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It’s appalling how much we waste in this country.
Americans throw away 262 tons of trash each year, and over half of all this goes to a landfill.
Some of the trash that doesn’t end up in a landfill finds its way into our beautiful blue oceans, playing a part in killing off aquatic species in record numbers.
Some people want to combat ecological devastation by attempting to get their waste output as close to zero as possible.
Some even set a lofty goal of fitting all the waste they produce in one year in a single mason jar.
Do you think you could do that?
If you fully commit to the principles in this article, you’ll be able to.
This will save you TONS of money.
The Beginning of a Worldwide Movement
The mother of the zero-waste movement is Bea Johnson, who started the Zero Waste Home blog in 2008.
It chronicles her family’s efforts over the years to reduce their waste stream so that today, it’s a mere trickle.
Johnson estimates she reduced her household costs by 40% by embracing a zero-waste lifestyle.
Before she captured the collective imagination of millions, only geeky policy wonks inside the government were using the term “zero waste.”
But thanks to her efforts over the years, everyone now knows what it means.
She went on to pen a best-selling book on the subject and is an in-demand speaker who’s inspired millions to take the plunge to zero-waste living.
But she can’t take all the credit for people around the globe rising up against the constant tide of waste that threatens to engulf us all.
Cataclysmic events like the 2008 financial crisis helped people to see that corporate greed is a rapacious evil that pushes people into lives of out-of-control consumption.
And, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy have caused people to realize that we’re doomed if we don’t start taking drastic action to combat climate change.
The Five “Rs”
To become a devotee of the zero-waste philosophy, engrave its five simple commandments on every neuron in your brain: REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, and ROT.
Refuse anything you’re offered that you don’t really need.
This way, you won’t contribute to the growing mountain of waste we humans are generating at a prodigious rate.
This includes things like refusing free pens at a bank, plastic straws at a takeout joint, or a bobblehead given out at a minor league park.
It might be incredibly difficult to pass up the seductive allure of all that free stuff, but in the end, you’ll pay for it.
That’s because free isn’t really free.
That shoddily made key chain a bank gave you to tempt you to open up an account with them was manufactured in a pollution-spewing factory.
Plus, the cost of promotional materials is passed along to all their customers.
That includes YOU if you fall for their gimmick and become one of their customers.
By refusing to accept these doodads, you’re striking a subversive blow for frugal warriors everywhere who also happen to deeply care about our planet.
With this one action, you’re telling companies you won’t sell your soul for a bunch of cheap crap.
Tell them to take the money they would have spent and donate it to environmental causes.
There are several excellent ways to put this rule into effect.
First, reduce the number of things you buy to the bare minimum.
To help you accomplish, ruthlessly ask yourself this question every time you’re about to buy something: “DO I REALLY NEED THIS?”
You’ll be flabbergasted by the amount of money you can save if you get into this simple habit.
Second, take care of the things you already own so they last longer.
This way, you reduce the frequency with which you have to purchase replacement items.
If you can’t refuse or reduce it, reuse it.
This is the time to summon forth insane amounts of creativity from deep within you and find ways to reuse everything.
Start out simple—like repairing a hole in your jeans.
If you don’t know how to do it, it’s easy to learn how.
Just go on YouTube and search for one of the many tutorials they have here.
This simple fix will add years to the life of your garment.
If your garment wears out to the point where it’s no longer worth fixing, cut it up into squares and use it to wipe up spills instead of using paper towels.
This one little hack will save you $182 a year and help save entire forests from the hungry blade.
That’s because half a million acres of trees are senselessly sacrificed each year to satisfy our insane desire for disposal products.
Besides, the plastic packaging the paper towels come in has to be tossed out, which is needless waste.
When the rags wear down to the point you can’t clean with them, compost them.
By doing this, they’ll be transformed into fertile soil for next year’s garden.
You can also use squares from old clothing to blow your nose instead of buying facial tissues.
The key to mastering this principle is every time you’re about to thoughtlessly toss something into the trash, come up with 101 ways to reuse it instead.
