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Five Ways To Dramatically Reduce Your Carbon Footprint Hands cupping a little green sapling

5 Ways To Dramatically Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

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Introduction

Your carbon footprint is the total amount of carbon emissions (or equivalent) that you produce directly or indirectly. Greenhouse gas emissions and human activities are causing damage around the globe through climate change, mass extinctions, and pollution. So let’s look at five ways you can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint to have a smaller impact on our planet.

1. Refuse Single Use Items

Single use items are the bane of my existence. It’s hard to get around them. They’re everywhere, especially as litter on the street and in our oceans. The Ocean Conservancy hosted an International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2017 and tallied the results. Every single one of the top ten items (over 10 million of them!) collected on beaches worldwide was a single use item. Imagine if all that unnecessary litter disappeared.

Refusing to use single use items saves a lot of waste and energy and reduces demand for those products. By switching to reusable alternatives, you are voting with your wallet. Single use brands will see profits dipping (if enough of us make the switch). They will reduce the amount they produce to meet the lower demand, and if we’re lucky, they might realize the problem and change or discontinue that product.

The more times you use an item, the less impact it has per use. If you keep reusing and making do with what you have, you can make a huge impact on your carbon footprint. Remember, cutting something out completely is even better!

Here’s a quick list of ten common single use items along with their reusable counterparts:

  1. Plastic bags from the store → Your own reusable bags
  2. Plastic straw → Reusable metal straw
  3. Saran wrap → Beeswax wraps
  4. Paper towels → Cloth towels, rags, or “unpaper” towels
  5. Pads and tampons → Reusable pads, menstrual cup, or period-proof underwear
  6. Disposable plastic water bottles → Reusable water bottle
  7. Tissues → Hankies
  8. Tea bags → Loose leaf tea infuser
  9. Plastic pens → Refillable fountain pens
  10. Plastic floss → Silk floss

2. Eat A (More) Plant-Based Diet

Animal agriculture is responsible for 44 percent of human-caused methane emissions and five percent of human-caused carbon emissions. Converted to CO2 equivalent, animal agriculture emits 7.1 gigatons every single year (7.1 billion tons). To put that into perspective, the average car produces under five metric tons per year.

A large portion of the food we grow is fed to grow animals. Because of this energy funnel, it takes over eight times the water to create one pound of beef and over two times the water to create one pound of chicken as it takes to create a pound of pasta (using this source for numbers). Compared with a pound of a potatoes, the numbers are 54 times and 15 times respectively. This news story from Cornell claims the US could feed 800 million people with the grain it feeds to its livestock.

And it goes much deeper than just raising the animals. Animal agriculture is responsible for much of the deforestation around the world, especially in places like the Amazon. Land is cleared for grazing as well as growing animal feed. Because 45% of the world’s land is devoted to livestock, animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction. In addition, herbicides and pesticides used on animal feed also run off and pollute water ways and deplete soil nutrients making it even harder for native species.

A Mediterranean diet produces 2.8 tons of CO2 per person per year, a vegetarian diet produces 1.7 tons, and a fully vegan diet produces 1.5 tons (2.5 is the average omnivorous diet). A study by Oxford University found a vegetarian diet can reduce your carbon footprint by 73%.

Those following a Mediterranean diet do not consume much red meat. Most of their protein comes from seafood, poultry, legumes, nuts, and oils. There have been many studies that show positive health effects of the Mediterranean diet, as well as with vegetarian and vegan diets.

For help on transitioning your diet, check out this article or this one. Start small and just cut out meat one meal a day, or one day a week (Meatless Mondays). Eating less meat and animal products, no matter how much less, will contribute a lot to reducing your carbon footprint.

Travel Sustainably

Everything and everyone travels. You go to and from work every day along with most other people. Items on store shelves can travel thousands of miles by boat, railroad, and truck before it reaches the store. Fifteen percent of global emissions comes from the transportation sector.

