As we progress further along the path to more sustainable living, we have to take our waste stream seriously. Modern practices are stuck in a horrible rut when it comes to creating mountains of garbage. Throwing things in the garbage can—forget littering—is becoming more and more of a problem.
We have an addiction to disposable stuff, take-out menus, meaningless trinketry, recycling bins, and packaging. Living this way uses up our resources for creating all of this destined-to-be garbage, and it pollutes the landscape with landfills, dumps, and litter.
Of course, many of us are looking for ways to actively address this issue, but it can feel so overwhelming. That’s why it might help to take it one month at a time over the next year and see where it gets you.
Month 1: Use What You’ve Got
The kitchen is possibly the best place to start a zero-waste campaign. Simply put, we move more trash out of the kitchen than anywhere else in the house. The first month is simply to use what has been in the pantry and/or freezer rather than bringing in new stuff.
Month 2: Make a Packaging Plan
Now that the pantry has opened up, we have to start being more considerate about what we buy. That means taking the time to develop a packaging plan. Whatever we buy at the supermarket, we should consider where the packaging goes: recycling or trash can. We should compose a regular shopping list around items that use less packaging, packaging that can be recycled, and packaging made from recycled materials.
Month 3: Set Up a Waste Stream
As we sort out our shopping list, thinking about the packaging we are bringing into the kitchen, we have set up a means of distributing it more responsibly. Packaging that can be recycled isn’t all created equally. Cardboard and metal are much less energy-intensive. Go for metal over glass and glass over plastic, and work to repurpose the glass when possible.
Month 4: Start Composting
The greenest part of the waste stream is the compost bin. The compost bin can basically handle anything that was once living (or part of something living), including paper, cardboard, veggie scraps, hair, coffee, wood ash, etc. The trick to good compost is understanding how to adjust the ratio of carbon to nitrogen and maintaining adequate moisture.
Month 5: Break into Bulk Bins
With the shopping under control and the waste we create sorted, it’s a good time to make move to shop smarter and bring home less packaging: buy what you can from bulk bins. Grains, pulses, nuts, spices, herbs, and dried fruits are commonly available in bulk bins. Reusable containers—bags, jars, etc.—reduce the waste that comes home.
Month 6: Get Reusable: Bottle, Thermos, Bag, Containers
At this point, most of us already have reusable water bottles and take-out mugs. We have reusable shopping bags, and somewhere in the cupboards are containers for leftovers. Now, we need to use them faithfully. In fact, disposable versions of these have to be removed as an option, so does buying a new reusable version every month or two.
Month 7: Home Cooking Challenges
Cooking at home with ingredients rather than products is amazingly helpful when reducing waste. We can buy staples from bulk bins without packaging. We can buy fresh fruits and vegetables without packaging. We can even make our own bread, granola, snacks, crackers, plant-based cheeses, pasta, sauces, condiments, and more with these ingredients.
Month 8: Waste-Free Lunch
With the kitchen and cooking at home more or less running waste-free or very low-waste now, it’s time to take the effort to new levels. Lunch is a good start. Take on a personal challenge to go completely waste-free at lunch for the entire month. That means no take-out: either bring lunch from home, or eat at restaurants that don’t use disposable dishes, utensils, etc.
Month 9: Clean-out Chemical Cleaners
Waste-free living isn’t all about food, either. This month we can tackle how we clean. Most cleaners come in throw-away plastic bottles, and most are ripe with unsavory chemicals. It’s time to start phasing those cleaners out and making our own at home with a few simple ingredients and reusable containers.
Month 10: Homemade Hygiene
Since we’ve got the baking soda, vinegar, and essential oils for DIY cleaners, it’s time to delve into homemade hygiene products. Shampoo, condition, deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, cosmetics, and so on are easy to make at home. Plus, the DIY versions don’t have questionable ingredients, and they can be kept in reusable containers.
Month 11: Go Energy-Efficient
Though it doesn’t often count as a waste product, wasted energy—electricity—and resources—water, natural gas, etc.—is rampant in modern homes, so instead of cutting out garbage, we’ll devote ourselves to making the house less energy-dependent and our lives a little more energy-friendly, whether that means carpooling or home improvements or cutting back on showers.
Month 12: Abstain from New Stuff
Finally, we’ve made it to the end of the year, and it’s time to think about our stuff. Too often we replace phones, computers, televisions, clothes, furniture, and various other stuff that still works perfectly well. This month we make a pledge to stick with our stuff for longer. It’s great to donate them when we do upgrade, but it’s better to make them last as long as possible. And, if we do need to buy something, why not consider secondhand?
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