarantine, I figured some of you may be struggling to fill that time. Although not all of these hobbies are indoors, the outdoor hobbies can be done alone if needed.

Wasteful Hobbies

Before we get into the low impact hobbies, I want to briefly mention a few hobbies that generate a lot of waste (and aren’t that productive).

Shopping as a hobby leads to impulse buys of items you don’t need which increases demand for more products. Not only do you waste money on these purchases, but you also end up cluttering your house trying to find a place for them all.

Makeup and nail art are also wasteful since they require frequent purchases. Many makeup brands still test on animals, and their products contain many ingredients that aren’t good for your health.

There are many arts and crafts-related hobbies that are pretty wasteful. Scrapbooking creates a lot of waste, and many decorations are glittery. Origami swans just waste a lot of paper. Cosplaying frequently involves fabrics, foam, wigs, and other materials that cannot be recycled. Plus, the costumes are reserved for special occasions.

Low Impact Hobbies

So what fun things can you do instead? These low impact hobbies still require frequent purchases and some waste, but they come will lots of benefits to balance it out.

DIY Projects and Upcycling

DIY and upcycling projects do create some waste and you may have to purchase materials, but these projects help prevent useless spending, save materials from going to waste, and can teach you various skills like woodworking, crafting, or painting.

These projects will give you a sense of satisfaction and should serve a practical purpose once completed (no 5 Minute Crafts please!). If you want, you could use these projects as gifts or sell them for extra money.

Gardening

Gardening is a great low impact hobby because of the satisfaction of nurturing something and watching it grow. You’ll still have to make some recurring purchases for seeds, seedlings, soil, pots, and tools, but there isn’t much waste associated with gardening.

Gardening allows you to grow your own food and reduce your food miles to zero. You can cut out pollution and can monitor what exactly is being used on your food (fertilizers and pesticides). You can also tend to houseplants, which will greenify your indoor spaces, purify the air, and give you a reason to open the blinds and let in that natural light (save on energy bills).

Cooking and Baking

If you’ve taken up gardening, may as well learn to cook that food! Not only is cooking a great skill to have, but it is also a way to transition to healthier diet filled with plant-based whole foods instead of packaged and processed meals. Look for local ingredients and ones with the least packaging to include in your meals.

You can find cookbooks secondhand in thrift stores or search online for new recipes to try. Learn some basics or experiment with new ingredients. Try your hand at baking cakes for parties instead of buying one in a plastic container. Get into the habit of meal prepping so you’re all set for the week.

Sewing, Crocheting, and Knitting

I believe everyone should know how to sew. It is an amazing skill to have. You’ll have to make frequent purchases for things like fabric and thread or yarn, but sewing/mending projects serve good purposes. Thrift stores I’ve been to have fabric, yarn, and knitting/crocheting needles so you can pick up some necessary materials secondhand.

I haven’t tried my hand at clothing alterations or creation, but I really would love to learn. I stick to mending my clothes to lengthen their lifespans and knitting gifts for family.

Lower Impact Hobbies

These hobbies are even better on the environment than the low impact hobbies. They still may require purchases or energy use, but not as large a scale as the previous ones.

Playing an Instrument

Learning to play an instrument can be difficult, but it’s also very rewarding. I love music and played different instruments throughout my childhood including eight years of harp. While it can be sometimes frustrating to learn new pieces, it’s so satisfying to sit down and listen to the music you’re making.

You can rent instruments or find some secondhand. You can buy books of sheet music, or there’s sites like 8notes.com that have free sheet music available, including pieces especially for beginners. Learn through videos online or support a local music shop and sign up for lessons there!

Biking and Skateboarding

You can find yourself a bike or skateboard secondhand. Take a ride through your neighborhood for exercise. Teach yourself some skateboarding tricks. Enjoy being outside in the fresh air.

Beyond the enjoyment from biking or skateboarding, you can teach yourself how to properly maintain and repair them. Learn from others, ask someone at a bike or skate shop, or check out videos online.

Photography

Get yourself a secondhand camera and start shooting. You can even just start out using your phone. Photography is a great way to capture special memories or make some money. Upload stock photos online or offer your skills to others for events.

Listening to Podcasts

You can also keep yourself up to date with the news. Podcasts are free and you’ll always have them available in your pocket to put on whenever you’re bored. All you need is your phone. Spice up your commute or listen while doing chores around the house.

Some of the podcasts I listen to are:

  • Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
  • This American Life
  • Coffee Break Spanish
  • DuoLingo Spanish Podcasts
  • Think: Sustainability
  • Practical(ly) Zero Waste Podcast
  • Laughs from the Past

Writing and Drawing

Writing is my very favorite thing to do. All you need is a computer or notebook and pen. I love writing because you can lose yourself in another world for a while and let your imagination run wild. Or you can write informative pieces like this to share with others, write a memoir or autobiography to save for posterity, or use it to destress and let out emotions (I use journaling and poetry to do that one).

If you’re artistic (or even if you aren’t), you might be interested in drawing. Find some tutorials online, draw from imagination, or copy scenes from real life. All you need is a pen/pencil and a few sheets of paper to get started. You may be able to find art supplies secondhand as well!

Least Impact Hobbies

Ready for the very best low impact hobbies? These require zero purchases and minimal resources. And they are still very fun to do!

Reading

Like listening to podcasts, reading is a great free way to learn something new or just be entertained. While you can go and purchase books, libraries are amazing resources and completely free to use. Browse books in every genre and topic you can think of and take home a few to read. You can either read for entertainment or borrow books to learn some of the skills I’ve been discussing (sewing, cooking, writing, etc.).

Some libraries also participate in programs like Hoopla (LINK) that offer a selection of ebooks you can borrow straight onto your phone or computer. They rent out movies and audiobooks too! If you want some social interaction, join a local book club and build yourself a reading community.

Language Learning

If you noticed from the podcast list, I’m currently learning Spanish. While I took it in high school, I didn’t do anything with it all throughout college. Now I’m excited to be learning again. I use podcasts, videos, apps, and books borrowed from the library.

To make this a least impact hobby, borrow language learning materials from the library and/or sign up for a local class. Many adult education centers and community colleges offer language classes from beginner to advanced. While the classes cost money, you are receiving knowledge from a person instead of creating a demand for a physical product that requires non-renewable resources.

Nature Watching and Hiking

I love going out into nature and exploring the world around me. We use All Trails to find hikes near us. While more strenuous hikes would require materials like hiking boots and gear, walking through nature preserves don’t need anything special.

Borrow a book from the library about plant and animal species in your area to take along. Take up bird watching and learn their different songs. Or just enjoy the fresh air, exercise, and our darn beautiful Mother Earth.

Singing and Dancing

Even if you aren’t good at it, singing and dancing are always really fun ways to relax. Throw on some music to sing along to, or get serious and sign up for voice lessons. Watch videos online or take a class to learn various forms of dance. My husband and I took a swing class last year, which didn’t require any special shoes like ballet or tap would.

Yoga and Fitness

Stay in shape and have fun at the same time. Yoga is relaxing as well as good exercise, and it doesn’t require much more than yourself. You don’t really need a yoga mat if you don’t have one.

For a harder workout, add in some cardio with jogging or at-home workouts (crunches, jumping jacks, push-ups, etc.). Even a quick 20-30 minutes a day can go a long way, not only for physical health but also for your mental health.

Volunteering

Lastly on our list of low impact hobbies is one that actual can have quite a large impact, just a really good one! Volunteering usually requires nothing but your time, and the end product is an improvement to someone’s day or life.

There are many places to find volunteer opportunities, such as animal shelters, food pantries, and online. Check out the websites below!

For a list of organizations focused on the environment, head over to this post.

Volunteer for something you care about, whether that’s cleaning up the environment, working with children or the elderly, or helping out with community events you enjoy. (Unfortunately, volunteer opportunities are currently pretty limited due to the coronavirus right now.)

Conclusion

All of these hobbies have one thing in common: learning and growing. Having that curiosity and drive to keep learning can

There are plenty of low impact hobbies out there that I’m sure you’ll find something that speaks to you. And if you get bored of one, try out another.

What are your favorite low impact hobbies? Leave a comment below!

15+ Low Impact Hobbies To Try Today A pair of black binoculars on an open bird identification book
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How To Avoid Consumerism While Going Zero Waste A woman holding too many shopping bags after giving in to impulse buying

How To Avoid Consumerism While Going Zero Waste

Introduction

We’ve all seen it. Somehow the trendiness of sustainability has allowed our consumer pasts to seep into our plans for the future. Instagram is filled with minimalist pictures of the best new gear to hop out and buy. Influencers push more and more products that are just a click away. And although the rationale of buying better products is good at heart, buying more and buying new is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you are prone to impulse buying to begin with. So today, we’ll focus on how to avoid consumerism while continuing on our zero waste journeys.

