When I tell people that I try to live a zero-waste lifestyle, most people respond with a sense of utter overwhelm. Most people assume that going zero-waste is nearly impossible or that my life now consists of an endless parade of joyless sacrifices. After all, plastic and single-use items are ev-er-y-where, from plastic straws, plastic wrappers, foil bags, receipts, plastic grocery bags, plastic silverware, drink bottles… You catch my drift.
For me, going zero-waste has actually been almost completely painless, to everyone’s (including my own!) surprise. I made and am still making the transition to live a zero-waste lifestyle, but my secret is doing it slowly.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
I made the commitment to go zero-waste just a few months ago at the beginning of this year. I’m a notorious slob, much to my mother’s chagrin, so I knew purging my apartment of all disposable items at one time would be about as effective as that one time I tried to stop using Facebook for a week.
Instead, I decided to ease into my zero-waste transitions. When I ran out of a disposable item, I replaced it with a zero-waste alternative.
I ran out of paper towels first. I had a stack of old tee shirts lying in a pile in the back of my closet that I had long since stopped wearing, so I took a pair of scissors to them and cut them into paper-towel-sized squares. I now use my tee shirt towels for everything I ever used paper towels for, and I store them in a little box in my kitchen. When they get dirty, I toss them in the laundry. With that one change, I saved a pile of non-compostable fabric and countless mountains of disposable paper towels from the landfill. I’ve been using my tee shirt towels for months now, and I haven’t had to throw a single one away!
Next came the razor blades. Despite this whole eco-feminist blog thing I’m doing these days, I haven’t yet surrendered my obsession with having the smoothest legs on the face of the planet. However, razor blades, as most of us know, are f*cking expensive, and those disposable cartridges aren’t recyclable or compostable. Those gross, expensive torture devices always end up straight in the landfill. Put another way, every plastic razor blade cartridge that was ever made still exists. Horrifying, no?
I spent $8 (less than I used to spend on a single razor blade, Jesus H. Christ) to purchase a stainless steel safety razor, which came with 20 free razor blades. The blades are thin, metal sheets that come wrapped in a small paper wrapper, both of which can be recycled. I bought my razor four months ago, and I’ve only changed the blade once—and I only had to change it because the TSA confiscated the blade at the airport when I went through security because the Department of Homeland Security apparently doesn’t believe in baby-soft skin.
The blades can last up to six months, depending on the thickness of your hair and how often you shave. At this rate, the blades I have will last me up to five years, and not a single bit of waste ends up in the landfill. Plus, I get as effective a shave with my safety razor as I did with a cartridge razor, except the safety razor blades last significantly longer than cartridges. And I got all of these blessings for eight effing dollars.
Anyway, the moral of the story here is that I simply replaced household items with zero-waste alternatives as I used up their disposable counterparts. Over the course of five months, I’ve made several other swaps, too.
|Disposable Item||My Zero-Waste Replacement|
|Body wash||Package-free bar soap|
|Coffee cups||Reusable coffee mugs|
|Dental floss||Waterpik water flosser|
|Disposable razors||Safety razor and razor blades|
|Food storage bags||Mason jars and reusable containers|
|Grocery bags||Fabric grocery and produce bags|
|Household cleaners||Vinegar, baking soda, and Castile soap|
|Laundry detergent||Homemade laundry detergent made from washing soda, baking soda, and Castile soap, all bought in bulk|
|Menstrual pads||Washable, fabric menstrual pads|
|Moisturizer||Homemade moisturizer made from organic shea butter, coconut oil, and zinc oxide powder, all bought in bulk or recyclable containers|
|Mouthwash||Homemade mouthwash made from peppermint and tea tree oils and baking soda|
|Packaged food||Bulk foods or homemade alternatives|
|Paper towels||Recycled tee shirts|
|Shampoo||Package-free shampoo bars|
|Shaving cream||Package-free bar soap|
|Takeout containers||Mason jars and reusable containers|
|Water bottles||Reusable water bottles|
Over the course of this process, I’ve identified a few things that I didn’t actually have to replace at all. My clothes are plenty soft and clean without using fabric softener, for example. My hair does just fine without using conditioner. You might find other things that you can do away with completely.
Don’t Let Waste Go to Waste
Is my lifestyle completely zero-waste yet? The honest answer is no. I still own a few disposable items that I purchased months or even years ago that I’m still using up. For example, I bought a 500-pack of Q-tips about a million years ago, and I still haven’t managed to use them all. I’m still using up the makeup and face products I bought before I committed to a zero-waste lifestyle, among a few other things.
I could toss all these disposable items in the trash and replace them with zero-waste alternatives right now. After all, those items are going to end up in the landfill anyway, right?
Technically, yes, all those disposable items are going to end up in some giant trash heap someday. But a lot of resources, energy, fossil fuels, and effort went into creating those disposable products. And hey, I don’t like to let all that waste go to waste, if you know what I mean.
Instead, I do the least that I can to honor all the resources that were used to create those products by using them as much and as thoroughly as I can. We can’t get around the fact that, with our current waste system, those products are going to inevitably end up in a landfill. But at least I will have put those products to good use before they end up there to persist forever in a garbage-y hell.
What Can You Do?
The next time you run out of a disposable item, get creative and replace it with a zero-waste alternative. Instead of running to the store to replace a disposable item with another disposable item, use the same amount of effort to look for a long-lasting replacement—or better yet, see if you can do without a replacement altogether. Even a single change can make a huge difference over the course of months or years.
If you do use disposable items that you want to replace, use them to the fullest extent that you can. If you absolutely can’t stand looking at them any longer, give them to friends, family, or neighbors who can put them to good use.
What are some of your strategies for reducing the amount of waste you produce? Share with us in the comments!