32 Zero Waste Swaps for a Sustainable Life

One of the hardest things about living sustainably is managing expectations. We see people who fit a year’s worth of trash in a jar and think, “by the end of the year, that will be me!”. In reality, that impressive result takes years of work implementing dozens of zero waste swaps.

When starting a zero waste lifestyle, remember that slow and steady wins the race. Trying to fit every zero waste alternative into your current routine is a surefire way to burn out and go back to old habits.

To make things easier, I’ve compiled this list of my favorite zero waste swaps. Think of it as a menu of choices–start with a few items for the kitchen, maybe a few for the bathroom… Before you know it, you’ll be creating far less waste and feel comfortable and confident doing it.

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Zero waste swaps for the kitchen

Wooden shelves of glass jars containing seeds, grains, and pastas, popular zero waste swaps.

1. Composting bin vs. All-purpose garbage can

Did you know that conventional landfills are terrible for organic waste? Because landfills aren’t properly aerated, it takes far longer for food and plant-based materials to decompose. Not to mention the build-up of methane–a powerful greenhouse gas–that happens as the waste breaks down without oxygen.

Using a composting bin for all your food scraps is one of the best zero waste alternatives to mixing all your trash together.

A stainless steel composting bucket is perfect for storing daily food waste. Once it’s full, you can dump it into your outdoor composting system or take it to a local facility.

2. Silicone baking mat vs. Aluminum foil/parchment paper

From baking cookies to roasting chicken, I used to go through a ton of aluminum foil and parchment paper. Today, I try to cook as much food as possible directly on my baking sheets.

However, that’s not always an option, especially with sticky foods or delicate baked goods. Luckily, there’s a sustainable alternative to baking tray liners!

Switching to silicone baking mats was one of the easiest swaps I ever made, and I’ve never looked back.

They’re super easy to clean, and they help spread the heat evenly so that you get consistent results every time. They can also be put in the freezer if you’re into chocolate work.

3. Silicone cupcake liners vs. Paper cupcake liners

You might think that paper cupcake liners are compostable and don’t belong on this list of zero waste swaps. Unfortunately, most brands apply a layer of waxy coating similar to baking paper to make them non-stick.

So what can you do if you want to whip up a batch of delicious cupcakes without filling the trash with dozens of one-use paper wrappings? Use reusable silicone cupcake liners!

Food-grade silicone is safe for cooking and naturally non-stick. Plus, they come in festive colors ideal for birthday parties and holiday celebrations.

4. Reusable K-cups vs. Single-use K-cups

K-cups are the perfect example of convenience creating unnecessary waste. The polypropylene pods never fully break down in the landfill. And most machines are the single-cup variety, which adds up dramatically over the course of a week.

Thankfully, you don’t have to trash your K-cup machine to go zero waste. These reusable K-cups keep the convenience factor without the single-use plastic.

Just fill one with your favorite blend of coffee and use as normal.

Alternatively, if you want to feel a bit more sophisticated, another one of the best zero waste alternatives to K-cups is to get yourself a French press. These coffee brewers are often made of stainless steel, and the grounds can be emptied directly into the compost bin.

RELATED: Zero Waste Coffee: How to Brew Sustainably

5. Mason jars vs. Plastic storage bins and bags

Mason jars are a great way to reduce waste in your kitchen, and I like to use them whenever I can.

By storing your grains, spices, zero waste snacks, and other dry goods in glass jars, you can cut a huge amount of plastic packaging and disposable bags out of your grocery trips. 

Although plastic storage containers can be durable, they will eventually warp over time and cannot be recycled after their life is over.

Glass jars are especially useful as more stores start using self-service dispensers and bulk bins. And freezing mason jars is the perfect way to keep foods fresh for longer.

6. Reusable cutlery vs. Plastic cutlery

Most of us only use plastic cutlery when we’re eating fast food or partaking in some birthday cake at the office. But if you keep a travel set of cutlery in your car/bag/desk, you can avoid the cheap plastic altogether.

This stainless steel set even comes with a carrying case. Simply rinse or wipe down the utensils, pop them in the case, and wash everything at home (or the workplace kitchen).

7. Bamboo utensils vs. Plastic cooking utensils

Even with the best of care, our kitchen utensils won’t last forever. Unfortunately, that means plastic spoons and spatulas inevitably end up in landfills.

Luckily, bamboo is a sustainable material for all sorts of kitchenware, especially wooden spoons, spatulas, and tongs. It’s even good for cutting boards thanks to its antibacterial properties.