But not all these advertisements are bad. Since most ethical and sustainable companies are small and just starting out, it can be hard to find out about them without sponsored posts. It’s important to have this stream of information, but at the same time we each need to reflect on what is best for our interests and if what we have right now still does the job. We need to learn to be patience, to use up what we have, and to find other avenues of “shopping” that are better for the environment.

We also need to remember to keep our personal “why’s” in mind when we are faced with the option to make new purchases. Consider the consequences that decision will have on your chosen reason to save the planet to nudge you in the right direction.

This post will also include a brief discussion of some things you might see all over the internet, but you really don’t need them. Either you can just do without them completely, or there’s something you own that can serve the same purpose.

Learn Patience And Resist Impulses

It’s hard to avoid consumerism when we’re surrounded by product ads (or just pretty photos). We get impatient and impulsive, justifying it as a “sustainable swap”. We don’t want to wait until our shampoo bottle runs out to switch to fancy shampoo bars. No one wants to wait until their shirts become rag-worthy to buy a new one from an ethical brand. Frustration drives you to impulse buys that end up replacing a useful item you already have.

I’m still trying to use up my disposal products. Sometimes it really bothers me that I’m still surrounded by plastic when I could go out and buy better versions right now. I’ve bought things impulsively because they look pretty and are sustainable or zero waste, but I didn’t really need it right then. While that would make me feel good in the moment, I’d feel guilty afterward because I’m wasting what I own. Or I let the new item sit there and taunt me as I continue to use up what I own instead (sooo frustrating).

The best way I’ve found to stay patient is by keeping yourself busy by learning. Read an informative article or watch a documentary. Research resources available in your area. Discuss the environment or zero waste with others in person or online.

Take this new knowledge and set some goals. Focus on changes you can make that don’t require a physical item. By staying busy, you won’t have time to brood over your slowing dwindling supply of disposables. At the same time, you’ll get doses of satisfaction from learning something new and from the changes you make.

Use What You Have And Use It Up

A number of “swap” videos and blog posts take you through the same list of products, but many of those items can already be found in your own home. Three frequent products are travel silverware, mason jars, and reusable bags. Let’s see how we can avoid consumerism by using items found in our own home instead of clicking “Add To Cart”.

A fork and spoon from your kitchen drawer can do the job just as well as a new kit. Many foods already come in glass jars or bottles so you can save these from recycling and use them again yourself. Pasta sauce, pickles, vinegar, jelly, and some drinks can come in glass. Using a backpack, reusing plastic grocery bags, or a cardboard box can perform the same function as new canvas reusable bags. Not only do these diminish the demand for new products, they also save you money.

Be sure to check out my list of 50 (Free) Little Changes which focuses on making do with what you have before heading to the store or Amazon as well as behavioral changes which are both green and save you green.

If keeping busy isn’t enough, try turning using up what you have into a game. Occasionally I go through my apartment and make a list of what I still have to use up. It’s fun to do a kind of scavenger hunt for disposables, see what I’ve used up from last time, and try to guess how long each item has left.

Other Ways To Shop

What happens when you can’t avoid consumerism and do need something new? There’s a few possible solutions that still don’t mean buying new. Shopping secondhand either from online marketplaces or thrift stores has so many benefits. You get something that solves your problem, all while not contributing to new product demand and rescuing one from landfill. You can read more about the benefits of thrift shopping in this post.

While thrift shopping is great, especially for those of us who love to shop, there are other options too. You can ask your friends or family if they have something you need they’d be willing to part with. Have a clothing swap with friends to freshen up your wardrobe. Borrow books from the library instead of heading to Barnes & Noble. Do your best to contribute to a sharing economy instead of a single stream.

Another way to “shop” is by turning these new purchases into gifts you receive from others. This doesn’t avoid consumerism, but it does help reduce it. Instead of being gifted items you don’t want, you’ll ensure you’ll receive something sustainable, needed, and useful.

Keep Your “Why” In Mind

Lastly, before you make any purchases, think about how they will affect the reason you’ve chosen to go zero waste. I discuss finding your “why” in Part 5 of my recent series on How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste. Remembering this reason will keep you focused and avoid impulsive decisions.

For example, my “why” is protecting innocent wildlife. When I think about making a purchase, I think about how that purchase will affect (or has affected via production) wildlife. Did its raw materials come from land that used to be thriving animal habitat? At the end of the product’s life, is there a chance it ends up as plastic in the ocean, enticing fish and birds to eat it instead? The answers to these questions help me decide what purchases are worth it.

Things You Probably Don’t Need

There are also some items I recommend avoiding entirely. Special lunchboxes or stainless steel tiffins aren’t necessary. You can use containers or jars you currently have, or learn furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping, to protect your meal. 

Reusable napkins can be replaced with washcloths or hand towels you already own, or you can make your own our of old clothing. I pack a washcloth with my lunch every day, which also comes in handy to dry my containers after washing them out.

Charcoal sticks for your water in lieu of filter attachments are something that really confuse me. Most tap water is perfectly fine to drink (even many brands of bottled water are just tap water). You can perform a test at home if you are worried about it, but I just drink plain water from the tap.

At the grocery store, I try to avoid bags as much as possible. If I’m buying just a handful of items, I just carry them out with me. Although I do own a mesh produce bag (and use it for green beans), it’s generally not that necessary. Just keep your produce loose instead. I tend to use the self-checkout lanes when possible to avoid potentially annoying the cashiers with my unbagged produce, but it shouldn’t be an issue if you bring it to a cashier.

Conclusion

There are so many ways to avoid consumerism. You can learn to resist impulse buying, turn using up items into a game, shop secondhand, borrow, or just plain do without. Many zero waste swaps are living right under your nose already; sometimes you just need to get creative.

When it comes time to buy new, of course you should try to purchase from companies that align with your beliefs, but for the good of the planet, try to wait a little longer.

Need a few distractions to avoid consumerism? Check out these posts:

How To Avoid Consumerism While Going Zero Waste A woman holding too many shopping bags after giving in to impulse buying
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Vegan or Environmentalist Choices: Who's Right? A woman stands before two arrows pointing in opposite directions drawn on the pavement

Vegan Or Environmentalist Choices: Who’s Right?

Introduction

For many, veganism and environmentalism go hand in hand. Many who are vegan care about the environment, and many environmentalists eat a vegan or plant-based diet. These two ideals, however, sometimes butt heads. I’ve decided to look at which choices are better for animals and the environment.

As an environmentalist, I believe many vegans have lost sight of the bigger picture and have one goal in mind: do not use animal products no matter the cost. Using alternative products can have a much larger impact on the environment, including on the same animals vegan are trying to protect.

On the other hand, I had a couple changes of heart while writing this post and have learned the environmental, social, and animal welfare impacts of non-vegan options may be just as bad as or worse than the vegan option.

Both have their reasons and their flaws, which is why it is up to you to decide which options align best with your morals and ethics. Let’s take a look:

Foods

I’ve split the conflict between veganism and environmentalism for foods into two categories: food items and food packaging.

Food Items

Eggs

I still eat eggs every now and again. So long as the hens who lay them are treated ethically, I see little reason not to eat their eggs which would otherwise go to waste. That stipulation is important though as apparently not all ethical eggs are as ethical as they claim to be. It is important to note “cage free” usually still means hens are kept in overcrowded barns with no access to the outdoors.

“Free range” should be better and allow for ample outdoor roaming, but Nellie’s (owned by Pete and Gerry’s) is currently facing a lawsuit due to alleged overcrowding in their barns and little access to outside.

One qualm I have for believing these allegations is they were made by PETA, which is a horrible organization that euthanizes most animals they “rescue” yet accused Steve Irwin of abusing animals. In the future, I want to keep chickens for eggs so that I know exactly how they are being treated.

Honey

When I set out to write this post, I believed honey was perfectly fine to eat. I figured few to no bees were harmed in the process and beekeepers were just taking some excess honey. This is not always the case. Bees may get smashed and killed while retrieving the slabs of comb from the hives. Many times beekeepers will take extra honey and feed the bees sugar water during the winter as a replacement for the honey the bees had stolen from them.

