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How much trash do you REALLY create in a day? It’s probably more than you think. The average American makes over 4.5 pounds of trash every day, most of which ends up rotting in landfills for hundreds, even thousands of years. This might not sound like much, but all that trash really adds up. Not only are communities spending more on waste disposal than they spend on school books, libraries and public parks, but the world’s beaches are getting clogged with plastic bags.

The world is truly choking in trash, and many fear that the damage is irreversible. However, the problem isn’t so complex that you should feel powerless. There are plenty of actionable steps that every world citizen can take to reduce their trash impact and leave a smaller mark on the planet. A new movement towards zero waste is sweeping the world, and some people are becoming so efficient that their trash for the entire year can fit in a single garbage bin.

What does it take to get started with going zero waste? Far less effort than you think. Read on to learn about the benefits of living the zero waste lifestyle and what you need to know to get started.

What Does It Really Mean To Go Zero Waste?

Less of a hard standard than a moral philosophy, going zero waste is an idealized way to live that goes farther than simply recycling and instead takes a hard look at the entire system of the flow of resources around the world. Followers of zero waste try to maximize their recycling, minimize the waste they produce, reduce their overall consumption and, most importantly, repair and reuse what they already have.

Instead of naively accepting the ‘cradle to grave’ mentality for consumer goods today, zero waste followers pay close attention to what really happens to their belongings once they wind up in the garbage can. Going zero waste means deciding to change your lifestyle to reflect the impact that you have on the planet by conserving and reusing everything you can.

Going truly zero waste is almost impossible for most people and isn’t the real goal of a zero waste lifestyle. Instead, following the philosophy is an eye-opening way to understand the impacts that every mindless shopping decision you make really has on the planet at large.

pile of trash at a landfill

The Problem With Our Global Trash

As the world’s population continues to grow, the crisis of our communal trash is becoming harder to deal with. Every day Americans send over 63,000 garbage trucks to the landfill, many of them filled with single-use items that no one really wanted in the first place. Not only do these trucks produce a tremendous amount of natural gas, the landfills themselves leach toxic chemicals into the soil and surrounding water systems. Even worse, a good portion of this trash never even reaches the landfill and instead clutters roadways, rivers and oceans where it wrecks havoc for wildlife. In the world’s oceans, there are 36 microscopic pieces of plastic for every plankton, and the ‘great garbage patch’ of the Pacific takes up a space larger than Texas.

Cradle to Grave Versus Cradle to Cradle

Most products in stores today have a lifespan explained as ‘cradle to grave’. Raw resources like petroleum, wood and metals are extracted from the planet and transformed into the furniture, refrigerators and big screen TVs we love so much. When these products break or are replaced by a newer model, most end up directly in the landfill. This creates a closed loop system; natural resources are used only once before getting put into long term storage deep in the ground.

This is the exact opposite of how Mother Earth deals with waste. Even dead bodies decompose into a treasure of nutrients in the natural world. Following nature’s example, a ‘cradle to cradle’ mentality means that a resource’s use doesn’t end when you don’t want the product anymore. Instead, valuable metals and other components from your broken junk can be extracted out and used in numerous ways, greatly minimizing the amount of trash that truly can’t be used again.

But cradle to cradle doesn’t just depend on you; it needs to happen throughout the entire consumption cycle. Cradle to cradle manufacturers design products with reusable, replaceable parts to both extend their lifespan and make them easy to re-purpose at the end. This mentality helps create sustainable products that focus on the benefits for future generations.

two curbside recycling bins

Why Isn’t Recycling Enough?

When you recycle products in your life, you give the finite resources they contain a second life in a new form. However, transforming one product into something else uses a tremendous amount of resources, not to mention greenhouse gases. Even worse, most of the materials used in products aren’t really recyclable and will land in the dump despite your best intentions. Prevention is always better than a cure; if you want to make a real difference for the planet, cut out the flow of junk by simply buying less stuff.

