One of my favorite questions about zero waste living is “How do I get started?” My answer is, that depends on where you are! Just like anything else worth doing, reducing your trash is a personal endeavor and will look differently for everyone. What kind of personality do you have? Do you prefer to jump into something new and make big changes quickly so you can see the difference quickly? Or do you do better making one small change at a time to be sure it sticks? Are you a working professional who travels and eats out of the house frequently, or are you a parent with multiple kids and cooks most meals at home? Have you been trying to reduce your trash for a while and feel like you are ready to take it to the next level or are you brand new to even thinking about your trash? Your next steps to reducing your trash really depends on where you are now. The best I can do is share a little of our story and invite you to apply concepts we have learned to your own journey.
When we first started reducing our trash, I was shocked by how much I didn’t know. Reading some important blogs and books and watching a few key documentaries was essential for us. Knowing why our trash is a problem is more important than knowing the tips and tricks for how to reduce it. You have to know your why before you learn your how.
For example, when I go to the dentist and say no thank-you to the freebie plastic toothbrush, it helps to remember the picture of the baby albatross chicks whose parents feed them plastic thinking it is food, causing the babies’ demise. One picture shows a chick with a whole plastic toothbrush in its stomach. When I think of this, buying my own compostable toothbrush is no big deal. You can see my Learn More page for some direction in good books/blogs/documentaries.
Pro tip: When talking about zero waste to friends, learn to share why you say no to trash instead of sharing how you reduce your trash. For example, excitedly telling your friends that you are bringing your restaurant napkin home to compost will make them think you are nuts, and is not as effective as saying “Did you know that napkins never decompose in a landfill?!?” as you fold it into your purse/pocket to take home.
Want to cut your trash by 1/3 with one simple step? Start composting! In 2018, Nashville did a study on the composition of their landfilled items and found 33% of residential trash was organics. For reasons why composting is important, read my post here.
Composting also reduces your food packaging waste since it is sometimes compostable (for example, the packaging around Chik-Fil-A french fries, Burger King burger wrapping, Subway subs wrapping, and all pizza boxes are all compostable!)
We have a compost pile in our backyard, but that wouldn’t work if you don’t have a yard. Fortunately Compost House does a composting service in Chattanooga. You can also checkout ShareWaste to see if a neighbor has a compost pile where you could add your scraps.
Another great reason to compost is that it gets all of the yucky stuff from your trash can out, which can make the next step a little easier.
Do a trash audit
Doing a trash audit was essential for us to understand our trash. You don’t really know where your trash is coming from without taking a good look at it. To do this, I put a 5 gallon bucket where our trash can used to be located (we kept our trash can as a “guest trash can” hidden in the corner). All of our plastic–both recyclable and non recyclable–goes into the 5 gallon bucket. At the end of every week, I would empty out the bin, take a picture of it, and see what lessons we could learn from it. The Plastic Waste Journal section of this blog came from those pictures–feel free to browse them to see what you can apply to yourself. Note: we put our clean paper, metal, and glass in separate containers for recycling.
I recommend looking at your trash on a weekly basis to start out. Take a few notes about the most plentiful items and target those as areas to reduce. What are some of the most plentiful items? Is there a way to avoid them in the future?
Don’t forget to bring home trash you accumulate while on the go and at work–or at least snap a picture of it to include in your trash audit later.
One cool aspect of taking a picture is that you can see the progression of the reduction of your trash, which is really encouraging. The two left images are from our very first week, and the right image is from two years later and is all our plastic waste for two months!
Refuse single use plastic
Single use plastic is a huge category of waste. These are things that you use once (or maybe 2-3 times), but then quickly become waste (even if they are recycled). After doing the above audit for a week or two, you will probably see some themes coming through to help target your energy. Think up ways to change your current routines to include zero waste solutions to your most common items. I recommend starting with a few things and adding on from there.
For example, if you notice lots of coffee cups, make a pledge to yourself that if you forget your coffee/tea thermos, then you will just go without rather than drink out of a disposable cup. If you did the first step of educating yourself WHY trash is a problem, then the inconvenience of going without coffee, etc. will (hopefully) help you stick with your goals.
Some examples of single use plastic: shopping bags, water bottles, straws, diapers, most food packaging, plastic cutlery, dental floss, shampoo bottles, liquid hand soap, plastic coated junk mail, and the list goes on and on!
One note here, for most people food packaging will be near the top of the list for single use plastics. Take an investigation trip to Whole Foods or EarthFare with a notebook and a few jars to see what items in the bulk department might be good replacements for your current pantry items. As for what containers to use to fill at the bulk bins, mason jars are great–but reusing the container an item is currently in usually works well too! Watch my video here on how to reuse your own containers at the bulk bins. For tips on other items, see the Local Guide category of this blog.
This maybe should have been the first item in this list, but instead I’ll leave it as a parting thought. At the heart of reducing waste is finding contentment with what you have. It doesn’t have to involve a shopping spree of zero waste swaps. Every item you buy has a footprint, even if you buy it without packaging. When you do need something, try to buy it second hand, from a local artisan, or from a company that uses post-consumer recycled content.
Our zero waste journey has been full of joy as we find a new ways to live that are respectful of our own health, the health of our kids, and of our community. I’m excited that you are taking steps on your own journey. Please comment below with what next steps you plan to start!