It is a common belief that honeybees are critical to our food sources since they pollinate such a large portion of our crops; however, commercial honeybees are invasive and have led to dwindling populations of the thousands of wild bee species around the world. So although we should definitely be concerned with the bee population, we should not be concerned with the honeybee population used as agricultural tools and kept by humans.

As a final note on the problems with honey, most commercial honeybee populations are trucked to California each year to pollinate almond crops. Along with the transportation emissions involved, this trip is very strenuous on hives and many bees die because of it.

Food Packaging

For some vegans, especially many beginners, vegan substitutes are part of their daily diet. These vegan hot dogs and vegan cheeses are highly processed and come in plastic packaging. This isn’t necessarily a conflict so much as a warning. By eating whole food ingredients instead of packaged vegan alternatives, you will prevent a lot of waste from packaging and creating those items.

In the same vein, food packaging is an important concern. I first started changing my grocery list by trying to buy as little packaging as possible. Once I decided to try to be more vegan, I began to slack and ended up buying a lot of items in packaging just because they were vegan. So again, if you are vegan/plant-based, try to find as many whole food ingredients that are unpackaged as you can. Most produce items will have at least one version unpackaged.

Now there is a lot of data to suggest that while going vegan leads to the least carbon emissions, being just vegetarian/flexitarian or even subscribing to a Mediterranean diet is just about as good. Protein for a Mediterranean diet comes mainly from seafood, nuts, and legumes, and red meat is rarely on the table. So if you can’t let go of animal products, know you are still doing a lot for the planet by eating them in large moderation.

Materials

In my opinion, materials is where veganism and environmentalism really clash. As a vegan, beyond having a plant-based diet, you do not use any product from an animal. This includes materials like leather, silk, and fur, which all have vegan alternatives. Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

Leather and Pleather

Leather is mostly a byproduct material from the animal agriculture industry. In certain cases with unusual leathers (alligator or snake for instance) it is not a byproduct, but over 99% of leather comes from cows, pigs, and sheep. Now while leather is a current byproduct, if somehow the world demand for meat plummeted, leather demand could keep animals coming to slaughter.

There are many steps involved in processing leather, which can take up to 10 days. This process involves toxic chromium, which harms workers (many times child labor) and is dumped into rivers. In addition to the exposure to chemicals and pollutants, workers often face poor working conditions and are at high risk of injuries on the job.

Vegan leathers are plastics (PVC or Polyurethane) with production processes that are more harmful to the environment than real leather. PVC releases dioxins during production and is treated with phthalates which are a harmful to human health. The chemical process to create polyurethane is dangerous to human as it can cause breathing problems and cancer. Furthermore, as a plastic, vegan leather will never fully break down in the environment like organic leather will.

Silk, Nylon, and Polyester

Silk is an ancient material from Asia that is created from the material used by silkworm larvae to build their cocoons. To harvest the cocoons, silkworm larvae are boiled alive. The cocoons are then carefully unwound. Some companies do allow the the silkmoth to emerge before boiling, which as an animal activist, you would think is the best option. But thousands of years of domestication for silk production have harmed the silkworm. If left alone, the silkworm moth will emerge with no mouth to eat and wings that it cannot use to fly. It will mate if possible and die within a week.

Silk alternatives like nylon and polyester are manmade fibers (plastics) made from petroleum. Their production processes consume large amounts of energy. For example, nylon requires three times the amount of energy to produce as cotton. Polyester production alone consumes a whopping 70 million barrels of oil each year. These plastic fibers release N20, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Although viscose/rayon is a natural fiber, its production processes are energy and chemical intensive and cause harm to both workers and the environment.

In addition, microplastics are shed from garments in the wash and will not be caught before entering the natural environment (contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).

Fur and Faux Fur

There is a very feeble leg to stand on for environmentalists about the fur industry. Animals used for furs like minks, rabbits, and foxes, are farmed and killed solely for their pelts. They are kept in horrible conditions, and there is little regulation in the industry. Unfortunately, demand for furs has risen, especially in Asia, so the market is not feeling the pressure to stop their inhumane practices.

There are only two ways I would be comfortable buying a fur: 1) if it was from someone who trapped the animal, ate the animal, created the garment themselves, and is selling it as their source of income or 2) if it is a vintage piece secondhand. (Although I’m not too sure why I would ever need a fur since there are so many other types of fabrics I could use instead that have much less of an impact.)

Beyond that, the fur industry are hunters for profit and discard the body. Faux furs are usually plastic polymers like acrylic, which we know come from petroleum and have harmful manufacturing processes and will never fully degrade in the environment. There are, however, faux furs made from natural fibers.

The best option whenever buying clothing is to buy secondhand. In doing so, you are not contributing to demand for virgin fibers and lengthening the lifetime of existing garments. Vegan environmentalists should have no issue wearing secondhand leather, silk, or fur because not only are they not personally contributing to the demand of animal products but they are not requiring harmful processes to create vegan material alternatives.

Beyond textiles, there is the floss debate on whether to use biodegradable silk floss or cruelty free plastic floss. Luckily, Dental Lace has come out with a plant-based alternative to both floss options.

Beyond Production

We must also look at the end of an item’s lifecycle. Food packaging may or may not be recyclable, and even when it is, it may not get recycled anyway. Natural materials will biodegrade, but man-made plastic ones will not. Here is where I believe many vegans forget to look.

By contributing to waste, you are harming animals. The plastics that flow into the ocean, whether they are whole objects like tofu packaging that blew off the barge on its way to Asia or the microplastics that were released from a pair of nylon tights in the washing machine, are harming the ocean biome.

Plastics are being eaten by everything from tiny plankton to albatrosses to blue whales. They die of starvation for mistaking plastics for food or of complications relating to plastics stuck in their digestive tracts.

The need for more landfill space will require destruction of natural habitat and kill off entire populations of animals. Vegans must think not only of how production affects animals but also of how the item will affect them after its useful life is over.

Conclusion

As you can see, every option has pros and cons. What’s best for you may be different than what’s best for someone else. Make sure to keep yourself educated about the products you are purchasing, ask questions, and look at the bigger picture of the lifecycle of those items.

So what do you think? Does avoiding animal cruelty in production outweigh the environmental impacts of alternative products? Where do you draw the line on animal products? If you are vegan, do you or would you buy secondhand animal textiles?

Vegan or Environmentalist Choices: Who's Right? A woman stands before two arrows pointing in opposite directions drawn on the pavement
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All About Our Energy orange sunset on a field of wind turbines that generate clean, renewable energy

All About Our Energy

Introduction

Electricity powers our world, but how much do we actually know about where it comes from? What energy resources are we using to fuel our society, and what do they mean for our environment? How can we ensure a sustainable future without sacrificing the technology and comforts of our modern world?

Energy Stats – Questions Answered

How Much Energy Do We Use?

Our energy use has been steadily increasing for decades due to our ever-growing population and technological advancements (all those cell phones need charging!). The graph below from the Global Energy Statistic Yearbook 2019 shows how worldwide energy consumption has increased over 50% in under 40 years.

Worldwide Energy Consumption graph from the Global Energy Statistic Yearbook 2019
Credit: Enerdata

China and the US have been the main parties responsible for increases in energy consumption. China has been undergoing a massive economic boom for the past couple decades and has required more and more energy for its industry and transportation sectors. In fact, China has been the world’s #1 consumer of energy since 2009.

Our consumption of fossil fuels has grown exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. According to Our World in Data, global consumption of fossil fuels has increased over six-fold since the 1950s.

Where Does Our Energy Come From?

Despite the recent ushering in of an era of renewable energy, three quarters of the world’s energy consumption is still from non-renewable sources (fossil fuels). In the US, just under 2/3 of energy produced in 2018 was fossil fuels which include petroleum, natural gas, and coal. The table below shows the official breakdown by energy source.

Renewable energy, however, is gaining steam due to decreased costs and increased efficiency, as well as the push from environmentalists concerned about our use of finite natural resources like coal. The graph below is from the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook 2017 and shows the upward trend of renewables and natural gas (now being touted by the industry as a cleaner alternative to oils and coal, but it is still finite and harmful to our planet) as well as the slow decline of coal.

As far as energy production is concerned, five states (Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Idaho, and Hawaii) have already switched to 100% renewables. Oregon is just a tiny bit behind at 99.8%. This does not mean, however, they are consuming 100% renewables.

Worldwide, China and the US are the top two countries using renewable energy with China skyrocketing past all other countries with over twice the gigawatt-hours used compared to second place US. Below is a list of the top 15 countries using renewables from the World Atlas.

