Kamikatsu, a tiny village of 1,500 souls in western Japan, has set a big goal for itself: Going zero-waste by 2020. And although residents have gotten close—they recycled about 80 percent of the 286 tons of waste they produced in 2017, according to Phys.org—it hasn’t been easy.
The villagers have to divide their rubbish into 45 different categories and wash and dry all plastic bags and bottles before they can be recycled. A discarded cabinet or shelf has to be broken up to divide the wood from the metal. And the local government provides no garbage collection for the waste that can’t be recycled—the residents have to transport it themselves to a local facility.
Could other towns follow Kamikatsu’s example? Maybe, but, then again, maybe not. As one resident told Phys.org, “It works because we’re only 1,500 people here. It would be difficult in a big town with a larger population.”
Still, environmentally minded individuals worldwide are striving to live a zero-waste lifestyle, and there are steps that anyone can take to get there. Here are a few of them:
1. Bid Adieu to Dish Sponges. Sponges collect germs quickly and have to be replaced often. And they’re not compostable or biodegradable, either, so to heck with ’em. Swap sponges out for plastic-free dish-washing brushes with plant-based bristles and compostable brush heads. They work just as well, and they’re not a curse on future generations.
Zero waste for beginners starts with reducing plastic waste.
2. Pass on Plastic. And we’re not just talking plastic straws, although, yes, definitely say no to plastic straws. According to the Zero Waste Bloggers Network, the average American family takes home 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year! Worldwide, consumers use an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags. Egads! And the vast majority of these bags will never be recycled, so there’s that to be depressed about. But the remedy is simple and quite practical: Switch to reusable grocery bags for your shopping, including washable, reusable mesh bags for your produce, and purchase a refillable water bottle. For storing food, use glass and stainless-steel containers instead of plastic. (More about that later.)
3. Reuse Those Ziploc Bags. You say you’ve already got a pantry full of plastic baggies, and you’re so embarrassed? It’s OK. You can at least reuse them rather than toss them in the trash. Simply fill a used bag with warm, soapy water, clean it out and hang it up to dry. It’s not ideal, but at least you’re getting multiple uses out of a single-use plastic product.
4. Quit Wasting Food. Yes, people are starving in Africa, like your mom always told you. So quit throwing away perfectly good food! You can start by cooking and eating only what you and your family need, including produce with a limited shelf life. Stick to your shopping list at the grocery store and avoid impulse purchases on food you might never actually eat. Compost everything you can, including coffee grounds, fruits and veggies that have gone bad, eggshells and tea bags. If you can’t compost it yourself, freeze it and take it a local farmers market or to a friend who has a garden.
5. Buy in Bulk. Why buy a dozen tiny boxes of raisins (wrapped together in plastic) if you can buy them in bulk and cut back on packaging that needs to be thrown out? Check out your supermarket’s bulk bins for everything from pasta and rice to nuts, flour and dried fruit. Some stores will even let you bring in your own container. And if your store doesn’t have bulk bins, talk to the manager or owner.
Crystal Dreisbach and her team at GreenToGo in Durham, North Carolina, offer a reusable food container service for area restaurants and customers.
6. Invest in a lunchbox. Restaurants tempt us with the convenience of grab-and-go sandwiches and salads with plastic forks and spoons, but disposable lunches generate 100 pounds of trash per person each year. Wrap that ham-on-rye in a cloth sandwich bag and bring your own lunch in a reusable lunchbox instead. Bring your own non-plastic cutlery, too. And if you’re still craving that Caesar salad from your local eatery, talk to the manager/owner and urge them to invest in reusable carryout containers.
Related: This reusable food container service makes it easier for restaurants to kick the Styrofoam habit.
7. Cut Out the Fast Food! Cook at home as much as you can. Fast food means all kinds of wasteful wrapping and containers, from tiny little ketchup packets to beverage cups and burger wrappers. And you know fast food is bad for you anyway. So your belly and thighs will thank you, and Mother Nature will thank you.
Glass jars can be reused for both practical and decorative purposes.
8. Don’t Throw Out Glass Jars. Save them for re-use; as long as you’re not fumble-fingered and prone to dropping them, they’ll last forever. You can use them for food storage (including packing your own lunch for work or school), as cookie/candy jars, or to store non-food items like toothbrushes, pens or spare change. You can also use the smaller ones as water glasses!
9. Speaking of Toothbrushes…Most of us go through several plastic toothbrushes a year. Trade that cheapo toothbrush for one made of bamboo—it might cost a little more, but you’ll get your money’s worth and a lot more.
10. Go Vintage Va-Va-Voom. So you always want to look your best, but you know that “fast fashion” is soooo 2018? Many zero-wasters now buy only second-hand and vintage clothing. You can always find a second-hand clothing store in your area, and some of them are actually social enterprises that serve a good cause while making money. Additionally, many retailers, both online and maybe in your hometown, specialize in sustainable fashion, and a lot of their stuff is pretty amazing. Otherwise, at least buy new clothing made from materials—such as cotton, cashmere, wool and silk—that will naturally decompose.
Related: From Kalkota to Manhattan, Brown Boy leads a sustainable fashion revolution.
11. Do You Really Need That Book? Here’s another tip for sustainability that you might not have thought about. No offense to all you bookworms, but you don’t have to buy every book you want to read. There is still such a thing as a public library, and they still let you borrow books for free. If you’re taking a course, try to find a digital version of the textbook.
12. Look for Eco-Friendly Cosmetics. You can look gorgeous and still protect the environment. There are some zero-waste cosmetic brands on the market, and their number is, thankfully, growing. But in the meantime, remove your makeup with reusable cotton pads instead of disposable makeup wipes. The pads can be thrown in the wash with the rest of your laundry.
Based in Canada, EarthSuds is a zero-waste-friendly company that aims to eliminate the 5.7 billion plastic toiletry bottles used by hotels in Canada and the U.S. every year.
13. Switch to Shampoo and Conditioner Bars. They look like bars of soap, but they work like any shampoo or conditioner. Just get the bar wet in the shower, rub it in your wet hair, and it will produce a great lather. And now you can say so long to those big plastic bottles. And while we’re on the subject, quit buying those fru-fru plastic bottles of hand soap! No mas, no mas! They don’t clean any better than regular soap bars, and they’re just one more plastic problem for future generations to deal with.
Related: This student entrepreneur has developed shampoo tablets that could replace single-use plastic bottles used by hotels
14. Discover the Wonders of Baking Soda. You might never actually bake with it, but that’s OK because baking soda has a myriad of other uses that align perfectly with a zero-waste lifestyle. You can use it as toothpaste, detergent for your laundry and kitchen utensils, even as a deodorant.
15. Turn Old Clothes into Cleaning Rags. Old worn-out T-shirts, towels, work shirts—even your underwear—can be repurposed as cleaning rags, especially those made of natural fibers. Cut your worn-out shirts into squares or strips or turn them into handkerchiefs. These old rags even make great baby wipes—just cut them into 5”x5” squares and use them to wipe your toddler’s spaghetti-splattered face (or your husband’s, as the case may be).