5 Zero-Waste Baby Steps

pianoSomeone recently wrote on my Facebook page that going zero-waste requires a home, a garden and an outdoor compost bin. While I do agree all of this certainly helps, I also believe everyone can reduce their waste.

Perhaps reading about zero-wasters induces feelings of paralysis for some. “OMG, she raises backyard geese, makes her kids sidewalk chalk out of the ground-up eggshells and sews pillows stuffed with the feathers and down!” You can start small. If you aim for perfection, you may never begin, or if you do begin, you may soon give up.

It’s like when I started dating Todd, a near freakishly talented pianist. I quit piano lessons. Not that going zero-waste compares at all to mastering Chopin. Once you adopt a new lower-waste routine, you’ll likely find it easy—and pleasurable. I’ve come up with five baby steps for beginners. I would suggest choosing one and working up to more. Think of these as the “Chopsticks” of zero-waste. (I promise, no rulers on the knuckles.)

1. Commit to one zero-waste meal per day

In 2011, I traveled to Dominica in the Caribbean. Our gracious hostess owned an organic farm in the rainforest there and she fed us homemade granola every morning topped with fresh bananas, plantains, passion fruit or mango, flaked coconut and coconut milk, all harvested from nearby trees. I vowed to stop buying cereal when I returned home. If you want to cut one processed food from your life, cut cereal. You have so many other choices for breakfast: scrambled or poached eggs, fruit salad, homemade yogurt topped with fruit salad, steel-cut oatmeal topped with fruit salad, fermented porridge, sourdough waffles and on and on. If you buy your ingredients in bulk, you can make all of these zero-waste.

breakfast in Dominica
Breakfast in Dominica
2. Cut juice, soda, bottled water and any other beverage packaged in a plastic container or Tetra Pak

Juice contains as much sugar as soda. You may as well drink a Coke. Bottled water…don’t get me started. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching “The Story of Bottled Water,” produced by The Story of Stuff. Long ago, I bought juice and I’m ashamed to admit bottled water but today I buy only loose-leaf bulk tea in my own jars and milk in returnable glass bottles. That doesn’t mean we don’t consume a variety of beverages (including filtered tap water). I make:

So making all of these may go beyond a baby step but you could start with the easy-to-make chocolate syrup if you don’t feel up to trying anything more advanced—and you like chocolate 😉

3. Buy bread from a bakery

I bake lots of sourdough bread these days. I realize not all bread eaters will bake sourdough bread and many will opt to buy it instead. If you buy yours, find a bakery that sells bread loose and take your own cloth produce bag with you to store it in. If you decide to start baking your own, try sourdough. The process takes me three days but I do very little over those three days. I really just babysit the microbes that transform three simple ingredients—flour, salt and water—into bread.

bread in a bag
Food looks more appetizing packaged in natural materials like this homemade linen bag
4. Reach into the pantry for personal care products

I’ve been using my homemade deodorant for at least three years and I’ll never go back to the commercial stuff. (You’ll find the recipe here.) It contains coconut oil, baking soda, non-GMO corn starch and essential oil. It works like magic. I make scrap vinegar which I use (among other ways) to rinse my hair after washing with baking soda. My older daughter has also made us toothpaste with ingredients similar to the deodorant; mouthwash made with spices steeped in vodka for a month; and lip balm and hand cream both made with beeswax, various oils and essential oils.

dap o deodorant
Homemade deodorant
5. Eat lower on the food chain

Like Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” We do eat some meat but not a lot and I always hand the butchers my containers to fill when I do buy it. They often thank me for doing this now (it wasn’t always that way)! However, I do cook vegetarian meals regularly and sometimes vegan ones. Eating less meat and fish both simplifies shopping and cooking and reduces your waste. What is the most disgusting, smelly thing in your garbage pail? Likely wasted meat or fish, bones (if you don’t make bone broth, which I urge you to try!) and the bloody or wet packaging of the meat or fish. I love dal, channa masala, curries, refried beans, falalfel, egg-plant parmigiana, quiche and so on. If you want a little snack, grab an apple or orange.

Everyone has to start somewhere. Think of what I would be able to play today had I not quit piano lessons 10 years ago! I better dig out my old sheet music…

20 Comment

  1. Can’t stop thinking about the Caribbean now…

    1. It was a great trip! Dominica is the nature isle and not very commercial or built up. It’s beautiful and rugged. I went hiking in the rainforest and swimming in waterfalls.

  2. A great compilation! Thank you, I’ll definitely share this one. I started adopting zero waste choices in November – buying milk and the like in glass was always a standard at my house already, and I had already been drinking tap water for years – and I realised that once you take the first tiny steps, more follow almost automatically, without any need to force oneself to anything. So thanks again for these low-barrier entry tips! Cheers – Tobi

    1. Thanks for that, Tobi 🙂 I’ve really enjoyed getting on this zero-waste path. When I started, I had no idea it would improve my life so much.

  3. Thanks, these are very helpful, and beyond the “bring reusable grocery bags” tip that I have already mastered. I like the idea of making at least one meal a day zero waste. I can do that (and most days already am) until it’s natural and build on it. Thanks again!

    1. Thank you! I tried to think of some new things to say that I haven’t already written about. I think small steps are key and as you say, you can just build from there. That’s how we did it. Happy waste reducing 🙂

  4. So that’s what you do with your egg shells! I love this and will share. And I will start working on # 3 or #4.

    1. Thank you but I’m not the perfect mom who does that, nor do I have geese. I wish I did. I read that you can make sidewalk chalk out of dried, ground eggshells but I haven’t tried it. Please let me know if you try it and it works though. Thanks for checking out the post 🙂

  5. Great advice. I live in Chicago in an apartment building so my husband and i definitely face challenges. We are able to compost by keeping a pretty large tub of worms in one of our closets. You don’t even notice they’re there and they never smell bad. We use the compost in the few vegetables we are able to grow in containers on our back patio.

    1. Oooh, that’s great. Good for you. I bet your patio plants love the compost your worms make for them. My daughter wants to build a worm bin for her residence at college. That’s good to know it doesn’t smell at all.

      1. The key is moisture control, which in the end means adding enough paper to abort the moisture from food scraps. It got out of hand once before knew what we were doing. No bueno.

      2. Thank you for the tip. I’ll tell my daughter 🙂

  6. Great tips. I totally agree that it can feel too overwhelming to even start! But it’s much better to do a little than nothing. And I try not to be too hard on myself when things lapse, as they invariably do from time to time…

  7. Well done, Anne…;))

  8. […] No to microwaved lunches and single-serving yogurt containers. Yes to canning all of the fruits. Yes to this post by the Zero-Waste Chef: 5 Zero-Waste Baby Steps […]

  9. Cutting out cereal is such a good tip. Also, I keep showing my father your pics of homemade sourdough. He is such a picky eater, but I’m using you to get my household excited about zero waste shopping!

    1. Thanks Danielle. There are so many other options for breakfast. Thanks also for sharing my blog with your family 🙂

  10. Ever since I found a link to your blog through another blog (“Paris to Go”), I’ve gone through all your archives and read every post. Thanks for all your great writing and ideas, which have helped me progress on the path I was on, to live and eat more sustainable and more healthily (is that even a word?). I’m recommending your blog to everyone I know. And by the way, we made your chocolate syrup recipe and it was huge hit! Can’t wait to make others and try fermentation!

    1. Thanks so much for that! I’m glad you found my blog and that you enjoy the posts. That chocolate syrup is good stuff. I’m glad everyone liked it. Fermentation is so much fun! I am obsessed. It’s so healthy too. And easy!

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