A Guide to Zero-Waste Living
Take a minute to peruse the contents of the trash cans throughout your home. While this might not be the most pleasant (or pleasant-smelling!) activity, doing so can provide you with the information you need to begin living healthier, leaner and lighter on the planet. And it might even help you save money over the long haul.
If you’re like most of us, you produce an astounding 4.38 pounds of landfill-bound trash every single day, according to the EPA. For a family of four, that’s a daily output of more than 17 pounds of trash, officially called Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)—resulting in an annual total of more than 6,200 pounds.
Zero-waste living means aiming to reduce landfill-bound trash to the bare minimum—a worthy goal considering that a plastic bag could take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. When you look through your trash, you’ll probably find discards that could be recycled, reused or repurposed. As you get excited about zero-waste living, you’ll reprioritize your shopping habits and reduce the amount of clutter and excessive packaging or goods you bring into your home in the first place. Whether you’re an experienced zero-waster or a beginner, there’s always something to learn or ways to improve. Here’s an easy guide to streamlining the whole process.
Anyone dedicated to reducing waste quickly becomes well-versed in the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Consider also these other Rs: Rethink your every purchase in terms of zero-waste, considering how it will finally be disposed. Repair broken appliances, electronics and other items instead of tossing them into landfill trash. Repurpose or upcycle by transforming the old into new, usable objects. Rescue still-usable items from the neighbor’s landfill-bound trash or Dumpster.
Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
1. Recycling Bin(s): A good place to start is by recycling as much as possible. Check with your community recycling program to learn what’s accepted and required. Learning more about what you can and can’t recycle easily will likely influence your purchasing decisions. For example, if plastics are difficult to recycle in your area, instead buy products packaged in cardboard or glass.
2. Kitchen Composter: Not only can you compost most food waste, but also plain paper, compostable containers and packaging, and more (see “Kitchen Composting Made Easy” below). In general, a good approach is to keep an indoor compost bin, then transfer compost to an outdoor compost heap or to a municipal composting program, if available.
3. Storage: This is a dedicated place for items you plan to reuse, repurpose, upcycle, donate or sell. Tuck a set of shelves, or even a floating shelf, in the entry closet or garage to keep everything out of the way and running smoothly.
Your kitchen is most likely the warmest, coziest part of your home. It can also be your home’s biggest generator of landfill-bound trash. Here’s an overview of what to avoid and a list of easy, doable solutions.
Ditch Plastic Packaging: The EPA reports that in 2012 (the latest year for which figures are available), Americans generated 32 million tons of plastic waste, 14 million of which were plastic containers and packaging. This figure is particularly startling considering plastics accounted for almost 13 percent of MSW, up from only 1 percent in 1960. Glass and stainless-steel containers of all shapes and sizes can be cleaned and reused over and over again, and easily transported. For example, your empty pasta sauce jar makes a great container for your homemade soup or stew. Reduce all food packaging by buying dry goods in bulk. Bring your own cloth or mesh bags rather than using the plastic bags provided at most bulk bins. Our Natural Home Produce Bags work perfectly for this purpose, and can also replace plastic produce bags.
Avoid Plastic Bags: An increasing number of municipalities across the U.S. have banned thin, disposable plastic bags in grocery stores and other businesses. California was the first state to pass a statewide ban. If you do nothing else, start using big shopping bags made from mesh, cloth or recycled/recyclable plastic. You can buy these for about $1 at most natural supermarkets. You can also use reusable bags for buying and storing produce. There are many ways to eliminate your use of nonrecyclable plastic baggies: For packing lunches, try small reusable cloth pouches (check out reuseit) or the FSC-certified, chlorine-free, sustainable sandwich bags from If You Care; to store freezer items, use reused glass jars; instead of plastic cling-wrap, use glass or stainless-steel containers with lids.
Eliminate Disposable Paper Products: Living without paper towels, napkins, plates, cups or other disposables is easier than you might think. Rather than paper towels and napkins, choose reusable cloth versions. Several Etsy retailers offer reusable snapping towels that sit on a roll like paper towels—check out Mama Made or The Green Haven. Otherwise, simply use old hand towels, kitchen towels or cloth diapers. You’ll quickly save money over costly disposables. Organic cloth napkins are easy to find from a number of retailers. One of our favorites is Mighty Nest.
Avoid using nonrecyclable paper or potentially toxic Styrofoam plates and cups (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently named styrene a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen”). Instead, use regular reusable dishes. If you need a single-use option, several retailers offer certified compostable paper plates, bowls, cups and napkins. Check out World Centric. For your baking needs, use compostable, unbleached baking cups and parchment baking paper, available from If You Care.
