Passive Zero Waste: Doing Nothing Is the Best Solution

If you want to live more sustainably but think it requires too much work, start with passive zero-waste strategies, actions that, like passive income, require a bit of work up front, but later, generate rewards with minimal or zero additional effort.

Leave the leaves

Good news from California! Gas-powered leaf blowers will cease to befoul the air in 2024. These obnoxious devices emit more pollutants than some trucks. Batteries will power future Californian leaf blowers.

But why blow the leaves around at all? We’re a bit crazy to rake up nutrient-rich leaves, bag them up and send them off to landfill where, like all organic matter, they emit planet-heating methane gas, only to turn around and spend our hard-earned cash on fertilizer and water-conserving mulch—during a drought. Why work this hard only to deplete the soil?

When your leaves drop, consider doing nothing, other than watching and perhaps posting a couple of pictures on Instagram. The leaves will enrich the soil, provide cover for critters and provide free, water-retaining mulch. If you do rake them up, save them for the compost pile. It needs dry brown matter.

plum tree suckers in a house's yard losing their leaves in the fall
Plum tree suckers dropping their leaves

Transform your lawn into a low-maintenance yard

Getting started takes some work but after you’ve ripped out your lawn and replaced it with something else—perennial ground cover, for example—you can sell the lawnmower and free up space in the garage. Go here for some alternatives to lawns from the California Native Plant Society. Future generations will thank you for conserving water and you’ll save money.

Create a zero-waste brush pile

Trimming just one tree in my yard produces loads of branches, twigs and brush. My trees worked hard to produce those resources and I want to put them to use. Rather than putting all of my yard waste into the green bin, I’ll build a brush pile with some of it (and hugelkultur beds with the rest).

A brush pile is, well, a pile of brush arranged in an inconspicuous spot in your yard. The pile attracts birds, squirrels, mice and also bugs for these critters to chow down on. I’ll write a blog post about my brush pile after I arrange it and—I hope—take some pictures of critters that inhabit it.

piles of large and small branches on the soil outside
I’ll arrange some of this into a brush pile (minus the avocados that fell from our tree)

Pit compost

Instead of maintaining a compost pile and spreading the ensuing black gold, bury your food scraps directly in the soil and call it a day—no turning, watering or spreading your finished compost in your yard. Dig down deep enough that you’ll cover your scraps with several inches of soil.

Dry your laundry passively

Using solar power (i.e., hanging clothes to dry) does require more work on your part than does throwing laundry in the dryer. But your clothes will last longer, smell better and you’ll save money on both electricity and clothing (and sheets, and towels and whatnot). Use the dryer for storage or as a plant stand. (Go here for more on low-waste laundry.)

white towels drying outside passively in the sun

Let the sun de-smellify your pickle lids

The jar itself doesn’t exude the offending smell but rather, the lid. Before I discovered the trick of putting my lids out in the sun smelly-side up, I tried all kinds of methods to remove pickle and salsa smells from them: simmering in water, scrubbing with a baking soda solution, running them through a dishwasher. The sun trick works best in summer—usually, within a day—but also works in fall and spring after a few days outside. That’s fine. It’s not like you have to do anything to the lid while it sits there.

Turn off the screens

Spend at least some time every day away from the screens—phones, laptops and TVs—and avoid the onslaught of ads for things you don’t really need (plus, improve your mental and emotional health). When you do go online (like now!), deploy an adblocker.

Shop less frequently for food and for stuff

In every talk I give about zero-waste living, I mention the following food waste prevention tip: before you go grocery shopping, shop the refrigerator first and plan your next meal based on what you find. You can often put off shopping for another day.

You’ll not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eating all the food you buy—food rotting in landfill emits methane—you’ll also make fewer trips to the grocery store, burn less gas, reduce stress and save a small fortune. Oh and your food will likely taste better because you’ll harness your creativity in the kitchen more—and have fun in there as well.

As for non-food items, I once asked my Instagram audience for their number one tip to cut waste. One person replied, “Stop buying s***.” Words to live by! 

Ferment some vegetables

One of the easiest ferments I make is a cherry tomato ferment. I washed and plopped the red cherry tomatoes pictured below in a brine of approximately five percent salinity (3 tablespoons of salt per 4 cups of water), let them sit and when they had transformed into tangy, effervescent and glorious bursts of tomato flavor about five days later, moved them to the refrigerator. I ate them with pasta and pesto. So good!

After I polished the red cherry tomatoes off, I plopped a pint of fresh orange cherry tomatoes into the same jar. I didn’t even have to make a brine. I just reused what I had, which also conserved a bit of water. So easy! The tomatoes started to ferment the next day and had fermented within two days. Yum!

Make overnight oats for breakfast

This breakfast essentially makes itself. Combine oats, spices (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg) and dried fruit (e.g., apricots or raisins), if desired, in a jar. Store the jar in the refrigerator overnight and in the morning, enjoy your oatmeal. Heat it up if you prefer.

I add about a ¾ cup oats and enough liquid (milk or yogurt of your choice) to make a fairly thick consistency, something like pancake batter or a just-fed sourdough starter. If you add too much liquid, stir in a spoonful of chia seeds if you have them. The seeds will absorb liquid and plump up overnight. 

Buy lunch or dinner in your own container

Treat yourself to a delicious meal, support a small business and reduce takeaway containers by bringing your own to a restaurant to fill with your takeout order.

This has been trickier during Covid. A café I had frequented a couple of times a week for several years eliminated its BYO cup program during the pandemic and may never revive it. I haven’t had a cup of tea there in 18 months and may never have one again. Not wanting to order tea in (or to drink tea from) a plastic-lined takeaway cup, I stumbled upon a different café, which makes fabulous tea.

If you feel hesitant about handing your container over to the person behind the counter to fill with a sandwich, ask yourself what the worst thing is that can happen? They may say no. It’s not as though the owners will arrest you. You haven’t committed a crime after all.

But I understand why you may feel nervous! To make finding BYO-friendly businesses easier in my area, I’m working on a project that I recently wrote about—Silicon Valley Reduces. One of our volunteers, Tim Oey, put the first stickers in restaurant windows this weekend, The Gurkha Kitchen and China Wok!

7 Replies to “Passive Zero Waste: Doing Nothing Is the Best Solution”

  1. Remarkable tips on passive zero waste. Thank you 😊🌍

    1. My pleasure. Thank you for reading them 🙂 I love easy!

  2. Nice idea! I love the smell of clothes that have dried on the line!

    1. Thank you. I love that smell too! You can’t buy it in a bottle.

  3. I love the BYO stickers for restaurants! I just reposted the article link about that to the mom’s Facebook group I’m in in Virginia, so hopefully we can do that here!

    1. Thank you very much, Jessica!

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