Trash Backwards Zero Waste Household Guide
by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller
Welcome to the Trash Backwards Zero Waste Household Guide. This document is full of solutions we’ve put into practice in our own homes over the past three years. 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:
- 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.
- 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, that might be considered a little unusual. Compost it, don’t trash it!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Store your food in glass jars. Reuse glass jars of all sizes, and find used Mason jars at thrift stores, garage sales, or during summer canning season sales at your local grocery and hardware stores. Buy in bulk at your grocery store, putting your items directly into your jars (get a tare weight for each jar from a cashier before filling the jar, so the weight can be subtracted from your grocery items when the price is calculated). Jars work on pantry shelves as well as in the fridge and freezer. Even salad greens stay fresh when packed into jars instead of into plastic bags, and soups and other foods can be frozen in jars if you leave the top few inches empty to allow for expansion.
- Use alternatives to plastic wrap to cover food in your fridge or on your counter tops. Natural waxed paper can be composted when it wears out; to keep it in place over a casserole or tray of food, weight the top with a table knife or spoon. Plates can be inverted to cover bowls.
- Turn an old sheet into bags for shopping and home storage. These don’t need to be fancy, just stitch up some simple pillow case style rectangles, with or without a drawstring at the top; you can tie string or yarn around the neck for a customizable, removable and reusable closure. Get bags slightly damp to store delicate greens in the fridge, use them dry for fruit such as apples, brown rice, etc. If you don’t have a sheet ready to become bags, check your local thrift store or Freecycle group.
- Buy in bulk whenever possible. You’ll get a better price per pound, and there’s less packaging to deal with. If you don’t know of a buying club or co-op around you, check the online directory of the Co-op Directory Service for a state-by-state listing of buying clubs and co-ops, and tips on starting one for your community: http://www.coopdirectory.org/#WhatIsABuyingClub Even your local grocery store has bulk options on its regular shelves. Buy the largest package you can find of pasta, fresh green beans, rice, etc. Freeze extra in season vegetables and fruits for use when they’re not in season any more; store that extra pasta and rice in your pantry.
- Eat seasonal foods. Things that are in season locally are fresher, less expensive, and frequently transported shorter distances which requires less packaging. It means no strawberries in January for most of us, but when you eat the berries that are ripened on farms closer to your home later in the year, they really will taste better (much better), and they’ll likely be available in paper baskets instead of plastic clamshell boxes, and will cost less. And some foods that taste the best might be right under your nose. Try the 100 foot diet, undertaken by Liesl’s family last spring; to their delight they enjoyed the fruit of their land in ways they had never done before!
- Want Bread Less Plastic? Make your own. We purchased a Teflon-free breadmaker years ago and make at least 2 loaves per week. It not only saves our family a lot of money, but we know the great organic ingredients that go into our bread now. There’s nothing like fresh baked bread. But a dilemma posed itself to us when we then had to pack our bread into bags to store it, after baking. The solution? Store your bread in an old fashioned bread box! It keeps the bread fresh for days and totally plastic-free. The same goes for many foods that are commonly packaged in plastics, from crackers to yogurt and way beyond. Check out our Food Less Plastic board at Pinterest for some recipes to get you started.
- Never Buy Plastic Bags Again: We haven’t bought plastic bags in years. There’s no need. With the use of a bag dryer from Gaiam, we wash and then dry all the bags we use. Why treat a plastic bag as a single use disposable if that plastic is here to stay on this planet, forever. You’ll save money, too.
- Double Your Ziplocs as “Freezer Bags.” If you freeze many of your fruits and veggies in the summer, one trick, rather than buying freezer bags, is to simply double bag your produce into your very own ziploc bags. We reuse ziploc-style bags from our favorite tortilla maker and use them as doubled-up freezer bags.
- Cut way down on paper towels.Keep a basket of small natural fiber washcloths or towel pieces on your kitchen counter or wherever you can reach it easily. If you have young children, keep a stack of where they can be reached and used without adult assistance – Kids love to be in charge of mopping up their own spills when it’s easy and guilt-free. Cut up an old towel or check your local thrift store for a collection of washcloths or towels in colors that you enjoy. Run the dirty cloths through a regular wash cycle, dry them, and they’ll be good to go for the next mess. When they’re finally worn out, toss them into your compost pile or use them as weed barrier fabric in your garden. When you do use a paper towel, compost it instead of sending it to your local landfill or incinerator.
