If you’re just dipping your toes in the zero waste movement, you’re in the right place. Practicing zero waste doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing exercise. Read on for five beginner zero waste swaps just about anyone can manage without overwhelming effort or breaking the bank.
Have you heard about all the zero waste movements? If you’ve been here before, you’ve definitely heard me talk about it.
Zero waste lifestyles are trendy and sound really nice. While our family will never, ever be truly zero waste (or anything close), zero waste living is really more about following guiding principles to be more mindful about what we consume, how we consume it, and how we dispose of it when we’re done with it.
However, so many facets of how our world and lives are structured make zero waste so, so hard!! And call me a baby, but zero waste is WAY harder for families than people without children (at least in my humble opinion). Zero waste for anyone is hard, but with kids… UGH!
Consumer Action Propels Regulatory and Corporate Change
I’m also a bit of a skeptic that individuals putting forth excessive effort trying to reduce trash will really solve the problem. I believe change must be driven by consumers, which will ultimately lead to regulation and corporate action, so I definitely prescribe to the belief that certain individual zero waste activities are meaningful. But also I think that, like many things in life, zero waste practices follow the law of diminishing returns.
At the outset, we can grab the low hanging fruit and make some really meaningful changes for not a whole lot of effort. As we dive deeper into the habits, however, and reduce more obscure or miscellaneous amounts of waste in our lives, I suspect we work harder for less substantial benefit. I prefer to focus on where I can get the best bang for my buck. How can I get a good return on my effort?
I’ve got a few ideas for you that I’ll discuss in more detail shortly.
Broken Consumption Systems
Further, our consumption systems are broken. So many of the everyday activities in our lives are inundated with trash that it is really hard to refuse without being a social outlier. To attain sustainable levels of consumption, waste production, and waste management, we need paradigm shifts that turn the way we do things upside down. That comes from regulation, corporations, new incentive systems, and communities-at-large, not solely by individuals trading trash cans for mason jars.
That being said, I know we can all make some waste-reduction changes in our lives that really do matter. Small changes build momentum and become the foundation for lasting and systematic change. There are plenty of simpler and more realistic efforts families can make to reduce waste and consumption of resources. I don’t think about zero waste as an all-or-nothing game. I consider it a set of guiding principles, something I’ve written about in more depth in the past.
No matter where you are on your zero waste journey, you can totally dominate these five zero waste changes and make a meaningful difference in the level of waste you and your family generate. These are the low-hanging fruit that can hopefully get all of us to think a bit more critically about the consumption and waste systems we take for granted.
5 Beginner Zero Waste Swaps You Can Definitely Do
Ditch Plastic Water Bottles
Cost: $0 – $35
Cost Recovery Timeline: 10 weeks – 6 months (if at all)
Easier Use: Depends
Trade in the plastic bottles of water you buy at the store for reusable water bottles. While this might seem like a simple and common piece of advice, we’re still throwing away insane numbers of plastic bottles every day. “More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun,” according to the Guardian. What??! Even worse, more than half of them aren’t even recycled. Better recycling helps, but we ought to just stop using so many in the first place.
Keep a reusable water bottle in your bag and maybe also one in the car. At the airport, bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it up at a drinking fountain before boarding (airport water bottles are so expensive anyway!). It’s convenient to have your own water bottle wherever you go. Every parent knows this all too well when kids start whining about being thirsty.
When we have our water bottles with us (which isn’t always the case), we even bring them into fast casual restaurants and use them instead of taking the puny plastic cups they offer. Why not?
While I understand cost can be a limiting factor in some scenarios, affording a reusable water is not cost prohibitive for the majority of us. It doesn’t take long to recover the cost of a reusable water bottle, and many of us already have something that will work. Even if you decide you want something top notch, it’s probably about a $35 investment.
I have had this $35 Swell water bottle (that I received as a gift) since December 2016, and I totally love it! As a family, we have a handful of different types of reusable water bottles across a range of price points, and this is infinitely my favorite. I am by no means suggesting everyone needs a $35 water bottle, but there are a variety of bottles at various price points that are all great (and definitely better than the disposable alternatives).
Price Comparison | Let’s Do The Math
At the time I wrote this post, a store-brand 24-count case of standard size plastic water bottles at Target cost $2.49. I drink about two water bottles per day, so I drink one case of water every 12 days. At $35, I recover the cost of my Swell water bottle after buying 14 cases of water ($35/$2.49). If I use one case every 12 days, I recover my cost after 168 days (14*12) or approximately 24 weeks (6 months). That might seem like a long time, but at this rate, I’ve recovered my cost six times over (had I originally paid for it). Heck, let someone know it would make a great birthday gift!
