The Ultimate "Zero Waste" Guide for Beginners

You don't actually have to be a slave to plastic.

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Design by Erin Lux

On November 7, 2017, I stopped making trash.

I had heard of people like Bea Johnson, the creator of Zero Waste Home, and Lauren Singer, known for her blog Trash Is For Tossers, but I always thought of them as very distant superheroes, living a life that would never be realistically attainable for a “normal” person like me. I had succumbed, like most people, to the idea that I would always be a slave to plastic and a cheap disposable life. But when I found myself taking out a large bag of garbage almost daily, I figured I could at least try to dip my toes into a zero waste life.

Using a spreadsheet, I began to list everything I was consuming on a daily basis, which included groceries, clothing, beauty products, cleaning products and electronics. I narrowed down the top three aspects of my life where I created the most trash: food packaging, food waste, and beauty products. Then I dove into an internet black hole trying to scavenge for alternatives. The next day, I bought the very jar that holds all my trash, 17 months later. Here’s exactly how I did it.


Grocery shopping

Something weird happened the first time I tried to go food shopping after cutting out plastic. I saw these stores through a different lens; a binary of things I could buy and things I couldn’t. And I couldn’t buy most things. Slowly, I realized that sticking to the perimeter of the store is the easiest way to avoid plastic. Produce, grains, dairy, and deli/butcher—everything in the middle is a sea of packaging.

My first tip: You will always need more reusable bags than you think. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve walked home cradling fruits and bread in my arms. Eco Bags is one of my favorite brands.

Second: The bulk section is your best friend. Whole Foods allows you to bring a standard Ball mason jar to fill with bulk products (deduct the weight of the jar at check out). If you don’t have access to a Whole Foods, try to find out if your local natural food store will let you bring your own bulk containers. One of the easiest ways to shop zero waste is to just do most of your food shopping at your local farmers market. My favorite zero waste-friendly grocery stores across the country are: Rainbow Acres in Los Angeles, Precycle in Brooklyn (and The Wally Shop for online ordering), Alberta Co-op in Portland, and Verde in Miami. Once you nail zero waste food shopping, you’ll be amazed at how much your body and wallet will thank you.


Composting

How does one compost in a tiny New York City apartment like mine? Two words: freeze it. Composting was such a foreign—and intimidating—concept to me two years ago. First I needed to find out where I could drop off my compost and then what exactly I could compost. (Here is a map of every compost drop-off site in New York City.) I freeze all my food and compostable paper scraps and then take it every Saturday to my local farmers market. What you are allowed to compost is different for every drop-off site, but the rule of thumb is if you can eat it, you can compost it (with the exception of meat and large pieces of cardboard at certain compost drop-offs). Be careful with paper products you think are compostable; many have a thin layer of moisture protecting plastic. Also, be mindful of your produce stickers because many are made of plastic and not paper.


Clothing shopping

It’s no secret that fast fashion is terrible for the environment (just listen to this week's bonus episode of Dare I Say), but it’s not just fast fashion that has some sort of environmental and human impact. I exclusively purchase second-hand clothing, or I purchase from companies with an extensive sustainability policy. I also rarely shop online unless I know for a fact that store won't bombard me with plastic filling. It's always best to try to physically make it into the store to avoid any unnecessary plastic and carbon emissions from delivery trucks.

Buying vintage

When it comes to buying clothing with zero-waste, it's best to buy secondhand and vintage clothing, because you are using perfectly good garments already in the waste stream. Since second-hand clothing doesn’t always fit perfectly, I’ll take some pieces to a tailor. My favorite places to shop secondhand are: The Break Vintage, Shop Suki on Instagram, and The Real Real. More recently, I have been visiting Reformation, Jonesy, Girlfriend Collective, and Christy Dawn for when I can’t find vintage pieces. If you want to find out how sustainable or ethical some of your favorite brands are, check out the app Good On You.

Buying new

Being mindful of the materials that our clothes are made out from is step one. A significant portion of the plastic pollution in our oceans (and now air) come from plastic micro fibers released from polyester clothing when we wash them. This is not only killing our oceans, but a recent study showed that micro plastics are now found in 83 percent of our drinking water. Thankfully, there are a few easy things you can do to minimize the damage. Before you buy an item, look at what it is made from. Look for (ideally organic) cotton, cashmere, wool, and silk; all materials that will naturally decompose and cause the least harm to our oceans. You can also purchase a bag like this to wash your polyester clothing, which will catch the micro fibers before they go down your pipes.


