Striving for Zero Waste

I strive to keep a zero-waste home and waste

Whenever I mention this to someone, the immediate response is “oh yea, I recycle everything, too!” But living zero waste means much more than recycling; it means first refusing, reducing, reusing, repairing, composting, and then recycling as the last option before the landfill.

scrap bowl, destined for the compost or chickens, depending on contents.
scrap bowl, destined for the compost or chickens, depending on contents.

Recycling is certainly the better choice compared to throwing an item “away”, but the recycling system isn’t the solution for everything, and it has its own long list of complications. Regardless of recycling efforts, 32 percent of all plastic packaging ends up in the ocean. This, combined with chemicals in plastic, concerns me, so I try my hardest to avoid plastics, particularly single-use. There is no need for most of these products. As seen on an unlinked meme on Pinterest: “It’s pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, and bring it home is considered to be less effort that what it takes to just wash the spoon when you’re done with it.”

Living a zero-waste lifestyle means sending nothing to the landfill (or incineration, depending on what area of the world you’re in), and minimizing waste in the first place. I don’t shop for the sake of shopping. I wear things out and I try to do without. I reuse what I have and repair what I can. I say no to single-use and bring my own, everything. And I don’t feel like I’m inconvenienced or deprived.

Here are some of my habits to make this possible:

If I don’t buy it, I won’t use it. Instead of buying ziplock bags, I own about a million mason jars, which get used for food storage and freezing. I own about a half a million Pyrex and Anchorware for leftovers. I take my school snacks in mason jars. Sandwiches get packed in stainless containers. I have little cloth bags for light snacks like nuts for hiking. What does go into my trash is ‘dry’, because my food scraps go either to the chickens, the compost, or the municipal stream, so I don’t buy trash bags. I don’t use paper towels, and instead opt for a solid supply of tea towels, cotton napkins, and wash cloths.

enjoying a zero-waste snack of carrots and hummus while learning how to calculate static and dynamic water pressure in irrigation class
enjoying a zero-waste snack of carrots and hummus while learning how to calculate static and dynamic water pressure in irrigation class

Bring your own: mug, silverware, straw, bag, water-bottle, napkin, containers. There is almost always a metal or bamboo fork in my purse. If I go out for coffee or tea, I either patron places that use real mugs and I can sit there, or I take my insulated Klean Kanteen for drinks to go. I’ve also had just a normal mug from home filled. If I get something cold, like an iced drink or a smoothie, I bring in a mason jar and a glass Dharma straw. Our house has a collection of metal water bottles. If there isn’t one in my bag, there is one in the car. I never, ever buy bottled water. If my bottle is empty, I’ll fill it from a sink. I order my drinks without a straw (the server will get it right 50% of the time). I never, ever take a carry out bag. If I don’t have one with me, I’ll shove items in my purse, carry them with my hands, or put them back in the cart and wheel them out to my car, and set on the seat.

basics of zero waste- reusable everything
basics of zero waste- reusable everything

Choose products with paper or glass packaging. If I have options, I choose items that are packaged in glass instead of plastic, or paper instead of plastic. Oil, vinegar and condiments all come in both options, but I choose ones that are in glass. I use bar soap to wash my hands, body and shave with, and choose a simple bar that’s wrapped in paper. When I need notebooks for school, I opt for ones with a cardboard cover instead of plastic. I buy Strauss milk in returnable glass. I use a brand of chicken feed that comes in a compostable paper bag that I use in the garden.

Buy in bulk. This is probably one of the largest ways I’m able to reduce my waste. I buy almost everything in bulk, and I bring my own containers for waste shopping basket

For the dry goods, I use cloth bags that I sewed from reclaimed sheets. I have the tare weight (how heavy the bag is) labeled on the bag so I don’t have to pay for the weight of them at checkout. Sometimes I use tape to mark the bin code, which I then have to throw away, but mostly I use the twist-ties and I reuse them at home or in the garden.

the tare weight is written on the bag, but I often write it on the twist tie to make check-out easier for the clerk
the tare weight is written on the bag, but I often write it on the twist tie to make check-out easier for the clerk
checkout, zero waste style
checkout, zero waste style

For produce, I choose loose goods over packaged ones. I either stick items straight into my basket (I usually shop with an African market basket) or the cart- no individual plastic bags necessary. If I see your cart loaded up with things like bananas, avocado, and onions each in their own individual plastic bag, sorry I’m not sorry, but I’m silently judging you. If I’m getting lots of individual items, like mushrooms, I use one of my cloth bags.

citrus with or without plastic packaging
citrus with or without plastic packaging
Banana bag of shame. Seriously, if you do this, you suck.
Banana bag of shame. Seriously, if you do this, you suck.

