In my opinion, there is a lot of info out there that makes zero waste sound far more complicated than it needs to be.
So I wrote the Zero waste beginners guide to demystify the subject matter and get you started without all the craziness.
However, there is a lot of information in this article for both new and advanced zero wasters.
So please feel free to click on any of the links to take you straight to a heading.
Alternatively, you can just read the article in full and expand your knowledge on the subject.
So with all that being said, let’s get on with it.
Zero Waste Beginners Guide
Defining Zero Waste
Many would say that the definition of zero waste is simply not to send anything to landfills.
However, this is only a starting point, and although admirable, it is still only scratching the surface of what can be achieved.
At present, we dig up the earth’s resources, make them into things, use them and then willfully discard them.
This cycle is then repeated until all the resources are depleted, and the earth is ruined. This is called a linear cycle.
Zero waste aims to change this by introducing the world to a closed-loop cycle.
In this cycle, goods are not discarded but are recovered, deconstructed, and put back into the system as fresh resources—a closed-loop cycle.
By choosing the closed-loop cycle, we can save much more than just the item or the product resources.
We also save time and energy expended to obtain and process the resources required.
Science is advanced by looking at new technologies, which help our planet grow instead of shrinking.
This is why zero waste is a more important and bigger concept than just not sending things to landfill sites.
So What Is The Definition Of Zero Waste?
The actual definition is still to be agreed upon, but my own explanation would be that zero waste is nothing more than a goal.
As a goal, it is open to everyone’s participation regardless of race, color, or creed.
This is how I define that goal:
“Zero waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, sustainable, and visionary which sets to guide individuals and businesses into practices that will create sustainable natural cycles.”
Cycles where all discarded materials will be redesigned or recycled for our benefit and the planet as a whole.
A different definition may be:
“Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.”
And finally, the Zero Waste International Alliance definition is:
Zero Waste: The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
So That’s The Big Picture But What Can You Do At Your Level?
Firstly, you can reduce your consumption, both in physical and non-physical items.
For instance, energy is a non-physical item; however, you can have a significant impact elsewhere in the world by reducing your energy consumption.
This is an example of advanced zero waste thinking, which we will talk about later.
Secondly, you can learn about the 5 Rs of zero waste and use this knowledge to drive all your zero waste decisions.
Honestly, it is as simple as that. The 5 Rs are the bedrock of zero waste and are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot.
More about these in a moment, but for now, just know that you can make a difference.
However, this does not happen overnight.
For most of us, it may take years to get down to the level that we want. So just be patient and don’t rush it.
Zero Waste And Defining The 5 Rs
Remember the 3 Rs of the past, recycle, reuse and reduce?
Well, today, it’s widely accepted as the 5 Rs, and they drive every decision that a zero waster makes.
So whether you are in India, Britain, or America, they all mean the same thing.
This is important because it means we can have a worldwide understanding of what it entails to reduce our wastage, both on an individual and a business level.
With this understanding, systems can be developed, and we can make real progress towards a closed-loop system.
Here we can use and reuse the same resources with very little or no new material being added.
Gone are the days when it was deemed acceptable to pay a foreign government to take all your waste and for them to dump it into the sea!
So What Are The 5 Rs And What Do They Mean:
Don’t take it just because it’s free.
Refuse it because it is adding waste to your life and a burden for you to deal with. If you take it, you are sustaining demand for the creation of more of this waste.
We are fighting against this demand, and the freebies come in all shapes and sizes.
Of course, some are easier to refuse than others, but I urge you to think of it all as nothing more than unnecessary waste.
Say no to free badges, pens, and plastic-filled booty bags at events.
Instead, refuse leaflets, brochures, and invites from salespeople and reclaim the word NO.
While you are at it, register to receive less junk mail and put a sign on your door telling callers not to leave anything.
Also, don’t give out your email address at stores and stop those junk/spam emails.
Spam emails are sitting on a server somewhere, and these servers take a huge amount of energy to keep them cool.
Do you know that Microsoft has sunk some of their servers into the ocean to cool them cheaply!
This may not seem like it’s important, but it has far-reaching effects right around the world.
This is because if you buy less, then you reduce demand.
This then instantly decreases demand in all aspects of the supply chain.
Less demand means Fewer resources mined, shipped, developed, shipped again manufactured, shipped again, etc., etc., etc.
This is the large-scale effect.
The same effect is true on a small scale and can be observed in your personal life.
Think of it this way; Personally, you reduce the amount of stuff you have to clean, care for, move, repair, repurpose, store and eventually dispose of.
