All of our habits have a cumulative effect over our lifetimes. Every little change helps. Here are a few easy things you can do to reduce your waste:
Clean up your coffee routine
Making a change in this daily habit can make a big difference. About 600 billion disposable coffee cups are distributed globally each year, and they can’t be recycled because they have a thin layer of plastic inside them. If you buy your coffee out, ask for a mug if you’re staying and bring your own travel mug if you’re taking it to go. At home, opt for a simpler coffee routine with a French press or espresso machine and buy your grains in bulk (unpackaged). If you have a Keurig machine, switch to a reusable K-Cup.
Bring your own water bottle
Plastic bottles require tons of petroleum to make and transport, and new research shows that 93% of water bottles have microplastics in them (ick!). Avoid the fossil fuels and plastic and refill your bottle instead.
Say no to plastic straws
These little suckers can’t be recycled. Request no straw when ordering drinks out. Drink directly from the cup or use your own stainless steel or glass straw.
Refuse plastic cutlery
Keep a set of utensils (spoon, fork, knife, chopsticks) in your purse, bag or office. They don’t take up much space. That way you can opt out when plastic cutlery is offered. Simply wash and repack when you get home.
Bring your own bag
Plastic bags are terrible for the environment. Opt for cloth bags to do all your shopping (not just groceries). Always carry a tote bag in your purse, backpack and/or car so you’re never caught off guard when you need to make a purchase.
Replace paper disposables
When you use disposable products, you’re literally throwing our money away. Plus, disposable products often come wrapped in plastic. Every disposable product has a reusable alternative. Easy swaps include cleaning rags instead of paper towels and cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. You can further eliminate your need for disposables by using fabric cotton rounds, handkerchiefs, cloth diapers, menstrual cups and cotton sanitary pads.
Make your own cleaning products
Not only does this reduce the demand for plastic bottles, it’s also much cheaper and healthier (no toxic chemicals or fragrances in your home). All you need to make an all-purpose household cleaner is water, vinegar and lemons. When your store-bought cleaner runs out, take a couple minutes to refill the bottle with a homemade version.
Use bar soap
You’ll eliminate the plastic bottle and save money (the first ingredient in liquid soaps is water). Opt for bar soap (preferably unwrapped) instead of liquid soap for hand, face and body. You can use shaving bars or glycerine soaps instead of shaving cream. You can use shampoo and conditioning bars for your hair.
Upgrade your bathroom
Replace your plastic toothbrush with a compostable one made of bamboo. Instead of a plastic razor, use a safety razor in stainless steel with replaceable (and recyclable) blades. Bonus points for installing a bidet (you’ll completely eliminate the need for toilet paper)!
If you haven’t already, request all bills and statements by email instead of by mail. You’ll be saving the trees and energy that went into making the paper plus all the pollution generated from transporting the material to your mailbox.
More things you can do
If you want to dramatically reduce your waste and you’re ready to make some bigger habit changes, try these suggestions:
Don’t let food go to waste
In the United States, 30-40% of the food produced is ultimately thrown away. That means we’re not only wasting the resources and energy used to produce and transport the food, but we’re also wasting our hard earned money. Reduce food waste by buying only what you can eat in a week, storing produce correctly so it lasts longer and learning to make meals that use up leftover food (like soups and stir-fry dishes). Make sure you can see everything in your fridge and cupboards so nothing gets forgotten.
Roughly 30% of household trash is compostable. By returning food scraps and other natural waste back to the environment, you enrich the soil and reduce the demand for toxic landfills.
Rethink the need for trash bags
Plastic trash bags prevent the items inside them from decomposing. Biodegradable bags can’t break down in a landfill because they need to be exposed to microbes and oxygen so they’re no better than a plastic trash bag. Instead, go bagless! By composting kitchen scraps and reducing food waste, you’ll eliminate the need for trash bags all together. The only items left in your trash can will likely be bits of plastic, receipts, stickers and non-recyclable wrappers, which can all be emptied directly into your curbside trash bin with no mess.
For my household, roughly 80% of our trash came from food packaging. By shopping for package-free food, we were able to eliminate this category of waste entirely. Shop at bulk stores that allow you to bring your own containers (glass mason jars work great but any closeable containers you have will work). You’ll weigh the empty container (tare weight) then fill it up and pay for the item by weight (minus the tare weight). You can buy just about anything in bulk, from pantry staples to beer and wine. To learn more, check out this detailed blog post about how to bulk grocery shop. You can also shop your local farmers markets where you can use your own bags and containers. At traditional grocery stores, choose plastic-free produce and dairy products in glass containers that can be returned to the store.
Say no to freebies
By accepting free items, you create a demand for its replacement. Refuse junk mail, catalogs, product samples, business cards, free pens, etc.—these inevitably become trash later. Added bonus: there will be less clutter at home and at work.
Before replacing anything, determine if it can be repaired. Before buying anything, ask yourself if you truly need it. Borrow or rent anything you can (think books, tools, etc.). If you have to buy something, try to find it second hand (thrift stores, Craigslist, etc.). And if you absolutely must buy new, buy quality products that will last a long time.