A couple years ago, I started trying to stop using the plastic bags at the grocery store. Note that I didn’t say “I stopped using the plastic bags” because, as happens to most people, I would forget my reusable bag either at home or in the car. My efforts increased, however, when I made my own tote bag out of a t-shirt, and the novelty of using such a funky bag was motivation enough for me to remember to bring it with me. It’s now become a habit to grab a couple totes for planned trips to the store and I keep another tiny tote in my purse for unplanned visits.
That small effort towards reducing my waste has grown since then, especially after becoming aware of people who lead zero-waste lifestyles. I’m still not anywhere near living a zero-waste lifestyle and, if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever will be. My goal is simply to reduce my contribution to landfills as much as I can. Sure, that small contribution (or negative contribution, if you like) may not seem like much, but obviously, it all adds up. So I feel like every bag or plastic cup not added to a landfill can make the tiniest difference in the long run, especially if you can get people on board with you. The problem, as I see it, is that zero-waste lifestylers (like Lauren Singer, who I follow and whose efforts I really applaud) take things to such an extreme that people are discouraged, thinking that they could never do that and therefore don’t even make an effort. As I said though, even small steps can make a difference, so here are three things that you can easily swap out to reduce your waste production.
1. Plastic bags. Obviously. Plastic bags are bad for the environment and mostly useless after the completion of that initial task of keeping your stuff together until you get home. Everyone has that drawer or cupboard or even bag of bags that they keep “just in case” that, realistically, they probably will never use. Reduce that clutter and your contribution to landfills by not bringing those things in your home in the first place.
As anyone who’s ever been to any kind of convention or festival can tell you, tote bags are everywhere and so easy to get a hold of. Sure, you can invest in a fancy big one, but those freebie bags work just fine. If you’re into crafts, you can even make your own bags pretty painlessly from an old t-shirt or leftover fabric from a previous project. Even worse are those small thin produce bags. They hold one type of item at a time and can’t even really be reused. I replaced those with reusable produce bags that I made from leftover fabric we had in the house. You can find some on Amazon or Etsy (which I recommend). I’ve even seen them in The Container Store. Like I mentioned, I now also take a tiny tote wherever I go. It folds up very small and therefore takes up little room in my purse or can even clip on to the outside of it. I can then bust it out whenever I’m short a bag at the store or have made an unplanned purchase at the farmers market or anywhere else.
Sure, there are times that you do need to grab a plastic bag for something, but for the rest that you know you’ll never get to, many stores, such as Target, now have a plastic bag recycling bin where the excess bags can go. I’ve gotten to hate having useless plastic bags lying around the house and it feels really good not having that clutter around the house and coming home bagless every time I get groceries.
2. Water bottles. Water fountains are available everywhere you go, so if you get into the habit of taking a water bottle with you, you can always stay hydrated. Sure, you can get a couple uses out of one plastic bottle, but that’s really not very sanitary. Also, the bottle itself may be recyclable, but the bottle cap is not.
Using reusable bottles also applies to getting your daily caffeine fix. Most coffeeshops will be happy to use a thermos that you bring in, and many will even offer you a discount for using it. In the same thread of drinking things, you can ditch using plastic straws, too. Stainless steel, reusable straws are easy to acquire and cut back on that small but unnecessary contribution to landfills. There are even extra-wide straws available for your smoothie or boba drinks. Again, it doesn’t seem like much, but all those plastic frappuccino and latte cups (and straws!) really add up.
3. Takeout containers. This might be a less common zero waste swap that people make. Some restaurants offer plastic containers when you want to bring your leftovers home, which you can sometimes recycle after finishing your food and washing them out, or reuse them yourself. But many restaurants still use Styrofoam, which cannot be recycled easily (they need to be thoroughly cleaned and taken to special recycling facilities). To combat either potentially wasteful situation, you can bring your own container to restaurants. It might seem like a really weird thing to do, but it pays off since you don’t have that added trash.
There are a lot of other ways to cut back on your waste production – bringing your own silverware to places so that you don’t use plastic cutlery; swapping out all the napkins/paper towels in your house with cloth napkins and tea towels; buying household products in bulk so you cut down on packaging waste; making your own products like moisturizer and toothpaste to, again, cut back on that packaging waste; for ladies, using a menstrual cup or “period panties” like Thinx. But I haven’t personally gone that far yet and I don’t want to preach something I don’t practice (though I do use homemade moisturizer now – it’s great). Also, full disclosure, I don’t use all these things 100% of the time, but I do my best. Still, I think these three options are fairly easy to swap out and adopt into your lifestyle, whether you live on your own or have a family. I don’t really think it’s feasible for the majority of people to live zero-waste, but it would make a big difference if people just became more aware of their impact on the environment and what they can do to help it.