There are many ways to cut down on your transportation emissions. First of all is, of course, drive less and carpool. Make big round trips to multiple stores instead of a bunch of single trips back and forth from home. Take public transportation if available in your area. Walk or ride a bike or scooter to nearby places around the neighborhood.

Instead of big vacations to far off destinations, discover what your area has to offer. Have a stay-cation or just travel closer to home (the nearest big city or the next state over for example). My honeymoon a few hours north to New Hampshire was just as fun than a vacation to the Caribbean would have been. There’s exciting activities, great hikes, and places to get some R&R pretty much anywhere you look!

Choose road trips over plane rides. While maybe not the best with small children, road trips can be fun both on the way there and back and at the destination itself. If you still want or need to fly, you can buy carbon offsets from airlines or other organizations to cancel out your portion of the flight’s carbon footprint.

Shop Local

This way to reduce your carbon footprint stems from the previous two: eating a better diet and reducing transportation. Take those a step further by combining them.

Switching to a more plant-based diet also involves giving up all those processed and packaged foods. You won’t find Ho-Hos at the farmers market. That’s good for both your health and the planet. You won’t be eating boatloads of sugar, preservatives, and artificial dyes, and you’ll save on all the packaging waste.

This tip doesn’t actually require you to convert from omnivore to herbivore because can still get meat, dairy, and eggs from local providers. As I’ve said though, reducing your animal product consumption will reduce your carbon footprint. But if you are going to eat animal products, please get them local.

Buying locally produced items drastically cuts down on transportation emissions since items are moving across town or the state instead of around the globe. Try walking or biking to your local store or farmers market to reduce emissions even more. Locally made items may also have greener production practices, more ethical treatment of workers, and use local materials. Do your research first!

Shopping local for groceries (and beyond!) also supports your neighbors’ livelihoods instead of lining the pockets of corporations. Buying local is another way of voting with your wallet to say you don’t want global production that harms workers, communities, and the environment. For specific examples, take a look at my post on fashion to learn about the horrible problems this one industry causes.

Have Fewer Children

Some people don’t like to hear this one, but it’s true. Human overpopulation is a serious concern. More people means the need for more food, more water, more energy, more living space, just MORE. Each person on average is responsible for around 360 metric tons of carbon during their lifetime (given 5 metric tons per year and a life expectancy of 72 years). Currently, humans are using over 1.7 Earths of resources, but our population is still expected to increase by two billion people in the next 30 years.

When you think about it, you are responsible for the carbon footprint of your child, your child’s child, you child’s child’s child, etc. By having fewer children, you essentially save an infinite amount of emissions in the present and the future.

If you still want to have children, by all means have them. But please teach them to be responsible caretakers of the earth. Raise them to be content without a toy chest exploding with toys they rarely play with. Teach them homesteading skills like sewing, gardening, and cooking. Raise brave leaders who know to speak up against the injustices in our world and to help their fellow man, animal, and plant.

Conclusion

While perhaps you can’t or don’t want to make every one of these changes and do so perfectly, perfection is not the end goal. We need lots of people going zero waste imperfectly rather than a few people doing it perfectly (whatever perfectly means since actual zero is impossible). Do what you can and encourage others to do what they can too.

Want to learn about some more ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Check out some of these other posts:

Five Ways To Dramatically Reduce Your Carbon Footprint Hands cupping a little green sapling
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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

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.

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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7 Zero Waste Tips That Don't Help The Environment A plastic Starbucks coffee cup with a reusable straw is creating more waste than it's saving

7 Zero Waste Tips That DON’T Help The Environment

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.

Introduction

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.

4. Handwashing/Dishwashing/Pre-rinsing

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:

  1. Fluffy language – Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., “eco-friendly”)
  2. Green products vs. dirty company – Efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  3. Suggestive pictures – Images that indicate an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
  4. Irrelevant claims – Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
  5. Best in class – Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
  6. Just not credible – “Eco-friendly” cigarettes, anyone? “Greening” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
  7. Gobbledygook – Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  8. Imaginary friends – A label that looks like a third-party endorsement… except it’s made up
  9. No proof – It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
  10. 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.