By reducing your stuff, you save time, money and declutter your life—the small-scale effect.
Whist reducing is great and brings many benefits; I suggest not flooding the market with more unwanted stuff.
Instead, reduce gradually over time by not just replacing old for new (it’s a habit), and remember to say no to freebies.
If you want to reduce responsibly, then I would suggest you do the following as a start.
Firstly, declutter your home by donating your once-loved items to thrift stores, plus family and friends.
Also, place advertisements on Craigslist, eBay, and others and/or make a little extra money from a garage sale.
Secondly, reduce your shopping trips and always make a shopping list.
This will help you avoid impulse buys, and the less you bring home, the less waste you will incur.
A little tip to use is to ask yourself this question;
Will I use this item more than 30 times? If the answer is no, don’t buy it or at least give yourself some time to reconsider it.
Now is the time to get creative or check out Pinterest and the web for inspiring ideas.
Is that broken flower pot ready for the skip, or is it part of a new mosaic?
Are those jeans completely useless, or can they be fashioned into a stylish handbag? Don’t get wasteful; get creative.
Reuse doesn’t just mean finding a new purpose for an old item either.
Think of it this way; are there items in your house that are disposable?
If the answer is yes, could you swap them out for a reusable alternative?
Swapping in this way can look expensive; however, it will save you lots of money in the long term.
Look for swaps, such as using washable cloths instead of napkins or disposable tissues. There are many such swaps that can be made.
Swapping disposables for reusables can save huge amounts of plastic from being produced and ending up in landfills or oceans worldwide.
Plus, don’t forget all the resources used in their production and shipping.
Although we have been recycling for many years, do you really know what your local recycling center actually takes?
In addition, there have been many new materials added to the list of recyclables, so it would be prudent to check.
Anything that goes to the recycling center has to be sorted, clean, and free of non-recyclable products.
If this is done well, the center will operate efficiently, and you will have contributed greatly to the zero-waste goal.
If this is done badly, the cost can be equally as great, so please take this seriously.
For instance, most places won’t take plastic bags anymore, but you can drop those bags off at a bin in Target or Whole Foods.
That being said, think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced, or reused first?
Then, question your next purchases and make them plastic-free and of recyclable material.
Once you have done all the above, anything leftover should go onto the compost to rot.
Some areas have programs where they will collect organic waste, so it would be wise to check.
Just know that when organic waste goes into landfill sites, it does not decompose.
This is due to the lack of oxygen.
When it’s dumped in a landfill site, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition and generates methane.
This means that we don’t just lose the materials’ organic resources, but we also create a potentially dangerous gas in the process.
Therefore wherever possible, you should look to home composting your waste.
The upside is that it is not only great fun, but it’s healthy too!
This is because garden composting gets you outside, which has enormous benefits to your health.
Indoor composting is a great option for small flats and apartments without a garden or access to an organic waste pickup.
I would advise the Bokashi indoor composting system that relies on bacterial fermentation to work as it’s recommended to me.
The last thing I would say is that you are not limited to food scraps waste when composting.
You can compost unpolished nail clippings, paper, coffee grinds, and even hair!
In fact, composting purely food scraps will not produce healthy compost.
Also, you cannot compost dog or cat feces as these are toxic and need their own composting solutions.
For Full instructions on how to make the perfect compost, click here.
The 5 Rs Summary
Every zero waster should follow the 5 Rs to reduce both their physical and non-physical waste drastically.
Think of these 5Rs in every decision you make, and they will help you make better-informed zero waste choices.
In this way, you can make informed swaps, pay attention to what you’re throwing away, and figure out ways to reduce it further.
Explaining Some Of The Buzzwords And Their Meanings
There are many buzzwords out there, and not all of them are directly applicable to zero waste.
However, I will list some of them here so that you can hold your own in coffee shop conversations.
Personally, it’s a cup of tea and a biscuit for me!
According to the Zero Waste International Alliance.
“Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”
Sometimes zero waste is described in different terminology.
These other words include:
- Lower waste lifestyle
- Waste-free living
- Lower impact living
In a linear economy, resources are changed into goods, used, and then disposed of.
There is very little reclaiming done, and most of the resources are lost to burning or landfills.
When plastics end up in landfills, they can take anywhere from 10 to 1000 years to decompose. Plastic bottles, for instance, can take up to 450 years or more. Source
The recycling economy of today hopes to prevent the loss of some resources by recovering and reusing them.
