I have a friend who teaches her daughter to recycle by turning it into a game. She presents her with things like a plastic bottle, cup, and cardboard box and asks her to put it in the right bin. Every time her daughter gets it right, they celebrate with a little dance and imaginary points.
I wish I was taught to recycle like this! Isn’t it fun?
Instead, for me, recycling was something unfamiliar that I had to figure out how to implement. And honestly, it is not the most amusing task in the world.
But of course we know it's important. Recycling reduces the need to extract new resources every time we need, let’s say, a new glass bottle, and it reduces our overall energy consumption.
However, it doesn’t really remove the waste from our planet. Our recycling system cannot process everything we use. For example, only about 26.6% of glass is actually recycled. For plastic, it is worse: only 8.4% is recycled.
While recycling is something we should keep doing, these are the reasons to look beyond and understand how we can truly reduce our waste.
First, let us quickly address something.
Zero waste became a sort of buzzword lately. Many people are using the term in all possible meanings. Along the way, the idea turned into a social media aesthetic. If your first association when someone says “zero waste” is a mason trash jar or a perfect-looking bulk pantry, we don’t blame you. Somehow, zero waste became to be associated with a perfect looking, Instagram-friendly, and color-coordinated kitchen. If that sounds intimidating to you, you’re not the only one.
This is not realistic, at least not for most of us.
Simply because zero waste is not about perfection, and (as strange as it may sound), it is not about creating no waste. In today’s world, it is impossible to create no waste at all. Mainly because a product creates waste even before it ever reaches you. In fact, did you know that the very term "zero waste" was originally coined as a principle and goal for industry (and not the consumers)? The manufacturing industry makes much more waste than any individual.
However, the consumers are the ones who are creating the demand for a particular product. This, and considering that on average, an American family generates over 6,500 pounds of waste every year. So, reducing our individual waste does make a big impact.
With all that being said, you should not strive for perfection in any sense. The key is in small changes, that you can implement easily in your daily life. Big changes don’t happen overnight, but they happen when we take small steps.
Without further ado, here are 7 easy ways you can reduce your waste, beyond recycling.
1. Buy less
Buying less is the number one and the biggest thing you can do to lower the waste. As we mentioned earlier, every time we buy a product, we create a demand for it. This means there will be more demand for resources, packaging, transportation, and eventually-there will be more items in the landfills.
This, of course, doesn’t mean not buying anything ever again. But, just as we talked about in our article about fast fashion, prioritize buying less but better. If you can, buy things that are better quality and will last you longer. For example, instead of buying a cheap t-shirt that will fall apart quickly, invest in one that will last for years. This is automatically less waste.
On the same note, before you go grocery shopping, think about things you already have in the fridge. Instead of buying more, first use what you have. We are all often caught up in life and simply not even aware of what we already own. It may take some effort and focus at first, but getting into a habit of assessing what we have and what we need is important. You will see how much less waste you’re creating (even if this is the only change you make!)
2. Ditch single-use
Be honest. There’s a high probability you have a reusable water bottle or a grocery bag already. Those started to be a trendy give-away item at many events, gatherings, and festivals. At least, that’s how it was before the pandemic. The point is, some of the reusable things become widely available and popular. And if you don’t already have these, it shouldn’t be hard to find them.
Water bottles and bags are the most basic things you can easily start using, instead of the disposable versions. You can also move a step further, and see if you could use the reusable cutlery, storage boxes, straws, napkins, hygiene products… Almost everything you throw away after a single use has a reusable version. The reusables can be at first more expensive, but in the long run (just like with the higher quality t-shirts), it will pay off.
Now, it is really important not to invest in all of the reusables at the same time. We strongly encourage always using what you already have (even if that means going through boxes of cotton swabs, before getting an alternative). If you already bought the item, use it first. The worse thing would be wasting unused products. Or perhaps, donate it to someone who might need them. Another important thing is to understand what works for you, your preferences, and your lifestyle. I’m a fan of reusable straws, but they are not for everybody. Make the changes, but make sure they are realistic and sustainable for you.
3. Store food smarter
In line with the previous tip, think about what you use to store your food. Think of all the aluminium and plastic foil wraps, freezer bags, plastic disposable containers… We all used them at one point. They are cheap, available, come in big quantities, and are easy to use. And surprise surprise, they are incredibly wasteful. When you think about it, there’s some food that you need to store almost every day. Instead of adding to the plastic waste, you can turn to smarter ways to store the food.