Zero waste on-the-go

Once you have the proper tools, this becomes infinitely easier. Things I never leave my apartment without are: a mason jar for impromptu coffee or tea, my bamboo utensils and metal straw, and a few canvas bags. I try my best to meal prep and bring my lunches with me to work, but if I have to grab lunch during the work day I always make sure I grab food from restaurants that use eco friendly take-out containers or that I know for a fact will put my lunch in my containers instead, like my all time favorite sushi restaurant right in front of my apartment.

When I want a coffee, I ask the barista to put it in my mason jar. Most of the time they won’t bat an eye and sometimes, they’ll even give me a discount for bringing my own cup (Starbucks does this). Getting takeout delivered is a thing of the past for me because it is impossible to evade single-use disposables. I stick to cafes and restaurants that are have a strong sustainable philosophy, like Westbourne, The Little Beet, Kave, and Roberta's.


Beauty

There are currently are very few cosmetics brands on the market that are zero waste, but there are a few brands that are headed in the right direction. My favorite is Kjaer Weis, which makes beautiful organic makeup in refillable stainless steel and glass. Here are a few more worth checking out: RMS Beauty, Elate Cosmetics, Tata Harper, Ilia.

Buy yourself a pack of reusable cotton pads to remove your makeup instead of disposable makeup wipes, which are made of synthetic materials that don’t biodegrade, and usually contain harsh chemicals that strip your skin of natural oils. Cotton pads like Marleys Monsters can be thrown in the wash with the rest of your clothes. I also recommend checking out Terracycle, which, depending on where you live, will take your empty plastic packaging from any brand and properly recycle them.


Hygiene

My bathroom, like many bathrooms, was stocked with beauty, hair, and skincare products in plastic containers. When emptied, most of these containers are not recyclable in the state of New York. The average toothpaste container from a drug store is one of the most difficult things to recycle and to find an alternative for. David’s Natural Toothpaste, made in the U.S. from all natural ingredients, is packaged in 100 percent recyclable metal. If you’re not interested in making the switch to natural toothpaste, you can send your empty drug store toothpaste tubes to Terracycle. When it comes to deodorant, I like Meow Meow Tweet, a deodorant stick in paper tube, and Becky Boo Underarm, deodorant in a glass jar with a metal top.

I usually buy my dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, and conditioner in bulk at a store in Manhattan called Integral Yoga Natural Foods. For those not in New York who unable to take advantage of this, I simply encourage you to try your best within the framework you're given. Products you can find online include Love Beauty and Planet, which offers vegan, cruelty-free haircare products made out of 100 percent post-consumer plastic; the Shampoo Bar at Package Free Shop, which sells unpackaged, local, and all natural shampoo bars; and Plaine Products, which sells vegan, cruelty-free, environmentally-friendly shower products.

One of the easiest switches was going from the standard plastic razor to a safety razor, which is 100 percent stainless steel—and so are the blades, so they are extremely easy to recycle on top of the fact that I save an absurd amount of money. I bought 100 blades for $20 dollars and I won’t have to buy anymore for 10 years. My favorites are Classic, Premium, and Pivot Head.

And for those in the North East, keep an eye out for Loop, a new shopping platform that allows you to shop your favorite brands in zero waste reusable containers. It launches this May 2019.


Travel

There's no point in mincing words: Traveling with zero waste is difficult. Does your hotel recycle and compost? Can you easily recycle and compost on the street in the country you are visiting? How is the general waste management infrastructure in the country you’re visiting? Most of the time, sadly, the answers to these questions are not what you want to hear.

Planning ahead is key. I never eat food on airplanes because it is always packaged in some type of plastic. Instead, I pack a full meal in one of my stainless steel containers to eat on the plane, and always bring an empty reusable water bottle to the airport. Some go-to things I like to bring on my vacations are a few containers for takeout. I also like to bring at least two mason jars along with a reusable water bottle, one for coffee on-the-go and the other to store any trash I create on vacation to bring back with me (and yes it all goes into the jar when I get back home). This is also where a shampoo and conditioner bar comes in handy, so you don’t have to worry about using hotel products or bringing more liquids on the plane.

That being said, your health and your safety always comes first. If you were in a rush and forgot to pack a proper meal, don’t go hungry just because you don’t want to produce any waste. If you happen to be visiting a country where you can’t drink the tap water, buy bottled water. Just make sure you recycle the container after you’re done.

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