World Atlas Top 15 Countries Using Renewable Energy Table
Credit: World Atlas

Where Are We Using Our Energy?

So now that we know just how much energy we are using and what sources it comes from, let’s look at where all that energy is being put to use. The US Energy Information Administration’s table below shows the breakdown of energy consumption by sector. The industrial and transportation sectors together are consistently consuming nearly 50% more energy than residential and commercial sectors.

The Global Energy Outlook also looked at energy use by sector, but combined residential and commercial into a “buildings” category. This graph below emphasizes how global industrial activities consume the lion’s share of energy and highlights the need for investment in and utilization of renewables.

With this knowledge, we will now take a deeper look at each of our main energy sources to learn more about their growth or decline, how they create electricity, and their respective environmental concerns.

Energy Sources – From Fossil Fuels To New Technologies

Although there are many more energy sources, this post will cover the most common: fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar. This order mirrors the US breakdown of energy sources.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are a large category containing fuels like oils, natural gas, coal, and other gases. These fuels are hydrocarbons formed in the earth’s crust from organic materials under pressure, which can be burned for heat or to power turbines to generate electricity. The rate of fossil fuel use has continued to increase despite environmental concerns and cheapening renewable energy sources.

Beyond Coal

While coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on earth, natural gas and petroleum have grown in popularity and overtook coal in the mid-1900s. Natural gas consumption has grown in recent years mainly due to China and US, and the US is the #1 producer of natural gas in the world. While burning coal and oil produces carbon dioxide, burning natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times worse than CO2.

Crude oil production increased 2% worldwide in 2018 and increased 16.5% in US alone. In that year, the US consumed 142.86 billion gallons of gas. Our World in Data has a ton of graphs breaking down our fossil fuel usage over the years and are definitely worth checking out.

Environmental Concerns

There are many problems with using fossil fuels. As a finite resource, at some point we will entirely run out of these resources. The processes by which fossil fuels are extracted harm the environment. For instance, fracking not only using a lot of water which gets polluted with chemicals and seeps into the environment, but it also makes areas more susceptible to earthquakes and releases methane into the atmosphere. Fracking, rotary drilling, and directional drilling make it easier to extract hard-to-obtain deposits, meaning as resources become scarce, companies will begin to rely more heavily on these processes.

The burning of fossil fuels also releases greenhouse gases, both CO2 and methane. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “[a]tmospheric CO2 concentrations fluctuated between 275 and 290 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of dry air between 1000 CE and the late 18th century but increased to 316 ppmv by 1959 and rose to 412 ppmv in 2018“. The Department of Energy has stated that in the past two decades, nearly 75% of all human-caused emissions are from burning fossil fuels.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear is a tricky subject. While technically a zero emissions and very reliable source of energy, it does have a waste problem that is currently not solved and exposing the environment to radiation is a big concern. Some people are for nuclear and others are heavily against it, but it is clear the general public has a large misunderstanding of what nuclear is and isn’t. Let’s take a look.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power has existed for over 60 years. In the US, nuclear power makes up about 20% of our energy and 55% of carbon-free energy. Nuclear is a very reliable resource because unlike solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants can work 24/7. The Nuclear Energy Institute says “wind farms require 360 times more land area to produce the same amount of electricity and solar photovoltaic plants require 75 times more space“.

Currently three states get over 50% of their power from nuclear: South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Illinois. Nationwide there are 98 reactors, but some are closing (such as the Plymouth nuclear plant in Massachusetts which shut down last year).

Power is generated through nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atoms of uranium. Uranium is surrounded by water, and the reactor causes the atoms split and release heat. This energy heats the water and creates the steam which powers turbines that generate electricity.

Nuclear Waste

Contrary to popular belief, the “smoke” rising out of the iconic nuclear power plant towers is just that steam being released into the atmosphere. There are also no toxic barrels of glowing green goo. Nuclear waste is a super dense solid, and the entirety of the US’s nuclear waste from past 60 years could fit in a 10 foot deep football field.

A huge concern with nuclear power is the risk of radiation. Radioactive emissions can enter both the air and the water and pose a serious health concern. Although plants are designed such that radiation cannot reach someone outside the plant, nuclear power plants are required to check for radiation around a facility in soils and bodies of water for contamination. Despite these regulations, nuclear power plants are not required to give advance notification to the public when radioactive materials are transported from the plant.

Scientists agree the best solution for nuclear waste is to bury it. Because the US has yet to establish a permanent holding facility, nuclear waste is stored in multiple temporary facilities across the country. Despite Congress designating Yucca Mountain (100 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada) as the nation’s permanent nuclear waste holding facility way back in 1987, the facility has yet to be licensed and is still a contested solution to the nuclear waste problem.

Temporary facilities cost tax payers millions of dollars, but shipping all the 536 tons of waste to Yucca Mountain would be no easy task. It would take decades to transport everything by rail through the heart of Las Vegas to the facility, and some scientists worry the waste may contaminate groundwater of surrounding communities.

Hydropower

Hydropower is the oldest renewable energy source and is by far the most popular. While China uses over three times as much as the US, hydropower accounts for around 7% of energy produced in the US. Washington state, however, gets around 75% of its electricity just from hydropower. Hydropower can be split into two categories: traditional hydropower (dams) and new hydrokinetic power (tidal power technologies).

Traditional Hydropower

Traditional hydropower uses a dam or other diversion structure to harness the flow of water for electricity generation. The most iconic dam is the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Constructed as part of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam produces around 4 billion kWh per year, enough to serve 1.3 million people in the area.

Although hydropower itself doesn’t contribute to air pollution, chemical runoff, or toxic waste, the construction of dams can negatively affect the environment. Dams can prevent fish migration, slow river flow, trap materials like logs, stones, sediment, and heat water which can kill wildlife. Dams can also change the landscape upstream and downstream by causing upstream flooding, creating upstream reservoirs, and reducing downstream flow volume.

Hydrokinetic Energy Technologies

According to the Department of Energy, “[m]arine and hydrokinetic energy technologies convert the energy of waves, tides, and river and ocean currents into electricity“. Hydrokinetic technologies include machines that harness the up and down motion of waves to move a piston to power a turbine, overtopping devices where water breaks over a barrier and drains out at the bottom powering a turbine, or an underwater turbine harnessing the flow of water much like wind turbines harness the flow of air. Unfortunately, these technologies are still in an infancy stage and require lots of funding before being they are able to be applied on a larger scale.

Wind Power

Although wind is slightly behind hydropower in terms of production in the US, wind power has the largest capacity of all renewable resources (enough to power 25 million homes!). There are utility-scale wind farms in 41 states, and wind power distribution is in all 50 states and in the territories.

It is projected that wind will make up 10% of energy mix nationwide this year as coal drops to 23%. In fact, wind will actually beat out coal power in Texas. According to the Department of Energy, “[w]ind energy provides more than 10% of total electricity generation in 14 states, and more than 30% in Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma“.

In 2016, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to build an offshore wind farm. With regards to my home state of Massachusetts, Governor Baker signed into law the requirement for a study for the “necessity, benefits, and costs” of offshore wind in Massachusetts by July 31, 2019. This study recommended and requires electricity distributors to solicit another 1,600 MW of offshore wind on top of the 1,600 MW of offshore wind authorized under The Act to Promote Energy Diversity in Massachusetts in 2016. Currently 45 towns have large-scale wind turbines in Massachusetts.

The overall capacity of all wind turbines installed worldwide by the end of 2018 reached 597 Gigawatt.” There has been major recent growth in China, Brazil, and India as well as African markets. China’s capacity is over 200 GW, followed by the US (96 GW), Germany (59 GW), India (35 GW), and the UK (20.7 GW).

Solar

Although we may think of solar as something relatively new, the first photovoltaic solar cell was invented by Bell Laboratories back in 1954. Right away, NASA began using to power its satellites like Vanguard 1.

Solar is the most abundant energy resource on earth, and demand for solar power has increased over 23 times in just the past 8 years. The cost of a PV system in US has decreased nearly 60% in the past decade. Today there are over 2 million individual setups ranging from home roofs to utility-scale solar farms throughout the US which are enough to power over 13 million homes.

There are actually three main solar power technologies: photovoltaic (PV), solar heating and cooling (SHC), and concentrating solar power (CSP). Here is a quick breakdown:

  • Photovoltaics: “Electrons in [semiconductors] are freed by solar energy and can be induced to travel through an electrical circuit, powering electrical devices or sending electricity to the grid.”
  • Solar Heating and Cooling: “Solar heating & cooling (SHC) technologies collect the thermal energy from the sun and use this heat to provide hot water, space heating, cooling, and pool heating for residential, commercial, and industrial applications.”
  • Concentrating Solar Power: “Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that create electricity.”

