This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.
There’s a lot of information out there. You can find dozens of lists of 25, 50, even 100 zero waste tips. Obviously we trust the list to be the gold standard and therefore try to make all the changes we can in the hope that we are living a less impactful life.
But are all those tips actually helping the environment?
I’ve noticed some zero waste tips floating around on the internet and in books that either do not prevent any waste whatsoever or require a bit more information and care to properly implement.
The list below will discuss how these tips fall short and what better options are available to you. Some of these do-nothing tips are things I’ve seen people do or suggest in comments online, but others are some even big names like Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home (essentially the first zero waster) promote.
I hope this post will help you live more consciously and think about the bigger impact of the choices you make instead of just following the advice of others, even when those people are leaders of the movement.
1. Putting a “No Junk Mail” sticker on your mailbox
This is the tip Bea Johnson promotes in her book Zero Waste Home. Yes, this will perhaps prevent mail from entering your personal home and recycle bin (if the mailman even reads the sticker to begin with). But this does NOT prevent waste. The paper will be manufactured and printed on, mailed and sorted, driven all the way to your door, and then what? The mailman will just toss it out himself. Will he even recycle it? Just because someone else deals with it does not mean it is not your waste.
There are multiple ways to stop junk mail from even being created and mailed. I signed up for free at optoutprescreen.com to remove myself from the lists of credit card and insurance companies. DMAchoice.org will cost $2 and allows you to specifically choose which types of mail you receive. Of course, you can also contact the individual companies and ask them to remove you from their list.
In addition to junk mail that usually goes in the recycle bin without even being opened, you can prevent even more mail waste. Here are some better zero waste tips on junk mail:
- Unsubscribe from any magazines or newspapers you do not frequently read or switch to their online versions if you do still read them.
- Go paperless for all of your bills (utilities, credit cards, etc.).
- While you’re at it, unsubscribe from all those junk emails you send to the trash bin. It still takes energy for servers to send emails around, but it’s easy to overlook.
2. Taking fruit without stickers or putting the sticker on another piece of fruit
This is very similar to the junk mail “zero waste tip”. If the fruit had no sticker to begin with, you aren’t preventing any waste. It never existed in the first place. If you move the sticker, then you are just pushing waste onto another customer. Doing this does not vote with your wallet or tell anyone you would prefer to not have to deal with those pesky stickers.
Local farmers markets will not have stickers on their produce. As an added bonus, they may also accept berry and egg cartons for reuse. If you do buy produce with stickers, they are artists like Barry Snyder from Stickerman Produce Art to whom you can mail your stickers stuck to white paper to be used as part of an art project.
3. Using biodegradable bags
A lot of people suggest using biodegradable or compostable bags, especially for pet waste, but stop short and throw them in the trash. Landfills are anaerobic environments without the oxygen and decomposers to quickly break down the bags. If the bags eventually do break down in this environment, they will release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere.
There are also many different levels and types under the “biodegradable” or “compostable” umbrella. Compostable is a subset of biodegradable. These bags will only breakdown fully and quickly in industry composting facilities which can reach the temperatures needed unless they are certified specifically as home or backyard compostable.
Oxo-degradable materials are NOT biodegradable. They are their plastic mixed with additives to quickly breakdown the plastic into microplastics. Microplastics cause a lot of harm to animals as they are mistaken for food and easily absorb and carry oils and toxins. They never fully breakdown and disappear.
If you use biodegradable bags for wet items, ensure they meet home composting standards. Bury them in your yard or add them to your compost pile. My town compost drop-off accepts home compostable bags; these are the ones we use. You could also place wet items in unrecyclable packaging like Pringles or Planters nut canisters. For dry trash, you can use paper bags or no bag at all.
This is a three-fold tip. Some people recommend handwashing over dishwashing, but many studies (study 1 and study 2) (and basic math) have shown that it takes the average user much more water to handwash a load of dishes than to run them through the dishwasher. The average faucet uses 2.2 gallons per minute whereas the average dishwasher uses around 6 for an entire load.