For peanut butter, spices and olives, I have a jar weighed at the front service desk and they write the tare weight on the lid or on a piece of tape. If I’m concerned with the lid not always being used for the same jar, I’ll have them use a dry erase marker (that I bring with me and hand to them), but you have to keep the jars upright and not rub on anything or the writing will come off.bulk olives bulk peanut butter

For lotion, shampoo and castile soap, I buy bulk as well, either using tare weighed glass jars or the original plastic container. bulk beauty products

Coffee and tea also gets purchased in bulk. Matt goes to Eureka once a month for work and takes a few jars with him to fill at a great herb and tea shop up there. Coffee gets purchased in bulk at the grocery store, although I’m sure a local roaster would also refill containers. You can buy Bella Rosa coffee by refilling (their) containers at Oliver’s.

Bulk shopping can extend past the grocery store. I buy Stella’s biscuit treats in bulk from Western Farms, refilling an old bread bag. Other treats, like hoofs and ears come package free.

bulk treats
Stella helps me pick out treats

Bring my own container for counter service. Now that my parents are raising meat on their hobby farm, I don’t buy very much meat anymore. But when I do, or when I buy fish, I bring in a large pyrex and ask them to fill that instead of wrapping up with their plastic-backed butcher paper. They still give me the square of plastic that they used to grab the item with, but its much less waste.

Bring my own container for take-out. When I worked downtown, I’d often buy my lunch from one of 3 places. Instead of calling in a order, I’d walk to a local restaurant with bowl. I’d order my dish, and have them dish into my own instead of their takeout containers. On the rare occasion that we eat out for dinner now, I’ll bring Pyrex containers for leftovers.

Leftover Indian food, packaging free
Leftover Indian food, packaging free

We are very lucky that in Sonoma County, most of us have access to a wide variety of grocery stores. I choose to primarily shop at Whole Foods. Not only because I make eating organic a priority, but because they are the most zero-waste friendly store. They have a bulk section for just about everything, and they are happy to tare weight any container I bring in at the front service desk. Oliver’s also has a great bulk section, but in order to get a tare weight, you have to weight in line, as there is no scale at the customer service desk. Depending on the clerk, some don’t know how to deduct tares when ringing up. Oliver’s has also straight up refused to fill my own container at the fish counter. I would love to support a local store, but the hassles of shopping there make it a stressful experienced.

zero waste shopping basket, with carrots

As much as I’ve been consistent in my habits, I still make trash. For at least the past 5 years or so, my family of 2 has been producing about a half a pound of trash a week. I could certainly do better, but considering the average person produces 5 pounds of trash A DAY, I want to share what I have been able to accomplish.

This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 18-24. This shows the waste of my 2-adult household, plus pets, including 3 meals a day of plus snacks. Total weight: 5.5 oz.

5.5 oz of trash
5.5 oz of trash

This is what I’m sending to the landfill from the week of January 25-31. This also shows the waste of my family, including 3 meals a day plus snacks. Not pictured or included in the weight are two poop bags from dog walks, and bag of litter-box cleanings. Total weight: 4.9 oz.

4.9 oz.
4.9 oz of trash

Some things I can work on developing new habits for, some I can’t change. Plants bought at a nursery usually have plastic tags. I will never have enough time to make my own butter. The prescription cat food I need for Gaia only comes in plastic. The meat that I get from my parents is wrapped in a sheet of plastic. We still buy bags of tortilla chips and tortillas. I buy a loaf of sandwich bread in plastic once a week, which I could also make, or buy direct from a bakery in paper or my own bag. For now, I settle on reusing the bags for pet waste. I have yet to master making my own laundry and dish soap, but its possible. Same with toothpaste and deodorant. Buying yogurt or ice cream in returnable glass is out of our price range, so I buy in recyclable plastic, but both I could make myself. Matt’s customers often give us (delicious) samples of goodies, but they are often wrapped in plastic and he can’t say no. Cheese is my favorite food  so I still enjoy it but choose the least packaged option. Sometimes my anxiety is high and I just can’t manage life, and I reach for a frozen or packaged meal. We aren’t perfect but we try.

Are my habits going to make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps I’ll inspire others to take up a similar habit. Maybe eventually the store will notice the highly-packaged items don’t sell, and let the company know. Maybe more and more options will be offered packaging free as people request them. Perhaps you’ll consider analyzing your trash and consider how to make less of it. Regardless, I believe in doing all that I can do, if for no other reason than when the end comes, I know I tried my hardest.

