Zero waste can seem like a pay-to-play model when you scroll your Instagram feed, or pass by all these gorgeous kitchens on Pinterest that you hope one day you’ll actually be able to have. (I definitely have at least one Pinterest board devoted solely to kitchen inspo. No shame!) While it’s a pretty thing to look at, the reality is that living a zero waste life is rarely that picture perfect, if ever.
You can work your way up to those gorgeous things (as your old things can’t be fixed any longer and you need new things), but you DON’T need to drop tons of money in order to be zero waste. In fact, you shouldn’t be spending much at all. Zero waste is all about refuse, reduce, reuse as its first three tenets. Use what you have in your life already and keep using it until it’s past its usefulness.
Zero waste mindset
Adopting a zero waste mindset is the single most important thing that you can do, and the best part is that it’s free! Zero waste is inherently counter-culture to the American way of life, where we’re taught to buy, buy, buy, regardless of whether we need the products or not. We throw things away, and we roll it to the curb to be whisked away out of our lives. You need to reprogram how you think about your habits as a consumer.
Do you tend to get drawn into thrift stores or department store and leave with things that you “didn’t know you needed?” Yeah, me too. It can be hard to ignore that hit of dopamine that happens when we buy something new (or new to us), but there’s a reason that refuse is the first tenet. It can save you not only waste, but plenty of money along the way.
(Check out more about this in the 5 core values of Zero Waste).
Cut up your old cotton t-shirts
Do you have old t-shirts kicking around that you haven’t worn in forever, but just haven’t gotten around to donating them? Cut them up to make rags! Don’t have any? Go to your local thrift store and look for shirts that are made of 100% cotton.
Store them in an old bin (or a cute bin you bought second-hand) anywhere that you’ll be able to make them a part of your daily routine. This may take some time to adjust, so be kind to yourself. Over time, it will become automatic to reach for a rag instead of a paper towel, and it will save you thousands over your lifetime.
DIY cleaners are amazing, and there are plenty of reasons why you should add them to your cleaning cabinet, not least of which is that they’re incredibly inexpensive. Each individual cleaner beneath your kitchen sink likely costs at least $3, meaning that you’ve got at least $20 worth of single-purpose, single use cleaners. (They’re probably filled with all sorts of icky chemicals anyway that we don’t want to be inhaling regularly.)
DIY cleaners are pennies compared to that and are multipurpose. Just five key ingredients will get your cleaning cabinet looking a little more eco-friendly and a lot more cost-effective.
Make a food plan
Food waste is a huge contributor to a household’s waste. Think about all the times you discover a container of leftovers that you’d completely forgotten about at the back of the fridge. I can smell it just thinking about it, and it’s not a pretty smell. That is because when food starts to decompose in an environment with no oxygen (like a sealed container), anaerobic bacteria take over and produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30x more potent than carbon dioxide. That same thing happens when food gets sent to the landfill because it doesn’t have access to the insects and bacteria that would help it break down into nutrient-rich compost.
Some ways to avoid this?
- Menu plan. Take some time once a week or once every other week and plan out what meals you need and what food you need from the grocery store to make those meals. Once you go to the store, stick to that list as best you can, and that will cut down on the amount of waste that would build up.
- When shopping, buy the biggest option available that's within your budget
- Make a devoted spot for leftovers in the fridge. Make a point of packing them for lunch at work or including them as a “leftover” night for dinner. Mr. Grizzly and I have two of these a week to make sure that we’re eating what I make.
- Save all of the odds and ends from your veggies and put them in a freezer bag. Take this out once a quarter and fill a giant stock pot with water and let it simmer for a few hours. Once you finish, compost the veggies, and now you have homemade vegetable stock to use in your recipes.
- Make a routine of going through your fridge once a week to clean out anything that’s getting overripe.
Invest as it makes sense
As I talked about before, zero waste is not a movement about aesthetics. Zero waste is the intentional choice to keep reusing things as long as you are able to, and that includes those plastic tupperware containers before you started moving toward a more eco-friendly life. While it would be great to have beautiful mason jars line the shelf and only wooden or metal utensils grace your kitchen counters.
When I first started my transition to zero waste, I fell hard into the aesthetic trap, wanting my kitchen to be beautiful and put together, like something that you’d see on the pages of a magazine. I thought I needed to have all of these eco-friendly options in order for me to achieve zero waste. Learn from my mistakes. This is not necessary. I still cringe thinking about all of the perfectly usable items I dumped unceremoniously into the recycle simply because they were made of plastic.
Thinking of this experience brings me back every time to the core tenet of reusing, and using everything up until its end. So while some investments may make sense right off (a sturdy water bottle if you’re partial to bottled water or bamboo toothbrushes if you’re almost to the end of your plastic one’s life), the truth is you don’t need these new and shiny alternatives since you can reuse many things at home and save the cash you’d spend on them.
SHOP. SECOND. HAND.
This does take some patience and willingness to sift through many things you don’t want, but you can find some absolute gems. I have furnished my home almost exclusively through second-hand shopping. Most things are less expensive than even the least expensive option at your local department store. You pay for quality, and that quality will last you. But that doesn’t mean that the quality items need to be new.
This is a soapbox I get on often, but I believe in the power of second hand stores. Not only are you going to be able to find pretty sweet deals (between 40-80% retail prices), but you’re also getting things that are already in the waste stream. The items didn’t require any further virgin materials to make their way to you from their last owner.