Conclusion

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!

7 Zero Waste Tips That Don't Help The Environment A plastic Starbucks coffee cup with a reusable straw is creating more waste than it's saving
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7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make red wrong way sign indicating you have made a mistake

7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make

Introduction

If you are just starting out, what do you do? You go Google-crazy and look up as many tips, tricks, and swaps as you can. That’s what I did anyway. But what about looking up zero waste mistakes?

Some people say the best way to learn to do something is to learn what not to do. By familiarizing yourself with these top zero waste mistakes, you can learn from them without dealing with the setbacks or consequences that come with making them yourself.

Over the past two years, I have seen a lot of people getting sucked into the same handful of mistakes. I’ve made some of them myself and now want to help others not make them in the first place. Below is a list of 7 mistakes beginner zero wasters making on a pretty regular basis.

1. Setting Unrealistic Goals

Setting goals is one of the first things you do when going after something new, which is why setting unrealistic goals and being discouraged when you inevitably miss them is first on my list of zero waste mistakes.

My Experience

When I find something that interests me, I often dive in head first. I want to go all in, right away. I really wanted to be a “trash jar” kind of zero waster. So I set goals to start buying all zero waste foods in bulk and at farmers markets, growing my own food, and making my own products all within a short period of time.

But even now, I am not doing those things.

Why? Because there weren’t realistic (yet).

I am still working toward lowering my trash. I perform trash audits every now and again (sign up for my email list to get a free trash audit worksheet!), but I certainly couldn’t fit my trash in a little mason jar. This is mostly due to food waste and food packaging.

I don’t buy in bulk because my budget can’t justify spending 2-3 times as much on bulk items like rice and beans. For example, we can get rice for under a dollar a pound in a plastic bag, but bulk rice that I’ve seen has always been somewhere between $1.50 and $4.00. Instead we try to buy the biggest bags we can find as this is less total packaging than multiple smaller bags.

An apartment with very little natural light isn’t conducive for growing plants. And I’m still trying to use up all the body washes and lotions I’ve had stockpiled (and kept receiving as gifts).

But I set those goals anyway and often got down on myself for not achieving them. It was not realistic for me spend so much money on groceries. It isn’t realistic to go plastic free just yet.

Solution

I still have these goals, but their deadline has been changed to “eventually”. Instead, I focus on the changes I can make now, even if they are smaller in comparison.

I suggest taking it a lot slower and start with smaller accomplishments. Change takes time, and you need a strategy. Instead of saying “I will go plastic free by three months from now”, try “I will reduce my plastic by doing X, Y, and Z during the next three months.” In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series about How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste filled with advice and tips for beginners. Stay tuned!

2. Throwing Out Useful Items

There are countless “Zero Waste Swap” lists online, and with how aesthetically pleasing a lot of them look, it is easy to be tempted into buying them. But what about the three bottles of shampoo under the sink, that brand new roll of paper towels, and your set of Tupperware? Throwing them out is the antithesis of living low waste.

By all means, switch to low waste options, but use up what you have first. Do NOT throw them out just because there’s a sustainable alternative on the market. The most sustainable option is the one you have.

I understand the draw of new items, and I feel the annoyance and guilt of waiting. I, too, am still trying to work through my long list of disposables, including a few disposable razors, a bunch of freebie boxes of floss from the dentist, and cleaning products. Until then, I can’t justify buying replacements, even sustainable ones.

It is annoying to wait. I feel like I have been waiting since I started my journey. But I keep reminding myself it is better to use these items up instead of getting rid of them right away just because I can.

And when those items do reach the end of their lives, recycle as much as you can. When transitioning away from plastic for health reasons, repurpose containers to organize non-food items and dry goods, or donate them to someone who will use them (classrooms, thrift stores, etc.).