I should be drinking more water than this, and consequently, recovering my cost more quickly. These particular store-brand water bottles hold 16.9 ounces of water each, so I should be drinking about 4 of them per day. If I doubled my consumption, I cut my investment recovery time in half to about 3 months.
All that math assumes I buy a very expensive reusable water bottle, the least expensive bottled water, and never pay the retail price of $1.50-$4.00 per bottle when I’m out and about. Evian water, for example, costs $8.99 for a 6 pack. At $1.50 per bottle, I recover my Swell water bottle cost after just 23 bottles or 12 days. If I chose a non-brand name stainless steel water bottle, which costs approximately $15, I recover my cost in 72 days, or about 10 weeks, following the same math laid out above for the store brand bottled water.
If a reusable water bottle really isn’t in your budget (which is perfectly fine), reuse the plastic water bottles you have at least a handful of times before tossing them. That costs a whopping zero dollars if you’re already buying bottled water, so that should be a really easy habit to nail down.
Further, I never have to cart heavy packs of water home from the store or be worried about not having a water bottle available if I haven’t been shopping lately. And… I’m not contributing to the massive plastic bottle problem piling up around the world.
Now just remember to grab your water bottle when you’re walking out the door!
Use Reusable Food Storage Products
Cost: Varies (could be free!)
Cost Recovery Timeline: Varies (immediate if you choose free options)
Easier Use: Mostly Yes
We use a lot of single-use plastics in this country and around the world as it relates to food and food storage. Food storage is a really easy space to reduce our waste footprint. Reusable food storage options abound and include everything from plastic, glass, and stainless steel containers to bees wax wrap, fabric bags, silicone products and more. I shared about a handful of my favorite zero-waste alternatives that we use in our kitchen.
Before buying anything new, consider reusing containers and jars from food products you already buy at the grocery store. We reuse pasta sauce jars for all sorts of things! We also reuse salad dressing bottles too. After a few minutes to clean off the label, the glass jars and bottles are gorgeous and good as new. Never buy a mason jar again!
Generally, glass and stainless steel containers are preferable over plastic. With kids, however, we have a good mix of all three types. We use glass containers at home for large leftover storage. We use stainless steel for certain lunch items and plastic for other lunch items, especially for the boys. Not only are the plastic containers less likely to break in little hands, but our daycare did not allow glass containers and required something that can be put directly into a microwave (so no stainless steel if they needed their lunches heated up). We have a bunch of BPA-free hard plastic containers, and we take good care of them. They’ve lasted us many years, so I think they’ve earned their keep, all things considered.
As far as other types of food storage products, we have a mix of all of the ones I mentioned above. I’m a big fan of the fabric bags and silicone lids. Some people rave about bees wax wrap, but I think it’s a little hard to use. It’s wonderful for wrapping bread and similar products, but I haven’t found that it’s a perfect replacement for plastic wrap when covering bowls to protect ingredients from drying out in the fridge.
Price Comparison | Slow & Steady Wins The Race
Investing in a full collection of reusable food storage products could be quite expensive. Instead, gather your collection over time. Many people gather a collection of reused jars and containers from things they purchased retail. Pasta sauce jars, peanut butter jars, and other types of containers make great storage for a variety of items and they result in no incremental spending. Clean and collect these as you buy the products from the grocery store.
Thrift shops are also perfect places to find great reusable storage containers. They often have vintage Tupperware and glass casserole dishes with tops that are perfect for leftover storage. If you do buy mason jars that don’t have tops, so I use these silicon tops when I don’t have regular tops available. You can also buy mason jar lids separately, but just be sure to buy the right size. Different jars have mouths of varying sizes.
We still have certain single-use plastic food storage products, like plastic wrap, that I use every once in a while for particular circumstances. I buy about one roll a year at most. Zip top bags also serve a particular purpose, at times, but they can be washed and reused several times before being thrown out. I think this is a really easy area to start moving toward zero waste, but not necessarily something most of us will master overnight. Know that you can get started pretty quickly in this area but give yourself time to master and complete your transition.
Use Your Local Library
Recovery Timeline: Immediately, amount depends on personal purchase habits
Easier Use: Similar, but may require minor planning
Books are wonderful, but sharing books that we only read for a short period of time is even better. Save yourself the money and check out books (and a host of other materials) from your local library. Libraries have tons of other things to check out in addition to their book collections. My local library, which is quite small, has DVDs, puzzles, nature backpacks for kids, museum passes, e-readers, and so much more. I’ve shared about my love for libraries in the past, so you can check out more about how to use libraries and why I love them in this post.
From a cost perspective, this is a no-brainer. Borrowing library materials is free. Even if you incur late fees, you’ll need to hold on to the books for months after the due date before equaling the cost of buying most books.
