Taking steps toward “zero waste” living

Sure, it would be great to fit a year’s worth of garbage into a 32-oz Mason jar…or to even come close to that level of waste-free living. But if we set our sights too high, we can easily fall into a common trap: feeling so overwhelmed that it’s easier to do nothing at all. A better — and more sustainable — approach is taking it one step at a time, tackling a single way to reduce our impact on waste before moving on to the next logical step.

The Problem With Waste

We each produce about 4.5 pounds of waste each day (EPA), contributing to the need for landfills and incinerators. While we rarely think about what happens to our garbage once it’s hauled away, we should all be aware that it can wreak havoc on the environment in numerous ways.

  1. Reduced open space. As the Earth’s population keeps growing, along with the amount of waste we all produce, land that could otherwise be used for farming and living space is taken up by landfill.
  2. Water pollution. As decaying garbage liquefies, becoming “leachate,” it can contaminate groundwater and end up in our drinking water.
  3. Greenhouse gas emissions. Decaying food and yard waste in landfill releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas and air pollutant.
  4. Air pollution. Incinerators can release toxins such as carbon dioxide, furans and dioxins.
  5. Harm to marine life. Plastics that blow away from landfill or otherwise end up as litter may find their way to waterways en route to the oceans. There, they can cause bodily harm to marine life and break down into tiny particles that may be ingested, sickening sea life and potentially getting into our own food supply.

It’s also important to recognize that the products we buy can either be made from nonrenewable natural resources or post-consumer recycled materials. The former depletes natural resources and requires a great deal of water and electricity for processing, potentially generating lots of greenhouse gas emissions. The latter saves natural resources and reduces both water and electricity usage. Many products already are produced from recycled materials, helping to create a greener, circular economy.

In short, when we create waste, we are unwittingly contributing to air and water pollution, food contamination, climate change, loss of open space and harm to our oceans and their inhabitants.

But we don’t mean to do any of that! So how can we stop?

Five Steps to Reducing Waste

  1. Buy less.
  2. Ditch single-use disposables.
  3. Recycle properly.
  4. Find alternatives to curbside recycling.
  5. Compost.

Consuming Less

Even if you love to shop, you can probably find ways to buy less. Make lists and plan for bigger purchases. Buy quality goods built to last. Or find alternatives to buying, such as making things yourself, borrowing or swapping with friends.

Ditching Single-Use Disposables

This is an area ripe with possibilities. Travel with a reusable stainless steel thermos, drinking cup, straw and sandwich box along with some bamboo utensils. Bring along one set of cloth bags for food shopping and another for non-food items. Look for washable sponges and dish clothes and reusable or compostable paper plates. Buy rice, nuts, oats and other dry foods as well as shampoos and conditioners in reusable containers. And look for products with recyclable, compostable or minimal packaging.

Recycling Properly

Check with your municipality or private waste hauler to learn exactly what you can recycle through them. Their “materials recovery facilities” must be able to sort and bale the materials and sell them to companies that will use them to make new products. Plastics, paper, corrugated cardboard, bottles and cans generally can be recycled, but there’s more to know and only your recycling company can give you accurate and up-to-date information.

Finding Alternatives to Curbside Recycling

If your waste hauler can’t take an item, that doesn’t meant that there aren’t other recycling possibilities. Your community probably has electronic waste and hazardous waste cleanup days. Plastic bags and film can be deposited in recycling bins at supermarkets and big box stores. And there are specialty recycling companies available for a wide range of materials. Choosing Sustainability includes an in-depth list. Earth 911 is another source.


Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have community composting in your town or city or if you garden and have room for an at-home composting bin, you can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while obtaining a wonderful soil additive for your garden. Check with your municipal office about community composting. If they’re not already offering this, you may be able to work with members of your community to start a pilot program. For tips on starting a backyard recycling bin, see page 79 of Choosing Sustainability.

Remember, you can buy copies of Choosing Sustainability: Your Guide to the What, Why and How right here on this site under “Purchase Your Copy.”