3. Becoming A Sustainable Shopaholic

There are posts and videos about things zero wasters regret buying that became popular a while back. As I have said, it can be so tempting to buy up all the cute sustainable swaps, but you have to think before you buy.

Minimalism and sustainable living go hand in hand. You should not go out and buy an item if you already have something that serves that purpose. I repeat: The most sustainable option is the one you have.

Try looking for items that serve multiple purposes. For example, mason jars can be used when purchasing bulk foods from certain stores, storing all types of foods, freezing and heating up foods, organizing toiletry items, as a drinking glass or a bowl… the list goes on.

If you are up for a challenge, pare down your wardrobe into a small capsule wardrobe and donate the rest or live by the “One In, One Out” rule where a purchase means getting rid of another item.

Check out my 50 (FREE!) Little Changes To Live Sustainably post for cost-free ways to be zero waste.

Did you do your research on the items you’re buying? What are the values and practices of that company? Could you have found them secondhand? Will you really use this item often enough to miss it if you don’t have it (e.g. Keep Cup if you don’t drink much coffee or metal straws if you never used plastic straws to begin with)?

In summary, be mindful of your purchases and vote with your wallet.

4. Comparing Yourself To Someone Else

I have fallen victim to this mistake time and time again, and I think it’s one of the biggest zero waste mistakes. I’m not as good as “Blank” is so why should I even bother? Answer: Because some day you might be.

Everyone started somewhere, and no one is in the same exact situation.

If you are on page 1, how can you compare yourself to someone on page 100? There is a reason many call this a “journey” toward sustainability. Lowering your impact is a marathon, not a sprint.

Some people are further ahead solely because they got a head start. They are leaders and experts for a reason. They have had so much time to make some of these zero waste mistakes (or others), learn from them, and change their lifestyle before you even thought about joining the movement. It doesn’t make them inherently “better” than you are. Change takes time, especially large lifestyle changes like this one and especially after we’ve spent years or decades living with a completely different mindset.

In addition to when we start our journeys, everyone lives in a different situation whether that means where we live, how much money we have, who we live with, or what options are available to us. Put simply: it’s apples and oranges.

By comparing yourself to others instead of your past self, you risk lowering your self-esteem and motivation to keep pushing forward toward a better life. Focus on the changes you personally make and how you are better than you were last week, last month, and last year.

5. Thinking You Can’t Call Yourself “Zero Waste”

I see this over and over and over online. “I’m not zero waste, but…” Zero waste is not an exclusive club for those who fit trash in a jar. I honestly dislike the term “zero waste”, mainly for this vibe of exclusivity and perfection it gives to newcomers. Zero waste is a utopic goal, not a literal practice, but so many people take it as such and think it is incorrect or lying to refer to themselves as zero waste.

By excluding yourself from zero waste because you aren’t zero waste enough will lower your motivation and self-esteem. Zero wasters are just people who are trying to reduce their waste, not people who literally create zero waste (which is totally impossible by the way).

Call yourself whatever you want. I personally love Immy Lucas’s Low Impact Movement, which was started for this very reason. We can’t be perfect trashless beings. We still live in modern society where disposables are a fact of life. Not all of us have access to zero waste stores. She created this movement to be welcoming and inclusive and to celebrate whatever changes you can make in your own life, no matter how small or how few.

6. Thinking Only About Your Personal Trash

I see this a lot too. It’s a major reason why trash jars are pointless. A lot of people take lowering their own personal waste too seriously and can forget about the bigger picture of economy. You must also consider the upstream waste created to bring a product to market.

How were your package free groceries grown? Did they cut down forests for that land? Were lots of pesticides used? What about your clothing? The fashion industry wastes around 15% of its materials. Where did the fibers come from? How are workers being paid? How far did these items and their raw materials need to travel?

Bulk bins are NOT “zero” waste. And not every bulk bin is created equal. Food items will be shipped to the store in very large bags and then transferred into the bins. Some places like large grocery stores may get items in big plastic bags and just throw the bags away in the dumpster. A small zero waste shop may get paper bags and compost or recycle them. So it really all depends.

