10 Low-Waste Living Tips to Succeed at Sustainability

Written by • Last Updated October 27, 2020

When it comes to low-waste living tips, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. You can fall down the rabbit hole of product swaps, sustainable fabrics, and reusable cups–only to emerge more confused than ever. Fortunately, reducing your waste is far simpler than some influencers make it out to be.

Before I share my top low-waste living tips for success, let’s address the elephant in the room. Why are we talking about low-waste and not zero waste?

Zero waste living has become the sustainability level we’re supposed to aspire to. Bloggers boast about squeezing all of their annual trash into a mason jar, and take you on tours of their favorite zero waste grocery stores and local farmer’s markets.

It’s a wonderful achievement and an admirable lifestyle. But as the world stands right now, zero waste just isn’t attainable for most people. Especially if you’re low income and/or live in an area without access to eco-friendly shopping alternatives.

Unlike the zero waste movement, low-waste living exists on a spectrum. It’s a more forgiving approach to lowering your environmental impact–one that allows you to be flexible in how you reduce your trash output.

And at the end of the day, it’s easier to motivate ourselves to help the environment in ways that speak to our needs and values.Over time, those eco-friendly choices will become second nature and open the door to more significant changes.

So with that out of the way, let’s jump into the low waste living tips!

Girl in white dress carrying pink bag of produce using low-waste living tips

Start with less, not more

We tend to kick off new habits with a bit of shopping. There’s something about having the equipment we “need” that makes us feel like success is inevitable.

But when you’re starting a low-waste lifestyle, the last thing you need is more stuff! Buying and consuming things is in direct opposition to the low waste movement, especially if those things are new.

Despite what you might hear on YouTube or Instagram, you don’t need to rush out and purchase metal straws, organic cleaning products, and a new sustainable wardrobe. Instead, focus on what you can stop buying and consuming.

Once you decide what you can do without, make use of what you have before replacing it with a sustainable alternative.

While there are a couple exceptions to this principle–buying a reusable cup for your daily coffee, for example–the “less is more” mantra will serve you well on this journey.

RELATED: Low Impact Living: A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainability

Identify easy changes and swaps for reducing waste

There are hundreds of adjustments you can make to live more sustainably. It’s tempting to tackle big challenges at the beginning of your journey, like switching to a plant-based diet or giving up all single-use plastic.

But low-waste living for beginners is all about small, simple lifestyle changes.

Do you love getting morning coffee from the local cafe? Bring your own reusable cup next time. Does giving up meat seem impossible? Try making one meal per day vegetarian or vegan.

Of course, you’ll want to ramp up your efforts over time. But if you want to achieve lasting success, start with easy tweaks that won’t dramatically impact your daily routine

Check out these sustainable living tips for more ideas!

Four bamboo toothbrushes on table with rainbow tassel towel and soap

Avoid the recycling trap

Recycling is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems like an important part of helping the environment, when in reality it’s tricking us into creating even more waste.

Recycling has become a mental comfort that makes us feel okay about buying plastic containers and single-use bottles. We justify the plastic used in our daily bottles of soda or microwave lunches by dropping them into the bin, where they’ll be shipped off and remade into… something else.

But there’s a reason the main focus of low-waste living is to reduce and reuse, with recycling as a last resort.

For one, it takes a lot of energy and materials to produce new things, and recycling only recovers a tiny bit of those materials at the expense of even more energy use. Additionally, many of the items we put into recycling bins end up in landfills or incinerators, especially since China’s waste import ban that went into effect in January 2018.

So the next time you go to buy something in a single-use container, look for a more sustainably packaged alternative–or skip the purchase altogether if you can.

Create an eco-friendly household

You don’t need to live in a custom-built, energy certified abode in order to have a low-waste household. Even a few minor changes and improvements can add up to a big impact.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Install bidets to cut back your toilet paper use–no plumber required!
  • Upgrade old appliances to new, energy-efficient models
  • Increase your pantry space to allow for bulk shopping
  • Put a food waste bin next to your trash can and compost the scraps

Check out this list of eco friendly home improvements for more inspiration!