Unlike plastic utensils, bamboo can be composted at home or at an industrial facility at the end of its life. You can even break it apart and bury it in your garden!

8. Cast iron pans vs. Teflon non-stick pans

If you’ve ever seen Disney’s Tangled, you know how important it is to have good, solid pans. Pans that LAST. Would Rapunzel have been able to subdue an intruder in her tower with a thin, Teflon-coated pan? I don’t think so.

Security uses aside, cast iron pans will literally last a lifetime or more when cared for properly. Non-stick pans may be convenient, but one little scratch can cause the coating to start flaking off into your food.

I still keep a non-stick pan around for making eggs and simmering tomato sauce. It’s nearly a decade old yet still in great condition because I use it infrequently.

9. Bamboo dish scrubbers vs. Plastic scrubbers and sponges

Sometimes changing the smallest things in your kitchen can make the biggest impact. Getting rid of those disposable dish scrubbers will not only lower your enivronmental impact, but also save you from ingesting harmful microplastics that shed off the bristles.

A bamboo dish brush will help you clean your dishes much more sustainably, especially as many are ergonomically designed and fit into your palm much more easily than a plastic, long-handled brush.

While some bamboo brushes have plastic bristles, this set uses compostable tapioca fiber.

If you’re more of a sponge person, check out this list of zero waste dish sponges.

And while you’re shopping, be sure to pick up some zero waste dish soap!

Save me for later!

Household zero waste alternatives

Canvas bag of soap nuts spilling onto blanket.

10. Dryer balls vs. Disposable dryer sheets

When it comes to laundry, one easy zero waste swap is to change from disposable dryer sheets to reusable dryer balls. This can also cut out a need for fabric softener, too. 

Instead of having to throw out a chemical-drenched sheet every time you do your laundry, these environmentally conscious balls will collect all the dust and lint you need and be ready to be used again. For an all-natural swap, opt for the wool variety over the ones made with PVC.

Dryer balls come in plenty of designs, and some of them are adorable!

11. Cloth napkins and rags vs. Paper towels and napkins

Paper can take up to 13% of the space in a landfill! By using washable cloth napkins and clean-up rags, you can significantly reduce the amount of trash you put out each week.

We collect our soiled rags and napkins in a small kitchen bin and toss them in the wash as needed. Most clean-ups are usually just a bit of liquid, so we hang “clean-ish” rags over the radiator for reuse.

They’re easily one of my favorite sustainable kitchen products.

12. Reusable cloth diapers vs. Disposable diapers

Through no fault of their own, babies go through A LOT of diapers. The typical baby uses over 2,000 diapers in their first year alone!

Reusable cloth diapers used to be the norm before disposable plastic ones came on the scene, and frugal families are leading the charge in normalizing them again. Today, many sustainably-minded parents have embraced cloth diapers (while keeping a few disposable ones on hand for emergencies).

If you aren’t ready to switch to 100% reusable diapers, that is okay! Even if you only replace 30% of disposable diapers with cloth, it’s still a big step towards living a low waste life.

13. Thrifted clothes vs. Retail clothes

I’ve shared the perils of over-shopping for clothes and our reliance on fast fashion.

But aside from simply buying fewer clothes, you can choose to buy “new” pieces from secondhand shops. You’ll often find a great bargain while giving clothes a new home and saving them from the landfill.

If browsing through poorly organized racks at Salvation Army and Goodwill isn’t your scene, look for consignment shops in your neighborhood. These places have a more curated selection of items, and your money will be supporting small businesses and other sustainably-minded people.

14. Zero waste laundry soap vs. bottled detergent

Laundry detergent has always been a hot topic in eco-friendly discussions due to the excess plastic and the fact that the chemicals they use are normally anything but eco-friendly.

However, these days there are more natural alternatives to main-brand laundry detergents, and switching to them is one of the best zero waste swaps you can make. While there are some popular DIY recipes out there involving soap flake, the reality is that most of these solutions leave a soapy residue on your clothes, which wears them–and your washing machine–out faster.

Enter soap nuts. These all-natural berries release a natural cleansing agent called saponin when agitated in water. Saponin also acts as a fabric softener, ensuring your clothes are clean and soft after drying.

Check out my post on the best zero waste laundry detergent for more options!

Zero waste swaps in the bathroom

Bathroom counter with zero waste swaps inside jars, including bamboo toothbrushes, cotton swabs, and soap.

