The Path to Zero Waste and the Choices We Make

Path to Zero Waste (or, our laundry room where we keep our trash)

When I first became interested in the subject of how to reduce our family’s consumption of goods and, in particular, reduce our waste to the landfill, I found that lists created by other zero waste pioneers really helped. I admit, I scoured the Web at night when the kids were asleep and found lists upon lists of how others had outsmarted the system and found ways to reduce their waste. Mostly, they had returned to the basics, living a less consumer-oriented life, and had re-learned what their grandparents already knew. We’ve form-fitted those practices for our family’s lifestyle and without further ado, here’s our list (with a few explanations attached). Please send questions or comments as they all help to hone this list of simple steps and make it clearer for others:

1)    Audit your waste: Take a week’s-worth of your trash (or even a day if you are overwhelmed) and separate it into compostables, recyclables (paper, recyclable plastics, glass, aluminum), plastic bags (polyethylene), and everything else. You’ll likely find that at least half is compostable, another quarter is recyclable, and the rest goes into the landfill. It’s that last bit that you’ll eventually get to analyze more closely, but first look at the other categories and see how you can improve upon getting them where they need to go.

2)    Compost: If you can’t compost your own food scraps, see if someone else will, like your own town. Most cities and towns have a yard waste/organic waste pickup. This will reduce your waste to the landfill so much that your garbage bill will go down significantly. Guaranteed.

3)    Recycle: Okay, recycling is not an end to a means (of buying unnecessary plastics) but it helps reduce waste to the landfill. Print out (or memorize!) your local recycling guidelines and keep it posted above (or on) your recycling bin. Any 3-year-old can sort the recycling from the landfill waste. But before you throw it in the recycling bin ask yourself whether there might be a better re-use for the item.

4)    Polyethylene: I’m amazed how much of our waste is polyethylene – toilet paper wrapping, rice cake bags, cereal bags, newspaper bags, ziplock bags (with the zipper part cut out). Check out this list of what you can recycle at your local grocery store in the plastic bag receptacle.

5)    Landfill trash: Now audit this pile of trash. Are you sure it needs to go to the landfill? Here’s a list I compiled for Bainbridge Islanders (it can be useful for anyone) noting the usual products of our material culture and how they can be responsibly disposed of or reused rather then thrown in the landfill.

6)    Remove your trash bin from your kitchen: Put it in an out-of-the-way place so you have to think about it every time you designate something for the landfill. I simply put our compost receptacle and recycling in the space under our counter that was meant for “trash” and put the trash bin around the corner in the laundry room. It’s made a big difference for the whole family.

7)    Create special waste streams: After analyzing your landfill trash, if you find any items that you produce enough of that you can designate a special waste container for, do it! I’ve done this for batteries, wine corks & bottle caps (freecyclers take them away), and Styrofoam.

8)    All the other stuff: Have a bag hanging somewhere nearby where you can put all that other stuff that needs to be taken to a place for safe disposal and then once every 6 months take them to their final destinations – printer cartridges, prescription drugs, CFL lightbulbs, art supplies (like pie tins) for schools, etc.

9)    Join The Buy Nothing Project or a similar group: Anything that could have a second life should be given away. I’m amazed at what I’ve been able to give in my local Buy Nothing group. Total strangers drive to my house to pick up concrete blocks, old tarps, car seats, light fixtures, outdoor furniture, the list goes on. And, of course, I’ve received wonderful used treasures through my neighborhood network: waffle iron, veggie starts and perennials, booster seat, books for our children’s libraries in Nepal, glass canning jars.

10) Adopt new shopping habits: Always bring your reusable bags, including plastic or cloth produce bags and jars for your liquid bulk items (maple syrup, agave, tamari, peanut butter, olive oil, etc.) Refuse items packaged in plastic. It’s as simple as that. If you search around, there’s usually an acceptable alternative.

11) Buy in bulk: This is the single change in our shopping habits that has made the greatest impact on our waste. We buy 25 lb bags of flour, rice, lentils, beans, and pasta, among other items. But these are our staples that we cannot grow ourselves.

12) Grow/farm your own: If you have the space, grow a garden of greens and  whatever else you love. Get chickens and savor fresh eggs every day. We even raise bees for the day when we can actually harvest our own supply of honey for the year. The more you grow, the fewer trips you have to make to the store.

13) Forage: I know it sounds crazy, but if you can learn what the great free foragable edibles are around you, you can reduce your waste by buying less. We’re proud to admit that a good percentage of our diet is from foraged food: blackberries, apples (although the town just cut down our favorite beach apple tree), water cress, nettles, bitter cress, oyster mushrooms, huckleberries, blueberries (from our home in New Hampshire), chanterelles, salmonberries.

Secret Beach Blackberry Patch

14) Make your own: If there’s something you eat regularly, try to make your own so you don’t have to purchase the packaging along with the staple item. We bake all our bread, make our yogurt, and toast our own nut mixes. It’s a way of life so it doesn’t feel like a chore and our home made staples are much better than what we find at the store. Really.

15) No single-use items: Find re-usables to curb your habits. We now travel with our own coffee mugs, water bottles, glass straws, cutlery, and sometimes even plates.

And the end result? We fill one garbage bag of trash every 4-6 months.


11 thoughts on “The Path to Zero Waste and the Choices We Make

  1. This was very inspired. I was just thinking of you and the example you are to me and I was going to pose some questions to you, but you just answered many of them.

    As we made our solar ovens, I just kept thinking of all the plastic we were using, but I was too overwhelmed by the task at hand and three very persistent kids to come up with an alternative.

    I am going to have to keep trying a little at a time. Thanks!


    • Hi Laurene: Talk about inspired — solar ovens! We are so in awe of what your three have accomplished and so my question is this: are they portable enough to take to Nepal to use in very sunny locations to reduce the amount of propane we use?


  2. One more to add to the list…barter. Bartering with neighbors and other folks in town eliminates packaging completely – even for delicate food stuffs – as you hand-carry the items such short distances. Awesome and inspiring list…thank you!


  3. I’m just getting started, so I really appreciate your ideas and lists. I’ve been tossing around the idea of zero waste living for awhile, though it really sprung to life when -out of the blue- I got fed up with the taste of bread and decided to make my own. I don’t have a dough hook, so I enjoyed the time spent kneading the dough myself and felt it was a great way to occupy my time. I may invite my friends over for bread making parties. We could mix and knead our dough, have a glass of wine, and then take our dough home to rise. Foraging reminds me of when my husband and I used to climb the foothills west of Boulder, CO and hunt for raspberries and strawberries. We used to get water from a spring near Nederland, where there was a safe supply of clean water. I’m going to like going back to simple living. Appreciate the tips and videos!


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  6. I love your idea of bringing along reusable cutlery. Any ideas on how to make a sturdy, washable case for a fork and knife? I travel light, so a glasses case would be a bit too bulky, but a thin fabric pouch wouldn’t prevent the fork from stabbing me.


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