It’s time for new year’s intentions to eat better, save money, manage stress, exercise more…
Reduce your trash and reach all of these goals and more. Because practically every aspect of modern life involves trash, when you attempt to reduce your waste, you examine every aspect of your life—and you live more intentionally.
Last year’s 6-step plan to get off of plastic was my fourth most popular post of 2018. For 2019, I’ve created a zero-waste plan with a different accomplishment for each day of the month. Follow this plan, and by the end of the 31 days, you will have slashed your waste, adopted some new healthy habits, saved money and more. Download a PDF version of the plan below to use throughout the month.
Day 1 Hold on to your plastic trash
If you start this challenge on January 1st, you may have been up late partying the previous night. But even exhausted or hungover, you’ll find this first step easy to accomplish.
Collect your plastic—even recyclable plastic—for the month so you can audit it later. Recycling delays plastic’s transit to landfill. It does not prevent it. Plastic, unlike metal or glass, can be recycled a limited number of times only, as the process degrades the material and results in lower quality plastic, which eventually goes to the dump.
Although I’m not advocating you become a hoarder, you will find your new waste reducing regimen easier to tackle if you know where your waste comes from. If you prefer, take pictures of all the plastic before you put it in recycling. But do track it. We’ll come back to this step later in the month.
Day 2 Go on a buy-nothing-new fast
The easiest way to reduce your consumption is to stop consuming.
Don’t browse for clothes or anything else online—didn’t you just get a bunch of stuff you didn’t want for Christmas? Steer clear of the mall. Avoid the big box craft store. If you think you need something, wait a few days and you’ll either forget about it or the desire will likely disappear.
Of course if you must buy something—your furnace broke down and the thermometer reads 34 below outside or you need a new toothbrush (see Day 16) or you somehow lost your menstrual cup (see Day 14)—go off of your fast. A mom on Instagram told me that she and her kids plan on doing a buy-nothing-new year for 2019 but they will give themselves three passes each for stuff they really do need or want.
Stay on your fast for as long as you feel comfortable—a few days, a week, the entire month or longer.
Day 3 Assemble a zero-waste kit from items you already own
A packed and ready-to-go zero-waste kit will save you from many waste dilemmas. For example, if you take a jar with you when you eat at your favorite restaurant, you won’t have to choose between wasting the food you couldn’t finish or wasting the disposable container the restaurant provides for your leftovers.
You’ll want several reusable items in your zero-waste kit:
- A water bottle or mug or both
- Metal cutlery and chopsticks
- Cloth napkins
- A few jars
- Cloth produce bags (for shopping, for snacks, for just about anything)
- Cloth shopping bags
Store your kit in one of your cloth shopping bags, ready to go.
You can spend a fortune buying all of this stuff brand new but start with what you already have. You may find many of these items lying around your home. If you’re crafty, you could sew these cloth produce bags or these bento bags out of scrap fabric.
Keep an eye out for your kit items and ask friends, family, coworkers, restaurants and cafés for their jars. You’ll use them for everything: buying food, storing food, eating and drinking out of, bringing home leftovers, packing lunches and more.
Day 4 Cook a clear-out-the-fridge dinner
If you follow this plan, tomorrow, you’ll go food shopping. Before you do that, cook a meal with what you have on hand to prevent food from going to waste. According to the NRDC, up to 40 percent of the food we produce in this country goes to waste. That squanders not only the food itself but also all the resources that went into producing the food. Once in a landfill, food becomes compacted and cut off of oxygen. Anaerobic bacteria break down this food and as a byproduct, release methane gas, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.
Food waste is often literally the low-hanging fruit of combatting climate change. Do a quick inventory of your refrigerator and pantry and figure out what you can cook with what you have. Soup or stir fry will use up piles of vegetables. A pot pie in winter will warm everyone up. Roast vegetables and add to sandwiches or purée and add to dips. Extra fruit can go into a fruit crumble. Click here for more ideas.
Day 5 Shop at your local farmers’ market
Here in Northern California, our farmers’ market runs year round, the food tastes incredible and it comes with no packaging. We are spoiled. I use my homemade produce bags to shop at my market. Find your farmers’ market in the US through Local Harvest. In Canada, search at Farms.com.
