When I began my week of going zero-waste, I quickly realized that being prepared was half the battle. Living a virtually waste-free life was easy when I had the supplies necessary to do so — my containers and utensils, my bags and my bottles. Figuring out what these essentials were and then remembering them on a daily basis, however, was a different story. It took me several false starts and mistakes before I really got the hang of it, and since I’ve already navigated this steep learning curve, I’d like to help any of you wishing to embark on this journey by laying out the components of what I’ll call a “zero-waste starter kit.”
6 zero-waste living essentials
Although there are dozens of ways to be zero waste, from your kitchen cleaners to your beauty products, I’m going to start by just tackling the take-with items. These are the essentials, the items to carry with you that will enable you to reduce packaging, shop in bulk and eliminate one-time use products while on the go.
It doesn’t really matter what it looks like — whether it’s a fancy stainless-steel water bottle or simply a clean glass pasta jar — some sort of vessel carried with you in a backpack or purse means you’ll spend less money on soda or juice, increase your water intake and eliminate one-time-use plastic bottles, too.
I prefer to carry a jar with me when I can because it does double duty as both water glass and coffee cup — when running errands with a 3-year-old in tow, you never know when you’re going to need a quick pick-me-up cappuccino to get you through!
I have a set of bamboo utensils from To Go Ware given to me by my sister-in-law one Christmas. I’d never thought I needed to carry reusable utensils with me before, but as soon as I started, I was amazed at how often I used them. Whether you invest in a little kit like I have or you just hit up a thrift store for a knife, fork and spoon, carrying your own utensils allows you to avoid plastic utensils whenever you’re caught eating on the run. Besides being woefully inadequate (has anyone ever successfully cut something with one of those plastic knives?), the plastic utensils are used for five minutes and then languish in landfills for thousands of years. That’s a hefty price to pay for the convenience of eating on the go.
We’ve long used cloth napkins at home, but it wasn’t until our zero-waste week that I began packing one with me in my purse. It takes up very little space and has really come in handy for everything from meals to toddler messes.
Again, it doesn’t need to be fancy. You can make your own, or source some vintage chic napkins from a secondhand store. Grandma would be proud!
I keep one compact reusable bag in my purse for spur-of-the-moment purchases, and I also keep reusable bags as part of my “shopping kit” that I have set up in my car. I have about five or six reusable bags — some that I’ve purchased and some that were gifts — and I bring them with me to the grocery store to avoid using plastic bags.
Reusable bags seem to be everywhere these days, but if you are among the rare handful of people who don’t have one or two lying around, they’re dead simple to make out of an old T-shirt, using a tutorial like this one, or find a no-sew version here for the less crafty. Making one yourself helps reduce waste and upcycle old T-shirts that may have been resigned to rags otherwise.
I have about five or six of these that live in my shopping kit. They’re small bags made of a fine mesh, with a drawstring closure, and they’re perfect for bagging loose produce like apples, carrots, broccoli or lettuce. (Perfect for candy from the bulk aisle, too. Not that I get candy from the bulk aisle, but I mean, you might.)
These bags take the place of those flimsy little produce bags — they’re far more durable, so they won’t break and leave 18 oranges rolling around the driveway of your house — and you can reuse them indefinitely, rather than throwing them out.
Jars and Glass Containers
Of course for some bulk items, like spices or flour, those mesh bags would make an unholy mess. This is where your jars come in. These can be proper mason jars or just clean pasta, jam or peanut butter jars. Write the weight on the outside of the jar with a permanent marker so that the cashier can remove the weight of the jar from your bulk purchase total. (For a great tutorial on how to tare a jar, check out zero-waste guru Lauren Singer’s post about it here.)
Some delis will allow you to avoid the plastic packaging on meats and cheeses by packing them in your own container. If you’ve found one that does, bring a few medium-sized glass containers with locking lids in your shopping kit, too. These are also great if you’re going to pick up takeout (just ask them in advance if you can bring your own containers) and you can skip the Styrofoam altogether for a delicious zero-waste meal!
This last must-have isn’t something you can buy in a thrift store or pack in your purse. It’s the community you live in that can make or break your zero-waste lifestyle.
- Does your city have bulk stores?
- Will your grocery store cooperate with your zero-waste goals?
- Will your friends and family support you on this sometimes challenging new adventure?
All of these factors are essential to consider when planning a zero-waste life. And although you don’t have as much control over your community resources as what you pack in your shopping kit, it sometimes takes someone to start. Don’t be afraid to write letters advocating for zero-waste shopping solutions, bigger bulk sections and better recycling options, too.
Feature image credit: Syda Productions / Shutterstock