A guide to zero waste living - and where to start

The zero waste lifestyle is all about simplifying your life by reducing your waste.  It’s a way to be kinder to the planet and your body through what you do, eat, buy, wear, and use everyday. Don't be intimidated by the word "zero" - it's more of a guiding force than a realistic end-point. This lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight, but it does start with a few simple changes. These are our top tips for getting closer to zero waste.

One thing at a time

To begin your zero waste journey, try going room by room and analyzing the waste you're creating in your own home. It's a great way to start and gives you a better idea of how you can reduce. This exercise of getting familiar with what goes in your waste bins will equip you for the next steps in your journey.

Once you've completed a waste analysis over the course of a few weeks, you can start reducing your waste by reusing and upcycling the things you have, like reusable shopping bags or glass jars from sauces or spreads. Rather than throwing away what you already own, like old makeup or plastic bags, use them up and wait until you run out of something to choose a more sustainable alternative. This gives you time to research and make decisions; after all, if a reusable is going to be by your side for a long time, it needs to be the right fit for you. By making small changes over time, you'll have an easier time building habits, you'll spread out any spending, and you'll create the lifestyle that's right for you.

There are some changes you might want to make sooner rather than later. Making the move towards organic produce to reduce chemical pollution, and nontoxic food storage like glass and metal are important parts of a healthy and Earth-friendly lifestyle. If you have any synthetic clothing, it's a good idea to get a Guppybag, which collects microfibers before they get into the water system. Another change is skincare - make sure anything you're putting directly onto your skin has natural, non-toxic ingredients. Things like deodorant, face lotion, and face soaps are all good considerations, since they absorb into your skin. If you decide to get rid of hard-to-donate items like personal care products, Buy Nothing is a great resource for finding new homes for your discards.

Reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle, rot.

The 5 R’s (as written by Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home) are a great system to start pursuing a low waste lifestyle. It all starts with reducing what you need and refusing to bring certain items into your home. Less stuff means less to take care of and less potential to create waste. If you refuse to choose single-use items or plastic items or excess packaging, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of trash you’re making day to day. Reusing what you have is a much more sustainable option than buying new, so upcycle what you have and see what in your home could be repurposed. Reusables are so key to a low waste lifestyle. It’s a return to the way things used to be done. What you can’t reduce, refuse or reuse should be recyclable or compostable (rot).

buy less choose well make it last

Graphic by Casey Callahan for Eco Collective TM

Bring your own reusables

A lot of waste happens when you’re out and about. Coffee cups, to-go containers, single use utensils, napkins, paper towels… Low waste living takes a little habit building and a lot of planning ahead. Find a thermos that can work for coffee, juice, water, whatever you enjoy throughout the day and then get in the habit of bringing it with you. Carry a reusable food container with you to bring home leftovers or pick up your lunch from the hot bar. In a pinch, you can always order “for here” to avoid the trash that often accompanies takeout. We have also found that a reusable utensil set comes in handy for eating on-the-go.

bamboo reusable utensils and stainless steel food containers

Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective

Buy in bulk

A big percentage of household waste is plastic packaging from processed foods or grocery store staples. If you’re starting to reduce your waste, check if your local grocery store has a bulk section where you can use your own containers like glass jars or cotton bags to fill up on grains, beans and snacks. Most grocery stores in Seattle - even chain ones like Fred Meyer - offer things like rice, quinoa, oats, flour and beans in their unpackaged section. If you’re curious how to tare your containers or use the bulk bins, we made a video. We like to say “shop the perimeter” of the store - produce, the deli, the bakery, and the bulk section are all great sections of the store for zero wasters.

Choose local and organic when possible

Think about the footprint of each item before it got to you.  How many miles did it travel to get to your hands? Is it from a small farm or a huge factory? Is it organic?  

Every year, the EWG releases a list of the top twelve types of produce that you should buy organic (the fruits and vegetables that are being sprayed with more potent pesticides or that have the highest chance of harm from digestion). With produce, wine, and flour, I feel it’s extremely important to buy organic.  Not only are pesticides harmful for our health, but they have a negative impact on the health of workers and on local soil and water streams. Plus, a study from Newcastle University showed that organic food has more nutrients and antioxidants!

Organic produce at a farmer's market

Photo by Genevieve Livingston

Shop secondhand

Almost everything you could need already exists in the world. Why buy new when there are perfectly good, lightly used items to choose from instead? Shopping secondhand supports a circular economy where things are repurposed or regifted rather than being thrown away. It also saves the extensive resources like water, carbon, and materials that go into producing new. We have an abundance of thrift and secondhand stores in Seattle, for everything from clothing and outdoor gear to kitchen items and furniture. One of Eco Collective’s owners, Summer Hanson created an awesome map of secondhand shopping locations around Seattle.

Switch your personal care items to be low waste

If you’ve ever taken a look at the waste you or your household produces, you’ve probably noticed a lot of items from the bathroom, like toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, deodorant containers, and shampoo bottles. There are sustainable alternatives to these items and they can be so much simpler! We wrote a whole blog on how to make your bathroom trash free, and it takes some time and thought, but it’s totally doable.

It starts with waiting until you run out of each item and then finding the right earth-friendly item to meet your needs. Replace your toothbrush with a bamboo one and your tube of toothpaste with a recyclable alternative. Use compostable floss and refillable mouthwash. Look for a natural yet effective deodorant in a compostable container. Sometimes greener items are hard to find, but natural grocery stores or local apothecaries have started carrying a lot of these items, and if you’re in Seattle, you can swing by our store to see all of these items in person. Try using a shampoo bar or finding shampoo and conditioner in bulk. Make the switch to a safety razor or a menstrual cup.

zero waste bathroom

Photo by Anya Nnenna for Eco Collective

Be mindful

Time after time, leading a sustainable lifestyle is about being mindful. Being intentional about what you bring into your home and the waste you create. Thinking about each purchase and aligning your actions with the kind of future you want to create. With a few gradual, conscious shifts, and a regular practice of being prepared on-the-go, low waste living becomes second nature.

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