Minimize Food Waste: Astonishingly, most U.S. families end up tossing the contents of one out of every four grocery bags they purchase, which adds up to about $1,350 in food waste annually per family. More than 36 million tons of food waste was generated in just one year in 2012. Save food and the resources required to produce and deliver it by shopping wisely, reviving leftovers, repurposing food scraps into jams and sauces, and more. (For many suggestions to reduce food waste, see SF Environment.) Stretch your food dollar by advanced meal planning that takes into account food spoilage rates (see Still Tasty for a shelf-life guide).
Stop Using Single Servings: Single-serving products are costly to both our grocery budgets and the environment. Buy the largest size available or in bulk and divide into smaller eco-smart containers. For example, buy organic/natural popcorn kernels in bulk and make your own healthful popcorn at a fraction of the cost of packaged versions. Instead of individual yogurt cups, buy a large tub and dish daily portions into reusable containers.
Let’s face it: Certain disposables in the bathroom—used dental floss, hygiene products, tissue or toilet paper—simply can’t be reused, recycled or repurposed. However, zero-wasters take heart: With a little forethought, your bathroom can be transformed into a minimal-waste green zone.
Recycled Paper Products: When it comes to toilet paper and facial tissue, your best option is to select 100-percent recycled paper with a minimum of 50-percent post-consumer waste. Look for unbleached options plus recyclable packaging and boxes from companies such as Seventh Generation or Green Forest.
Reduce Plastic Packaging Waste: With bottles for shampoos, conditioners, face washes, body washes, mouthwash and more, the bathroom is a major source of plastic waste. Reduce this by thinking about packaging options and choosing items you can buy in bulk or in recyclable packaging. For example, shampoo bars are often packaged in minimal cardboard or paper packaging, a much more eco-friendly option than large plastic shampoo bottles. Try the offerings from J.R. Liggett; Apple Valley Natural Soap; Herban Lifestyle; or Indigo Wild. You also can greatly reduce packaging and container waste while saving money by creating homemade products, including natural, toxin-free shampoo, deodorant, bath salts, toothpaste, liquid hand soap and more. Find a huge range of recipes on our DIY beauty collection page.
Recycled/Recyclable Choice: It pays to think creatively about ways to reduce packaging: An increasing number of natural shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, toothbrushes, beauty and personal-care products have recyclable packaging. Terracycle recycles certain brands of hair-care, skin-care, cosmetic and oral hygiene packaging. To recycle cosmetic packaging (even “non-recyclables”), bring any brand of containers, tubes, bottles and jars to an Origins retailer. Look for toothbrushes, makeup applicators and bath brushes made of recycled and sustainable materials at Eco Tools and Yerba.
Natural Air Fresheners: Aerosol or plug-in air fresheners pollute your home’s indoor air and clog up landfills. It’s easy to make your own air freshener: Put 10 to 20 drops of your favorite essential oil in a glass spray bottle. Fill with water and shake vigorously. Good odor-fighting, antibacterial scents include lavender, lemon, tea tree, peppermint and eucalyptus. If you prefer a continuous scent, make a reed scent diffuser by mixing essential oil with a carrier oil such as jojoba or olive oil. Put it into a vase or jar with a narrow opening and add reed diffuser sticks (available at craft stores or online) or bamboo skewers. Every few days, flip the sticks to refresh the scent. You can also purchase air fresheners made with natural essential oils—check out Aura Cacia.
A Smarter Period: While “reusable” might not be the first word that comes to our minds when we think about our periods, reusable options are actually cleaner and smarter than disposables. Menstrual cups such as The Keeper offer 12-hour protection; are reusable (The Keeper has a life expectancy of 10 years); include no bleaches or dyes (unlike tampons); and, at about $35 each, will save the average woman $100 to $150 a year.
Proper Medication Disposal: To avoid environmental pollution in our waterways, it’s important that we don’t flush expired or unwanted prescription or over-the-counter medications down the toilet or drain, and don’t toss them in the garbage. Most communities offer drug take-back programs—check with your local pharmacy. If not available in your area, follow the EPA’s household disposal steps. Search for “EPA and proper med disposal.”
Zero-Waste Green Cleaning
Cleaning products are often packaged in bulky plastic containers. Instead, use these three easy tips to reduce landfill-bound trash in your cleaning routine (and avoid potential harmful chemicals, while you’re at it).
1. Multipurpose Cleaner: Here’s an easy, homemade multipurpose cleaner: In a spray bottle, combine 1⁄2 cup white distilled vinegar with 1 cup water, and add 10 to 20 drops of tea tree, lavender, lemon or eucalyptus essential oil. Shake well before using.
2. Homemade Scrub: You can eliminate commercial bleach scrubs and packaging with this simple, effective sink and countertop recipe: Thoroughly mix 1/2 cup baking soda and 1⁄2 cup coarse salt in a stainless-steel or ceramic bowl. For extra whitening power, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. For many more household cleaning recipes, visit our collection of homemade cleaners.
3. Zero-Waste Cleaning Rags: Save money and the earth by cleaning with fabric squares made from cut-up old socks, sheets and towels.
