Zero Waste Household Guide: 12 First Steps

Reuse in Action, photo by Airyka Rockefeller

by Rebecca Rockefeller

Welcome to 12 First Steps from the Trash Backwards Zero Waste Household Guide. We’ve compiled solutions we’ve put into practice in our own homes over the past three years.  Today we’ll share some basics that address household waste in general; future installments will cover a typical home, room-by-room.

Moving to a lower waste life is an ongoing process – There is a lot we can do as individuals and more that we’ll only be able to address collectively to get at the tangled roots of our waste issues.

We’ve learned a lot about changing our habits and perspectives, and we’d like to offer this bit of advice: Please, don’t try to do everything in this guide at once! Read through it and choose just one step, the one that seems the easiest or most appealing to you, and give that a try. Adapt our ideas as necessary for your own household and lifestyle and keep at that one first change until it’s second nature, or until you’re excited to add another.

Remember that joy and pride are much better motivating emotions in the long run than guilt and shame. Find one first step solution here that addresses something you’d be happy to change because it’s driving you crazy, or something that you’d be proud to accomplish. Find the joy and humor in taking control of your stuff, and celebrate every little change you make. Over time, these small steps add up and can have a profound positive impact.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

If we had to distill everything into one tidy sentence, we’d use that old adage above, frequently attributed to “the four threads of the New England character” and made popular during WWII. We’ve found simple basic steps that put this into modern practice:

  1. Audit your waste: Take a week’s-worth of your trash (or even a day if you are overwhelmed) and separate it into compostables, recyclables (paper, recyclable plastics, glass, aluminum), plastic bags (polyethylene), and everything else. You’ll likely find that at least half is compostable, another quarter is recyclable, and the rest goes into the landfill. It’s that last bit that you’ll eventually get to analyze more closely, but first look at the other categories and see how you can improve upon getting them where they need to go. A practical note: You can separate your trash as the week or day progresses; you don’t need to pile it all together and then sort it out at the end of your audit period.
  2. Compost: If you can’t compost your own food scraps, see if someone else will, like your own town. Most cities and towns have a yard waste/organic waste pickup. This will reduce your waste to the landfill so much that your garbage bill will go down significantly. Guaranteed. In addition to the usual fruits and veggies, here’s a short listof common items found in our compost, including things that might be considered a little unusual. Compost it, don’t trash it!

    Compost Can Be Beautiful, photo by Airyka Rockefeller

  3. Recycle: Okay, recycling is not an end to a means (of buying unnecessary plastics) but it helps reduce waste to the landfill. Print out (or memorize!) your local recycling guidelines and keep it posted above (or on) your recycling bin. Any 3-year-old can sort the recycling from the landfill waste. But before you throw it in the recycling bin ask yourself whether there might be a better re-use for the item.
  4. Polyethylene: We’re amazed how much of our waste is polyethylene – plastic bags and film, that is: Toilet paper wrapping, rice cake bags, cereal bags, newspaper bags, Ziploc bags (with the zipper part cut out). Check out this list of what you can recycle at your local grocery store in the plastic bag receptacle.
  5. Reuse and Reduce landfill trash: Now audit your remaining pile of trash. Are you sure it needs to go to the landfill? Reuse: Visit our Trash Backwards site for reuse ideas for individual items of all kinds. If you’re wondering how your community deals with the usual waste products of our material culture, and how they can be responsibly disposed of or reused rather than thrown in the landfill, try this list. Compiled for Bainbridge Islander residents, it can can be useful for anyone as a starting point for thinking about reuse outside of the recycling bin – Check your local community equivalent of these options to see if similar programs exist for you. Reduce: Learn from your landfill-bound trash – Are there items in this pile that you could remove by making different purchasing decisions the next time around? Much of our household waste that cannot be composted or recycled is packaging from single-use items. Find alternatives to single-use, individually packaged items and you’ll likely see a huge decrease in your landfill trash. Along the same line, is there anything in your landfill pile that could be reused, or is there a reusable item that could take the place of something less durable?
  6. Remove your trash bin from your kitchen: Put it in an out-of-the-way place so you have to think about it every time you designate something for the landfill. You can simply put your compost receptacle and recycling in the space under our counter that was meant for “trash” and put the trash bin somewhere a little further out of reach. That simple step has made a big difference for the whole family.
  7. Create special waste streams: After analyzing your landfill trash, if you find any items that you produce enough of that you can designate a special waste container for, do it! I’ve done this for batteries, wine corks & bottle caps (freecyclers take them away), and Styrofoam.
  8. All the other stuff: Have a bag hanging somewhere nearby where you can put all that other stuff that needs to be taken to a place for safe disposal and then once every 6 months take them to their final destinations – printer cartridges, expired prescription drugs, CFL lightbulbs, art supplies (like pie tins) for schools, etc. Check your local municipal recycling rules, as what can be taken, and where it goes, is different in each collection area across the world.
  9. Join Freecycle or a similar group: Anything that could have a second life should be freecycled. Yes, freecycling is a verb in this guide. We’re amazed at what we’ve been able to freecycle. Total strangers drive to our homes to pick up concrete blocks, old tarps, car seats, light fixtures, outdoor furniture, the list goes on. And, of course, we’ve received wonderful used treasures through Freecycle: A waffle iron, veggie starts and perennials, a child’s booster seat, books for our children’s libraries in Nepal, vintage glass canning jars.
  10. Replace trash baskets with recycling and compost: With a wave of your hand, turn every waste paper basket in your home into a recycling bin, and put a small compost container next to each. Save one central trash can for landfill-bound debris. There’s nothing like a bit of going out of your way to get rid of things to motivate a good amount of rethinking, reducing, and reusing.
  11. Put an End to Your Junk Mail: Catalog Choice and their new MailStop mobile app offer free ways for you to stop the flow of unwanted snail mail to your home.
  12. Pack a Travel Kit: Getting a cup of coffee and meals on the go is a daily event for many people. You can make your on-the-go life zero waste with a bit of planning. Collect a to-go set of dishes, and utensils at thrift stores or garage sales and stash it in a box in the trunk of your car. It will always be there when you need it for to-go food, potlucks, and picnics without taking up much space in between. Go for simple plates, mugs, reusable straws (stainless and glass varieties are both available), cloth napkins, and basic cutlery. Don’t forget to include a container or 2 (we use tins), for takeout food or leftovers of an unfinished restaurant meal. When you get home, wash what you’ve used and return it to the car the next time you go for a drive. Once you’ve done this a few times, it will become habit, no extra thought required.

If you’re ready for more ideas, please visit our Trash Backwards app, where we have hundreds of great zero waste tips for your household. Scroll down to “Green Ideas” for in-depth reading:

Click Through for More Zero Waste Tips at Trash Backwards.

Click Through for More Zero Waste Tips at Trash Backwards.

Categories: Best of Trash Backwards, Plastic-Free Living, Reduce Your Use, Repurpose and Reuse, Trash Pile - All Our Stuff, Zero Waste Guide

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