Above all else, fostering an eco-conscious household–one where every member is working together to enact low-waste living tips–is the best way to scale your efforts.

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Learn how to spot greenwashing

Brands are cashing in on the low-waste trend, but not always in a good way.

Terms like “organic”, “all-natural”, “sustainably sourced”, and “eco-friendly” have been slapped on everything from t-shirts to tomato sauce. It’s called greenwashing, and unfortunately, it’s mainly a marketing trick with few to zero environmental benefits to back it up.

Currently, there’s little regulation over eco labeling. Although numerous countries have implemented standards and certifications for organic products (ex. USDA certified organic and the EU’s Organic seal), terms like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” are rarely vetted and controlled.

It’s up to you, the consumer, to figure out which claims are true or just fluff. Do your research into brands by reading their About page to learn how and where the products are made. Websites like Good On You can also help you evaluate which brands to trust.

And avoid making assumptions based on the use of natural materials–even bamboo isn’t as sustainable as you think.

Table of tomatoes, peppers, and other produce beneath umbrella at farmer's market

Implement new low-waste living ideas slowly

Change is hard. Our brains are hardwired to go with the status quo, and every step we take off the path of least resistance drains our energy.

If you want your low-waste lifestyle to stick, only make one or two changes at a time.

Give yourself two weeks to implement a new low impact habit or product swap. Consistency is key!

It takes 66 days for a new habit to become automatic, though things become steadily easier after the first 10 repetitions. So if you’re trying to make a significant change, like cutting back on meat or composting, choose a follow-up task that doesn’t take much willpower.

You can also use habit stacking to supercharge your efforts.

Save me for later!

Try new and unusual things–even if they seem strange

If you had told teenage me that I’d grow up and eat tofu multiple times a week, I would have laughed incredulously.

For a long time, tofu was a no-go in my cooking repertoire. I thought it was a weird, spongy, tasteless food for vegans. Until I discovered the magic of crispy roasted tofu.

Rather than let my preconceived notions of bean curd hold me back, I gave tofu a second chance and fell in love. Today, I enjoy it so much that I spent two hours of my two days in Kyoto eating at the city’s most famous tofu restaurant.

You’ll encounter things in your low-waste journey that seem strange, hard, or downright gross at first (hello, menstrual cup). But if you truly want to succeed, set aside your fears and give them a try.

Never stop learning

In the same vein as the tip above, you need to adopt a learner’s mindset.

For one, science is always evolving. What was a best practice five years ago may not be accurate today. Additionally, new low-waste innovations and trends are coming to market every year, particularly in the personal care and beauty niches.

Additionally, you will burn out by trying to learn ALL the things at once. No one can become an expert in sustainable fashion, low-waste cooking, and zero waste cleaning overnight. It’s best to start with a surface level understanding of several topics, and dive in deep once you’re comfortable.

Egg carton with shells, kale, and orange peels inside

Focus on what you can do

This might be the most important low-waste tip of all: focus on what you CAN do, not what’s out of reach. 

If you live in a small apartment with no access to composting facilities, turn your efforts towards reducing plastic use or shopping second-hand. If your partner refuses to go vegetarian and you don’t want to cook two separate meals, work on cooking with seasonal, local ingredients.

Don’t let the things you’ve achieved be overshadowed by the guilt of what you’re not doing. Every effort to reduce your waste is a victory.

Which leads me to…

Celebrate small successes

I said this before, but it bears repeating: change is hard! In order to keep pushing forward, we need to celebrate how far we’ve come.

Every product swap, sustainable habit, and positive change deserves a moment of acknowledgment and pride. Remember to pat yourself on the back, take a victory lap, and savor the victory before moving on to the next goal.

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