However, many materials are not recycled as it is just too expensive to do so.
Moreover, there is a limit to how many times some materials can be recycled.
Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely.
Whereas some plastics can only be recycled once or twice and paper a maximum of seven times.
A circular economy is an alternative to today’s “take, make and dispose of” attitude.
It entails gradually decoupling the activity of the consumption of finite resources and begins designing waste out of the system.
The circular model is based on three principles:
- Design out waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
The circular model requires us to design products that can be “made to be made again” and power the system with renewable energy.
This is the ultimate goal of the zero waste movement.
Now instead of harvested resources being buried, burned, or lost out of the system, we are constantly recycling them.
Sustainable development is about practices, processes, manufacturing, etc., that meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs.
In simplest terms, sustainability is about our children, grandchildren, and the world we will leave them.
Sustainable designers use green materials, e.g., bamboo, hemp, etc., and consume these resources in a responsible manner.
In addition, consideration is given to the useful lifetime of products and designs them to be repairable or recyclable.
Care is also taken to make sure that the products are resource-efficient both during manufacture and at the point of recycling.
Meaning friendly to the environment.
However, this is a very loose term and open to abuse from all quarters, so be careful when you hear it.
Eco-friendly is a buzzword that you should not take at face value so be ready to do a little digging.
For instance, am I more eco-friendly if I pump 50% fewer toxins into the environment than my equivalent counterpart?
Am I eco-friendly if I say I am disposable but hide the fact that I don’t decompose?
Other manufacturers are even worse as they can use the word Eco in their descriptions quite legally.
However, Eco can stand for Economy, NOT for Ecology. An example would be Eco Washing Up Liquid!
With this in mind, always check labels and the understanding of people when you hear the term Eco-Friendly.
Similar to eco-friendly in that all is not what it seems.
Greenwashing is a term used when a company misleads consumers into thinking that they are more ecologically focused than they actually are.
One example would be when a company proudly presents its products as natural, green, and CFC-free.
In this instance, natural and green don’t actually mean anything, but they appeal to the eco-conscious customer.
Furthermore, CFCs (which thin the ozone layer) have been banned in the U.S. since 1995. This means that they can’t be in their products anyway!
In 1991, chemical company DuPont announced its double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals dancing to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
It turned out the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. that year.
Let’s start this off by saying that plastics are a part of our everyday lives.
Plastic is everywhere, from plug sockets to I-phones to car dashboards, and we can’t escape it.
With this knowledge, I want you to know that those who say they are trying to live plastic-free do not want you to take them literally.
Anyone who says they live plastic-free is trying to be as transparent as possible about what they do and don’t do.
They are trying to cut out all the unnecessary plastics that they are offered, not completely wipe it out!
The choices they make about buying non-plastic items stimulate the further production of these items.
Similarly, as they are not buying plastic, the production and, therefore, the demand for these plastics diminishes.
In this way, the market becomes flooded with sustainably designed, recyclable goods, and wastages are avoided.
This is why living plastic-free is not avoiding all plastics but rather reducing them and reaping the benefits.
Please don’t hate on plastic-free people who have plastic in their lives.
There are many, many more buzzwords, but these are the ones most commonly associated with zero-waste.
How To Start Your Zero Waste Lifestyle (14 Starter Tips)
1. Find Your Reason Why
Starting your zero waste journey does not mean immediately changing everything that you are doing today.
Instead, it should be a gradual change, and hopefully, you can bring your family and friends along.
At this point, the very first thing you should do is to write down your why.
Ask yourself; What is the reason that you are changing to a zero-waste lifestyle?
This personal reason defines you and will solidify your resolve when things get tough.
For example, it could be that you care for the environment or worry about your kids’ future.
Whatever the reason, you should write it down and reference this whenever times get tough.
It will give you the motivation and inspiration to get through the hard times and remind you of the good.
2. Involve Those Around You
Next, talk to people and explain your reasoning to them.
This will allow them to accept your new habits and lifestyle and will significantly decrease your future stress levels.
People will want to be supportive, and once you have told them, they will naturally become inquisitive and may even join you.
So this is the perfect time to tell them that you no longer want them to bring you things that will add to your waste.
You can ask them for donations or vouchers as presents in place of souvenirs, plastic-wrapped gifts, or oddities.
This does not need to be unpleasant, but having this talk now will save a lot of heartache in the future.
3. Don’t Start The Zero Waste Journey At Full Speed Ahead!
One thing that you should definitely not do is to throw away anything that is not zero waste compliant immediately.