Energy Use Tips – Doing Your Part To Conserve Resources

So what can you do to conserve energy and reduce your dependence on fossil fuels? Let’s look at some behavioral changes, product replacements, and activism to get you started.

Behavioral Changes

In 2010, 72 percent of the energy used in the average US household went to water heating and space heating and cooling. To reduce this energy, we need to step a little outside our comfort zones.

  • Take shorter showers
  • Take cooler showers
  • Wash laundry on cold or warm
  • Wash dishes in cooler water
  • Wear more clothes and blankets in the winter instead of turning the heat up
  • Open the windows at night in summer to cool the house
  • Use curtains to block the sun in the summer and keep out the cold air in the winter
  • Use fans over A/C
  • Spend time in the basement during the summers
  • Use draft stoppers under doors and around windows in winter
  • Have friends over in winter to warm up the house

In addition to heating and cooling tips, here are some other energy savings behaviors.

  • Turn off DVR box and other appliances that suck energy when sitting idle
  • Turn off lights when not needed and use natural lighting when you can
  • Schedule your day around sunlight hours
  • Switch your energy provider to one that uses renewable energy
  • Place electronics in power save mode
  • Dim the brightness on your phone and don’t leave Bluetooth on
  • Buy local to reduce the energy for transportation of that item
  • Drive less and bundle shopping trips into a multi-stop loop
  • Take the stairs over taking the elevator when you can manage a couple flights of stairs
  • Find low-energy hobbies like knitting, reading, or exercising to replace things like video game and watching TV
  • Take vacations closer to home or choose to have a stay-cation

More behavioral changes and other tips for reducing energy waste and physical waste can be found here!

Product Replacements

Items are becoming more energy efficient every year so when it comes time to replace an item, do your research to find the best one for your budget.

  • Opt for Energy Star-rated products (stove/oven, refrigerators, microwaves, laptops, etc.) and WaterSense fixtures (shower heads, toilets, faucets)
  • Line dry the laundry
  • Look for products that can multitask (e.g. a video game console can also be a DVD player, some blenders have a food processor attachment)
  • Don’t replace items you don’t really use once they eventually break
  • Buy rechargeable batteries
  • Use a solar-powered cellphone charger

Activism

Getting involved in your community and in politics can help spur larger change beyond your household use.

  • Write to companies to encourage better energy use practices
  • Vote in local, regional, and national elections
  • Write your politicians to provide your opinion on energy
  • Join an organization like Sierra Club
  • Join a climate protest

Conclusion

With a growing global population and the rise of technology, our demand for energy will continue to increase. Our best bet is to source our energy from renewables and use it efficiently.

What other ways can we reduce our dependence on electricity and energy? What surprised you the most about our energy use? Let me know in the comments!

All About Our Energy orange sunset on a field of wind turbines that generate clean, renewable energy
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How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A seabird sitting among fishing waste may be all you need to help in finding your "why" to go green

How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste – Part 5

Introduction

Now we’ve reached the finale in the How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series. This final part will focus on finding that one (or two or three) reasons to keep going in spite of the negativity you sometimes face. After deciding to start making small changes, setting goals, learning to handle pessimism, and finding your “why”, you can head into the world fully equipped to reduce your footprint today, tomorrow, and for as long as you can.

Read Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 if you haven’t yet.

Part 5 – Finding Your “Why”

One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes “to be more sustainable” isn’t enough to stay motivated. You have to look deeper. Why is sustainability important to you? What motivates you to keep going? Why are you really doing this?

There’s plenty of ways to answer those questions, and it all depends on what matters to you. In this final post of the series, I’ll dive in to a handful of reasons you might decide to keep as your “why” to living a low impact lifestyle.

Wildlife

This one is first because it is my personal reason why. I think about it whenever I am presented with a choice. I think about it whenever I use a single use item. It hurts to know that what we are doing to innocent wildlife around the globe is because of our greed or our carelessness.

Finding my “why” wasn’t really intentional. It became clear while watching some documentaries.

Garbage Island

Two documentaries hit me hard when it came to our impact on wildlife. They both are part of my List of Must Watch Eco-Documentaries. The first is Garbage Island, a documentary produced by Vice about the Giant Pacific Garbage Path.

It angered me that hundreds of miles away from any civilization there were bits of plastic floating around like a soup. It made me so sad seeing fish swimming it in and learning what harm those little bits can cause. While some of the litter is caused by average people, most is due to the fishing industry. In one scene, they pulled out this giant ball of knotted up nets. Clearly we need to hold others accountable too (and eat less seafood!).

Blue Planet 2

The second is Blue Planet 2 (available on Netflix). David Attenborough and the team did a remarkable job on showing our effects below the water’s surface. The episode on coral reefs brought me to tears. They showed a reef transition from thriving and colorful to bleached and abandoned. The real problem? It occurred within the time they were filming, not years or decades but months.

In another episode, a scientist discussed her research with birds eating plastic and feeding it to their young. How could we not care about what we are doing to this planet?

Thousands of animals are killed each year due to the effects of plastic waste, thousands more due to habitat loss and pollution. An estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost each year while 80% of plant and animal species reside in forests. There are hundreds of dead zones around the globe where life literally can’t exist anymore. We can’t keep doing this.

Environmentalism

Combating pollution and climate change on their own can also be your why. You can actively work toward protecting the planet and preserving its wild, natural landscapes.

Every year 18 billion tons of plastic flows into the ocean from our waterways. Our trash washes up on untouched islands thousands of miles away. Transportation and industry pollute our air. Oil spills contaminate entire ecosystems and are very hard to clean up. You can’t even take a walk around your neighborhood without seeing dozens of scraps of litter.

Deforestation is a major problem the environment is facing. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 18 million acres of forest are cleared each year to make way for human development, whether grazing for animals, fields for crops (like palm oil), or urban sprawl.

Tropical rainforests are targeted more so than any other biome. This is particularly unsettling since rainforests account for just 2% of total area on earth but contain so many species not found elsewhere.

There are multiple ways living sustainably helps the environment. You can eat local foods and buy local products to cut out transportation pollution. Reducing your own transportation pollution and saving energy will also help the planet. Eating organic foods eliminates herbicides and pesticides from harming the surrounding region.

By reducing your waste, you reduce the amount left behind after you die. You can also get politically active by running for office or joining or starting an environmental group in your area to fight climate change.

Human Rights

I’ve split human rights into two categories in hopes it’ll make finding your “why” a bit easier by making it something more specific.

Workers’ Rights

Mass production not only harms the environment, but it directly harms us humans as well by relying on cheap labor in unsafe facilities. The most famous incident occurred in 2013, where Rana Plaza collapsed and killed over 1,000 people. These workers often make pennies despite working long hours, and most are restricted to a life of extreme poverty.

Areas surrounding the factories are often subject to pollution from the production process placing even more stress on those who live and work there. In addition to low pay and poor conditions, workers are often not paid for overtime and subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

I encourage you to watch “The True Cost“, a documentary about fast fashion and its impact on workers’ lives. This documentary was one of the main reasons I have turned to thrift stores for most of my clothing needs. I couldn’t justify the “great” deals when I know someone was paid just a tiny fraction of that low cost. Besides, secondhand clothing is usually cheaper than or at least comparable to new clothing.

Disproportionate Effects

Pollution and climate change disproportionately affects the poor and those who have contributed the least to the problem. Natural disasters brought on by climate change are harder on those who cannot afford to rebuild or move. Aid disproportionately goes to homeowners and wealthier neighborhoods instead of the communities who need it more.

Health conditions caused by pollution are more serious for those who have little to no access to healthcare. Trash from developed countries clogs up waterways in poorer countries. Factories pollute the areas in which their cheap labor live.

Our disposable lifestyle is killing our own species both directly through labor and pollution and indirectly through climate change. If that isn’t a reason to change, I don’t know what is.

Personal Health

Still having trouble finding your “why”? Perhaps you need still something that hits a little closer to home: your own health. Plastics contain toxins and endocrine inhibitors that can leech into our food and bodies. Cutting plastic out of your life not only reduces waste that will remain on the planet for thousands of years, but it will also lead to a healthier life.

Choosing natural products (cleaners, beauty products, etc.) also prevents breathing in or absorbing chemicals. Plants can purify the air and provide natural foods.

