The term ‘zero waste’ is thrown around a lot in hash tags on social media, but what does it actually mean? The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.” In addition to this, a truly zero waste society requires a circular economy (where resources and materials are reused again and again), rather than the linear economy that we currently have (in which resources are acquired, used and disposed of, burned or buried).
Venturing in to the world of zero waste and sustainability can be incredibly daunting. It’s difficult to know where to start, what to do, or how to do it. And even if you do make a start, it can be hard to feel supported in your journey. Oftentimes, the whole process looks so overwhelmingly difficult that a lot of people give up and call it a day, never to revisit the realm of zero waste again. When we look at how many of our daily habits have eco-friendly swaps, it’s easy to see why introducing them all can feel totally unachievable. There is an underlying theme to adopting low or zero waste habits that has seeped into our collective subconscious – “If I can’t do this perfectly, then what’s the point? What difference can I make, anyway?”.
The point is, you can make a difference. And it is totally ok (and normal) to feel overwhelmed or confused about what this process might look like. As the world will never be completely zero waste, many people have started to prefer the term ‘low waste’ to reflect a more manageable and realistic goal. The most important thing is to make changes that are sustainable not just for the environment, but also sustainable for your own lifestyle.
In the wake of Australia’s bushfires, who’s widespread severity has been aggressively stoked by the effects of climate change, more and more people are looking towards ways to reduce their carbon footprint and adopt eco-friendly habits in their day to day lives. Moving forward, our perception of climate change is slowly shifting from waiting on big corporations and government to do something, and morphing into “what can we do to help?”. Every day, people are recognizing that they have the power to make a change. Ordinary people like you and me, just taking things one day at a time.
The thing is, a lot of people aren’t too sure where to start. That’s where I’m hoping this article will help you – a list incorporating many aspects of our daily lives, broken down into categories and handy tips. These categories will help you make sense of how to introduce different aspects of low-waste living. The great part about slower, low-waste living is that a lot of these practices aren’t new – they’re how things usedto be done before we adopted the ‘throw-away’ mindset that we have today as a society.
Use this list as a starting point, a guide, inspiration, a reminder, anything, to help you on your journey. It is by no means all-inclusive; there will be things I have surely missed. You can pick one thing on this list – just a single thing – and start from there.
Before we jump in, I want to leave you with my own reminder, and a quote. William James, dubbed the Father of American Psychology and often touted one of the most forward-thinking and influential philosophers of his time, once said:
“We are like islands in the sea; separate on the surface, but connected in the deep.”
He also said, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
As for the reminder, it is this: keep it simple. Don’t feel guilty for not being able to fix everything all at once. Don’t punish yourself for not doing zero-waste ‘perfectly’, because that’s not what the world needs. The world needs us to all do zero-waste imperfectly, because that’s where real change lies – a collective shift, a growing movement, and a global revolution.
Let’s get started.
KITCHEN & FOOD
Food wastage is one of the largest contributors to household waste. Most of the time people think that they buy too much food, but the reality is, they just don’t know how to utilize it all – especially fresh produce. And, if you’re buying things like sauces, milks, ready-made meals, or frozen goods, all of these foods come with their own packaging. Try incorporating some of the below tips and see if you can reduce the amount of packaging, food scraps and spoiled food that gets thrown away at home!
- Plan ahead and pick some recipes to cook each week, and only buy what you need for those recipes. Try to keep them as ‘whole foods based’ as possible – (unprocessed, fresh produce without packaging) and pick recipes that use some of the same ingredients so you can stretch your purchases further. Fresh produce is one of the most highly-wasted food groups, and as the saying goes, “the crisper is where good intentions go to die.” If you can pick recipes that share fresh ingredients, you’re more likely to waste less.
- If meal planning is not up your alley, develop a core selection of ingredients that you’re happy to use for numerous meals/recipes, and base your weekly meals around these. This will give you a bit more freedom in the kitchen. You can even set yourself a challenge to make sure that everything has been used up. You’ll become more adept at creating meals without even needing recipes and teach yourself how to be more confident in the kitchen.
- Aim to only do one or two grocery shopping trips each week. Not only does this save time, but it also reduces the amount that you’re driving to and from the shops (and therefore reduces your carbon emissions).
