I’ve always tried to be mindful of the environment. We ditched most of our disposables ages ago, we’ve always recycled as much as possible, purchased things 2nd hand, and made use of both the city’s curbside compost pick-up, as well as our own backyard composter. I thought we were doing pretty well in the eco-friendly department.
Then I read this book called Zero Waste Home.
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I was completely blown away. This family does not make garbage. In an entire year, they only filled one mason jar with garbage. Oh, and they produce almost no recycling either.
But recycling is good, isn’t it??? Well, recycling is a way better option than putting something in a landfill. I’m very thankful for our municipality’s wonderful recycling program, and if I must buy packaging, I try to make sure it is recyclable. I feel that putting something in a landfill should be a last resort. It is so common to say we throw something “away”, but there really is no such thing as “away”. We are basically dumping our garbage in a pile and burying it. So recycling is a huge step above that, as the items are being made into something new. But recycling isn’t a perfect system either. It’s energy-intensive, costs money, and uses resources. Most of what we recycle is something that we only used long enough to transport a product from the manufacturer to our home – a single use product.
The mantra is REDUCE, RE-USE, and recycle is last. There is a reason for the order! First reduce the amount of packaging, then see what you can re-use, or re-purpose, and if there is no other alternative, then you recycle. Bea Johnson actually takes it one step further, and puts REFUSE before reduce. She doesn’t let the garbage/recycling come into her home in the first place. She seeks out package-free alternatives for food and other products, refuses junk mail, trinkets, freebies, etc., all the things that would end up in garbage or recycling. After devouring this book (borrowed from the library, of course!), I became newly inspired to reduce our waste output. I put a “no flyers or unaddressed mail” label on my mailbox. Any addressed junk mail that made its way through, I made sure to contact the company to ask them to take me off their mailing list. I became more mindful of packaging, and started seeking out package-free and plastic-free alternatives. This is a little tricky for us, because we have Celiac disease, and therefore it’s not safe for us to purchase food from bulk bins. But there were so many areas we could improve on, like buying avocados loose instead of in bags, seeking out produce from the farmer’s market that is package-free, making sure to always bring my own bags with me so I didn’t end up taking a plastic one home.
I found myself paying more attention to what things I was putting in recycling vs. in the garbage. There were often times that I wasn’t sure if something was recyclable or not. I decided I could make more informed purchasing choices if I knew for sure that the packaging was recyclable. So I contacted our local recycling plant, and asked if they would give us a tour. They happily obliged, and I brought with me a bag full of odds and ends that I wasn’t sure were recyclable. I was surprised that some of the things I thought would be recyclable weren’t, and a couple of things I was pretty sure weren’t recyclable actually were.
Dan explained to us a little more about how the sorting process works. (That’s my bag of garbage he’s carrying). 😉 He also told us that much of the recycling takes place locally, so that once the items are sorted and baled, they only need to be transported a short distance before being turned into something new. It’s a very efficient system they have going, I was highly impressed.
While we are nowhere near Bea Johnson’s standards, we have been able to get our garbage down to about one bag every 2 months, and our recycling bins are about half full each week. I’d like to reduce it even further than that. Reducing our garbage and recycling output begins before we make a purchasing decision. I try to decide what the end-life of the product or package will be before I even buy it.
Here are a few ways that my family has been able to reduce our waste output:
1. Always carry re-usable water bottles. We try to never purchase bottled water.
2. Keep cloth grocery bags in the vehicle and remember to bring them in the store! Remember, it’s not just grocery stores – anywhere that you would buy something and get a bag, you could bring your own! I keep an extra, compact grocery bag in my purse (it folds up into a little pouch), for the times that I’m just running in for a couple of things and forget a bag.
3. Cook from scratch. By purchasing only whole foods and cooking all of our food from scratch, we avoid most food-related packaging.
4. Shop at the farmer’s market. Seriously, the best place for package-free shopping. Bring your own bags and containers and load up!
5. Experiment with making your own personal care products. We don’t really need all the fancy store-bought personal care products. Most things we need can be made at home, inexpensively, with very simple ingredients that you probably already have on hand. I currently make our toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, and face and body lotion – and I hope to get into soap-making!
6. Put a “no flyers or unaddressed mail” label on your mailbox. Do you ever notice that 90% of the stuff you take out of your mailbox you end up putting straight in the recycling bin? Stop the process before it starts! I never used to read the flyers anyway because they were full of processed, packaged stuff. So it seemed silly and wasteful to keep getting them. Now I almost never have mail to deal with. One more way to simplify.
7. Simplify your cleaning routine. Same as with the personal care products, do you really need 10 different cleaning products? I clean with basically 3 things: vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils. These 3 things can clean almost anything! And they are better for your health.
8. Buy in bulk. There are still plenty of things that I’m buying instead of making. Coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, laundry soap, dish soap, etc. I try to buy these things in the largest containers possible, and then re-fill my kitchen-sized containers. Less containers to put in recycling!
9. Re-use. By purchasing directly from local suppliers, I’m often able to re-use containers. I buy my maple syrup in large jugs from a local farmer. He takes my bottles back and re-uses them. My egg guy takes his cartons back and re-fills them. My produce farmer brings me my produce in bushel baskets and bags, which he then takes back and re-uses. So although it is packaging, it’s staying out of the waste stream and being re-used multiple times, and saves the farmers money because that’s one less container they need to buy.
10. Evaluate your disposables. There are cloth and re-usable alternatives to every disposable product. Not only are you throwing stuff in the garbage, you are also throwing away your money by purchasing these things. We’ve been brainwashed to think that we need them, but we don’t – start looking at your disposables and seeing if you can come up with ways to replace them with re-usables!
You certainly don’t have to do all of these things – but by doing one or two, you could reduce your waste output significantly. It’s also rather refreshing to almost never have to take the garbage out – our small kitchen recycling bin sits in the cupboard under my sink, and we only need to empty it about once a week. I love finding ways to simplify my life, and by reducing our waste, it means less things coming into our home, and less things we need to take out.
To read more about Bea Johnson’s family, and to get lots of awesome tips on reducing waste, visit her Zero Waste Home blog.