- Plastic-Free Sink. We love our all-natural sink accoutrements: A natural sponge, a hand-knit organic cotton scrubby, a bamboo brush, a copper scrubber for tough stuff, liquid castile soap in a glass bottle, and baking soda in a stainless steel shaker. Wads of used tin foil can always substitute the copper scrubber for a great abrasive against baked-on food. And the baking soda is our most reliable hard-working abrasive scrubber for pots and pans. It starts its magic on your cookware as soon as its sprinkled on.
The Laundry Room
- Live a Life Less Laundry: Join the growing ranks of people washing their clothing only when it truly needs it. Get the details and a dose of inspiration from Liesl’s ode to a life with less laundry at Pioneering the Simple Life, complete with a short film shot in Nepal.
- Make your own zero waste laundry detergent with this recipe from Rock Farmer.
- Turn your laundry lint into fire starters with this easy trash hack from Trash Backwards.
- Reconsider dryer sheets and fabric softeners. You really do not need the single-use variety; in fact, you might not need any sort of dryer sheet or softener. Read this short post from Mindful Momma for information about the toxicity of dryer sheets and a list of easy zero waste alternatives.
- Make your own zero waste toothpaste with this simple recipe. When strawberries are in season, treat your teeth, brush with a fresh berry smashed into a paste. Leave the tasty paste on your teeth for 5 minutes, then brush off well with a dusting of zero waste toothpaste. The malic acid in the strawberry will whiten your teeth, while the seeds act as a mild abrasive. The baking soda follow up removes the berry’s sugar from your teeth.
- Consider a new type of toothbrush: We did our research and came up with toothbrushes that can be composted or recycled, as well as a number of great reuses to keep your existing plastic toothbrushes out of the landfill. Read all about it and get inspired.
- Sort your bathroom wastebasket waste: Most people just throw their bathroom waste into the garbage can, but if you take the time to sort it, you’ll likely find that much of it is recyclable or even compostable. Wooden plaque remover picks, hair, tissues, worn out cotton washcloths and clothing, and nail clippings can all be composted.
- Reuse and recycle every bit of bathroom waste possible: Toilet paper rolls can be used in an amazing number of ways – Seed starting planters, heart stamps, and many more. Shampoo, conditioner, and lotion bottles can be refilled at some stores and co-ops who offer bulk personal care items. If you can’t refill them, reuse them as purses, a charging case for your cell phone, bathtub boats, and more (we’re not so sure about the dog toy idea here but the others in this list look great).
- Dispose of your prescription drugs responsibly:The US has a ways to go towards a national network of safe disposal of prescription medicines. Until there’s a standard system, you’ll need to do a bit of research specific to your own neighborhood or city. You can search the Dispose My Meds site for local pharmacies participating in their program, the National Take-back Initiative of the US Dept of Justice and DEA for sites that participate in their annual collection drives, and the SMARxT Disposal site for a variety of resources. If none of those have information that applies to you, call your local pharmacy, police department, and doctor for hyper-local advice. Just don’t flush your meds or toss them into the trash, please.
- Feminine Hygiene: Consider a biodegradable alternative to tampons with plastic applicators. We’ve got a list of zero waste options for you here at Trash Backwards, ranging from organic, biodegradable tampons to DIY reusable cloth pads to reusable cups.
- Zero Waste Shaving: Consider the time honored metal safety razor or straight razor. Yes, they’re both still around, and they still works. For a woman’s perspective on plastic-free shaving with a metal safety razor, see Beth Terry’s posts at My Plastic-Free Life; for a man’s perspective, see this article from The Art of Manliness. You can track down what you’ll need locally: Check your local grocery store for a rich bar of soap without plastic packaging, check estate sales and thrift shops for a vintage razor, and get yourself some new blades in paper packaging from your local hardware store. You can also find all of these items online in a variety of places such as Classic Shaving (specify that you’d like your order packaged plastic-free to keep this transaction as close to zero waste as possible).
- Replace synthetic floss with wooden plaque removers: Rock Farmer has all the details in this post.
- Make your own baking soda deodorant or refill your empty plastic deodorant case with a recipe like this.
- Make your own lip balm using a recipe such as one of these from Mountain Rose Herbs, and store it in reused tins, tubes, or jars.
- Go easy on the sunscreen – Wear a hat and protective layers in the sun; if you’re up for a challenge and are comfortable with the concept, make your own sunscreen with a recipe such as this one.
- Use bar shampoo instead of the plastic-bottled varieties. You’ll skip the plastic packaging and still get amazing lather and lovely clean hair.
- Skip liquid soap and its plastic packaging – Fill your own reused jars with soap flakes for clean hands, or go with a classic bar of soap.