How Realistic Is It?

Mother Nature sets the gold standard for zero waste living by recycling every bit of waste back into the circle of life, but modern civilization faces some serious obstacles for success. Many of the products we rely on in our daily lives, like cell phones, cars, and cleaning chemicals, are almost impossible to produce zero waste. However, there are thousands of unnecessary products in our lives (paper, packaging and low quality clothes) that can be reused, recycled or just plain removed from our lives to help you go zero waste.

Easy Ways To Live the Zero Waste Life Today

The idea of going zero waste is overwhelming until you break it into easy, actionable steps. Below are some top tips to help you get started. Even adopting a few of these suggestions into your daily life will make a big difference in the overall amount of waste your home creates.

Shop With Reusable Containers

The excessive amounts of packaging in the grocery store is truly sickening when you see how fast it fills your garbage can. Thankfully, there are plenty of easy alternatives that help you keep this plastic out of production. Choose to shop with glass mason jars to fill with bulk food items and bring your own reusable canvas bags to carry your groceries. There are also plenty of mesh produce bags that will allow your greens to breath and stay fresh in your fridge. For an even more creative option, opt to use 100% cotton pillowcases from the thrift store for your produce.

Buy Groceries in Bulk

Prepackaged single servings might be convenient, but they are deadly for the planet. Choose to buy your food in bulk in order to minimize the overall amount of packaging you create. Not only will you save on the price per ounce, you’ll also need to take fewer trips to the grocery store.

Cook From Scratch

Premade food comes with far more packaging than raw ingredients, so making your own food will help you cut down on plastics. Once you get familiar with a recipe, the process of making your own food will feel almost effortless. You can make your own homemade cheese and other dairy products for pennies, and homemade bread is an easy, exceptionally tasty treat to feed your friends.

Go Paperless

The amount of unnecessary paper in our lives is enough to convince you that trees are practically worthless, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cut down on your paper waste by unsubscribing from physical mail and choose paperless billing whenever possible. Kleenex can be replaced by the old fashioned handkerchief, and the truly brave can opt out of disposable toilet paper by washing and reusing eco friendly alternatives like this.

Get Rid of Plastic

It’s no secret that the planet is choking on plastic. Choose to reject plastic bags at the checkout line by bringing your own reusable ones and refuse to buy plastic water bottles by choosing reusable options instead. You can also invest in your own high quality food storage equipment. Not only does plastic Tupperware begin to break down after use, it also quickly becomes stained and leaches nasty chemicals into your food. A better option? Opt for durable and easily recyclable glass instead. You’ll stay safe from BPA chemicals and save money in the long run.

Use Aluminum Foil Alternatives

It’s easy to use aluminum foil without thought, but this wasteful use of metal can really add up. You can buy moldable waxed fabrics from companies like Abeego that will keep your food fresh, or use a silicone mat to line your pans when baking.

Compost Your Scraps

A full third of the food grown in the United States winds up in the landfill because it spoils before anyone eats it. You can redirect this waste of nutrients into your own garden by setting up a home composting system in your backyard. Making compost can be a simple as starting a pile in your yard, or as complex as buying an efficient compost bin like this one to make the process effortless.

Need Encouragement? Join a Community!

Learning to live a zero waste lifestyle is hard without a group of like minded people to keep you encouraged. Surround yourself with friends willing to challenge you to keep improving and offer helpful tips for reducing even more weight. If you want to take your journey online, you can post your efforts on Instagram under the hashtag #zerowaste. For extra incentive, you can join this 30 day waste challenge in order to change your behavior for the long run.

In Summary

The amount of trash we all create in our daily lives may be overwhelming, but there are plenty of steps you can take to get your consumption back under control. By starting to live a zero waste lifestyle, you’ll be working to keep the planet’s limited resources out of the landfill and back in circulation. The savings for both the natural world and your wallet are well worth the effort.

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.