- Make sure that you eat all of the meals that you have previously made before cooking something else. It can be really easy to pick a bunch of recipes that you’re excited to make, but always eat what you’ve already cooked before going on to cook a batch of another meal.
- Keep pre-packaged foods to a minimum. Most packaging (unless its cardboard or aluminum) cannot easily be recycled, and therefore ends up in landfill. If you need to buy items that are packaged, keep them simple and try to buy them in bulk where possible (rice, oats, pastas etc.).
- If you have a bulk foods store near you, try buying all of your pantry goods there. You can bring your own jars or bags to fill up with things like superfood powders, flours, nuts, seeds, rice, pasta, oats, oils, honey, maple syrup, and numerous other foods that would otherwise come in single-use packaging.
- Try making your own nut and seed milks at home, rather than buying cartons of almond/soy/oat/rice milk at the store. These cartons are what’s known as ‘Tetra Pak’, and whilst they look like a simple box, they actually consist of multiple layers of polyethylene (a type of plastic), paperboard, and aluminum. Typically, they have about six layers in total! Approximately only 20% of Tetra Paks are recycled globally, and when they are recycled, they’re not easy to process. Making your own nut and seed milks at home removes these cartons, and if you can buy your nuts package-free from a bulk foods store, it’s a double win.
- Buy your produce from your local farmers market where possible. Most produce at farmers markets are free from packaging, and you’re purchasing food from the local area, which means less food miles (‘food miles’ is the distance that food is transported, from the time it was made to the time it reaches the consumer).
- If you’re able, try to grow your own herbs instead of buying them in plastic sleeves from the store.
- Store your herbs in a glass jar with some water in the bottom (like you would with flowers!). Herbs last longer when kept this way (unless it is extremely hot).
- Store your greens wrapped in a cotton bag to prevent exposure/cold burn and wilting.
- Buy the wonky -looking produce. So much produce is wasted because people tend to opt for the ‘perfect’ produce sold in supermarkets.
- Try getting a compost bin to compost your fruit and vegetable scraps, rather than sending them to landfill in a plastic bag. Bokashi bins are also useful if you live in a unit or don’t have a backyard. You can also take your scraps to a community compost if you don’t have the space at home.
- If you drink tea, opt for loose leaf tea instead of teabags. Teabags are actually made of a thin plastic mesh and aren’t as environmentally-friendly as you might first think.
- Use plastic-free bin liners that are compostable and made from natural starches like corn or potato starch. There are some companies that employ green-washing techniques and label their bin liners as biodegradable, but they are still plastic and will just break down into tiny micro-plastics, which cause a lot of issues for our oceans and waterways.
- Always take your own bags to the grocery store or farmers market to avoid using plastic bags (even the reusable ones – again, the micro-plastic issue). Bags made from materials like cotton (organic if possible) are best.
- Soak your produce in water and a few spoonsful of bicarb soda, rather than buying bottled ‘veggie wash’ from the store. Studies have shown that soaking produce in water and bicarb soda for 15 minutes removes almost all pesticide residues.
- Clean any empty glass jars and keep them for food storage (and transportation!). Jars are great for keeping both fresh produce and dry pantry items in, and this method not only diverts the jars from landfill but also provides you with a cheap alternative to buying food storage containers.
- Reduce your recycling as much as possible and always wash items that you put in the recycling if they have food on them. Contamination is a massive issue for recycling plants and if a load is too contaminated, it will just go to landfill.
- Research what can be recycled and what cannot be – you might be surprised at what can’t go in a recycling bin.
- If you take meals to work, invest in containers that you can take you use for a long time instead of cheap, take—away style containers. If you don’t already have any containers at home, aim for ones made from glass or steel instead of plastic. If you already have plastic containers at home, use them until the end of their life before recycling them.
- Carry a water bottle with you and avoid single-use plastic water bottles. Not only does this save you money, but it reduces the amount of plastic being thrown away!
- Buy a keep-cup (and actually use it). If you know you’re going to want a coffee later in the day, just throw your keep-cup in your bag. There are so many different designs and sizes to choose from, so find one (or two) to suit your needs and make it a non-negotiable condition of your coffee consumption!
- Carry reusable cutlery and straw (metal, glass or bamboo) with you in your handbag.