A whole foods, plant-based diet is healthier than the average diet. Without sugary processed foods and meats filled with saturated fats, you can lose weight and reduce your risk for many health issues. Exercise from driving less is another health benefit.

Besides reducing toxins and being physically healthier, a sustainable lifestyle can lead to increased mental health. Living simplistically reduces clutter which can cause stress and requires more of your time to clean, organize, and manage.

Without all those items, you’ll have less to worry about and more time to focus on you. Studies show exercise and diet reduce depression and increase confidence. Reducing your footprint will not only improve your life but those around you as well (see all the previous reasons above).

Conclusion

Finding your “why” is the final step in starting to go zero waste. No matter what your reason, you must hold onto it and look to it in times of frustration. Let it give you the determination to better yourself and the planet, and let it drive you forward when you stumble and feel like it isn’t worth it. Although you are just one person, your choices do matter.

Do you have a reason why I didn’t cover? Share it below!

Be sure to read the previous parts in the series! Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A seabird sitting among fishing waste may be all you need to help in finding your "why" to go green
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How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A black door with a white sign saying "Be Optimistic" to encourage avoiding pessimism in life

How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste – Part 4

Introduction

At this point, you’ve chosen to start making small changes and wrote out your lists of goals. As time passes, you’ll get to congratulate yourself on your successes, but you’ll also run into negativity that can make those goals hard to stick to. Part 4 in my How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series addresses various ways of avoiding pessimism caused by feelings of inadequacy, eco-anxiety, and judgement. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 before continuing.

Part 4 – Avoiding Pessimism

You see the effects of human existence more and more each day. From litter on the street to oil spills and mass deforestation, humans are dirty and the general public still seems to be moving in the wrong direction. The news on TV is depressing and the little voice in your head asks, “Are we too late?” But even when you turn to like-minded communities, you can be met with discouragement.

Something I’ve noticed since sustainability has become trendy and more mainstream is that it often ends up discouraging people by setting up high expectations and unattainable goals. So many times I have come across this statement “I’m not anywhere close to zero waste, but [insert a whole list of great things they do for the environment]”.

I myself fallen victim to its perfectionist tone. We try to be truthful about our current situation and misrepresent our carbon footprint, but on the flip side, we convince ourselves we aren’t good enough. Despite everyone saying that zero is just a goal and not something anyone can actually do, the lasting impacts of trash jars compared to your big garbage bag are much more resonant.

I wrote this post not too long after performing one of my occasional audits of everything disposable I own and what’s in my trash. It made me disheartened. I was comparing myself to others who are so much better than me, even if it’s only because they’ve been at it longer, and I became upset that I wasn’t doing enough.

I feel like a lot of us fall into this at some point, feeling like we aren’t doing enough and what we are doing isn’t making a difference. In this post, I’ll discuss five tips for avoiding pessimism about both your personal future and the planet’s.

Stop Comparing

This is something all humans do naturally. We compare ourselves to others to see how good we are, and it can be a handy device. But when you’re comparing entirely different living situations, it becomes like apples and oranges. I have always liked this quote:

“Don’t compare your Chapter 1 to someone else’s Chapter 20.”

And something to add to that is “You aren’t even reading the same book.”

Some of us have access to bulk bins and money to spend on those items, but some of us don’t (see How to Shop without Bulk Bins). Some of us live with others who control certain aspects of your situation (see Living with Non-Zero Waste People). And some of us don’t live near farmers markets or public transportation.

Every situation is different, and you can’t sit there and throw a pity party because someone’s seemingly doing a bit better. By comparing yourself to others instead of focusing on yourself and what you can control, you will end up discouraging yourself from doing better.

Work Through The Judgement

It’s going to be impossible to avoid some type of judgement during this journey. Waiters may look at you funny when you pull out your container from home and start scooping in leftovers. Your family may push back against wishes for sustainable alternatives or trips to farmers markets or thrift shops. You may be told you’re a hippie for working toward a better life.

You just have to keep going.

Don’t let words or looks discourage you. If you’re confident enough, take these moments as a chance to explain why you’re making these changes. Start up a conversation, but avoid being preachy and holier-than-thou. If you prefer to stay silent, lead by example.

If you’re struggling with pushback from people in your household, check out my post on Living with Non-Zero Waste People for more information on how to encourage others to start making changes and focusing on your own journey by continuing to make the decisions you can control.

Focus On What You Can Control

Like I said, everyone lives a different life. There’s no point in getting stuck on the fact that you don’t have a grocer with bulk bins. You can still limit the amount of packaging you purchase. You can still choose to walk or bike instead of driving if your destination is just down the road. You can still refuse, refuse, refuse trash from coming into your life.

There’s no set instruction manual on reducing your impact on the earth. If you can’t make some certain change in your life, move on to the next idea but keep that skipped one in the back of your mind. Maybe someday you can make that change once something in your life changes.

It’s okay if you can’t do everything right this minute. What matters is that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have.

Reflect On How Far You’ve Come

The only comparing you should be doing is to your past self. Everyone needs a little building up sometimes. When I start feeling like I’m not doing enough, I list out some changes I have made and think about what impact those have had.

I think about all those plastic bags I didn’t bring home from the grocery store and those foam takeout clamshells I refused at restaurants in favor of the container I brought.

I also think about the community and all the good they have done. This isn’t a contest; we’re a team. It isn’t about who can generate the least trash in a year. It isn’t about who can own the most eco-friendly products. This is a movement toward ensuring a better future for our planet.

So many people have taken steps, however few or small, to better this planet we live on, and that number is growing. Remembering the good we have done encourages me to seek out more changes I can make in my personal life.

Find Solutions And Work Toward Them

If looking back on what you have already done doesn’t work, look forward! After I completed that trash audit I mentioned, I went through the list and tried to find solutions to reduce its length  the next time I audit myself. My free trash audit worksheet not only helps you document waste, but it also helps you brainstorm solutions. Click here to get yours!

For example, I noticed I eat a lot of single serving snacks, so I decided to cut back on them and eat foods that come with less packaging (portioning out from a larger container, choosing different foods entirely, etc.). Now it’s rare for me to eat single serve foods, and I meal prep most weeks.

Although my bathroom still has quite a few plastic items, it makes me happy knowing they will not be replaced once finished. I’ve used up all my body wash and have switched to bar soap, I’ve switched to bamboo toothbrushes, and I can’t wait to switch to compostable floss hopefully sometime this year.

In the meantime, I can busy myself with working on reducing my impact in other ways so I don’t have time to even worry about what someone else might be doing better. By keeping busy with yourself and hopes for the future, avoiding pessimism will become easier and easier.

Conclusion

Using these tips has stopped me multiple times from giving up on trying to live the lifestyle I want. Sometimes we just need a reminder that we’re on the same team, we can only do what we can do, and we can still keep moving forward.

The key to avoiding pessimism comes down to one thing: remembering why you’re doing this in the first place, which is the topic for the fifth and final post in the How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series. We’ll finish it up on next week!

How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A black door with a white sign  saying "Be Optimistic" to encourage avoiding pessimism in life
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How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A notebook with 'Start today.' written in pink pen to encourage others

How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste – Part 3

Introduction

So you’ve started making some small changes to ease into this new zero waste lifestyle, but how do you keep track of them and hold yourself accountable? That’s where Part 3 in my How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series comes in. Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2. In this post, I’ll teach you how to set goals with various deadlines to stay motivated and constantly learning as you continue making progress.

Part 3 – Setting Goals

Doesn’t it feel great crossing off items on your to do list? When I started out, I created a list of goals I wanted to accomplish within six months. I also kept a set of weekly goals written up each Saturday or Sunday and challenged myself to accomplish all of them by the following weekend. This gave me motivation to start making the changes I wanted, both big and small.

6 Month Goals

These goals weren’t created necessarily with the idea they would be met within six months, but looking back at the list, this amount of time made sense. These goals were mostly with respect to making changes to lower my carbon footprint while my weekly goals were usually learning opportunities with some other things mixed in.

Some of these goals ended up on the weekly lists and got checked off that way. Others were a result of a change in accessibility (graduating college and moving) or running out of the plastic version of an item and needing to buy a better version.