This week I’ll also be posting 7 Zero Waste Tips That Don’t Help The Environment. Some people take produce that doesn’t have a sticker or I’ve even heard of people peeling off the stickers and putting them on another piece of fruit so theirs was “zero waste”. That stops the waste from entering your personal home, but the waste still exists.

You have to look at the larger picture of production practices and which choices create the least total waste, not just the lightest bag of trash in your kitchen.

7. Giving Up

Last on my list of zero waste mistakes beginners make is full-on throwing in the towel, giving up, and returning to the way you lived before.

Once you open your eyes to our planet’s situation, you find so many reasons to feel like working toward sustainability in your life is hopeless and worthless. Every news cycle seems to contain stories on climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. Nearly 70% of all waste is created by just 100 companies. The IPCC report that came out in 2018 says we have just 12 years before we cause irreversible and devastating change to our planet. And what about Mistake #4, feeling like you could never be as good as someone else?

My Experience

Let me tell you a story: I fell victim to this as well. I dove in to zero waste and was so excited to make all of these major lifestyle changes. When I found myself running into obstacle after obstacle and really stagnating in terms of progress, I felt like it was worthless to keep trying.

I kept doing what I was currently doing, but I made little to no effort to do anything beyond that and eventually started to regress into wastefulness. I stepped over litter on the sidewalk, bought packaged snack after packaged snack, and stopped doing any research or following the experts I look up to.

Solution

Then I realized that we all must try our hardest. Because we only have a few years to bring about big change, because animals and forests are dying every day, because we all deserve clean air and clean water, and because we can all make a difference, individually and together.

The planet needs every one of us to speak for her and protect her in whatever ways we can. Because it does matter.

When you run into obstacles, try something else. Maybe you have no access to bulk, but you can talk to your government, reduce energy use at home, vote with your wallet, or pick up litter on the side of the road.

Most importantly, spread the word as far as you can reach and do not give up.

Conclusion

As someone new to zero waste and sustainable living, it can all sound overwhelming. So many changes, so little time. But what all these mistakes boil down to is this: Think about your choices on a larger scale, celebrate all of your progress even if it’s slow, and do the best you can.

Seasoned veterans, what are some other zero waste mistakes you have made on your journey? Newbies, what are you struggling with?

7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make red wrong way sign indicating you have made a mistake
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Sustainable Living Essentials an array of sustainable, low waste household items including resusable bags, metal straws, and bar soap

Sustainable Living Essentials

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.

Introduction

Everyone needs to start somewhere, but it can sound overwhelming at the beginning. What do I really need? Which materials is best? What will have the least impact? What will work for me? I understand it’s confusing so I’ve put together this list of sustainable living essentials that will send you well on your way to living a more sustainable lifestyle.

Drinking

The first thing on my list of sustainable living essentials is a reusable water bottle. You should always bring a reusable water bottle with you when out and about. This cuts out the plastic water bottles from the store (which shouldn’t be reused) as well as cups at fast food/casual restaurants. If you drink coffee, a reusable coffee cup, mug, or thermos is also a good idea to cut out all those disposable cups and plastic lids. Sometimes you’ll even get a small discount for bringing in your own cup!

Cup Materials

When comes to materials, you have a lot to choose from.

Metal is a good choice as it is durable and non-plastic, but some metals are better than others. Aluminum bottles are usually lined with BPA (plastic and a hormone disruptor) to prevent reactions with acidic liquids.

Stainless steel bottles can have the same issue, but some brands like Klean Kanteen do not use BPA in their water bottles. They have water bottles (adult and kids) and tumbler mugs in various sizes. But be aware: the alternatives used for BPA to coat metal bottles have the potential to be as dangerous as BPA.

To avoid BPA, try silicone or glass bottles. Silicone water bottles offer the added benefit of being collapsible for easy storage and travel. This silicone bottle rolls up while this one collapses down into itself.