Things like beeswax wraps (or soy wax, if you are avoiding animal products), silicon stasher bags, glass storage containers, and so on, are equally easy to use. Luckily, just like reusable water bottles, they are becoming more available than ever before, so you don’t have to even look that far. You can store some foods, especially liquids, in the jars you have lying around. And while those mason jars look pretty on Instagram, the truth is that reusing a jar you get when you buy tomato sauce or peanut butter, works just as well. You may see a theme here: reusing what you already have should always be the first thing to consider.
Again, like with the previous tip on reusable items, we strongly encourage using whatever you already have first (like those rolls of wraps and foils) before investing in the upgraded version. It may seem pricier at first, but the long-term investment pays off. When you’re ready, this is quite an easy thing to do and you might wonder why you ever bothered with the plastic wrap and foil in the first place.
4. Plan meals ahead
Remember that outrageous figure from the beginning of the article, that the average family makes over 6,500 pounds of waste a year? Well, almost 22% of that waste is food. That is a lot of food we throw away every day! Not only does that not make sense financially (unused food means wasted money), but considering the number of communities still struggling to get enough food in our very own neighborhoods- it is simply unnecessary.
Most of our food waste is a result of poor planning. We mentioned that it’s a good thing to take a look at your fridge before you head out to the grocery store. That way, you are less likely to buy the same things, before you use what is already there. Getting into that habit is a great first step.
The next step is to plan your meals ahead. Think about what you can eat in a week and buy the food accordingly. Even better, try to find some time for meal prep. Prepare large batches of roasted vegetables, soup, dips, soaked oats, and similar in advance. If preparing for the whole week sounds crazy, try preparing for just a few days in advance. This way, you will make sure that you are using all the food you have, and it will help you understand what ingredients and groceries you actually use regularly. It's clear that this lifestyle is a money saver, but it's also a time saver. Setting apart an hour or two each week to prepare the food, will come in handy during the rest of the week.
Depending on where you live and what your household situation is, this one may not be easy for everybody. However, composting often seems more complicated than it really is. So, we suggest giving it some thought and seeing how you can implement this in your life.
Since a big part of our food is waste, composting is a way to use the food scraps and remains and turn them into useful nutrients and soil. Food is biodegradable, meaning that it breaks down quite quickly, easily and naturally. But when we put it in a plastic bag and send it to the landfills, it often doesn’t have the conditions it needs to degrade properly. This means we're waste the beneficial nutrients that would normally go back to the soil to help growing new and nutrient-dense food. On top of that, the food that decomposes in landfills produces significant amounts of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. Wasted food is not just wasted, it contributes to climate change.
So saving food scraps for the compost helps a lot. You can either start one on your own (it is possible even if you don’t have a backyard) or see if there’s a place where you can bring your food remains. In any case, make sure you know what goes into compost and what doesn’t.
6. Shop locally
Unfortunately, most of the food available in the big supermarkets come from far away, sometimes across the world. Clearly, just transporting the food comes with a huge C02 footprint. Carbon emissions are part of the waste too. Shopping something that is produced locally cuts the transport costs significantly. It doesn’t have to be only food. Shopping anything that is made closer to where you live has the same effect (and boosts the local economy).
But when it comes to food especially, there’s another waste that we need to take into account.
According to one study, about 40% of food is lost in transport from farm to fork. That also means that all the water, energy, soil, and human labor are wasted. The reason this happens is due to the long supply chain, which requires a lot of storing, packaging, and processing. In each phase, we see compounding amounts of waste. You can cut major parts of it when you support the local farmers and participate in a shorter supply chain. A bonus if you bring your reusable bags and containers when you shop from the small and local producers!
7. Cancel unwanted mail
Think about how you go through your daily life. Chances are, you get your news from the internet rather than printer newspapers. When you need to buy something, you are more likely to Google it than seek a physical catalog. And if you want to stay connected and follow up with an organization, club, or group you support, you will likely follow them on social media. This is all to say, you probably don’t really need access to all those printed advertisements, leaflets, and other material that just falls into the category of junk mail.
The same goes for your bills. Most companies today offer to see and pay your bills online. So, there’s really no need for all that paper that gets delivered to your mailbox, which you waste quickly anyway (or recycle, we hope).
It requires some effort, but it is possible to cancel all the unwanted mail. Depending on what you are actually getting, there are steps you can take (for free or minimum cost) that seriously cuts down this waste. It is definitely worth doing!
Do you have any other easy tips to reduce waste? Let us know!