These zero-wasters have ditched the trash can almost entirely. Pick and choose from their tips for going zero waste to shrink your own waste (plus any eco-guilt).

By Anna Maltby and Catherine Ryan Gregory
Updated August 28, 2019
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MItchell Feinberg

These days, knowing how to recycle isn’t enough. Zero waste is the sustainability method of the moment, and it’s not just a passing fad: Living with less is one way of preserving the environment and already-dwindling resources, and going zero waste is actually almost (dare we say it) easy.

There’s a lot of garbage out there. The United States sent 137.7 million tons of trash to landfills in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—and a recent report found we’re on track to run out of space in landfills within the next two decades. China is importing fewer

of the recyclable plastics we’ve been sending there. And far too many items don’t make it to landfills or recycling plants in the first place: Think of all the litter along our roads and the sad stories about sea turtles with straws in their nostrils and whales with bags in their bellies.

In some ways, this problem is bigger than any one person. To make a real dent, we’d need our legislators to support more plastic bans, regulate wasteful industries, and be more aggressive about protecting the planet beyond the waste problem. Still, our actions do make a difference. The more consumers and voters start caring about waste reduction in their day-to-day lives, experts say, the more businesses and governments will make it a priority.

“The best thing we can do, environmentally speaking, is not produce waste in the first place,” says Jenna Jambeck, PhD, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia and a National Geographic fellow specializing in solid waste. “I’ve been totally convinced by my research that, taken collectively, small choices make a difference. These choices, even if we aren’t perfect, add up to significant positive impacts over time.”

These choices include everything from utilizing zero waste disposal options to adopting a zero waste lifestyle—making decisions large and small that move the needle in the right direction, even a little. You’ll see the impact in your life too: less clutter, money saved, new peace of mind. You don’t have to take every step experts suggest here—do what works for you, and you just might find life is better with less garbage in it.

Start with these tips for going zero waste, straight from practiced zero-wasters—including the mind behind Zero Waste Home—and you’ll be off to a great start. You may even find yourself surprised by how easy using less can be.

Use what you already have.

“I don’t encourage anyone to go out and buy things, like a pretty stainless-steel water bottle or organic-cotton shopping bag, in order to go zero-waste,” says Tippi Thole, founder of the zero-waste website Tiny Trash Can. “We should be buying less, not more! If I have a plastic item in good working condition, I use it as long as I can.” Manufacturing reusable tote bags and water bottles tends to use a lot more resources and energy than manufacturing the disposable versions, so don’t churn through them.

Refuse first.

People are constantly trying to give you single-use stuff: a flyer on the street, a sample in the store, a bag of stickers and knickknacks at a birthday party. “No matter how much you reduce, reuse, and recycle, you’re still the target of many items,” says Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home ($11; amazon.com), who says her family of four creates only a pint of garbage per year. “Say no on the spot to stop it from becoming your trash problem down the line.”

Rearrange the trash.

Moving the kitchen trash can somewhere inconvenient, like the garage, forces everyone in the house to consider whether items could be composted or recycled instead. “Just by rearranging the bins and shocking everyone out of the habit of tossing something into the can, we halved the amount of garbage we produced,” says Larkin Gayl, who shares zero-waste tips on Instagram at @unfetteredhome.

Pack reusable necessities.

Think about the single-use items you pick up most in the outside world (coffee cups? utensils? to-go boxes? straws?) and stash a reusable version in your bag or car so you always have it with you. “We even carry a growler in our car for beer emergencies!” says zero-waster Sarah Schade, an art and design student in Traverse City, Michigan. When you come home, remember to wash your reusables and put them back so they’re ready to go the next day.

Borrow before buying.

You borrow books—why not borrow a weed whacker, stand mixer, or circle saw too? Borrowing things like tools and kitchen gadgets saves you from shelling out for something you’ll only use a few times a year. Plus, Lepeltier adds, “connecting with neighbors when you borrow something makes in-life connections and creates community.” Searchmyturn.com and buynothingproject.org/find-a-group, or write a post on Nextdoor. You can also rent tools from many hardware stores and Home Depot locations.

Do a trash audit.

It might sound icky, but poke through your garbage can to find your household’s worst waste offenders. (Or just make a note—and ask those you live with to do the same—of what you toss in a typical week.) “Pick the thing that shows up most in the garbage and find a swap for it,” says Gayl. For example, she noticed a ton of granola bar wrappers in her trash and started making batches of grab-and-go snacks instead.

Don’t feel like you have to make everything yourself.

“I’ve experimented with sourdough and making kombucha, but I’m not running a Whole Foods at my home,” says Chloé Lepeltier, who blogs about her low-impact lifestyle on the site Conscious By Chloé. The idea is to find habits you can sustain, so only DIY if you enjoy it.

Green your period.

If you’re up for it, Schade endorses switching to a reusable menstrual cup. Made out of silicone, it typically lasts a year, replacing the 240 or so tampons you might use during that time. (It also keeps packaging, applicators, and sometimes agrochemical-intensive cotton out of the trash.) Or consider period underwear like the ones from Thinx or Dear Kate—they may not eliminate your need for tampons entirely, but you’ll cut back in a big way.

Raise tiny tree huggers.

“Kids are often the best place to start in your waste-reduction journey because they tend to be more sensitive to the problem and don’t have the bad habits we adults do,” says Thole. Ask children to help cook (and therefore eat less food packaged in plastic); fill up at the bulk bins together; and talk about the materials that go into making a plastic toy—and the landfill the toy will end up in. But be warned: Soon enough, they may call out your eco-blunders.

Invest in a TerraCycle bin.

The company TerraCycle accepts many items that can’t always be recycled locally, like coffee capsules, toothpaste tubes, and potato chip bags. It partners with brands—including Arm & Hammer, Brita, Garnier, Honest Kids, even Solo cups—to offer free recycling of their products. Or you can buy a bin or pouch for a specific need. It’s pricey (pouches cost $42 and up), but that’s a deterrent to creating trash, says Gayl: “The cost to recycle motivates me to think before I purchase.”

  • By Anna Maltby
  • By Catherine Ryan Gregory