There comes a point in the lifecycle of every object where it reaches the end of its useful life.
By this time, you won’t be able to use the previous four “Rs” to redeem it.
Because it’s time for the next stage in its cradle-to-cradle journey: the recycling bin.
If the object in question isn’t the kind that people typically recycle, check out the TerraCycle website.
Here, you’ll find a way to recycle virtually everything.
According to their website, TerraCycle “is a social enterprise on a mission to eliminate the idea of waste.”
Imagine that—a world where waste as a concept ceases to exist!
This is the kind of world I definitely want to live in.
They offer a range of national, easy-to-use platforms that makes recycling even items thought to be nonrecyclable a breeze.
They also have Loop, a sustainable shopping experience moving the world away from single-use packaging.
To locate the nearest recycling center to you, check out the Earth911 database.
And if it’s an old appliance you want to recycle, bring it to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore.
Why Recycling Isn’t the Answer for Everything
Some people question why recycling isn’t higher up on the “Four R” hierarchy.
After all, recycling is supposed to be a good thing.
Just make sure the right recyclable goes into the right bin, and we can make sure old waste gets turned into new products, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy because almost 25% of the items a person puts out to be recycled still find their way into landfills.
Consumers often aren’t clear what can be recycled and what cannot.
They frequently throw things into a bin believing it should be repurposed, without really knowing whether it can be.
This is known as aspirational recycling, and it’s a HUGE problem.
Many items can contaminate an entire batch of recyclables, causing the whole load to be disposed of.
One way to contaminate a load is by throwing food receptacles into a bin without washing them out first.
Filthy food containers cannot be recycled, so they’ll either contaminate the entire load, or they’ll be snatched out of the waste stream.
Then, they’ll end up in a landfill, sad and forlorn that they couldn’t reach the end of their recycling journey.
Another reason recycling isn’t a cure-all for our trash woes is we used to send our trash to China.
However, in January 2018, China banned the import of many types of plastic and paper.
So, recyclers and waste management companies ended up with tons of recyclable material on their hands with no place to send it.
With China no longer in the picture, it’s often more cost-effective to send this trash to a landfill than to recycle it.
To put the fifth commandment into action, you’ll have to learn how to become a master at composting.
Composting is when you put dead plant material into a pile.
And then, through the fantastic aerobic action of fungi, bacteria, and other cool organisms, the material is magically transformed into fertile loam.
Composting creates high-quality dirt that’s way better than anything you can buy at a garden supply store.
Composting plays an integral part in the zero-waste picture because things don’t really decompose in landfills.
This is because they have nonporous linings that prevent material from leaching into the groundwater.
This keeps everything far from soil and air, which can’t team up with microorganisms to carry out the natural alchemy of transforming disgusting waste into fertile soil.
If you want to recycle your food scraps, try kitchen vermicomposting.
Or, find a local nursery that’ll accept your food scraps.
You could also offer them to a community garden.
Follow the Order
These commandments must be applied in a linear order.
First, adamantly REFUSE to buy something, no matter how other people might tempt you to do so.
If this is an abject impossibility, then REDUCE what you’re about to purchase.
If there’s no way for you to buy less of something, make sure you REUSE it when you’re done using it.
If you’ve racked your brain and can’t figure out how to reuse it, then RECYCLE it.
If there’s no way to do that, let it ROT.
See how that works?
What Products to Buy
One of the very best ways to live a zero-waste lifestyle is to buy in bulk.
Bring your own cotton drawstring bags, so you don’t have to use theirs.
You save money, and you only buy what you need.
Oils, vinegar, and pet food are just a few of the products that can be bought in bulk.
And when you’re buying items you can’t buy in bulk, look for options that have as little packaging as possible.
With less packaging, you’re bound to save money, because packaging typically cost between one and 10 percent of the total product cost.
For example, if you’re buying soap, buy locally made products with compostable labels or no packaging at all.
Buy Local Produce
Big-box grocery stores ship in their veggies from all over the world, resulting in a HUGE carbon footprint.