HOUSEHOLD CLEANING & CHORES
Generic cleaning products are not only housed in plastic packaging, but are also filled with chemicals that are detrimental to both our health and the environment. They can also be quite expensive! Contrastingly, home-made cleaning products are extremely economic and environmentally friendly. Try the below tips to reduce your toxic load at home and save money at the same time.
- Regular sponges, scrubbers and other common kitchen cleaning utensils are all plastic-based. Try to use cleaning utensils/brushes that are long-lasting and made from natural materials – think brushes with wooden handles and natural fiber bristles, wooden or ceramic soap dishes, and stainless steel or wooden dish drainers.
- Use a pure castile soap block or a Savon de Marseille block (a multi-purpose, traditional French soap) for your dishes and handwashing. You can also use a pure liquid castile soap in the same way (always read dilution instructions).
- Use straight hot water for mopping the floors. You can use a small amount of liquid castile soap or drops of essential oil if necessary.
- Use bicarb soda to clean benches, pots, stoves, ovens, tile grout, sinks, showers, and baths. You can also add vinegar to make the bicarb fizz and activate some extra oomph!
- For any tough stains or mould, spray the area with an all-purpose citrus cleaner and then sprinkle bicarb soda over the area and leave it sit overnight. You can then spray more citrus cleaning solution over the area before scrubbing it, or add some castile soap to your scrubbing brush before tackling the stain or mould.
- To remove stains on clothing, dampen the area with warm water and apply a paste made from bicarb soda and liquid castile soap to the stain. Rub the paste into the stain and leave it sit overnight before washing the item of clothing as per usual.
- Make your own all-purpose citrus cleaning solution. Soak any kind of citrus peels in white vinegar for 24 hours (minimum) and then discard the peels. Keep the remaining solution as a concentrate and pour some into a spray-bottle until half-full, then fill the rest of the way with water. This cleaning spray can be used around the entire house and can be combined with a sprinkle of bicarb soda as well.
- Use essential oils to make your own antibacterial sprays. Essential oils of clove, rosemary, thyme, oregano and cinnamon have been found to have the strongest antibacterial effects across most strains of bacteria that we come into contact with. You can also include tea tree, eucalyptus, orange, lemon, any kind of pine, vetiver, sandalwood, coriander, and basil, which are effective against small groups or individual strains of bacteria, but not as collectively effective as the first group of essential oils listed.
- Try to avoid using single-use products like paper towels and cling-wrap. Beeswax wraps can replace cling-wrap (or their vegan plant-wax alternatives) and you can use washable cloths or sponges made from compostable ingredients instead of paper towels.
- Use an essential oil diffuser or burn herb bundles (like sage), or natural incense (incense made without toxic synthetic fragrances) to scent your home, rather than using products like ‘Air Wick’. Scented candles can also be used, but take care to choose natural beeswax candles or organic soy wax candles scented with essential oils. And, an extra tip for keeping your home odor-free: regularly air out your house by opening all of your windows and letting in some sunshine. It may sound like common sense, but this helps to disperse any odors in the house and also allows fresh air inside. Studies that have shown that poorly ventilated homes are more likely to affect your health negatively, due to harmful pollutants accumulating in your space.
- Make your own laundry powder with bicarb soda and castile soap. Place 1 cup of bicarb soda on a baking tray and place in a 280°C oven for an hour. This will convert the bicarb soda to washing soda, which will then be combined with 1 cup of plain bicarb soda and a grated block of castile soap. Use as you would use normal laundry powder. It can be helpful to do a vinegar rinse through your washing machine once a month to prevent any soap scum build-up.
- For normal laundry loads, consider changing the setting on your washing machine to the quickest setting (typically 30 minutes) and set the temperature to ‘Cold’. Most clothing is not heavily soiled and doesn’t require long, hot washes (which unnecessarily use extra electricity and water).
- Avoid putting the dishwasher on every single night and wait until it is completely full. Pick the ‘eco’ setting (most dishwashers have one). You can also leave the dishwasher door slightly ajar between washes – this allows the dishwasher to actually air out, which makes sure you don’t get that gross musty smell and prevents mould build-up.
- Avoid using the clothes dryer as much as possible and hang your clothes on the line to dry. Sunlight is free.