Now you might think dishwashing is then the better option. I have written a post about dishwashers which you can read here. Dishwashers are made with PVC (a plastic that releases harmful toxins during production and incineration), and I have estimated the average dishwasher contributes over 23,000 pounds of CO2 throughout its lifetime. Around 1600 pounds of that is from production. Check out my post for an in-depth comparison that shows why I prefer handwashing to dishwashers.
Another tip I often see is to skip pre-rinsing before putting dishes in the dishwasher. The only issue I have with this tip is it must make no difference by skipping. If you skip pre-rinsing and your dishes come out with food still stuck on, you will now need to re-wash the dish yourself. So much for the dishwasher, huh?
The most practical advice I have for making handwashing more efficient than the dishwasher is to soap up the dishes, scrub them to remove food, and rinse in water. Do this either by turning on and off the faucet or by filling separate bins/sides of the sink. This way you can prevent using more water than the dishwasher and save on energy to heat the water up to the higher dishwasher temperatures.
5. Bringing your own cup
What?! How could bringing your own cup for coffee be a bad zero waste tip? Here’s the caveat. Yes, bringing your own cup is a sustainable practice when the store acts sustainably. By this I mean the barista doesn’t just make your drink in a disposable cup and pour it into yours at the very end. This cup then goes in the trash, and waste is not prevented.
Make sure your cup is used for the entire drink-making process. If a store has a policy on not being allowed to use cups for that purpose, find a different coffee shop. Other alternatives include making your own coffee (cheaper!) using a French press which will eliminate the need for paper filters and can be plastic free. Check out this one if you’re in the market. The best option, of course, is to limit or quit coffee altogether, but that is up to you.
6. Using a reusable straw
Déjà vu, right? Now I’m against reusable straws too? Far from it! I have a set of them myself. Bringing your own straw is a great practice if you don’t just stop there. Straws are a menace and thankfully many restaurants are phasing them out, but what good is refusing a straw if you gladly accept the plastic cup and plastic lid? Even if Starbucks phases out over a billion straws per year as promised, that means it’s continuing to use over a billion plastic lids and cups per year.
Use your own cup and straws in tandem. If I buy a drink in a disposable cup, I will at least refuse a lid. Luckily the cups and lids can be recycled, but sadly not all is recycled. Besides that which lands in regular garbage bins, not all in the recycle bin will be recycled. In addition, a study by the World Economic Forum discovered a full 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic we produce ends up flowing into the ocean each year.
Lastly, don’t buy reusable straws in the first place if you will never use them. By buying things you don’t need, you generate a demand for more to be produced, increase the clutter in your life, and eventually add to the waste pile. If you own straws you don’t use, gift them to someone who will.
7. Buying “eco-friendly” products
This is yet another one of the zero waste tips that requires extra thought to be effective. There are no requirements for products to label themselves as “green” or “eco-friendly” or slap on a picture of clipart leaves to the label. Companies have been using a process called “greenwashing” to mislead consumers into buying their product under the guise it is environmentally friendly when in reality it isn’t.
In 2015, Futerra released a report called Selling Sustainability that outlines these ten basic rules to avoid greenwashing:
- Fluffy language – Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., “eco-friendly”)
- Green products vs. dirty company – Efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
- Suggestive pictures – Images that indicate an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
- Irrelevant claims – Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
- Best in class – Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
- Just not credible – “Eco-friendly” cigarettes, anyone? “Greening” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
- Gobbledygook – Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Imaginary friends – A label that looks like a third-party endorsement… except it’s made up
- No proof – It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
- Outright lying – Totally fabricated claims or data
So please, do your research before purchasing products that call themselves sustainable. What company is selling that product? What are that company’s business practices both environmentally and ethically? Are their reliable third parties supporting the product’s claims? What are the ingredients?
As a side note, the Environmental Working Group’s product rating system is not very trustworthy as they have many political ties and often misrepresent findings and mislead consumers. This Reddit post contains a handful of articles on their dubious practices.
I hope this list will serve as both an eye opener on some popular zero waste tips and as a guide for how we can do better. Are there any other tips you’ve found that don’t seem all that sustainable? Share them below and let’s try to find a solution!