When you shop at the farmers’ market, you support small farms, you cut out the middleman so the farmers earn more money and more of your dollars stay in your community.
According to IndieBound, an association of independent local bookstores, when you shop at a small, local business, for every $100 you spend, $52 stays in the community. Spend that $100 with the big guys and a paltry $13 remains in your community, for, you know, building roads and funding schools and keeping hospitals open and paying firefighters.
If you don’t have access to farmers’ markets, consider joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) and request no plastic bags. Some CSAs use less packaging than others. Ask around. If your CSA wraps its food with lots of plastic packaging, when you return your box, return the packaging along with it and a note explaining why. In the US, search for a CSA also through Local Harvest.
Day 6 Plan how you’ll compost
As I mentioned in Day 4, food rotting in landfill generates methane gas, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. But put that same food in a compost heap and it will actually suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
If you have a patch of dirt or grass in your yard, you can start composting today. Collect your food scraps—fruit and vegetable peels, scraps of food your kids didn’t finish at lunch, moldy produce—in a large container or bowl and toss them on the ground at the end of the day. Cover them with brown matter (dry leaves, for example, or hay if you have it). Tomorrow, repeat. Or wait to add your scraps every few days.
My sister composts year round in the Great White North. She tosses her scraps on the compost heap outside. They freeze. They thaw. They compost. Click here for more on my lazy backyard composting.
If you live in an apartment and have no yard, consider starting a worm bin—or vermicompost. You’ll keep a bin of red worms in a convenient location and feed them your food scraps. They’ll produce earthy-smelling and nutrient-rich material that you can add to houseplants or give it to gardening friends.
Almost all of the instructions you find online for building a vermicompost bin use two large plastic tubs. I found these instructions for building a wooden version. I keep finding wine crates—on the side of the road, at stores, from neighbors—and think a few crates might easily be converted into a worm bin.
My city also collects food scraps. Check this list from Litterless for municipalities or even stores that collect food scraps in your state.
Having no luck finding compost facilities near you? There’s an app for that! ShareWaste is like Airbnb for your food scraps and it looks rather brilliant. You search the ShareWaste map for people accepting compost scraps where you live—or where you will be traveling to—and then you drop them off. Or you sign up to accept compostable materials.
Day 7 Pack a low-waste lunch for work or school
When you brown bag it, not only will you save money, you’ll also eliminate all the trash associated with take-out food—the food wrappers; the paper cup, plastic lid and straw; the paper napkins; the condiment packages; the bag that holds all the individually wrapped food. That’s a pile of trash!
Leftovers make the perfect lunch and help prevent food waste. Search for a reusable container to put them into. Or pack a salad in a jar; a sandwich, burrito or wrap in a container or beeswax wrap; crackers in a jar, carrot sticks in a jar and hummus in a container. Click here for more ideas for packing a zero-waste lunch.
Day 8 Examine your first week’s worth of trash
What is your number one item? The ubiquitous to-go coffee cup? Plastic food wrappers? Plastic yogurt cups? Try to figure out an alternative. To replace the to-go cup, take your own mug to the café. If you need a replacement for your favorite food, check out my my recipe index here. You’ll find recipes for many foods most of us buy at the store in plastic bags and containers.
Each week, continue to collect your trash or take pics of it. Figure out what changes you can make—what you don’t need and what you can get without the (usually) plastic waste. If you are stumped, look at this list of 50 steps to break up with plastic.
Day 9 Do a bit of meal planning
Like all things zero waste, a bit of planning prevents a pile of waste. Meal planning prevents both the packaging waste and the food waste. By planning your meals ahead of time—even just one meal to start with—you’ll avoid the temptation to go through drive thru after a long day at work and chow down on a bunch of unhealthy, over-packaged food.
You’ll find zero-waste cooking much easier if you eat more vegetable-centered—rather than meat-centered—dishes, which also happen to be the healthiest for you. Even at most grocery stores, many vegetables have little plastic packaging—and they taste delicious! Since you’re going to the trouble, double the recipe so you can squirrel some away for later. You’ll save time.