- Next time you need to buy clothes pegs, invest in some stainless-steel clothes pegs. If these are out of your budget, a packet of wooden pegs is quite cheap and will (eventually) break down at the end of their lifespan
BEAUTY & PERSONAL HYGIENE PRODUCTS
The amount of harmful chemicals in most personal hygiene and beauty products on the market is quite scary. A lot of these products can cause skin irritation, eczema, respiratory irritation, headaches, and even cancer. Then, at the end of the day, we wash these harmful chemicals down the drain in the shower, contaminating our waterways. Our skin is our biggest organ, so reducing the number of harmful products that we apply is also a positive change to our personal health, as well as the health of the environment. Not only this, but typically all of these products come in (plastic) packaging, which ends up in landfill. Green beauty has no price or lifestyle restrictions – from budget choices to high-end organic skincare, there is an option out there for you. Try the below suggestions and see how ‘clean’ and package-free you can get your beauty routine.
- Question what the ingredients in your products are derived from, and start reading the ingredients list on products that you buy. If the ingredients list is made of up of a bunch of chemicals who’s names you can’t even pronounce, then avoid it. Extra tip: don’t be fooled by green-washing. Companies will make their products look more eco-friendly with their packaging, but the ingredient list doesn’t lie.
- Research what different ingredients actually are and be very wary of any vague terms like ‘fragrance’.
- Make your own beauty products! This is quite a fun way to dive into the world of zero waste, and it works out cheaper in the long run to buy your own ingredients and make your own products. The options are limitless – toothpaste, deodorant, perfume, moisturizers, dry shampoo, hair treatments, cuticle oil, serums, facial oils; whatever you can imagine, you can make it.
- Stick to products with ingredients that are as natural as possible (and organic if you can afford it). Ingredients like plant oils, butters and waxes, beeswax, essential oils, and plant extracts are the kinds of things you want to see on the ingredients list.
- Simplify your routine as much as possible (this reduces the amount of packaging you go through).
- Where possible, pick items that are packaging-free, or are packaged in paper wrapping, glass, or aluminum. These materials are easily recycled or repurposed.
- Swap your standard aerosol antiperspirant for a natural deodorant. There are so many different kinds on the market these days, so there is definitely one out there that will suit your preferred style of application. Natural deodorants work differently on everyone, so don’t be discouraged if your first pick doesn’t work for you.
- Swap your body wash to a bar of soap. Bars of soap come with far less packaging, and it is so easy to find natural soaps with wholesome ingredients like clays and essential oils.
- Investigate clean, ‘green’ perfume alternatives. Standard perfumes are absolutely shocking when it comes to toxic ingredients, and the worst part is that the brand doesn’t have to disclose what they put in them. You can use essential oil based perfumes, or if you prefer something a bit more complex and high-end, there are now a massive variety of clean perfume labels out there.
- Use re-useable cotton rounds to remove your eye-makeup instead of makeup wipes. Simply pop them in the washing machine (in a washing bag) once you’re done, or soak them in some hot water and castile soap to remove the makeup.
- Use brushes and combs that are made from natural materials like wood and bamboo.
- If you menstruate, consider swapping your tampons and pads for a menstrual cup and reusable pads. In the United States alone, approximately 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons end up in landfill every year – and this doesn’t even account for tampons that are flushed down the toilet. In comparison, a single menstrual cup lasts for most of one’s life!
- Swap out your standard razor for a safety razor. Over 2 billion razors are thrown out each year (again, just in the US alone). Safety razors are the OG and you only have to replace the razor blade itself.
- Simplify your routine and product collection as much as possible (less products = less packaging thrown away). This will also help you develop a core selection of products that you truly love and choose to keep in your routine, instead of constantly chopping and changing what you use whilst accumulating half-empty bottles in your bathroom (hey, we’re all guilty of it). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying new things, but try to use up what you’ve already got first!
It can be hard to incorporate this particular aspect of low waste living, but it is definitely worth giving it a crack (if you get the time, watch the Netflix documentary ‘True Cost’, which is about this topic specifically). It is estimated that a minimum of 39 million tonnes of post-consumer textile waste (that is, clothing that we use and then throw away) is produced each year. And, about 85% of clothing we purchase is thrown away. There’s another side to this too – the clothes that we throw away generally tend to be made by fast fashion outlets, who are not only massive contributors to climate change, but also treat their workers extremely poorly. We throw these clothes out not just because they’re so cheap to purchase in the first place, but because we are constantly influenced by the fashion industry’s marketing to want to purchase more. This obviously works very well for their profit margins, but not so well for the environment or for the people that make these clothes. Try out some of the below tips and see if you can gradually incorporate more ethical and eco-friendly choices into your wardrobe.