Plastic jars, bottles, clothes, furniture, etc., just because you now see it as waste.
The most zero-waste-conscious thing to do is to decide what is the most environmentally friendly of dealing with it.
This is usually to use it until it is all used up or breaks beyond repair, then access your options.
So you have your reason, you have talked to your friends and family, and you haven’t made the first big mistake. So what’s next?
4. Make A Visual Trash Audit
Get to know your waste.
Take the first week to observe what you are buying, what it is in your use, and what you are throwing away.
Knowing this will help you to make lasting plans for the future.
These plans will involve what you can do now and what you can do in the future and therefore should be written down.
From this, the “now” plan might include running down goods in plastic and looking for their none plastic natural alternatives.
The future plan might be holding a garage sale, donating stuff to family and friends, or just not replacing items.
Waste does not just come from what we buy; it is also freely given to us.
This is why refuse comes first in the 5Rs of zero-waste.
Rethink whether you really need that pen, straw, toy, napkin, or goodie bag that you are being offered.
So often, we accept things just to be polite and then end up throwing them away without using them.
The same is true of junk mail. We don’t need to accept it, but we do.
Try putting up a sign stating NO JUNK MAIL and writing to companies to remove your name from their lists.
6. Look At Eliminating Single-Use Items First.
Single-use items are everywhere, and most can be swapped out for reusable items very easily.
For example, you can change paper towels for cloth ones and paper cupcake liners for silicone ones at home.
When you are out, swap the plastic water bottle for an insulated metal one.
You could also ditch the plastic sandwich bags for a large cloth wrapped in the Furoshiki method.
This is particularly good as a replacement for kiddies’ lunch boxes.
7. Don’t Waste For The Sake Of Waste
Be environmentally conscious of your own things, and don’t just add them to a landfill pile.
For example, old bottles and jars can be washed and filled with new products, and old clothes can be torn up for rags.
Furthermore, jeans can be refashioned into handbags, and egg boxes can make great soundproofing material.
You can also check out Pinterest for more ideas; however, the point is to try and reuse it before you dispose of it.
8. Dispose Of Items With Care
If you need to dispose of items, always consider the environment and make landfill your last choice.
Then, be creative and offer it up for free or hold a garage sale.
Take your goods to thrift stores or look for local causes which may be thankful for your donation.
It’s not uncommon for charities to come to your house and take your stuff from you.
They may need raw materials for other ventures and may be grateful for it.
However, be cautious of those who will take your waste away for a small fee.
These people may very well take your money and then dump your stuff in a field or waterway.
The damage to the environment could be enormous, but the size of your fine may then dwarf it!
9. Buy Secondhand First
When you feel that you absolutely have to buy new items, always seek out second-hand items first.
There are usually some great deals to be had on Gumtree, Craigslist, and eBay, not forgetting thrift stores, of course.
Thrift stores especially are great for finding and donating pre-loved items.
Not to mention the fact that you can find some very nice products at ridiculously low prices!
10. Never Buy On Impulse
Impulse buys are rarely the best buys as they are triggered by emotion and desire, not an actual need.
So, whenever you feel the need to buy on impulse, tell yourself to step back for a moment.
Go and get a cup of coffee or go for a walk and ask yourself, do I really need it?
Personally, I wait a couple of hours for small purchases and about two weeks for larger ones.
This gives my brain the time to look at the purchase from every angle so that I can make an informed decision.
I often find that I don’t make the purchase or, even better, I find a cheaper alternative.
Not only has this self-imposed time out saved me money, but it has also saved resources at every level.
11. Buy In Bulk
If you buy from a bulk store and take your own containers, you will immediately save up to 15% straight away.
This is because of the charge put upon the packaging.
If you buy from a store, then bigger generally means cheaper anyway, and you will be surprised at the savings.
Take along Glass jars for wet items such as meats and butter and cloth bags for produce and dry goods.
12. Learn How To Make Things Yourself
Natural products are very easy and cheap to make, and there are hundreds of recipes for them.
Our forebears never had the number of products that we have today, and they did just fine using natural products.
In comparison, many of today’s products are toxic to animals, plants, and waterways and carry such warnings hidden in the small print.
That’s why the print is soo small!
You can start your zero waste journey by making some very simple cleaning products and then slowly work your way up.
Trust me; it’s not hard. Also, by doing this, you can save a lot of money and reduce your waste by 50+%!
Try these to start; they are recommended, easy, and much healthier than their toxic alternatives. 23 Reader Suggested Natural Cleaning Recipies That Actually Work.