You don’t have to create a very elaborate meal plan if you prefer not to. Here’s what I usually do: On the weekend, I’ll look at what food I have on hand and then think of a couple of meals I can make out of it during the week. I then buy any ingredients I need for those dishes. I’ll cook one meal the first night, eat leftovers the next night, then make a different meal the night after that. The next night we might eat more leftovers or something new made from all the leftovers. (The person who does the cooking generally appreciates leftovers more than anyone else in the family.) Click here for easy 4-step meal planning.
Day 10 Fill up on staples at the bulk bins
With your meal plan in hand, it’s time to go shopping.
Filling up on staples at the bulk bins—flour, sugar, nuts, dried fruit, beans, rice, popcorn, oils, nut butters, baking soda, maple syrup, olives, spices, tea and so on—reduces a pile of packaging waste. Yes, these foods came to the store in packages but in very large packages. If you bought your own little package every time you needed something rather than filling up at the bulk bins, you would contribute much more packaging to landfill.
Before you take a jar to the store to fill up with bulk flour or sugar or anything, make sure you ask someone at customer service to mark the “tare” on the jar—the jar’s weight—before you fill it up. The cashier with then deduct this tare from the overall weight of the jar. You’ll pay only for what’s in the jar and not for the weight of the jar.
I regularly hear from people in the UK (and elsewhere but disproportionately the UK) that they have no access to bulk bins. You can still reduce your waste without access to bulk. Read about some strategies in the post “Good, Better, Best Zero-Waste Shopping.”
Day 11 Save your vegetable scraps
I can’t remember the last time I bought broth. I used to buy a Tetra Pak of the stuff, use half, store the rest in the refrigerator and then, after it had turned bad, throw it out. So. Much. Waste.
Now I make it. It tastes delicious and I control what goes into it.
Throughout the week, as I prep my vegetables, I save celery tops, carrot ends (not the leafy green parts—they may lend a bitter flavor), the ends of onions, cauliflower cores, garlic cloves that have begun to dry out, the ends of green beans, tomato cores, squash innards, vegetable peels and so on. I keep these bits in glass jars in the freezer. Once I have amassed enough scraps, I make broth. Here is the full recipe.
Day 12 Take a hike
Getting out in nature not only makes you appreciate nature more, it confers many health benefits such as improved short-term memory, reduced stress, improved vision, increased concentration and more. And, while enjoying yourself on a quiet hiking trail, you won’t see ads, no one will try to sell you anything and you can’t buy anything. You’ll consume fresh air only—and water if you remembered your water bottle.
Day 13 Buy bread in a cloth produce bag
I bake lots of sourdough bread but I realize not all bread eaters will bake bread and most will opt to buy it. If you buy yours, find a bakery that sells bread loose and take your own cloth produce bag with you to store it in. Loose muffins or cookies also work in a cloth produce bag 😉
Day 14 Switch to cloth menstrual pads or a cup or both
When I was pregnant with my younger daughter Charlotte, I bought flannel fabric to sew receiving blankets. After we no longer needed the receiving blankets, I cut them up and used the fabric to sew reusable menstrual pads. They work really well. I have made thick pads and thin panty shields as well. Every 28 days, about $5 stays in my pocket. Over the past 10 plus years, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars. Here is a pattern similar to the ones I made.
If you’d rather buy cloth pads, check out LunaPads or Glad Rags. I also use a Diva Cup (so simple!). You can buy these at many drug stores and some grocery stores. Just look in the aisle with menstrual products. Both cloth pads and menstrual cups cost quite a bit upfront but soon they pay for themselves.
Day 15 Choose bar soap
Consumer products companies like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble can sell us only so many bars of soap. How to increase the profits on that? Sell us liquid soap and package it in a plastic container with a big plastic pump.
Take back the bar! Look for naked bars of soap. I can find these in a few grocery stores near me. If you can only find soap wrapped in paper—like Dr. Bronner’s for example—get that and don’t worry about being perfect. You’re still eliminating the pile of trash that liquid soap creates.