My List

  1. Carry around silverware and containers just in case
  2. Visit thrift stores
  3. Look for package-less foods/choose better snacks
  4. Bring your own cup
  5. Refuse everything disposal (flyers, free items, plate with free food)
  6. Start experimenting with list of DIY recipes
  7. Use up all currently owned plastic-packaged products
  8. Donate/Sell/Toss a lot of items (move toward minimalism)
  9. Visit local food co-op to take notes on prices and products
  10. Start gardening or at least keeping plants alive
  11. Buy reusable pads/menstrual cup
  12. Start meal prepping
  13. Start composting

While some of these items just required a few minutes to check off, others required a much longer time commitment and/or depended on accessibility.

I still haven’t been able to cross of gardening, and I still have a lot of packaged items to get through, but I’m working on it. These things take time, and just because I didn’t cross them off within the 6 month period doesn’t mean I’ve failed.

Weekly Goals

These goals were meant to keep myself on track and in the know each week. Like I mentioned, I also had the occasional 6-month goal on my list for the week. Carrying silverware and containers was a really easy goal to complete in a week, but I also moved visiting the thrift stores and food co-op to my weekly lists.

Sample Week 1

  1. Watch at least 7 YouTube videos this week
  2. Check blogs and YouTube channels for new content
  3. Comment at least 2 times on environmental subreddits
  4. Have at least 7 vegan meals this week
  5. Sign up for a volunteering event

Sample Week 2

  1. Watch a documentary this week (Cowspiracy)
  2. Check blogs and YouTube channels for new content
  3. Visit the food co-op and make notes about bulk items
  4. Have at least 15 vegan meals this week
  5. Buy only vegan and/or low packaged foods this week

Changes Over Time

As the weeks ticked by, I gradually increased the difficulty of my goals, but that’s only because they were becoming too easy! I think I started out with 5 vegan meals per week and added more every couple weeks or so, but then I switched to almond milk and boom! All my breakfasts became vegan, so I had to up the ante.

(Just a side note: I have been vegetarian for over a decade before choosing to make a large, conscious effort to living sustainably. Adding a few vegetarian meals a week is still a very great goal if you still eat meat!)

The inverse of that is I gradually decreased the amount of time spent reading blogs and watching videos. I had learned so much that I only needed to check in and skim articles every once in a while instead of reading each post in full. Instead I added action items like cleaning the litter on my street or taking trips to the farmers market. I started researching deeper into topics I liked and searching for answers to questions I had instead of clicking on the next video in line.

Your Own Goals

To start setting goals for yourself, take a look at your lifestyle. What are the areas of your current life you’d like to change? Go through each room of your home or think about what things you do each day to find out where you can make improvements. Complete a trash audit and see where you can reduce physical waste. Click here to receive a free trash audit worksheet to get started!

Questions to Answer

When you start writing up your own lists, keep these questions in mind.

  1. What resources does this goal require for completion?
  2. What is the carbon footprint of this goal?
  3. Is this goal feasible in the time allotted?
  4. Does this goal depend on things beyond my control?
  5. What will I get out of completing this goal?

With regards to the carbon footprint of goals based on purchases, try answering these questions:

  1. Where and who are you buying from?
  2. How are you getting there or how is it coming to you?
  3. Is there a better option? More ethical? More sustainable? Compostable?
  4. Can you do without it?

Again, planning is necessary. Look at your options and do some research beforehand to make sure this is the best way for you to complete this goal.

Breaking Up Goals

If a goal requires resources, perhaps split it up into multiple smaller goals. Maybe you need to make a trip to the store to purchase ingredient for your DIY toothpaste recipe. Maybe you need to set aside time on the weekend to stop by the farmers market. Or maybe you need plan out your meals for the week to ensure you buy enough for your vegetarian/vegan meals. Set yourself up for success and know what steps you need to take to check off that item.

Making Your Goals Manageable

I also had to look at what I could accomplish at that point in time. I wasn’t going to go vegan overnight (and I’m still not vegan) so I started small and worked my way up to eating a more plant-based diet.

My goals also depended on my week. If I had exams, maybe we lower the number of videos I should watch. I don’t mean to sound like I skimped out and made it easy for myself. My weekly goals still required time and behavioral commitments, and once they felt too easy I made them harder. But I didn’t set the bar so high as to make my goals impossible.

When I wrote up my 6 month goal list, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to mark some off for a while. I was still in college and couldn’t feasibly compost or grow plants yet. It didn’t make sense to start trying out DIY recipes yet because not only did I still have conditioner and toothpaste and whatnot, but I also need to be able to pack everything up in a car to move home and the less items I had the better.

So these goals needed more time and different conditions, but I made sure they stayed on the list because someday soon I might have the opportunity to cross them off. I kept them as a reminder there’s still something to reach for. We can all keep learning and making progress, no matter how far we’ve already come.

Motivation

Finally you have to keep in mind why you are working toward this goal. Is it to learn something new? To finally make that one change you keep telling yourself you’d make? To reduce your food waste? Whatever the reason, use it to motivate you throughout the week, month, or year until you can make that check mark.

Conclusion

Setting goals is important for multiple reasons. First, you create a plan instead of going in blind. Second, you hold yourself accountable. Third, you give yourself something to strive for. And finally, you get a little surge of satisfaction from achieving them that will keep you moving forward.

What are some of your goals? How will you accomplish them?

While goals can give you motivation for going zero waste, there’s still a lot of doubt and judgement you may find yourself facing along the way. On Friday, I’ll discuss how to avoid pessimism in Part 4 of How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste. Stay tuned!

How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A notebook with 'Start today.' written in pink pen to encourage others
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How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste Part 2 Blue neon sign glowing 'For The World'

How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste – Part 2

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Introduction

Now that we’ve learned how to overcome what’s stopping us from making changes, let’s dive in to Part 2 of How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Although you’ll want to dive straight in, starting small and progressively making larger changes will greatly reduce eco-guilt and feeling overwhelmed with change.

Part 2 – Starting Small

Rome wasn’t built in a day. You won’t be able to change your entire lifestyle overnight, and that’s okay. Despite taking longer, making small changes in the beginning will ease you in to a low waste lifestyle. Tackle one area of your life at a time, make your changes become habitual, and move onto the next. This way you are constantly building on successes instead of becoming overwhelmed trying to do everything all at once.

Essentials

The following quick essentials can be used daily and can instantly cut down on your waste production. Find a suitable water bottle to carry with you. Throw a fork from your kitchen drawer into your bag, and keep it wrapped in a cloth napkin or better yet, in a container for takeaway leftovers. Keep a reusable grocery bag in your car or on your coat rack so you never forget to bring it shopping. A more in-depth list and discussion can be found in my Sustainable Living Essentials post.

Your Essentials

You should first determine what essentials are essential for you. I don’t drink coffee, so a reusable coffee mug isn’t on my list. But maybe you can’t live without your daily cup of joe; everyone’s needs are different. Don’t buy items you can live without. Below is a list of essential items that may apply to your lifestyle.

  1. Water Bottle
  2. Coffee Mug
  3. Reusable Straws
  4. Eating Utensils
  5. Reusable bags
  6. Cloth Napkins and Handkerchiefs
  7. Cleaning Rags and Natural Dish Brushes
  8. Mason Jars and Other Food Containers
  9. Bamboo Toothbrush
  10. Wooden Hairbrush
  11. Reusable Feminine Products (cup, pads, underwear)
  12. Safety Razor

Sustainable Consumerism

Before buying new, see what you already own or what your friends and family own. Swapping items with others is a great way to reduce demand for new products, reduce clutter, and teach others about sustainable living practices.

If you have no luck, visit a secondhand shop. Clean items thoroughly before use. I love secondhand shopping because there’s always a new selection, I save money, and I save items from the landfill. Check out 8 Reasons to Thrift Shop.

Behaviors

In addition to material items, small behavioral changes like I discussed in the first part of this series are a great way to start going zero waste with limited resources. Creating new habits for yourself is refreshing and builds confidence for larger changes that will come later.

Easy Changes

Many changes are easy and require nothing but diligence. Setting your washing machine to cold instead of hot takes two seconds but saves a lot of energy, and you don’t even have to think about it after setting it once. Take shorter or more infrequent showers. Refuse free items that will just clutter your home or be tossed in the trash. Leave your produce bagless. These changes not only save resources but also save you time. My list of 50 (FREE!) Little Changes to Live Sustainably is mostly made up of behavioral changes like these.

Harder Changes (But Doable!)

But some changes require more thought or planning to become habitual. If you eat out every day for lunch, gradually start bringing your own food from home. No need to spend time cooking specifically for your lunch; I just make extra servings of what I have for dinner, which hardly adds any additional time.