Many glass bottles are wrapped in silicone to help prevent breaks. I’m too klutzy to take the chance, but I bought this one for my dad who just keeps it in his car and he loves it.

The last option is plastic. Most plastic bottles are polycarbonate, a hard to recycle plastic. My husband and I still use our Nalgene bottles we’ve had for years, but I also use a metal one. Another thing to note is many of the other bottles will have plastic lids, but some will have metal lids with a gasket.

Hot Beverages

For morning coffee or other hot drinks, using a Keep Cup or tumbler will greatly reduce your daily beverage waste. You can get a Keep Cup in glass, plastic, or stainless steel.

Keep a mug at work to fill up in the break room. Many coffee shops will allow you to bring your own cup to be filled, and you could even get a few cents off the bill. Some don’t due to sanitation rules and some will make your drink in a disposable and then pour it into your cup and toss the disposable (ugh, why?). Search around to find a shop that makes your drink directly in your cup.

Straws

Straws are handed out like candy it seems. Avoid straws at restaurants and bars by asking your server to not include them. If you do need or want a straw, there are many metal and glass straws on the market. I have these metal straws which came with silicone toppers to prevent shocking your teeth and a storage bag. They are great when I make milkshakes and smoothies!

Eating

Topic 2 on my sustainable living essentials guide is yet another thing we all do every day. Let’s look at both what the food is stored in and what you eat it with. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on reducing food waste!

Containers

Food containers can be metal, glass, or plastic, although many people avoid having plastic touch their food due to leeching concerns. Metal tiffins and bento boxes will have metal lids, but you obviously can’t microwave them. Check out this two-tier metal tiffin from Life Without Plastic!

Glass containers often have plastic snap-on lids, but I bought some great containers from Ikea that have bamboo lids with a (sadly probably plastic) gasket to create the seal. They work very well, but do not microwave the lids as they will dry out and crack. I accidentally did this once and the area that wasn’t wet on the lid now has little bubbles. Mason jars are also great glass options and have metal lids. Glass can be frozen, but do not subject it to quick temperature changes or fill the container too full.

Skip the plastic sandwich bag, and instead pick up this set of reusable bags from (Re)zip. We use these at home, and they work great!

The other option is to use plastic containers like Tupperware. If you use plastic containers for storage, at least move the food onto a plate before heating in the microwave since plastic leeches more at higher temperatures.

Utensils

Forks, spoons, knifes, and chopsticks can be metal or bamboo. My husband has this Light My Fire titanium spork that also has a serrated edge for a cutting. I carry a fork and spoon in my lunchbox. These are children’s metal utensils from when I was a kid so they are smaller versions but still very functional. They cost me nothing since I already own them. I’m not very good with chopsticks, but this set of reusable ones is a good option those who are more adept.

Shopping

Bringing a few reusable bags shopping will put an end to feeding that stash of plastic bags under the sink and cut down on the paper bags that get sent to the recycle bin. The problem many people run into is forgetting them at home, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.

First I keep some bags hanging on the rack by the door so I see them on my way out. Next I keep one or two in the glove box of my car. And finally I keep one in my purse. This way I will at least always have one bag with me when I go shopping. If all else fails, you can refuse a bag in the first place and just carry out your items (assuming you didn’t buy a lot). Sometimes you’ll need a bag though so always ask for paper.

There are two types of bags that can come shopping with you. The first is the standard reusable grocery bag made of cloth, canvas, or plastic. These are the large bags that replace the plastic or paper bags at checkout. The second type is mesh produce bags which replace the plastic bags in the produce section. These bags are lightweight and allow the cashier to still see what’s inside. Whole Foods also has paper bags in the produce section which you can use to store your items.

Here are a few reusable bags perfect for grocery shopping:

Jars can also come shopping with you if you have a bulk section or a deli who agrees to use your container. You or the employee will tare the jar so its weight is not counted for what you pay. Then you can just place them in your pantry or fridge when you get home.