Day 16 Brush with a bamboo toothbrush
Until today, I haven’t recommended you buy anything yet. But do switch to a bamboo toothbrush when your current plastic toothbrush wears out. I have a Brush with Bamboo toothbrush at the moment. The bamboo handle will go into my compost heap when the bristles wear out.
Bonus: toothpaste. Let me begin by saying that I am not a dentist. Here are my recipes for toothpaste and tooth powder. They work well for me. Aquarian Bath carries tooth powder, which I have also used and like.
Several years ago, I used Toothy Tabs from Lush but the company at some point changed the simple paperboard packaging to ungodly plastic. Maybe it will change back.
Day 17 Figure out how to wash your hair
For me at the beginning, shampoo had been the holy grail of plastic-free living. I struggled to find a good solution. Today I usually wash my hair with baking soda, followed by a vinegar rinse using my homemade vinegar (store-bought of course works). I put about a tablespoon of baking soda in a cup, fill it with 1/4 cup or so of water, pour that over my wet hair, scrub and then comb it through my hair with my fingers and rinse very thoroughly with water.
Next, I rinse with diluted vinegar—about a tablespoon and 1/4 cup of water. I pour that on, work it through and rinse. My daughters love shampoo bars. I find they work best if I follow them also with a vinegar rinse.
Day 18 Make deodorant
When we first went plastic-free, I had trouble finding deodorant that worked. I tried rock crystal deodorant but it didn’t work for me. I bought a small deodorant bar that had been scented with, yes, patchouli. I didn’t like it. It didn’t work. I tried no deodorant. This did not work. Finally, my daughter MK made me some deodorant. I love it and will never go back to the commercial stuff. Here is the recipe. In a pinch, I’ll also simply dust some baking soda onto my underarms.
Day 19 Attempt to eat in a restaurant
This will go much better in a restaurant that you know as you’ll have fewer plastic surprises. Also, don’t set yourself up for failure and go to In ’n Out Burger and then freak out when the person waiting on you hands you fries in a paper bag. Go to a real restaurant that serves food on real plates with real cutlery.
Tell your server you don’t want a straw, you’d like your coffee in a ceramic cup, you brought your own cutlery, you brought your own container for leftovers and so on. Let them know in advance so they don’t bring unnecessary plastic to the table. Putting a straw in a drink is an automatic response for busy, underpaid servers.
Day 20 Go to the thrift shop
If you’ve stuck to your buy-nothing-new fast (Day 2) all this time but would really like to go shopping, it’s time to hit the thrift shop. If you’ve decluttered—a common side effect of setting out on the zero-waste path—drop off the things you no longer need or want.
Day 21 Ferment something
When you go zero waste, how will you buy vinegar? Or carbonated drinks? Or dill pickles? Or yogurt? People have fermented food for thousands of years. Fermentation preserves food, increases the food’s nutrition, uses little to no energy, saves money and best of all—tastes delicious.
Our diets are all out of whack today—eating blueberries in winter and winter squash in summer, insisting on having what we want when we want it, when in fact food out of season lacks taste due to its far-flung origins half-way around the world, which result in an absence of freshness and nutrition.
Preserving food through fermentation, on the other hand, puts you in touch with the natural cycles. I look forward to the return of tomatoes at the farmer’s market in July, when I will make fermented salsa. The flavor is worth the wait.
Day 22 Drink more tap water
Do this and you’ll consume fewer bottled drinks filled with sugar and other ingredients you don’t want. And if you switch to tap water, you can stop spending your hard-earned cash on bottled water and plastic Brita filters. If you want to filter your tap water, consider using a naked charcoal filter. Life Without Plastic and Miyabi sell these.
Day 23 Buy lunch or dinner in your own container
When you first take a container to the deli counter or take-out restaurant and ask your server to please, pretty please put your food in it, you may feel like a freak. By the time you have made this request a dozen times, you may feel like, well, a freak. If you need moral support when making this request, bring a friend. If your friends find your request embarrassing and don’t want to be seen in public with you while you make your outrageous demands, just remember that all over the world, people are making this same request. Some of them may even do so in your very same store.