13. Get To Know Your Local Area
My advice to you is to get to know what is going on around you.
Ask yourself a few simple questions over a coffee, write them down and then look for the answers.
Those questions may include:
- What does your local area recycle?
- Are there any specific instructions on how I should separate my waste?
- Do they pick up organic waste?
- Is there a Thrift store or a Bulk store for me?
- Are there zero waste communities near me?
There will be many questions to answer, but you can achieve so much more by knowing your local community.
14. Get Involved With Your Local Community
Getting involved with what’s around you is a great way to introduce family, friends, and others into your lifestyle.
You can find support here when times get hard and happiness when things go well.
Moreover, by living the lifestyle out of the house and not just in it, you can positively influence others.
Family, friends, and neighbors will pick up on what you are doing and support you.
They may even join in!
Getting involved brings with it many far-reaching benefits, and I strongly encourage you to do so.
To get involved, you could:
- Support your local traders, farmers markets, and bulk stores
- Get involved in local government projects such as community gardening
- Plan a clothing swap or street garage sales
- Host a zero-waste day event
So that’s 14 ways that you can ease into the zero waste lifestyle without making any big blunders.
As you can see, it’s not as hard as it seems, but you do have to take that first step.
Zero Waste Beginners Tips (23 First Actions)
Here are 23 quick tips that you can action immediately. These tips will cut down your wastage, save you money and help you on your way.
- Always carry a filled insulated water bottle with you so you won’t buy a plastic one.
- Make shopping containers for your dry goods from old bedsheets. You can also carry your fresh bread home in a clean pillowcase and the cheese in a sealed glass jar.
- Keep some totes and bags for shopping next to your exit door and in the car boot.
- Shop for eggs at the farmers’ market. They are both better and cheaper, and they will give you egg cartons to reuse on your next visit.
- Turn your trash and food scraps into compost, and everyone’s a winner.
- Always make a shopping list and stick to it, no impulse buys.
- Reuse single-sided paper for shopping lists and notes, then compost.
- Invest in a menstrual cup.
- Put a brick in your cistern to cut down on water wastage.
- Create a “rags box” and put old clothing into it for later use.
- Learn basic sewing techniques for turning up hems and sewing on buttons etc.
- Dry your washing on the line whenever possible.
- Stream all your music and visual entertainment. A lot of it is free.
- Invest in a bamboo or equivalent mug and take it to be filled at coffee shops when out or at work.
- Return plastic containers to the nursery for reuse.
- Carry a spork and cloth napkin with you when you are out to avoid using disposables.
- Invest in a pressure cooker and save up to 70% cooking time.
- Buy baking soda, and here is why – 35 Uses For Bicarbonate Of Soda In The Kitchen Honestly, it will save you soo much money!
- Take a container to the restaurant with you for your leftovers. You have already bought the food, and it will make a great snack at home.
- Ditch the toxic fresh air sprays and create your own natural one using essential oils. Be careful around pets, though. Please read: Essential Oils and the Danger to Cats, Dogs, and Birds?
- Make full use of your library.
They don’t just loan books; they also have wifi, audiobooks, DVDs, and what’s on guides.
- Simplify your wardrobe and be mean about the fit.
If it doesn’t fit well, then don’t buy it and make sure that it can mix and match with your existing clothes.
This is important as the fashion industry is a huge contributor to environmental damage, so we must reduce demand.
- Break the habit of wearing clothes once and then washing them.
There is no need to wash what are essentially clean clothes.
It’s just washing powder manufacturers telling us to!
This zero waste beginners guide has hopefully answered some of your questions and given you the confidence to take it forward.
Remember, zero waste does not mean zero plastic or not being able to dispose of anything at all.
Zero waste is simply a reduction in the resources that we own, use, or dispose of.
Sometimes you will get it wrong or be forced to choose the lesser of two evils, but that is ok.
If you make an error or a questionable judgment call, it just means that you are human.
We all make these errors from time to time.
The important thing is to learn from your mistakes, never judge others for theirs and always be supportive.
Together we can change the world one brick at a time.
Thank you for reading “The Zero waste beginners’ guide plus 37 tips,” and if you benefited from it, please check out my other articles.
Here are a few other reads to help you on your way:
- The Beginners Guide To Sustainable Living
- 10 Daily Habits That Will Improve Your Life (Science Backed)
- 23 Reader Suggested Natural Cleaning Recipes That Actually Work
Leading image created and designed by Graphic Designer Matthew Aspland.