Lots of produce you buy at chain grocery stores travel 1500 or more miles to get to your plate.
But when you buy locally, your food doesn’t have to travel that far, and you drastically reduce your food miles.
This is the distance your food travels from where it’s grown to where it’s ultimately purchased.
Buy locally, and your food doesn’t have to take a circuitous trip over the ocean or mountains just to get to your plate.
This reduces the carbon footprint of what you eat, and therefore, its negative environmental impact because it cuts down on fuel consumption and with it, air pollution.
Another reason to buy locally is that large retailers have a significant waste problem that farm-to-table producers don’t have.
When you buy from chain supermarkets, you end up paying for all this waste in higher food prices.
Many local producers pride themselves on having produce that is pesticide and hormone-free as well as organic.
So, not only will it be infinitely more delicious than what you can find at big retailers, it’ll be healthier for you as well.
The benefits don’t stop there, because not using pesticides improves air quality and crop quality.
And by supporting local farmers, you help keep them in business.
Plus, big developers won’t get their grubby hands on the land, turning it into condos and such.
You also keep corporate farmers from taking over the farms who would have only implemented non-eco-friendly farming practices.
We’re always on-the-go in our super busy lives, reaching out for things that’ll shave a few seconds off of our hectic routines.
So, we look to single-use products to be our savior.
However, these products are HORRIBLE for both your pocketbook and the environment.
Avoid them like the proverbial plague!
These are things like disposable razors, plastic water bottles, and individual yogurt cups.
For example, take disposable razors.
You can’t recycle them, so we end up throwing away over 2 billion of them each year.
This contributes to an out-of-control landfill problem.
Products we only use one time also account for almost 90% of the junk that pollutes our oceans.
Not to mention that they’re so expensive!
One of the biggest reasons living a zero-waste existence is SO much cheaper is because when you do, you no longer purchase single-use products.
It’s easy to stop buying them.
For example, instead of purchasing a box of 36 single-serve, 1.5 bags of Cheez-Its, just buy a family size (21-ounce) box and put them into reusable bags yourself.
One Simple Question
For every disposable item you’re about to buy, ask yourself if there’s a reusable version available for a one-time purchase.
If it’s difficult for you to make the switch, think of our brave forebears during the Great Depression.
They didn’t have disposable razors, pens, or plastic cutlery, yet they managed to get by.
If our great grandparents could do it, so can you!
Bottled water is one of the worst of all single-use products because it’s something you can get from your faucet for free.
Americans pay a 2,000% markup for the convenience of getting water already put into containers for them.
But is it really convenient?
You have to lug a case of 24 bottles weighing 28 pounds on average all the way home from the store!
It’s simpler (and cheaper) to just put a water filter on your faucet.
Why Bamboo Rocks
When making a choice between plastic and bamboo, always choose bamboo.
It’s one of the most renewable resources on the planet, and it’s biodegradable.
Bamboo can be regrown rapidly and absorbs more CO2 than other trees.
Some varieties can shoot up an incredible 35 inches per day!
Many products you use now that aren’t good for the environment can cheaply be replaced with bamboo alternatives.
For example, plastic toothbrushes aren’t recyclable.
But the handles of bamboo toothbrushes are, and some recycling centers take the nylon bristles.
So, switch to a bamboo one.
Some places sell them as cheap as $2.00.
Instead of a plastic mesh loofah (which has to be replaced every three months), use a bamboo back scrubber.
Bamboo scrub brushes are compostable and last longer.
You could also buy a travel set of bamboo eating utensils to always have with you.
This way, you won’t have to use any plasticware when you order takeout!
Cutting Down on Paper
There are ways to significantly reduce the amount of paper you use.
Instead of printing out a boarding pass, download the airline’s app and store your pass digitally on your phone.
Do the same with concert tickets, coupons, and receipts.
You’ll cut down on ink and toner, which is notoriously expensive.
Zero Waste in the Kitchen
When it comes to food, there’s a zillion ways you can eliminate waste.
For starters, make sure you plan out your meals carefully.