- Shop second-hand as much as possible. It can honestly be so exciting to go into a thrift store and start hunting for some bargains, but you can also do the same online using apps like Depop!
This not only helps divert clothes from landfill, but can save you some serious dollars. You can also sell your own clothes this way, too.
- Shop for vintage pieces. There are some seriously cool vintage pieces out there, both in physical stores and at online marketplaces like Etsy.
- Make each clothing purchase a conscious and considered purchase, rather than an impulsive one.
- Email different brands and enquire about their how their clothes are made, if they’re made ethically, and what their sustainability practices are. If it is a core focus of the label, they will already it posted in their ‘About Us’ or ‘FAQ’ on their website.
- Boycott fast fashion labels as much as your budget allows.
- If you’ve got an upcoming event, consider borrowing an item from a friend rather than making a new purchase.
- When purchasing new items, try to stick to natural fibres as much as possible. Think cotton, hemp, silk and linen.
- Where it’s not possible to avoid synthetic clothing materials (like active wear/gym clothes, for example) try to shop from brands that make their clothing from recycled plastic bottles.
- Buy a ‘Guppy Friend’ bag to wash your synthetic clothing in. Synthetic clothing releases microplastic fibres every time they’re washed, and these go into our waterways. The bag is designed to collect these fibres so they don’t get washed down the drain.
- Outfit repeat. I cannot stress this enough. OUTFIT. REPEAT.
- Try to wear your clothes until they are well and truly no longer practical/functional/don’t fit comfortably/in good condition. I wore the below pair of jeans (featured with my favourite vintage tee) for about 7 years until they no longer fit me, and haven’t tried to replace them until now. A good pair of jeans is an investment! I think it’s important to think of all of our clothing this way (not just jeans) and while it can be difficult, it can be done over time.
Below are things that don’t fit neatly into the above categories, but are still worth looking into.
- Living in a shared space:
It can be really difficult when you have to share a household with others who may not be as interested in reducing their waste as you are. Whether it is your parents or housemates, try sitting them down and having a conversation with them about what you’d like to change around the house and how you plan on doing that. Ask them how they’d feel about participating in making a few zero waste swaps and tell them how important this is to you. Keep the tone of the conversation light and non-accusatory. At the end of the day, even if they don’t want to change anything, just you doing your bit at home is still making a difference.
The biggest thing when you’re travelling is to be prepared. This means making your own snacks for long flights or road-trips, and keeping your water bottle and metal straw handy!
- In the workplace:
Remember those keep cups and the loose-leaf tea I mentioned earlier? The workplace is a perfect place to implement these swaps. You can also introduce a recycling bin in the staff room, and try to avoid any coffee pod machines as much as possible. If your workplace has a paper shredder on site (and if they allow you to take the shredded paper – check first) then you can use this shredded paper at home in your compost bin (or in the community compost bin). Just make sure to remove any staples first.
Utilize public transport if it is available and practical to do so. You can also try car-pooling for work or social events, or if the distance is reasonable, try walking or riding a bike.
- Gift giving:
This one can be a little touchy, but it’s worth mentioning. A lot of gifts that we purchase are seemingly obligatory and many are thrown away after a short period of time (especially Christmas presents). Consider not giving gifts at all; or, alternatively, gift something like a special meal (either home cooked or at their favorite restaurant), or an activity that they can do either by themselves or with you. You could also consider forgoing a card, as these are a little pointless and typically thrown away. You can keep the gift-wrapping quite minimal too (think plain brown paper secured with twine rather than using plastic sticky-tape). If you’re feeling creative, you can adorn the gift with something botanical, like a pretty dried flower or a sprig of pine or eucalyptus.
So that’s that! I hope there is at least one thing in this article that inspires you to make you to make some sustainable, low waste changes in your daily life. The take-away from this article should be that there are a bunch of ways that we can all help the planet, and that not one of us is perfect in this regard. What’s important is that we are always learning, always striving to do better, and always helping each other share the load. After all – we’re all in this together.