15. Shampoo bars vs. Shampoo bottles

These days, it seems like everything comes in plastic containers. But getting back to basics with bars of soap can make a world of difference to the planet (pun intended).

While some people still use good old fashioned bars of soap for their bodies, many don’t realize there is an equivalent for your hair!

Shampoo bars are a concentrated form of hair cleanser. When they come into contact with water, the ingredients are activated and form a lather that you use to clean your hair (much like liquid shampoo but less foamy).

These ones from HiBAR are cruelty-free, void of parabens and sulfates, and come in biodegradable packaging.

Check out my post on zero waste shampoo for more options!

16. Biodegradable cotton swabs vs. Plastic cotton swabs

When you consider how little you can clean with cotton swabs, you realize just how wasteful they are. And if you’re using the kind with plastic sticks, every swab you’ve ever used is likely still sitting in a landfill.

Thankfully, there are a couple zero waste alternatives.

Bamboo swabs are fully biodegradable, and actually tend to be better quality. You can toss them into the compost bin after use, making them a must-have in any zero waste bathroom.

If you only use cotton swabs for their “forbidden purpose” (cleaning your ears), try using a thin cloth and your finger instead. Just don’t go poking around your ear canal.

17. Natural dental floss vs. Plastic dental floss

Plastic floss is one of the biggest pollutants of the ocean, and sadly it’s easy for sea creatures to choke on too. Even in landfills, it takes decades to decompose.

Natural silk floss is completely biodegradable. When you consider how much floss you go through every day, it’s one of those zero waste swaps that really adds up over time.

18. Zero waste hair brush vs Plastic hair brush

It goes without saying that the number one substance you’re trying to avoid in a zero waste hairbrush is plastic. Sadly, most hair brushes are made with a mix of natural and plastic materials (for example, a plastic body but with horsehair bristles or similar), so they cannot be recycled.

Instead, look for a brush made with fully organic, biodegradable or already recycled materials. Bamboo, beechwood, plant fibres and other sustainably sourced products are the key ingredients.

If the bristles of your brush are embedded in a soft substance, make sure to check that it’s natural rubber and not plastic or another non-environmentally friendly material.

19. Bamboo toothbrush vs. Plastic toothbrush

Here’s a troubling fact: every plastic toothbrush you’ve ever used is still sitting in a landfill somewhere. And it will take 400 years before it’s fully decomposed.

So next time your dentist hands you that free toothbrush after your cleaning, say “no thanks”. Instead, get yourself a biodegradable bamboo toothbrush with plant-based bristles.

Depending on the soil conditions, a bamboo toothbrush handle buried in the ground will biodegrade in about 3 years. That’s 99% faster than the plastic alternative!

P.S: For a totally waste-free brushing routine, switch to a zero waste toothpaste.

20. Organic bath brush vs. Plastic shower loofah

Aside from not being eco-friendly, plastic shower loofahs are havens for bateria. If you love that exfoliated feeling, there are better and more sustainable ways to clean your skin.

A soft-bristle shower brush made of biodegradable materials is an excellent alternative to loofahs. Plus, the bristles can be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide.

And of course, you can always use a washcloth! Just be sure to wash it after every use.

21. Safety razor vs. Disposable razor

Whether it’s for your face or your body, a durable safety razor is a must-have. Only the blades need to be replaced after going dull, and you can collect the used ones inside an aluminum can for recycling.

Using a safety razor takes some getting used to, but the environmental and cost savings are worth it.

22. Menstrual cup vs. Tampons

Investing in a menstrual cup is one of the best zero waste swaps you can make. I know they seem daunting–it took me several years to finally buy a Saalt cup after reading rave reviews.

I even wrote my own Saalt cup review to encourage more people to make the switch!

After my first cycle of trial and error, I couldn’t imagine going back to pads and tampons.

Menstrual cups are made of 100% medical-grade silicone and last for up to 10 years with proper care. They also hold more volume than even the largest tampons, which means fewer trips to the bathroom.

If reducing your waste isn’t enough of a nudge, consider this: a single cup can save you approximately $1,000 USD during its lifetime!

23. Deodorant blocks & creams vs. Deodorant sticks & sprays 

Depending on where you live, your deodorant likely comes in a plastic stick or an aerosol can. Sadly, neither of these containers are eco-friendly.

That’s where natural deodorant creams and blocks come in. They cut out the non-renewable packaging, and in the case of aerosols, last a whole lot longer.