Kid Bedroom and Playroom
- If you already have plastic organizers for your kids’ toys and other belongings, keep using them! The longer they spend out of our landfills, incinerators, and oceans, the better. If you’re in the market for new bins or containers, consider baskets from natural materials (check Freecycle, thrift stores, and garage sales), decorated cardboard boxes, etc.
- Liberate your children from uncomfortable clothing and too many choices.Stick with things they’ll really wear then pass along other pieces to friends, neighbors, a local clothing bank, or charity. Stash a special occasion outfit or two away where it can’t be worn for play. Cover stains and rips with patches, let your kids look like kids did back in the days when we all walked uphill both ways to school, carrying our best friend’s tuba.
- Teach your children to curate their belongings, keeping those things that are meaningful, useful, well-made, and beautiful. Remember that creative play does not require mountains of toys, just a head full of ideas and time to bring them to life. Give your children permission to pass along gifts that aren’t their favorites, and give them space to play with what does interest them, combined however they see fit.
- Pare your clothing down to what you truly like and wear. To get clear on what you really need, turn all of the hangers in your closet backwards. When you wear something, put that hanger back in facing the usual direction. At the end of each season, give away or repurpose whatever you haven’t worn – If you didn’t wear that dress this summer, you’re not going to wear it next, either. Find it a new home!
- Wear your clothes out! Don’t be afraid to wear the same clothes, the pieces you really love, until they’re simply worn out. Check out the Uniform Project , a “1 dress for 365 days” experiment that morphed into something much more and Estonian designer Reet Aus has inspirational examples of sustainable fashion at Trash to Trend.
- Use sheets of natural fibers that can be repurposed into a variety of things and finally composted when they wear too thin for any other use.
- Interested in bringing a zero waste perspective to your sex life? Check out this article for details.
- Go paperless whenever possible: Save your printer and your pencil lead for paper that really counts – Important documents, love notes, artwork, that Great American Novel outline you’ve been thinking about – The rest of the time, go digital if you have a computer at your disposal.
- Put your paper to work: Print on both sides, reusing the backsides of paper for kid art and scrap paper. Use shredded paper to cushion delicate items for shipping, as chicken coop bedding, or to line the bottom of pet bird cages. We’ve even pull pages from our mail that are blank on one side and they go in the scrap drawer for future art projects. If you can’t use all the paper you acquire yourself, offer it to your local Freecycle group.
- Press your printer cartridges into extended service: A good number of ink cartridges tell your computer they’re out of ink before they really are; you can verify that you’re truly out of ink with help from this post.
- Find a reputable reuse solution for your empty printer cartridges. Check with the company that produced your printer cartridge; many have programs that allow you to mail empty cartridges back for reuse or recycling. Staples stores across the US accept empty cartridges, and there may be donation drives in your community run by local non-profit groups.
- Write with pencils and refillable pens: Give your words even more power by saying “No” to single-use plastic pens. We’ve got a round-up of zero waste options in this post at Trash Backwards.
- Love your whiteboard? Treat it to some crayon lettering: When your pens run out of ink, turn to crayons for zero waste whiteboard work – Turn a clean old sock into an eraser and you’ll be ready for your next meeting, zero waste style. Examples and more information in our post here.
- Extend the life of your pencils: Our ode to pencilscomes complete with two simple Trash Hacks that will keep your pencil stubs writing for as long as possible.
- Get into zero waste shipping: Set aside packaging from shipments you receive and send them back out the door with new goods. Shipping envelopes can be turned inside out and repacked if you can’t fit a new label on the outside. Shredded paper, air-popped popcorn, even plastic bags can be used to cushion items for shipping. Get creative with your packaging, and include a short note on the package to expose the materials you’ve reused and help spread the idea.
- Harvest tape from your groceries: Plastic produce stickers and tape can be saved and used again (and again) as tape for your papers and projects. See our Trash Hacker post for details and photographic proof.
- Curate the stuff in your garage – If you haven’t used it in the past year, ask yourself if you’re likely to need it this year or the next. Offer up what you don’t need any longer to your local Freecycle group, host a garage sale, or donate it to a local charity – Find new homes for the stuff you just don’t use any more.
- For those items that you don’t use regularly but that you don’t want to part with, consider joining or starting a tool lending library. You can share much more than just tools this way, you’ll save yourself and your neighbors money, and you’ll be helping to reduce the amount of new stuff produced and sent to landfills. You can test the lending waters the old-fashioned way, by offering something from your garage to your real-life neighbor; you don’t need an official network to share with the people on your street.
- When you need a new tool or garage-bound item, invest in a durable version made from metal, wood, glass, or other plastic-free materials. These are generally designed to last, and can be composted or recycled at the end of their useful lives.
