But What Do We Do? Zero Waste for Beginners

At a talk I gave in May on plastic-free living, a few times after I explained one of the various tactics I take, a woman in the group asked, “But what do we do?” She wasn’t being obnoxious. She was lovely. She simply wanted some easy steps to cut plastic. Not everyone will do everything I do and I have never said that they should. I realize that most people won’t make their own vinegar to make their own stain to dye wooden boxes they have found on the side of the road.

Remember you can’t go zero-waste overnight

First things first, when you start on the zero-waste path, you’ll need time to change your lifestyle. You can’t figure out where to shop, what to eat, how to brush your teeth and so on in one fell swoop. We needed months to overhaul our routine and challenges still pop up here and there but I manage a way around them.

The seven simple changes below (I chose seven so newbies won’t feel overwhelmed) will render big results.

1. Drink more water, but not bottled water

If you live in Denmark, South Carolina or Flint, Michigan, you cannot drink the tap water. Most of us in the US however, can safely drink our tap water. Drink more water from the tap and you’ll eliminate not only plastic water bottles but also the sugary drinks and their plastic bottles—soda, energy drinks, juice (filled with sugar but devoid of fiber) and so on.

If you have a five-dollar-a-day kombucha habit, consider tracking down a SCOBY and brewing it at home. Look on Craigslist for people desperately trying to unload their prolific SCOBYs. You’ll save money and the ingredients you buy to make kombucha (tea and sugar to feed the SCOBY) consume much, much, much less fossil fuel during transport to the store than heavy bottled drinks do.

2. Make or buy some cloth produce bags

Reusable produce bags take a big bite out of your plastic trash. Whether you empty them immediately after shopping or slowly empty them over coarse of the week, after they have done their job, tuck them back into your shopping bags so you’ll have them when you need them.

Keep one or two produce bags in your purse or backpack and you’ll have an emergency bag to snag a couple of the homemade chocolate chip cookies your coworker brings to the office to share (yes, this is an emergency).

You can make produce bags following these simple instructions or you can buy them in some co-ops or online.

For my One Bag at a Time project, we sew produce bags out of donated sheets and fabric that would otherwise go unused. We then give the bags away at the Sunnyvale Farmers’ Market. So if you live in the Bay Area, you can snag some free bags from us! (If you’d like to donate fabric, please contact me.)

reusable cloth produce bags
Just some of the cloth produce bags we’ve sewn

3. Use what you have and buy less stuff

You may want to buy some zero-waste gear but you don’t need much. My biggest weapon in my war on waste has been jars. I wield them for everything and have bought very few new jars. My daughter MK brings home amazing jars from her summer restaurant and catering jobs. Neighbors have also given me lots of nice jars. I’ve bought some beautiful swing-top bale jars at the thrift shop.

Before you spend your hard-earned dollars, read a blog post on putting together a zero-waste kit for zero dollars. Go here for a recent Vox article I’m in about the irony of zero-waste products.

4. Tackle food waste

Americans, on average, generate an appalling 4.4 pounds of waste every day. Of that, one pound is food waste. In addition to the food, this waste squanders the water, energy, land, chemical inputs and labor that produced the food. In a landfill, wasted food released methane gas as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.

The following three tactics will slash your food waste:

  • Cook clear-it-out dishes with the food you have on hand
  • Take a quick food inventory before shopping
  • Do simple meal planning
  • Buy less food
  • When food waste happens, compost it

To kick start your food waste reduction quest, check out my challenge, 14 Days to Zero Food Waste. Complete each accomplishment or pick and choose accomplishments or do the challenge out of order like a game of food waste bingo.

5. Eat more meals at home that you cook yourself

Or eat more meals at home that someone cooks for you (lucky you!). Take the leftovers to work for lunch and save money. When you eat more home-cooked meals, you eliminate all the packaging waste of takeout (but some restaurants will fill containers you bring in), you eat the food you have at home before it can go to waste and you save money. And as Julia Child put it,

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces—just good food from fresh ingredients.”

Yes cooking takes time. To get food on the table more quickly, I try to keep a few prepped ingredients on hand that can go into various dishes. For example, I recently cooked a pile of chickpeas in my pressure cooker in minutes. One night, my daughter Charlotte used a couple of cups of them to make hummus. The next night, I tossed some in a quick salad with cucumber, leftover quinoa that my daughter MK had cooked, olive oil, red wine and salt. That took me no time to make. A few days after that, I roasted the final cup or so of chickpeas. Delicious!

A delicious salad that took only minutes to throw together
Roasted chickpeas with herbes de provence

6. Switch to bar soap and shampoo bars

Swapping out overpackaged liquid soap for bar soap will not hurt one bit. I promise. You’ll find this step—like the others on this list—pretty easy. You’ll face more of a challenge finding a shampoo bar you like. I buy shampoo bars for my kids at our co-op grocery store. You’ll find loads of them online also. I usually wash my hair with baking soda, followed by a vinegar rinse. My kids prefer the shampoo bars.

7. Shop at the farmers’ market

Shopping religiously at the farmers’ market reduced our plastic waste dramatically. In the big chain supermarkets where I live, I cannot find a cauliflower without plastic wrapping. Bags of of tiny carrots are packaged in bigger plastic bags. And why do cucumbers need a sheath of plastic? You’d think there’s a law against naked vegetables.