To avoid buying food that’ll only end up rotting in your fridge, write out a grocery list based on your menu.
And when it’s time to put the leftovers away, choose containers you can use more than once.
When you’re done eating up the leftovers, and it’s time to buy more food, skip the plastic bags and pack your groceries in reusable ones.
Americans use a staggering 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year, which is friggin’ RIDICULOUS.
A staggering 12 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture all these bags.
If you don’t like shopping, you can always subscribe to a meal service like HelloFresh.
Then, you won’t need any stinkin’ grocery bags.
HelloFresh gives you just enough food for a meal.
This cuts down on things you’ll throw out because you weren’t organized at the grocery store.
And because you weren’t organized, you ended up buying a random jumble of stuff with no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
If inviting people over for cookouts makes you happy, invest in reusable, non-breakable plates specifically made for outdoor socializing.
These are usually made from melamine, a unique material that’s lighter and more durable than china.
When you do, you’ll soon come to the realization that there’s not a single good reason to ever buy paper plates.
Make Your Own Veggie Stock
Freeze leftover veggie scraps to use for vegetable stock.
Then, you can make all kinds of delicious soups.
When you ready to whip up a batch of hearty soup, simply thaw out your frozen veggies scraps and throw them in a stockpot or crockpot for a couple of hours.
Then strain the liquid from the veggies and make your soup.
Regrow Produce Stubs
You can root stubs from vegetables you bought at the supermarket.
Some veggies you can do this with are scallions, romaine, and ginger.
Put the stubs in a glass of water then put them in a windowsill with lots of direct sun.
Change the dirty water every couple of days until you notice roots starting.
Then plant them in the ground, and you’ll have vegetables that are practically free.
Do you want to reduce what you send to the landfill while saving money?
Then consider vermicomposting!
Vermicomposting is the process of enlisting earthworms in the effort to compost food scraps.
It’s essential to keep food scraps out of landfills because they produce methane gas, which contributes significantly to global warming.
You save money with earthworm-assisted composting because often, the price you pay for trash collection is how much waste you have to haul away.
With vermicomposting, you’ll see your trash bill go down because what you throw out is reduced by 25% or more.
You also don’t have to buy soil or fertilizer anymore because the worms will make it for you.
And, the beneficial microorganisms that pass into the soil from the worms make your plants more resistant to disease and pests.
Worm castings make incredibly rich and fertile soil for plants.
And worm compost is 100% organic, so you won’t be putting your family at risk by using chemical fertilizers.
In addition to the rich compost, the worms will make “worm tea,” a liquid fertilizer you can use to water your plants.
When done correctly, worm bins don’t smell at all.
When you lift the lid, all you’ll smell is damp, fertile earth.
Just don’t feed them too much and put enough newspaper bedding at the top.
Slowly increase how much you feed them as their population grows.
Worms like the following:
- coffee grounds and filters
- tea bags
- paper towels
And these kinds of food scraps:
- corn cobs
- watermelon rinds
- banana peels
- apple cores
- cucumber ends
- avocado shells
They don’t like animal products (other than eggshells).
And don’t add organic material from outdoors (like lawn clippings).
As far as a home for your dirt-dwelling helpers, there are many different worm bins you can buy.
You can also make your own.
Keep your earthworms happy, and they’ll keep you happy with an endless supply of fertile soil.
Getting Rid of Fruit Flies
If you have a compost bin in your kitchen, you may have a problem with fruit flies.
These pesky creatures can ruin your expensive fruit.
One way to get rid of them is to vacuum them up.
You can also make a fruit fly trap or buy one from Amazon.
To make your own, add an inch of apple cider vinegar in the bottom of a jar.
Then, squeeze a bit of dishwashing liquid into the vinegar.
Place a funnel in the jar or make one out of paper.
Tape the funnel into place.
Leave the trap up until the fruit fly problem goes away.
Usually, this takes two weeks.
To keep them away, put composting food scraps in the fridge, or keep them covered.
Here are some tips for your indoor vermicomposting bin to keep fruit flies away:
- Remove any large scraps that are difficult to break down.
