The average person generates 4.4 pounds of waste each day. Of that waste, a mere 1.5 pounds is recycled or composted. Nationally, that means that 167 million pounds of waste is disposed of each year. There is a tremendous opportunity here to repurpose, reduce, reuse and, when needed, recycle much of what is ending up in our landfills. A zero-waste lifestyle is indeed possible. If you find yourself asking, “What does zero waste really mean?” this post should help.
Start a Zero-Waste Lifestyle
There are some inspiring examples of individuals and families that have achieved dramatic results. The Johnson family in California, for example, has generated only a handful of trash in six months. Bea Johnson and her family have dubbed their California home the Zero Waste Home. Be sure to also check out the video on the Zero Waste Home at the conclusion of this post.
Follow these tips for getting started on a zero-waste lifestyle.
Refuse Unnecessary Items
Because we live in a wasteful society, it’s easy to bring many unneeded things home. It’s easy to end up with unnecessary promotional flyers, junky kids’ toys, excessive packaging, and product samples. Although some of these things may be useful, many end up gathering dust or are quickly disposed of. Avoid bringing unneeded items into your home by refusing them at the source.
TIP: Take a picture of a flyer if it has useful information, bring your own bags and containers when shopping, and pass on the rest. It’s helpful to involve all family members in this, as it requires a collective approach to make a significant difference on a household level.
Embrace the Free Movement
Many items that you have but don’t need may be of value to someone else. Some cities have embraced the free movement and have systems in place to promote sharing, such as free piles or swaps. Little Free Libraries encourage neighborhood literacy and resource conservation through free book exchanges. Community groups and churches may have a sharing closet where people can donate and swap clothing, housewares, tools, and other items.
TIP: If your community lacks such sharing networks, consider starting a program that inspires you.
Did you know that clothing is nearly 100 percent recyclable? If your clothing is too worn out or stained to be reused, it’s a good candidate for recycling.
TIP: Many thrift shops will recycle clothing items that are not fit for resale, so donate worn items or make rags from them instead of putting them in the trash.
Organize a Swap
Do you have clothes that no longer fit or just don’t suit you anymore? Do you have lots of books or toys that you no longer use?
Swaps often work best when you organize them through a group with a common interest — such as a children’s playgroup, knitting circle, or hiking club — because people will have a shared interest in certain types of things. Promote the event widely to make it more successful. Have tables available for people to organize their items, perhaps by size or subject. Donate all unclaimed items.
Use Freecycle or Craigslist
I frequently buy items used and then resell them when I no longer need them on Craigslist, eBay, or through resale groups on Facebook or listservs. It’s a good way to save money while also reducing waste.
Listings with pictures typically get a better response, and relist the item if it doesn’t sell within a week or so to keep the listing fresh. Whenever possible, provide detailed information, such as dimensions, brand or the model number.
TIP: For low-value items, consider listing them as free on Freecycle, Nextdoor, or Craigslist. Many items that people typically recycle or throw away can be of use, such as cardboard moving boxes, worn-out furniture, and even some broken items.
To save time, you can merely leave the item in front of your home: Create a listing with its location and a sign saying it’s free. Remember to delete the listing when the item is claimed.
Set Up a Lending Network With Friends
Do you have a group of friends or colleagues that share your passion for saving resources and money? Do you use your ice skates, tent, and rototiller infrequently?
TIP: Consider creating a lending network for many items, such as books, DVDs, garden tools, and sporting equipment.
You can create listings for what you are willing to share/rent, along with expectations. You can, for example, request that people return your lawnmower with a full tank of gas or that they wash your sleeping bag after use.
Start a Work Recycling Program or Compost Pile
Can you help your coworkers start recycling at work? Is there space for a compost pile? Offices and work sites can be a great place to initiate recycling or composting programs. If possible, find a couple of inspired coworkers to join you in the project, helping to spread the word and create and maintain the needed infrastructure.
In some cases, you may find a way to collect small, high-impact items — such as batteries or fluorescent light bulbs — that you can transport easily to a recycling destination. If starting a recycling or composting program isn’t an option, look for other easy ways to reduce waste. Does your office purchase bottled water instead of using a water filter? Are there company guidelines against printing unnecessary documents?
Most banks and companies provide paperless statements and invoices upon request. I receive all of our utility bills, invoices, and bank statements digitally. Going paperless saves both paper and the energy needed to transport the documents to you. It’s also a great way to reduce clutter and reduce the need to empty your recycling bin.
TIP: To ensure that you maintain good records, you can usually download statements and save them.
To sign up for paperless statements, visit your online profile for a given organization and look for a paperless option, or call the institution by phone.
Decline Paper Catalogs and Junk Mail
Is your mailbox filled with unwanted promotions and catalogs? If so, remove yourself from mailing lists. This not only keeps your recycling bin from filling up so quickly, but also saves clutter and energy.
Contact the Direct Marketing Association to register your mail preferences. This allows you to remove your name from many national telemarketing, mail, and email lists. Register with the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry’s Opt-Out Program to not receive credit card and insurance offers by calling 1-888-567-8688 or registering online. You can also call the phone number listed on catalogs, or contact the company online, and asked to be removed from their specific mailing list.
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Feature image courtesy of Arti Sandhu (Flickr)
Editor’s note: Originally published on March 1, 2016, this article was updated in April 2019.