By Bea Johnson
Author of Zero Waste Home
Earth Day is a great opportunity to take a moment out of our busy schedules to pay attention to nature (and our impact upon it). But why celebrate Earth only once a year when our daily survival depends on it? Earth Day should be every day and it can be with a Zero Waste lifestyle. Waste-free living is not only better for the environment—it improves health, and saves time and money.
Adopting it is as simple as following these easy guidelines, in order of importance:
1. Fight junk mail. When we recycle junk mail without taking action against it, we perpetuate the wasteful practice and silently ask for more to crowd our mailbox. Junk mail is not only a waste of resources; it’s a waste of our time and tax dollars! Don’t throw it in the recycling without acting against it first. Register to receive less through dmachoice.org, optoutprescreen.com, catalogchoice.org and yellowpagesoptout.org, adopt paperless statements, write “refused- take me off your mailing list” on First Class mail, and open Third Class mail to find a contact number and request that your name be taken off their mailing lists (and your information not be shared).
2. Turn down freebies and single-use plastics. In our consumerist society we’re pounded with free goods. But every time we take a swag bag from a conference, a party favor from a birthday celebration, or a free pen from a fair, we create a demand to make more. When we accept that free plastic pen, more oil will be rigged to make a replacement. Once brought into our homes, these items clutter our space and at the end of their useful life, our landfills. Think twice before accepting a freebie. Don’t you have enough pens already? Stop clutter and waste from coming in by graciously saying no on the spot: “Thanks, but I don’t need one” or “Thanks, but I am trying to simplify my life.”
3. Declutter your home. It seems natural to want to hold on to past purchases so as to “not waste them.” But decluttering is actually a more environmentally sound thing to do. When we let go, we put precious resources back on the market and make them available to others, therefore boosting the secondhand market and decreasing the depletion of natural resources. It’s a win-win: Living with less makes housecleaning a breeze and opens time to do the things that matters most to us too. Question everything in your home. Do you use it? Is it a duplicate? Can something else serve the same purpose?
4. Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. Running errands separately and without a list is a waste of gas, time and money. Running all your errands on the same day is more efficient. And as simple as it seems, keeping a shopping list is a great way to control consumption and impulse purchases. If you write those things that you wish to purchase on an errands list and run errands on a given day, by the time you’re ready to go shopping, there is a good chance that you’ll have eliminated that want. The less you bring home, the less waste you’ll have to deal with later!
5. Swap disposables for reusables. Disposables are not only a waste of resources, they’re a waste of your time and money shopping for them. Keep your money out of the landfill and invest in reusables instead. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll save over time. Replace plastic bottles with a reusable stainless steel one, disposable razors with a straight or double-edge model, tissues with handkerchiefs, paper towels with rags, paper napkins with cloth ones, and watch your savings grow!
6. Avoid grocery shopping waste. Eliminating food packaging doesn’t just make obvious environmental sense, but financial sense, too. Did you know that when you purchase a packaged good, 15 percent of the price covers the packaging? Reducing your exposure to plastic leaching into your food is better for your health, too. Put together a shopping kit: a few reusable totes, a handful of cloth bags (for dry goods), some jars (for wet items) and head to the fresh counters (meat, cheese, deli, baked goods), and the bulk and produce aisles of the grocery store. You can also refill your egg carton at the farmer’s market, wine bottles at local wineries, and growlers at breweries.
7. Know your city’s recycling policies and locations. Once you’ve refused, reduced, and reused, you’ll be left with little to recycle. But your city might be able to recycle those items that fall through the cracks. Know the materials that are accepted through your curbside recycling or your local recycling center (and those that are not). Also look for or inquire about drop-offs for hard-to-recycle-items in your area and allocate containers for each location. For example, Goodwill accepts worn-out clothing (labeled as scraps), participating Nike-Reuse-A-shoe locations take worn-out sneakers, and BestBuy accepts cords and cables.
8. Choose glass, metal, or cardboard when you must buy new. These materials can be recycled over and over and locally. Plastics, on the other hand, rarely get recycled. And when they do, they get shipped across the world and come back to us in the form of products designed for the landfill. Shopping is voting. Vote for long-lasting and easily recyclable materials, and stay away from plastics.
9. Find a compost system that works for your home. Composting is no longer reserved for farms and gardens. There is a system out there to meet your specific living conditions (whether you are an urban, suburban, or rural dweller) and your diet (whether you produce meat or veggies scraps). Our family uses both city compost (for meat and fish scraps) and vermicomposting (for veggie scraps). I found the worm bin to be a great way to witness the cycle of nature and a convenient way to dispense “worm tea,” a soil amendment that has been most beneficial to our garden. Get to know what your compost system will digest (dryer lint, hair, and nails are all compostable).
10. Turn your home kitchen trash can into one large compost receptacle. No need to buy a small countertop receptacle as those advertised. For composting to be successful, make sure your receptacle is aesthetically pleasing, within easy reach and large enough. The bigger the compost receptacle, the more likely you’ll be to use it freely. We found that an under counter trash can meet all those needs perfectly. We only need to empty it once a week and it does not smell (we freeze bones and fish until pickup).
For hundreds more tips and how-to’s, check out my book, Zero Waste Home. And remember: You’re not alone! There is a whole community of like-minded individuals on my blog waiting to hear about your experience and share theirs.
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