P.S: If you’re switching to natural deodorant, your pits will take a few weeks to adjust. Keep that in mind before you toss out your new product!

P.P.S: If DIY skincare is your thing, you could also try making your own deodorant paste.

24. Bidet attachment vs. Toilet paper

Spoiler alert: a bidet cannot completely replace the need for toilet paper. That being said, installing a bidet attachment is a great eco friendly home improvement.

You’ll reduce your toilet paper consumption and water use, which in turn saves you money.

Did you know that, on average, a bidet uses almost 300x less water per use than it takes to make a single roll of toilet paper? And they’re less difficult to attach than you might think.

For a solid mid-range option, I recommend Brondell’s line of bidet seats, which come with features like stainless steel nozzles and warm air dryers.

Alternatively, if you prefer a basic bidet attachment, the TUSHY classic is one of the most popular choices.

Zero waste swaps outside the home

Flat lay of canvas bag, reusable coffee cup and steel water bottle on top of wooden table.

25. Disposable coffee cup vs. Reusable coffee cup

The amount of paper and plastic waste from takeout coffee is insane. Getting yourself a reusable cup or thermos can make a huge impact, particularly if you’re a daily coffee shop consumer.

Most chains and independent cafes are more than happy to pour your drink into a reusable coffee cup. Some places even offer a discount for it! Just let them know how many ounces your cup holds and they’ll charge you accordingly.

I prefer a glass and silicone travel cup. It’s sleek, durable, and can last you a decade or more (depending on how much coffee you consume).

However, my family members use insulated stainless steel mugs, which are excellent alternatives to glass.

26. Stainless steel tiffins vs. Carry-out containers and bags

Sack lunches conjure up nostalgic images of school field trips and picnics. But we all know that those brown paper bags ended up in landfills rather than a compost bin.

Our school days may be behind us, but you’re probably still getting food in paper to-go bags, or worse–styrofoam containers.

Next time you’re grabbing a sandwich or pastry from the local cafe, ask them to put it in a metal tiffin. These stainless steel wonders act as a zero waste alternative to the typical plastic-coated wrappers and boxes. They make great lunch boxes, too.

27. Refillable fountain pen vs. Plastic pens

For some zero waste swaps, a little investment goes a long way. That’s definitely the case with this particular substitution.

Fountain pens can be made from more durable and eco-friendly substances like bamboo and brass (no plastic here!). Plus, you can refill them with ink again and again, unlike disposable ball-point pens.

For bonus points, use these pens in combination with an eco friendly notebook!

28. Reusable straws vs. Plastic straws

Plastic straws are one of the most common waste producing products in the world. If you can’t skip the straw altogether, use a glass or metal drinking straw to cut down on both plastic and paper waste.

29. Washable tissues vs. Disposable tissues

Once upon a time, people carried around handkerchiefs for everyday use instead of relying on disposable tissues. If those days came back, there’d be a lot less waste.

Get yourself a sustainable pack of reusable tissues, and help reduce the 8,000,000 trees being cut down to make disposable ones each year. It’s a win for your wallet and the planet!

30. Reusable tote bags vs. Plastic bags

This is a big one: in the US alone, 100 million plastic bags get used every year. And nearly all of those bags end up in landfills, because they’re made of hard-to-recycle plastic.

Bringing your own tote bags or woven baskets to the store is one of the easiest zero waste swaps you can make. And with many cities starting to charge for–or even ban–plastic shopping bags, you’ll be ahead of the curve.

Check with your local supermarket to see if they have a reusable bag program. Many major chains in the US and UK sell their own branded tote bags, and they’ll replace damaged ones for free.

P.S: Don’t forget your mesh produce bag for storing fruits and vegetables!

31. Reusable water bottles vs. Plastic water bottles

Just like with plastic grocery bags, disposable plastic water bottles are a huge problem for the environment.

Whether you choose glass, stainless steel, or bamboo, look for one with an eco-friendly lid. This stainless steel bottle from Tree Tribe is BPA free, vacuum sealed, and the company plants a tree for every purchase.

32. Glass food storage containers vs. Plastic Tupperware

One of the healthiest and handiest zero waste alternatives you can invest in is glass containers. Unlike plastic that warps and discolors over time, glass food containers are long-lasting and won’t leech chemicals into your food when heated.

Many options come with plastic lids, but you can find versions with bamboo tops as well.

Are you ready to kick off your zero waste journey? Subscribe to my newsletter below for more eco-friendly tips and inspiration.

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