Zero-Waste Laundry Room
Detergent: Think in terms of buying laundry supplies for three, six or 12 months at a time. Large-sized natural laundry soap helps reduce your family’s toxin exposure while minimizing trash. Look for recycled, recyclable or compostable containers such as those from Seventh Generation or superconcentrated nontoxic laundry soaps that require less packaging such as those from ECOS. You can also make your own laundry soap and store it in a large bin; find several recipes in Love Your Laundry: Homemade Laundry Detergents.
Dryer Sheets: Make your own dryer sheets by cutting up old clean cotton towels or other fabrics into small strips. Scent with 10 or more drops of essential oils such as lavender. Refresh with more essential oils when the scent dissipates. You might also replace dryer sheets with dryer balls. Easy to make out of wool yarn, these reusable balls reduce static and drying time. Watch a video to learn how to make your own wool dryer balls.
Bonus Tip: You can compost dryer lint, as well as cotton and wool rags. Use cotton cloths scented with essential oils instead of dryer sheets to make your dryer a compostable-only zone.
Are the items mentioned in this article hard to find at your local grocery store? Don’t want to order from several websites? Our partner ePantry stocks many of the items discussed in this article and will ship them directly to your door—saving you money and several trips to the store. Visit ePantry for a page of products specifically related to this article.
Kitchen Composting Made Easy
According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste account for 20 to 30 percent of what we pitch. Composting organic material yields rich garden fertilizer while eliminating landfill-bound trash.
Composting Options: Set up a countertop bin where you can deposit food scraps and more. (Ceramic and molded bamboo compost bins are available at Mother Earth Living store.) Once the small bin is full, remove compost to an outdoor compost pile. Another solution is to put food waste into compostable trash bags, which can be turned in to municipal compost centers: If You Care; Biobag USA.
An alternative approach is vermicomposting, in which red wiggler worms quickly transform organic matter into usable compost. These clean, simple, efficient systems are useful for those who don’t have space for an outdoor compost pile. Learn more at Compost at Home: Tips for Composting and Vermicomposting.
Must-Know Guidlines: Compost fruit and vegetable parts, eggshells, coffee grounds, unbleached paper, tea bags, disease-free houseplants, and even hair and fur—and much more. For a complete list, visit the EPA website.
Cook Up Biodiesel: We can’t pour used cooking oil down the drain (it causes clogs) or compost it. However, you can donate cooking oil to be recycled into biodiesel fuel, says earth911, which provides donation sites.
Municipal Composting: If you don’t have an outdoor compost pile, look to see if your community offers a curbside or drop-off composting program—free bins are often provided.
As part of its mission to be zero-waste by 2020, San Francisco has a legally mandated curbside recycling and composting program. Learn if your community is one of the increasing number with municipal composting programs by searching for your city name and “composting.” Or donate your compost to your nearest community garden. Find one at LocalHarvest.
You are likely well-versed in recycling basics: Find out what’s accepted by your local curbside or drop-off program and recycle those items. However, items not readily accepted by these programs can be more difficult. Fortunately, several resources are available to help you figure out how to dispose of almost any household item without sending it to the landfill. Earth911 has relevant information about how to recycle or properly dispose of almost every item in your home, including garage items such as auto fluids, motor oils, batteries and more. Terracycle collects many nonrecyclable or hard-to-recycle items, including food wrappers, packaging or containers, plus garments, shoes, used personal-care products, electronics and more. Donations are recycled or upcycled into new products. The Preserve Gimme 5 recycling program accepts clean #5 plastics, which include yogurt, butter, hummus and similar containers, as well as certain brand cosmetics, and food and kitchen products. Learn where to donate used natural wine corks for recycling at Recork.
The start of the New Year is a great time to declutter and pare back on belongings. This year, tackle that task with zero-waste in mind. Although the kitchen and bathroom are often the source of the majority of our household waste, we also need to tackle waste such as worn-out or outdated electronics, unwanted clothing, old athletic equipment and more. Use these resources to send all of these items to new homes where they can be enjoyed by a new owner or responsibly recycled to benefit charities.
Items to people in your community: Freecycle
Women’s professional clothing to unemployed, low-income women: Dress for Success
Men’s professional clothing to low-income men: CareerGear.org
New and used bras, lingerie, slips, camisoles and swimsuits in support of breast cancer survivors: Bras for a Cause
Gently used formal dresses: Dress Picks
Adult and kids shoes: Soles4Souls
Old eyeglasses to those in need: Lions Clubs International
CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays and plastic cases: CD Recyling Center
Used athletic shoes: Nike
Find regional and state programs to dispose of unwanted electronics.
Digital cameras, laptops, binoculars and backpacks to the American Birding Association to help worldwide conservation efforts.
Letitia L. Star is a healthful living writer who has written more than 1,100 articles, including many on health, healthful eating and green living.
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