Sometimes using the library requires a bit of extra planning. The latest best-sellers might be on a hold list. The book you want might be at another library in your library’s sharing network, so you’ll have to wait a day or two for it to be transferred to your location (or drive to pick it up). However, you can likely find just about any book you want if you’re willing to plan ahead a bit.
Decline A Bag (and Bring Your Own Bags)
Cost: $0 – $50
Recovery Timeline: N/A – 10 weeks
Easier Use: Yes
I know many of us already bring reusable bags to the grocery store, but so many people don’t. Frankly, I think the reusable bags hold more groceries, keep things better organized, protect food from getting crushed, and are so much easier to carry. Leave a few in your car in case you stop by the store unexpectedly or forget to grab them on your way out the door.
Also, reusable bags aren’t just for grocery trips. Bring them to Target, the pharmacy, the craft store, a clothing store, or wherever they’re going to put your goods in a bag.
If you have no reusable bags, an investment of about $5 will do the trick. Most bags cost about $1, so you can get five bags for $5, which is a great start to a collection.
Hard core zero waste advocates bring their own produce bags, bulk bags, and more, but don’t worry about that just yet if these five steps seem overwhelming. Reusable bags are a really good start.
Related Reading: 4 Low Waste Food Shopping Tips For Traditional Grocery Stores
Price Comparison | Let’s Do The Math
In some places, plastic bags are free, so you’ll never technically recover your investment in reusable bags. But, reusable bags are often given away for free as advertising material, so grab a few of those when you have a chance if you’re concerned about the financial investment.
Certain cities and states have started to ban plastic bags or stores have started to charge customers for taking a bag. Sometimes the fee can be as much as 10 cents per bag. Even if you bought 5 bags at $1/bag, you could recover your cost after using 50 plastic bags. Most people probably use 5-6 per weekly grocery trip (at least), so cost could be recovered in about 10 weeks or so. We have a growing collection of reusable bags, some of which we have had for 7 or 8 years and they are still holding on strong.
Reusable bags could also make a great gift wrap alternative, so if you’re wanting to build up your collection, considering asking for any gifts to be wrapped in reusable shopping bags. Why not, right?
Swap Paper Towels for Dish Towels
Cost: $0 – $20
Recovery Timeline: 10 – 20 weeks
Easier Use: Depends
Begin collecting reusable dish towels and rags to replace paper towels. This transition can happen over time. You can buy dish towels from secondhand stores, make them out of old t-shirts, and collect them over time (because you’ll end up needing quite a few to get through until the next load of laundry).
It also helps to have a small basket near your washer to collect the dirty towels until you’re ready to wash a full load. When we first transitioned away from paper towels, the daily build-up of towels and transport to a bedroom hamper drove me crazy. The basket in our laundry room (or in your kitchen if the laundry room isn’t nearby) is a brilliant idea I have to credit to my mother-in-law.
Price Comparison | Let’s Do The Math
Currently, Target sells bulk, store-brand paper towels for $13.50 per pack of 20 rolls, which equates to $0.67 per roll. Rags could accumulate for free. Secondhand stores might charge $1 per dish towel. Even if you spent $20 on dish towels, which is more than I would expect if one is being cost-conscious about zero waste swaps, you could recover your cost after use of about 30 rolls of paper towel ($20/0.67).
I know everyone uses paper towels at significantly different rates, so it’s hard to quantify how long it would take someone to recover the cost of 30 rolls of paper towels. I guessed an average family uses one to two rolls of paper towel per week when calculating my recovery timeline above.
Give Yourself Grace and Find Your Pace
As I mentioned above, transitioning to more zero waste living is not an overnight exercise. It takes time. But there are certain changes and swaps we can start to implement right away that kick off momentum to make more progress.
I know there’s a lot of discussion in and around the zero waste world about the exclusivity of the movement, criticism that it’s too expensive for most people, and not a realistic lifestyle for anyone but a select few. I don’t disagree that a purist zero waste lifestyle is a full-time commitment and not something most of us can achieve, but we can all take steps to make the easier changes and build momentum for large-scale paradigm shifts.
As you’re contemplating how to realistically incorporate more zero waste practices into your everyday life, don’t forget to let others around you know what you’re up to. You don’t have to be pushy and ask them to follow suit necessarily. That doesn’t really get us very far with people who aren’t interested. But we can let our friends and family know that we’d prefer a reusable water bottle or new Pyrex containers instead of another t-shirt or pair of jeans as a gift if the occasion presents itself.
Do you have any great ideas for zero waste beginners to help make the early transition a little easier or more affordable? Share in the comments! And as always, if you have any questions at all, I love hearing from readers so don’t hesitate to email me or DM me on Instagram (@honestlymodern).