- All scraps should be buried.
- Leave one inch of bedding on top.
How to Avoid Takeout Temptation
Takeout is anything but zero-waste because of all the extraneous packaging.
Plus, it’s expensive!
Over time, all that takeout food from the local Chinese restaurant eats away at your savings.
Keep your pantry stocked with staples like beans and grains, so you’re less tempted to order out.
Another way to cut down on temptation is to have a couple frozen casseroles ready to go when you’re tired and want a super-easy dinner.
Making Eating Out Less Wasteful
If you can’t resist the temptation to eat out, there are things you can do to make dining out less wasteful and expensive.
First, refuse all single-use packaging when you order takeout.
Another thing you can do is order from zero-waste restaurants, or, restaurants that donate their excess food instead of throwing it away.
Because many restaurants charge an additional to-go fee to cover the cost of packaging, eat at the restaurant.
And split a meal with a friend, because restaurant portions are always way too big and LOADED with unhealthy amounts of fat and sodium.
This way, you say money, and get a portion size that’s much healthier for you.
To further reduce waste, ask that they leave off anything you’re not going to eat.
For example, say you’re ordering a burrito bowl from a Mexican joint, and it comes with a side of tortilla chips.
If you have no intention to eat them, ask them not to give them to you.
If you must get it to go, request that they package it in a container you brought from home.
And you should most definitely refuse any straws they try to give you because like all other forms of single-use plastic, they never biodegrade.
And, they end up in our oceans by the millions.
Make Your Own Cleaning Products
Another way to cut down on wasteful product packaging and save LOADS of money is to make your own cleaners and beauty products at home.
As with everything else you want to learn in this life, there are plenty of online tutorials on how to do this.
These tutorials will teach you how to do everything from making your own coconut oil toothpaste to an all-purpose cleaner whose main ingredient is apple cider vinegar.
You can even make your own cold-processed soap that makes a great gift that people will flip for.
Whip up a batch of this great-smelling stuff, and you won’t have to buy any soap for the rest of the year!
What’s especially good about making your own at home is that like fine wine, it only improves with age.
That’s because when you leave it to cure for a couple of months, the soap will become harder as moisture evaporates out of it.
This makes it harder and longer-lasting, which also happens to be better for your skin.
10.46 million pounds of clothing are thrown out every year.
This works out to about 80 pounds per person.
That’s why shopping secondhand for clothing is a more sustainable way to acquire a wardrobe than buying new.
But before you shop, inventory your closets and write down exactly what you need, so you don’t accumulate useless clutter.
Try to purchase quality clothing that doesn’t become threadbare after only a couple of washes.
But stay away from polyester, acrylic, and acetate, because these aren’t compostable.
It’s better to choose clothes with natural fibers like cotton and bamboo.
And when you’re done wearing a piece of perfectly-usable clothing, sell it at a garage sale or on Craigslist.
Doing this will put a few bucks into your pocket while preventing it from meeting an inglorious end in a landfill somewhere.
In this article, I offered you some robust strategies on how to become a true zero-waster.
However, it’s up to you to implement them.
If you don’t want to do it to help the planet, do it for a more selfish reason that’ll appeal to the frugal warrior side of you.
Which is to save truckloads of money.
It helps to find strategies to keep you from succumbing to the seductive allure of corporations who want you to obsessively consume everything they produce.
Because otherwise, you’ll be like a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet who just swallowed a hundred tapeworms—unable to tear yourself away from all the junk food laid out before you.
There’s so much you can do not to accumulate clutter, which only contributes to a colossal Mt. Everest of waste that only gets bigger year after year.
You might not be able to live up to the example of the true zero-wasters who only have a single mason jar of waste at year’s end.
But, it’s an admirable goal to strive for.
Any effort you can make will make it a better world for all of us.
And who knows?
Maybe your efforts will inspire others to embrace a zero-waste lifestyle.
Do what you can without getting overwhelmed, and your efforts will build a future where the term “waste” is eradicated from our collective lexicon.
That’ll be a glorious future, indeed!