If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste or avoiding plastics, check out Beth Terry’s blog My Plastic Free Life, or Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home (which they have at the Sonoma County Library).

how to achieve a zero waste life


18 thoughts on “Striving for Zero Waste

  1. Said it before and I will say it again… “Be the change you want to see.” At some point someone else will copy you. Either by choice or by forced frugalism (Is that even a word?).

    We try and keep our waste to a minimum. We usually sit at about a black bag bag every two weeks. Not good but not bad either.

    I wish we had a self service store where we could buy produce in bulk. It would make our shop a damn sight cheaper and easier.
    I usually buy loose produce but if this year and my veg plot works then I will be holding off buying some produce at all!
    Our meat is from a local farm butcher that uses paper. Again… Not good but our laws would make it difficult to do it any other way. Maybe I could take in tupperware?

    We are big on recycling when we can though… Glass, paper and plastic all get recycled. Batteries and other things also get recycled. We can now even recycle Tetra packs! (That was a bit of a shock!)

    Here in the UK there used to be a big thing when I was in school in the 80s ‘Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’… I have no idea what happened to it. I kinda though it wouldn’t be a ‘Thing’ now… It would just be done. No need to make it a thing.

    The other thing that I recall is that there were a few places that would recycle big items for parts. Ok, you didn’t get any money for trading it in but you knew it wasn’t ending up in a bin.
    I also recall there being a trial of making special bikes for disabled people out of older, broken bikes. No idea what happened to it though.
    I think some of these things may still exist… But they will mainly be a local Facebook group kind of thing.

    Still… Onward and upward!

    1. Thanks for your comment Kalamain!
      Always interesting to hear what’s happening in other parts of the world. We had a “Recycle Reduce Reuse…and close the loop!” jingle here in the 80’s, but the recycling was the stress. I never remember learning how to reduce or refuse using crap in the first place!

      1. I think we still had a reduced form of the World War 2 mentality of ‘Make and make do’, if you get my drift… So when this American idea of the throw away commodity came to us it was quite something the younger generation liked. But I can still remember my Gran and Grandad talking about the ‘Make do’ idea.
        I suppose that’s why I do a lot better than others in that I don’t make *as much* waste as many others. That and the fact that I can’t afford to! B-D

        You should be proud of what you are doing. Don’t let others mock you. You are awesome. B-)

  2. Whoa, awesome post! I try to follow very similar practices, but never thought about using mason jars for produce in the fridge or freezer. I do a lot of canning in the summer, so I have tons of jars too. Thanks for sharing!!! Oh, and I just saw someone getting banana’s in plastic – and I agree, that sucks! 🙂

    1. Thanks Heidi! If you use jars for freezing, just make sure they are the straight sided ones- either the wide mouth pint or the half-pints. The new Ball boxes have them labeled if they are freezer safe. I learned the hard way not all are….lots of chicken broth was lost that day!

      1. Thanks for the tip about the jars! I had no idea I would matter. It seems like a lot of things I do, in the garden, cooking, and gosh in life, I learn the hard way! 🙂

      2. You’re not alone! Some people say they don’t have problems with the narrow necks, but after loosing fresh pressed apple cider and chicken broth, I don’t think its worth the chance! Plus, picking up glass bits out of the freezer is never good!

  3. I cannot tell you how much I LOVE this post. I also cannot tell you how much it sucks to be in Houston where we are (environmentally) 50 years behind the times. ‘Banana bag of shame.’ For real!!

    Great compilation, Melissa.

    1. Thanks Shannon!
      As I’ve traveled more and more, I have realized how ahead of the curve California is. I had always just assumed that’s how it was everywhere!

  4. Wow, that’s impressive. I never thought to bring my own containers to restaurants for the takeout, might have to try that next time. I use empty peanut butter jars for almost all of my bulk food, that way it can’t break if I drop one, heh.

  5. Thank you, what great suggestions! You’re doing so well and I think we should take any opportunity to celebrate doing our bit. I may make my own laundry detergent, but I can’t find plastic container-free borax, but I guess its less plastic than if I didn’t x

    1. HI, Have you heard of Dizolve Eco Strips Laundry Detergent? I’m not advocating for them, but just from personal experience, they have a great no plastic, completely biodegradable. It comes in strips that you tear off and place it in your washer. There is tons more info on line. Hope this helps! 🙂

      1. Thanks for the suggestion, I hadn’t heard of them before! Looks like a cool product, and it on par with the cost of other eco-friendly soaps. I’ll have to give them a try once my current supply runs out!

    2. Thanks Cybele!

      How funny, I’ve only seen borax in cardboard here in the US! Even if yours is in plastic, at least you know everything thats in in! I think that counts a lot as well.

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