Personal Care

There is a multitude of sustainable living essentials used for personal care. Let’s start in the shower.

Shower

Many companies sell solid shampoo and conditioner bars as a zero waste alternative to traditional products that come in plastic. Plaine Products is a subscription service that provides shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion in metal bottles that you send back to be reused by someone else.

You may also want to try going No Poo. I started doing this shortly after Thanksgiving and I’m liking it. If you still want to use products in your hair, try these shampoo and conditioner bars.

As a note, some conventional products, especially body wash, contain microbeads (polyethylene) which do not breakdown and can harm aquatic life. Avoid these products as best as you can by reading the ingredients on the label, or switch to bar soap like this big 5.8 oz bar from Life Without Plastic.

Hair Care

For hair styling, I am using the same plastic brush and comb I have had for years. I also have a boars hair brush like this one I started using when I went No Poo. The comb should last forever, but I may purchase this wooden brush with wooden bristles when the plastic brush bites it because I like the feeling of that type of brush more than the boars hair.

For shaving, skip the plastic disposable razor for a metal safety razor. The blades can be as cheap as 15 cents each, and it’s not as scary as it looks! Life Without Plastic sells safety razors and blades plastic free. If you prefer a more conventional razor, check out Preserve’s recycled plastic razor.

Oral Care

For oral care, I highly suggest you talk to your dentist. For many people, myself included, oral care is too important to risk even for the planet. I believe fluoride is important, but all but one tooth tablet brand available in the US and all DIY toothpastes are fluoride-free. For me Denttabs from Amazon are still too expensive.

If you live in Europe or don’t mind fluoride-free, I highly suggest tooth tablets as a zero waste alternative to toothpaste. Check out brands like Denttabs (fluoride) and Bite (fluoride-free). You can also recycle toothpaste tubes through Terracycle. However, I am comfortable using a bamboo toothbrush and natural silk floss instead of their plastic counterparts.

You can also DIY just about any product from face wash to lip balm to shaving cream. Pinterest is full of recipes to try and see what works for you!

For the ladies, I suggest trying out a menstrual cup. I absolutely love my Organicup! You can check out my menstrual cup post here. There’s also reusable pads, organic cotton disposable pads, and period-proof underwear.

Cleaning

DIY cleaning products are not only safer for your home and better for the environment, but they are also so much cheaper! This DIY liquid laundry detergent contains only three ingredients plus water. It makes gallons of detergent for around what you’d pay for a single gallon of Tide. Other alternatives are soap nuts, bulk detergents from specialty stores, and commercial detergents from brands like Seventh Generation.

Remember, sustainable living essentials are more than just products. They are actions too! Sustainable laundry practices also include using cool/cold water, only running full loads, and air drying your clothing. If you still want to use the dryer, you can use wool dryer balls in place of dryer sheets.

For cleaning, this handful of ingredients pops into most cleaner DIY recipes (all-purpose, toilet and bathroom, glass, etc.): water, vinegar, castille soap, and baking soda. Borax and lemon juice are also frequently used. Check out some of the recipes in this post from He and She Eat Clean.

Conclusion

These five areas are where most of our product waste comes from. By using the tips above, you can greatly decrease the waste in your daily life. I suggest taking things one area at a time instead of trying everything all at once so you don’t get overwhelmed. Change comes slowly over time and focusing your efforts on specific areas can really help things move along.

Now that you’ve covered the sustainable living essentials, are you ready to move on to other areas of your life? Check out my posts on How to Reduce Packaging Waste and 10 Sustainable Travel Essentials.

Sustainable Living Essentials an array of sustainable, low waste household items including resusable bags, metal straws, and bar soap
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50 Free Little Changes To Live Sustainably colorful socks hanging outside on a clothesline as a greener way to dry laundry

50 (FREE!) Little Changes to Live Sustainably

Introduction

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

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

Shopping

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

Groceries and Cooking

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

In the Home

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

Cleaning

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

Out and About

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

Company Choices

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

Conclusion

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

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

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