Planning out what you will eat every week can cut down on food waste and extra trips to the grocery store. Meal prepping cuts out a reason to eat out and can be effective at using up extra ingredients which would likely go bad before you otherwise got to them. For more food waste saving ideas, head over to this post!

In the Information Age, we spend a lot of time watching a screen. I think it’s important to schedule some time to be outdoors and be active. This is good for your body and reduces energy needs. Walk when you used to drive if it isn’t too far. Spend quality time with friends and family without the need for screens. Even just reading books instead of scrolling through Facebook is a better option.

Learning

I’m sure it’s the reason you’re reading this post. You want to learn all you can about how to start going zero waste and transition your lifestyle. I started in a similar way, absorbing as much information as I could. I watched videos, read blogs and books, and watched documentaries. By learning about what’s happening to our planet, you can get motivated to start your personal journey to living a more sustainable life. Some of my favorite bloggers and YouTubers who helped me learn the basics are below.

Blogs

  1. Going Zero Waste
  2. Wasteland Rebel
  3. Litterless
  4. My Plastic Free Life

YouTube Channels

  1. Living Waste Free
  2. Shelbizleee
  3. Sustainably Vegan
  4. Gittemary Johannsen

You can also check out my lists of great documentaries and books found in the Resources tab.

Community Resources

But this is all passive learning. I realized that I wasn’t doing anything to better myself if all I did was read how someone somewhere else was living. I needed to find out how to do it for myself.

One really fun thing I did was search for thrift shops, bulk food stores, natural shops, and farmers markets in my area and take little field trips to them. I even took notes and pictures. If I didn’t visit, how would I know what options I had? It was a really fun experience and made me more confident the next time I came to actually make purchases.

Searching for resources in your area can lead to some great finds. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to easily compost in my city apartment until I found out I had a drop off center half a mile away. I thought my only option would have been to vermicompost or get a Bokashi compost bin since I have no outdoor space. Your access may not be as limited as you might think.

Conclusion

By starting small with sustainable swaps, new behaviors, and a wealth of knowledge, you will surely start gaining momentum to keep moving forward on your sustainable journey. What resources did you use to get started? What were your first steps?

Next week, we’ll continue the How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series by learning how to set both short term and long term goals to stay motivated. But as with most things in life, sometimes pessimism, doubt, and jealousy creep their way in. Part 4 will tackle pessimism and learning how to avoid bad emotions and stay motivated.

How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste Part 2 Blue neon sign glowing 'For The World'
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How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A beginner stands before a purple 'Start Here' marker painted on the street

How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste – Part 1

Introduction

When I was starting out on this journey, I read blog post after blog post and skipped through as many YouTube videos I could find to figure out how to start going zero waste already. I kept feeling like everything would be easier if I started after X happened. Someday it would just work out, and I could “start”.

But I realized I was the only one stopping me, and in fact, I was already doing so much good for the planet that I took as inconsequential. What the research helped me find was my inspiration, my “why” for changing my ways and trying to help others change theirs.

This series on how to (finally) start going zero waste will be broken up into five posts over the next few weeks. Part 1 discusses what obstacles we think we need to overcome before starting our journeys. Part 2 is about starting small, and in Part 3 I’ll teach you how to set realistic goals that will keep you motivated. I’ll teach you how to avoid pessimism from inside and outside influences in Part 4. And finally in part 5, I’ll help you find your own “why” for switching to a zero waste lifestyle.

Part 1 – Finding the Block

The first step in getting over the huge stumbling block at the starting line is figuring out what’s stopping you. Is it time? Money? Access to resources? Or is it judgement? For me, it was a combination of all of them. When I learned about this movement, I was in college, little money to my name, in the middle of corn country, and I was afraid of what my family might think of my new ideas. I kept telling myself that once I graduate, I could start. Then I would be/have X and Y and Z so I could start. But in that way of thinking, I would likely never be ready, and I was just pushing off change so I could stay comfortable in how I was living.

Time

Time can be a stumbling block is two different ways: either you feel like where you are in life isn’t conducive to this lifestyle or you feel you don’t have the time for all the “work” it appears to require.

Anyone can live more sustainably. It doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager or 80 years old. Every day is a new day and one you have control over. Little choices you make every day can add up and create a larger influence. You don’t have to hit some milestone before you can start your contribution.

A big change you can make is actually the act of refusal, which saves you time. Minimalism goes hand in hand with sustainable living. By reducing the amount you own, you reduce the amount of time spend taking care of your items. Less clothes to wash and put away, less knick-knacks to dust, less square footage to sweep.

If it’s the DIY tasks that seem daunting, just try them out first. Many only take a couple minutes. There’s a reason the tutorial videos are so short. And if it’s not for you, you can find other alternatives by voting with your wallet and purchasing sustainable products instead.

Money

Maybe you’re thinking, how can I start going zero waste without money to spend on new things? As sustainability becomes more trendy, many people are pushing products, which many times cost more than their less environmentally friendly versions. When I was starting out, I was surprised that bulk goods many times costed more than their packaged counterparts. The prospect of “needing” to spend more money on sustainable options in order to be sustainable can prevent you from trying altogether. In reality, money isn’t everything, and there are plenty of ways to live a low impact lifestyle while remaining on a budget.

Changing your behaviors is a free and often-understated way of reducing your impact on this earth. Small changes like relying less on heat and A/C up to larger changes like reducing animal product consumption can have a large impact that can get hidden behind a wall of Instagram pictures of bulk bin mason jars and fancy recycled toilet paper. But if and when you do choose to buy new sustainable versions, be sure to make those dollars count.

You need to choose which items are most important when deciding to spend money. Is an energy efficient washing machine a better investment than a plastic-free groceries every week? These decisions must cater to your life. If you only do laundry two or three times a month, maybe hold off on the washing machine. But if you have a large family and do multiple loads a week, it may be worth considering (after your current one kicks the bucket, of course).

And if you still think living with a low impact costs too much money, remember there’s a lot of things you can do to save money. Water and electricity cost money; by reducing your consumption of these through behavioral changes, you save money and don’t spend a dime. Making certain household products can also save money over store-bought, and dietary changes can reduce your weekly grocery bills too. So there’s plenty of ways to save green by going green.

Access

Access is often cited as a reason one can’t live while producing a mason jar of trash. First off, no one’s asking you to produce just that much. I know I don’t, but I am doing a lot better than I was before. Secondly, as mentioned above, there’s a lot of ways anyone can live sustainably wherever they might be.

Access to a grocery store with bulk bins or living in a city with a great public transit system isn’t necessary to reduce your global impact. Check out my post on How to Shop without Bulk Bins! Sure those things are nice, but consciously shopping for items with little to no packaging and biking or carpooling are still a step in the right direction. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t have; get creative with what you do have!

No thrift stores around for used clothing? Fear not! Trade with friends and family or search apps or online for new-to-you outfits. No place to buy package free personal care products? Many companies can ship them right to your door. The Internet provides virtual access to items and services you may not otherwise be able to take advantage of.

Judgement

This last hurdle can be a toughy since mental battles are a lot harder to win. I struggled with the idea that everyone would think I was weird for making changes to my lifestyle. I shied away from discussing the reasoning behind my choices for fear of arguments.

But I needed to understand these changes were for me and the environment. It didn’t matter if some stranger gave me a sideways glance as I asked for no straw in my drink. In fact, it was an opportunity to teach them. Even if I didn’t say anything, they noticed I was being different and it may get them to think twice the next time they’re in a similar situation. Sometimes it just takes knowing how easy it can be to start doing it yourself.

If you’re actively under judgement instead of just afraid of it, try thinking of yourself as a leader. Don’t get defensive or preachy, but try to guide and educate them. Present them with facts and reasoning while avoiding arguments. Let them know why you do things, not just that what they do is “wrong”, and lead by example. Find compromises and show them how it doesn’t take much effort to lower their footprint. They may surprise you by asking questions and taking on your behaviors as well. See my post on Living with Non-Zero Waste People for more tips on how to start going zero waste even if you live with others!

Conclusion

There are many things we think are stopping us, but in reality it comes down to mindset. I discovered I was using these things as excuses to not change. While slow living can mean taking more time, minimalism will help save time. There are so many ways to go green for free or even save money while doing it. While access and judgement can be tricky to navigate, there’s plenty of resources online and likely in your own community to help you.

What are some things you were worried about when you started learning about zero waste? How did you overcome these fears?

Stay tuned for the next parts in the How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste series!

How to Finally Start Going Zero Waste A beginner stands before a purple 'Start Here' marker painted on the street
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