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.)
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!
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 or 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.
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.