A Zero Waste Project: Where to get started

Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot. Photo by ready made from Pexels.

This week I really wanted to jump into things and start talking about a specific zero waste challenge, like I intend to do with every article. But with every zero waste swap or challenge I considered for this week, none of them felt like a starting place. 

So instead of jumping right into any one specific change, I want to use this second article to share some of the steps I took before really “going zero waste,” as well as quickly go over some of the most basic and easiest zero waste swaps. 

As a reminder, my definition of zero waste isn’t just about what ends up in my trash can. For me, a zero waste lifestyle means doing my best to decrease the waste at the end of a product’s life-cycle, but also the water, energy and resources used in production. 

Getting started with some Dos and Don’ts 

When you make the decision to go zero waste, and you head online to start looking around for help, it’s really easy to become overwhelmed or intimidated, so I’ll start with some “don’ts” to help you identify some basic pitfalls. 

Don’t immediately purge all your non-zero waste stuff. Just because the shampoo in your bathroom right now is in a plastic bottle and full of microplastics, throwing it out without using it all won’t get you any closer to your goal: The bottle has already been manufactured and once you throw it out, those plastics will still end up in the dump or the incinerator, or optimistically the recycling (which is better, but still not great). Whatever you have in your home or dorm room right now, regardless of its zero waste status, use it to the end of its life-cycle. 

Don’t immediately go out and buy every zero-waste essential. This one goes hand-in-hand with the previous advice. As a Pinterest junkie, I see lots of pins about the perfect “zero-waste kit” or offers to buy “all the zero waste essentials at once.” Lots of these products are really cool — bamboo brushes and combs, reusable aluminum straws and travel-sized silverware intended for your purse. But there’s no need for me to buy a new brush if I still have a brush that works, even if it is plastic. And that Instagram worthy mesh bag might look cool, but I already have a grocery-store-brand reusable bag. A lot of zero waste is also anti-consumerism; the less you buy, the less energy and resources you’re consuming, the closer you are to zero waste. 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or move too quickly. You don’t have to make every swap at once, just change things out as you need to. It’ll be more effective this way, and way cheaper. If you give yourself ridiculous standards when you start, it’ll be much easier to get discouraged. You don’t need to be perfect right away, or ever. Just acknowledge that whatever changes you can make are having a positive impact already, no matter how big or small. 

As for the “dos” — going zero waste is a lot easier when you have a plan. 

Do make a list. When I changed my mindset from “somewhat environmentally conscious” to “actively working toward a zero waste lifestyle,” I started mentally adding to a list every time I noticed something in my life I could change. I realized I’m addicted to granola bars, but that the individual packaging is a problem, so I added “homemade granola bars” to my list. I noticed how often I use paper towels so I added “find reusable napkins/towels” to my list. Eventually this mental list became a real list, broken down into areas of my life: What can I change in the kitchen? What can I swap out in the bathroom? For me, the purpose of the list isn’t to be like “wow look at all the trash I generate and resources I waste,” but rather to help me look ahead. I’m not going to make every swap at once, but now that I’m aware of some things I can change, I can start working on them whenever I have the time and energy. 

Do communicate with the people you live with. Whether you live in an apartment, a dorm or at home with your family, some zero waste challenges only work if everybody in the living space is on board. Composting, for example, will only work if you have a place to store your compost, and if everyone is okay with storing it there. If you’re at home and you start a pile of dead leaves, dirt and vegetable scraps in your backyard without telling your parents, they might be a little miffed. If you’re in an apartment and start freezing a bucket of eggshells and potato peels with the intention of dropping it off at a composting center soon, that’s probably something you should let your roommates know about. You might have to compromise between your zero waste goals and their preferences. But, if you explain the purpose of any zero waste changes to them, and try to make sure the changes aren’t an inconvenience (which they really don’t have to be), hopefully they’ll be on board. 

Do refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot. Most people are familiar with reduce, reuse, recycle, the abridged version of this catchphrase. In order of importance, following these guidelines will help you lead a more zero waste life. Refuse means if you don’t need it, don’t get it. Don’t take that free University of Connecticut stress ball unless you actually want it. Reduce means if you do need it, reduce the packaging or quantity or resources used if you can. Reuse means get a reusable grocery bag instead of plastic or paper. Repair means instead of going out to buy a new pair of jeans, see if you can hem your old pair. Recycle — self-explanatory. Rot refers to composting, which is a whole other thing that maybe we’ll explore in another article. Again, they’re in order of importance, so it’s better to refuse than reduce, better to reduce than reuse, and so on. 

The first swaps you can make TODAY 

There are some zero waste efforts that have either gotten a lot of attention, or have become normalized enough that I don’t want to spend an entire article addressing them. I already practice a lot of these, so giving them an article wouldn’t be a genuine step in my own zero waste journey. But if you don’t already… 

Stop using single-use plastic water bottles. You’ll save so much money, reduce your waste by hundreds of bottles a year and you can personalize your reusable water bottle with cool stickers, if that’s your thing. 

Use reusable grocery bags. Lots of times you don’t even have to spend money on these. I’ve collected freebies given out at UConn events and stolen some from my mom, but you could also make them out of an old t-shirt (https://mommypotamus.com/no-sew-t-shirt-tote-bag-tutorial/

Recycle. Especially at UConn and in the surrounding area, we have single-stream recycling, which makes it super easy. All your recyclables — paper, cans, bottles, glass jars — they can all go into one blue bin in your dorm’s trash room or else in your local Willimantic Waste Paper Co. blue dumpster. 

Use reusable straws and coffee mugs. With a travel mug you can even get discounts at the cafes at UConn, although this is a policy they’ve put on hold during COVID-19. 

All of this is a starting point, but stay tuned to hear about more specific changes and efforts you can make alongside me. 

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