Zero Waste Living: What You Need to Know

Written by • Last Updated May 19, 2021

If you think zero waste living is only for people who fit a year’s worth of trash in a mason jar, you’d be forgiven. The media loves to share these incredible feats of sustainability. But in reality, living zero waste is all about small changes that add up to a big impact.

Whether you’re ready to level up your sustainable lifestyle or just curious about the trend, here’s what you need to know.

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What is zero waste living?

Flat lay of zero waste living products, including razor, bags, coffee mug, toothbrush, and sponges.

The zero waste movement has officially been around for over 20 years. It began with the “No Waste” campaign from recycling activists in 2000, and has since blossomed into a way of life for people around the world.

At its core, zero waste living has one goal: to stop waste from piling up on Earth.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? A world without waste is unfathomable in today’s climate. But this lofty goal is what drives zero wasters to change their habits and put pressure on companies and governments to operate sustainably.

To make this goal a reality, zero wasters focus on two things: waste prevention and resource lifecycle changes.

RELATED: Zero Waste vs. Low Impact: What’s the Difference?

What does living zero waste involve?

Interior of container-free store with bulk bins of grains and snacks on shelves.
These container-free shops are becoming popular as more people adopt a zero waste lifestyle

Let’s get one misconception out of the way: living 100% zero waste is currently impossible.

With our current technology and manufacturing processes, there’s no way to avoid creating at least some waste. Even if you grow your own food and make your own clothes, essential items like lightbulbs, medical supplies, and phone chargers are not completely recyclable (yet).

And that’s why a major part of the zero waste movement is to create a circular economy. If we manufacture products with materials that can be renewed, recycled, and easily composted, it will halt the buildup of landfills and the plastic lakes floating in our oceans.

It may sound like a job for activists and politicians. But as consumers, we can “vote” with our money. Choosing to buy from sustainable companies whenever possible puts pressure on other businesses to change.

So we’ve covered the big, world-changing end goal. But what about the other, everyday aspects of zero waste living?

In a nutshell, people practice zero waste principles to stop producing unnecessary trash.

Zero wasters avoid single-use plastics and other non-compostable products. That means no Dasani bottles, no to-go coffee cup lids, and no plastic ballpoint pens (among other things).

Consuming less stuff is a key part of the lifestyle. But it also involves swapping essential products for zero waste alternatives.

For example, switching up your hair care routine from bottled shampoo to shampoo bars, or ditching your Keurig pods for a zero waste coffee brewer.

Finally, there’s one incredibly important thing to remember about the zero waste lifestyle: it’s an ongoing process.

It takes years to develop habits and find products that work for you. And that’s okay! It’s not a race.

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How can I start a zero waste lifestyle?

Woman in white dress holding mesh bag full of produce.

Reflect on your values

If you read my About Me page, you’ll know that my entire strategy for making lifestyle changes is to tie them to core values. Forming new habits is far easier when they’re connected to something we care deeply about.

In other words: lasting change cannot happen without a connection to your values.

Think about it–when’s the last time you permanently altered your life simply because someone else told you to?

By connecting your new zero waste living habits to a core part of who you are, you’ll have the strength and motivation to overcome the difficulties. For some, that may be a love of animals. For others, it could be the desire to protect the planet for their children.

Audit your trash

Once you’ve sorted out your “why”, it’s time to sort through the trash! Understanding what–and how much–you’re putting into your waste and recycling bins is an important first step in zero waste living.

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Make a table with two columns: trash and recycling (you can do this digitally or hang a sheet of paper near your bins)
  • For the next two weeks, record EVERYTHING that you put into either bin
  • At the end of the two weeks, review the data and answer these questions:
    • What percent of your stuff ended up in the trash vs. recycling bin?
    • Are there items you threw away that could be recycled or composted (ex. switching to zero waste tea vs. plastic-containing tea bags)?
    • Are there things you recycled that could have been reused (ex. glass jam jars)?

Information is power. When you have a clear picture of everything you’re sending to the landfill and recycling plant (where it may or may not actually get recycled), you can make informed changes to your life.

Focus on one area of your life at a time

Warning: you will burn out by trying to do ALL the things at once. No one can become an expert in sustainable fashion, waste free cooking, and zero waste cleaning overnight.

Instead of trying to change up your self-care, eating, cleaning, and shopping routines on day one, choose one area of your life to focus on. Only after you’ve gotten comfortable with the swaps and new habits should you move onto the next area.

I’ve found the easiest places to start are the ones where I don’t feel much attachment or excitement.

For me, that was toiletries. I had no attachment to my usual deodorant, shampoo, or soap brands, so it was pretty painless to switch to zero waste bathroom products like plastic-free deodorant and zero waste toothpaste.

Follow the 3 R’s in order

Letterboard on top of green leaf that says "there is no planet B".

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. But if you pay close attention, you’ll notice the words are ordered from most to least impactful.

In other words, you should put most of your focus on reducing what you consume, followed by reusing items, and finally recycling what’s left.

It takes a lot of energy and materials to produce new things. The less stuff we buy, the fewer natural resources we use.

Recycling only recovers a tiny bit of those materials at the expense of even more energy use, which is why it should be the last resort. It’s why I switched to a zero waste laundry routine despite the fact that my old detergent bottles were recyclable.

Start with easy changes

There are tons of adjustments you can make to live zero waste. It’s tempting to tackle the big hurdles at the beginning of your journey, like giving up all single-use plastic.

However, zero waste beginners should focus on small, simple lifestyle changes.

Do you get a daily coffee from the local cafe? Bring your own reusable mug next time. Do you wash dishes with soap from a plastic bottle? Next time it runs out, replace it with a zero waste dish soap block.

Of course, you’ll want to ramp up your efforts over time. But the best way to achieve lasting success is to start with a few easy zero waste swaps that won’t dramatically affect your daily routine.

Educate yourself on zero waste practices

When it comes to succeeding at zero waste living, education is key. While you don’t need a PhD-level understanding of sustainability, I strongly recommend reading a few books on the subject.

Learning about topics like pollution, climate change, and sustainable fashion is an excellent motivator for change. Plus, there are plenty of practical books where you can pick up useful zero waste practices.

I always recommend 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste for newcomers. Kellogg’s book is packed with actionable tips, from an all-purpose cleaner recipe to covering leftovers with plates instead of plastic wrap (why didn’t I think of that before?).

Keep an open mind

You’ll encounter things in your zero 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.

For example, I was hesitant to start using a zero waste travel kit. I’d already perfected my light packing game and was worried about adding stress to my vacations. But after making the switch, I realized it was just fear (and a touch of laziness) that held me back, and I wish I’d made the change sooner.

In that same vein, focus on what you CAN do, not what’s out of reach.

If you live in a tiny apartment with no access to composting facilities, turn your efforts towards reducing plastic use or shopping second-hand. If you have skin allergies and need a specific cleanser that only comes in a plastic bottle, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Above all else, remember this: zero waste living is about kindness. Be kind to the planet, be kind to future generations, and be kind to yourself.

Check out these posts for more zero waste tips:

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