- Whether you have a single container on a windowsill or a backyard farm, you can reduce your use of water – When you run the tub spout to heat things up for a bath or shower, catch that water in a bucket for your plants. Save leftover black tea and coffee for your fuchsias, roses, rhododendrons, and other acid-loving plants. All plants love cooled water from hard-boiled eggs (it offers a welcome hit of calcium).
- If you have a non-toxic roof, catch your rainwater for your garden. Many cities offer rebates on rain barrels, and many rain barrels are made from reused materials such as olive oil kegs. Look into your area’s greywater regulations, and harness as much of yours as allowed – Greywater Action is a helpful online resource for the basics about greywater and simple systems for its reuse.
- Plant seeds in soil blocks instead of buying starts in single-use plastic pots.
- For a wealth of reuse ideas and garden design inspiration, visit our Garden Thrift and Reuse board at Pinterest – You’ll never want or need to buy a plastic plant pot again once you discover all the ways you can reuse household items in your garden.
- When you’re in need of a new garden tool, invest in metal and wood items. They’ll last longer, saving you money in the end and creating less waste all along the way.
Zero Waste Grocery Shopping
- Adopt new shopping habits: Always bring your reusable bags, including plastic or cloth produce bags and jars for your liquid bulk items (maple syrup, agave, tamari, peanut butter, olive oil, etc.) Refuse items packaged in plastic. It’s as simple as that. If you search around, there’s usually an acceptable alternative. To keep your shopping bags and jars handy, keep one set in your vehicle at all times, or set the bag by your home door so you’ll take it with you when you’re running errands. It takes a few trips to train yourself to this new system, but soon it will become a habit. For more detailed information, see this hyper-local guide with tips that you can adapt and apply to your own shopping.
- Buy in bulk: This is the single change in our shopping habits that has made the greatest impact on our waste. We buy 25 lb bags of flour, rice, lentils, beans, and pasta, among other items. But these are our staples that we cannot grow ourselves. See our “Kitchen” section of this guide for more information on buying in bulk.
Zero Shopping Lifestyle
- Grow/farm your own: If you have the space, grow a garden of greens and whatever else you love. Get chickens and savor fresh eggs every day. We even raise bees for the day when we can actually harvest our own supply of honey for the year. The more you grow, the fewer trips you have to make to the store.
- Forage: We know it sounds crazy, but if you can learn what the great free foragable edibles are around you, you can reduce your waste by buying less. We’re proud to admit that a good percentage of our diet is from foraged food: blackberries, apples (although the town just cut down our favorite beach apple tree), water cress, nettles, bitter cress, oyster mushrooms, huckleberries, blueberries (from our home in New Hampshire), chanterelles, salmonberries. Cities have foraging options, too. Here’s an article about foraging in Washington, DC, a free PDF guide to urban foraging in Britain that also applies in general terms to North America, and First Ways is a blog guide to urban foraging written by a Portland, OR, USA resident.
- Make your own: If there’s something you eat regularly, try to make your own so you don’t have to purchase the packaging along with the staple item. We bake all our bread, make our yogurt, and toast our own nut mixes. It’s a way of life so it doesn’t feel like a chore and our home made staples are much better than what we find at the store. Really.
Liesl Clark: When I first became interested in the subject of how to reduce our family’s consumption of goods and, in particular, reduce our waste to the landfill, I found that lists created by other zero waste pioneers really helped. I admit, I scoured the Web at night when the kids were asleep and found lists upon lists of how others had outsmarted the system and found ways to reduce their waste. Mostly, they had returned to the basics, living a less consumer-oriented life, and had re-learned what their grandparents already knew. I’ve form-fitted those practices for our family’s lifestyle and this zero waste household guide, brought to you by 2 families attempting to live mindfully, will hopefully put you on the path toward less waste. .
Rebecca Rockefeller: A spring of picking up plastics pollution from the beaches on my home island was a galvanizing experience for me two years ago. Since then, I’ve been doing everything I can to reduce the amount of new plastic coming into my home and to reduce the amount of waste of all kinds that we send out to the landfill. This coincided for me with several big life events, having to find my way in our current economy on a shoestring budget as the freshly single parent of two young children. The solutions I’ve crafted for my family sit in the sweet spot of affordable, achievable on little sleep and in my scant spare time, and life-enhancing – Living with a focus on wasting less and avoiding new plastic has brought me the best sort of wealth: more quality time with my children, connections to a growing local gift economy, and creative reuse competence that I cherish.
Some parting words of wisdom from William Morris:
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”