Don’t worry about what the person waiting on you thinks. If you explain why you want the sandwich in your own container—to reduce your waste—you might just spark a conversation and bring another convert into the fold.
And as the zero-waste and plastic-free movement continues to grow and as more people make the radical request of “Please put my sandwich here,” your behavior will seem ordinary and not the act of rebellion that it currently is.
Day 24 Go a day without snacking in between meals
Do this and you won’t be tempted to buy snack foods—because you’ve vowed not to eat them—which are almost always wrapped in plastic packaging. You’ll be healthier, you’ll appreciate your meals more and you will save money. Try to avoid snacking between meals regularly.
Day 25 Hit the library
It’s the weekend (if you started this challenge on 1/1/19…)! Woohoo! Borrow books and movies from the library for free entertainment at home. Bonus accomplishment: Buy some bulk popcorn kernels in a jar or cloth produce bag and pop a big pot of popcorn on the stove to enjoy while you watch your movies. Click here for the recipe.
Day 26 Brew a cup of coffee or tea at home
According to this Eater article, every year, up to six billion Starbucks cups wind up in landfill. A better designed disposable cup doesn’t go far enough. We need to eat and drink every morsel from reusable cups and dishes. You can easily do this at home and you’ll save money. If you do not have looseleaf bulk tea or bulk coffee on hand, try to find some today (unless you don’t drink either!). While you enjoy your cuppa, curl up with one of your library books.
Day 27 Replace paper towels
I have a lifetime supply of cotton rags I cut out of my kids’ old t-shirts. Yes some nasty manufacturing processes went into the production of said t-shirts but I will use these rags for years.
If you sew, consider making these cute reusable cloth unpaper towels. While you’re at it, replace tissues with handkerchiefs you cut out of old flannel sheets or any other suitable fabric you have lying around. You get extra points if you try the family cloth or switch to a bidet.
Day 28 Clean your home
At day 28, it’s been awhile! Disinfecting spray, toilet pucks with bleach, surface cleaners with bleach, disinfecting wipes—both the products themselves and their packaging generate a ton of waste. Yes, you need to clean your home but you do not need to kill 99.9 percent of microbes in it. We can’t build immunity to germs if we kill all the germs. Use milder products like vinegar and baking soda to clean your house. Put your new rags to good use.
Day 29 Make something
We have abandoned many skills—cooking, carpentry, gardening, sewing and more. Our dependency on corporations to fulfill our every desire and has rendered us helpless to take care of our basic needs. This dependency on industry—this convenience—contributes to waste probably more than anything else. The maker movement has begun to change this situation though. Rather than passively consume, a growing number of people want to actively make.
So try your hand at making—cook homemade pasta, mend a pair of pants or grow a tomato plant. What’s the worse that can happen? You might waste some flour, jab yourself with a sewing needle or get your hands dirty (dirt is good for your microbiota.)
Don’t worry if your attempts at a new skill result in imperfect creations. Just take the plunge and try something. If you sew and have not yet found cloth produce bags, consider making some of those today.
Day 30 Join—or create—a zero-waste community
I belong to a zero-waste meetup group here in Northern California. Before I attended the first event, I thought to myself, “What will we do in this group? Sit around and drink out of our stainless steel water bottles and complain about garbage?” But we’ve met for all sorts of activities. We cleaned up garbage at a creek, we went bulk shopping at Rainbow Grocery (a.k.a., bulk Mecca), I’ve organized swaps of our gently used stuff and through the meetups, I found my first volunteers for sewing produce bags to give away for free at one of our farmers’ markets.
I have met the nicest people at these meetups. If you have a zero-waste dilemma, someone else in your group has likely faced—and maneuvered through—a similar situation. Plus you’ll feel normal. Not that that matters—normal is overrated!
Day 31 Reward yourself
You made it! Don’t worry if you did not reach zero waste at the end of this month. Perfection is neither the point nor possible. And this lifestyle, like life, is a journey not a destination. Focus on how much you’ve accomplished, not on your supposed failures. Treat yourself for all of your hard work—a massage, a yoga class you’ve wanted to try, a new movie you’ve wanted to see or some item that will help you on the zero-waste path.
Happy New Year!