At our farmers’ market, the food sits loose in bins and I put it in my produce bags. The farmers get a much larger portion of the dollars you spend there than they do from grocery stores and the wholesalers that supply the grocery stores. You support your local economy and the food tastes incredible. In the US, find your local farmers’ market here.

plastic free and zero waste farmers market produce
Zero-waste farmers’ market haul

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good

Striving for perfection, you may feel so paralyzed to start that you end up doing nothing at all. Just try something on the list. Make a change. Adjust to that change. Then make another change.

What do you have to lose besides the waste? Dive in, tread water and expect to go under once in a while. You won’t drown.

zero waste meme
Perfection is the enemy of the good

10 Replies to “But What Do We Do? Zero Waste for Beginners”

  1. My greatest advance came when I challenged myself to go for a week without buying any packaged food.

    What didn’t work was to analyze and plan what I would buy or eat on each day, which I did for months without getting anywhere. I could have done from the start what I eventually did, which was to say to myself, “I’m not going to die if I only eat fresh fruits and vegetables for the week. I’m starting now.” Then working out details like if rubber bands counted were easier to resolve than before committing. I allowed myself to finish packaged food already in my cupboard.

    That week, going to the store forced me to figure out what I could get and what I couldn’t. My one-week challenge led me to discover alternatives that thinking and planning didn’t. I could only get fresh, unpackaged produce, so I did, which eventually led me to farmers markets for cheaper more delicious produce. I could only get dry beans from bulk so I cooked them on the stove for the first time, then in my rice cooker, eventually leading me to buy my first pressure cooker used from Craig’s List.

    I surprised myself by making 2.5 weeks before buying my next packaged food. That was about five years ago and decided to keep the habits I learned that week. I’m not at zero, but I throw out my landfill waste less than once per year, when it used to be once per week. Supermarkets now look like a wasteland or landfill with more waste than food, so I mostly stopped going to them.

    Anyone can declare to themselves as they read these words, “I will not buy any packaged food for one week.” Work out details like if you count rubber bands *after* committing, not before. One week after committing, anyone who felt like the woman who asked “but what do we do” will answer the question for him- or herself.

  2. Bitten Albæk Jensen says: Reply

    I almost went on a rant here, when I read that Denmark has unclean drinking water. However, I realized you were talking about the city of Denmark in South Carolina and NOT the country of Denmark, where I live, and which has some of the cleanest tap-water in the world. I have travelled to the US on a couple of occasions with students and have to admit we have all drunk bottled water in the US, since your water tastes like swimming pool to us, due to your cleaning process. I did, however, bring a reusable bottle and tried to buy as large quantities of water as possible in the supermarket and fill from that in order to minimize plastic waste. When at home I try never to buy bottled water and always bring my own bottle and fill that when possible. It does seem really sad that clean tap-water is something that becomes a privilige instead of a given.

  3. so appreciate your helpful posts, thank you!

  4. We have a Berkey water filter that we use at home, and we bring it on vacation. It fits in my suitcase, and puts my mind at ease regarding water quality and taste.

    I am struggling to find a way to keep greens, mostly delicate greens like lettuce or spinach fresh in the refrigerator. I have some plastic bags that I keep using over and over, but would like to come up with a better solution.

    I also think it should be noted how expensive it is to buy food without packaging. All of the discount retailers use massive amounts of plastic. I do shop in bulk, and at my farmer’s market, but my food budget it huge. I can understand how it us not affordable for a lot of people, especially in California.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Glad,

      That’s a great idea to take your Berkey with you. I didn’t know it was so portable!

      For my greens, after I bring them home, I trim and wash them, put them in a clean cloth produce bag, spin the bag around outside to get the water out and then put the bag in my crisper. The greens stay fresh for a long time this way. If I don’t do this, they wilt quickly.

      Overall I spend less money on food now than I used to (we eat lower on the food chain, we waste nothing, we eat at home mostly) but I could spend even less if I bought cheaper ingredients. The farmers’ market does have some deals at the end of the day but Walmart–with all the plastic–definitely costs less.

      ~ Anne Marie

    2. Hello Glad, I just want to offer my solution for tender greens: wash and spin them dry, and then put them in a large glass jar in your fridge. If they are very dry, they will keep for a very long time. I have kept cilantro this way for two weeks, and that normally only lasts about two days in a plastic bag. The nice thing about doing this is that you can see your greens looking fresh and pretty!

  5. Kristina Lundbergh says: Reply

    Another danish feed back…
    Packed my bags for a trip to Louisiana – a museum of modern art in Denmark and NOT a state of the US…
    Had thought of everything; my lunch in an old plastic container – no reason to buy a ‘look-I-am-political-correct’-metal box till it actually is broken to pieces – and there by being the corse for unnecessary pollution and water shortages, my own water bottle, a coffee mug, a cloth for what ever could be needed… all packed in a second hand cotton bag… and not to forget! All food being organic!!
    So far so good… until our guide handed out plastic water bottles at liftoff😱
    Plumb..!!
    Only god thing is we pay a fee on most bottles in Denmark and get the fee back as we return the bottles to the store. Glass bottles are then washed and reused and plastic and metal bottles are recycled…
    But still. I realized I have to be on my toes ALL the time. At last here in my first year of no wast and no plastic….

  6. thatfoodguy62 says: Reply

    A great summary of what everyone can do; the low hanging fruit. Thanks
    Mike

  7. dayagalindo says: Reply

    Perfection =anxiety=disease . I’m on my way doing the best I can with what I have, moving forward.

  8. Hi, GREAT blog and great idea of zero-waste. Here in France and Monaco is not really popular, just bla-bla and en-vogue trends… And you decided to make it’s true, to explain to the people how to do it. THANK YOU for your work!

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