This has recently become a serious passion of mine, but I will be the first to admit that we are no where near a zero waste household. We still throw way too much out, our recycling bin is constantly overflowing, and our general consumption (although lower than it used to be) is still pretty high. But here are some of the major (but EASY) changes we’ve made in the last year that have helped us significantly reduce our waste and our carbon footprint.
Stop Buying Bottled Water
This is actually probably one of the easiest steps you can take. Get a gosh darn Brita pitcher for your fridge and use it! We use the UltraMax Dispenser that holds a gallon of water. When you think about the cost of bottled water, it’s really a no-brainer. Also the whole plastic-is-filling-up-our-ocean thing. At our home, we each use a single glass each day (sometimes for a couple days — it’s just water) to save on dishes. For when we are out and about, the Camelbak Groove water bottles with a filter in them are the bomb. I like these bottles better than the Brita ones because they are hard instead of squeezable and the suction part is different. We carried these around Europe for two weeks and didn’t have to buy bottled water (the tap water was safe, it just doesn’t always taste very good).
In the near future we will hopefully be investing in a Berkey Water Filter, as our Brita filter isn’t able to effectively filter the city water at our new house (holy chorine levels!). The Berkey is actually classified as a water purifier (not just a filter), and you’re able to filter water from non-potable sources (lakes, streams, etc) and purify it for drinking in an emergency situation. It is also made of stainless steel and not plastic, which is a major win in my book!
Reusable Shopping Bags
The other crazy easy step you can take to significantly reduce your waste is to get reusable shopping bags… AND USE THEM. This one gets me fired up because so many people have excuses for it. “I can’t ever remember to take my bags with me.” I’m calling BS on this one! You have to remember to take your wallet with you to the store or you can’t buy anything. This is no different. Make a rule with yourself that if you get to the store and have forgotten your bags, you either turn around to go home and get them, or you only buy what you can carry without a bag. I promise it’ll quickly become a habit if you do that.
My Favorite Bags
Now, there are definitely some better options out there than the $1 canvas totes you can get at any grocery store. (Those are great, but just not always the most convenient option.) My favorite bags are the Envirosax. They roll up into a neat little package that fits in any size purse. I own two of these bags and they are both ALWAYS in my purse. No excuses. Guys, they make solid color ones of these and they would take up no space at all in your pickup/car. Forget to carry them in the store? While the checker is ringing up your stuff, go to the car and grab them. Eventually you will not forget. No excuses.
I also looked into the Baggu reusable shopping bags – they fold up into a little square pouch. They also have these little “Baby Baggu” ones that are super adorable and great for smaller purchases. I personally thought the Envirosax would ride in my purse better than these, but I have to admit that Baggu has much better design options! Also available are the ChicoBags, which convert down into a compact little pouch to carry around. These would probably ride in a purse much like the Envirosax, plus they have a little carabiner so you could even hook one onto your keychain!
One More Word About Reusable Shopping Bags
Reusable shopping bags are NOT for the grocery store only! Use them when you are clothes shopping, at the home improvement store, everywhere. They are washable so don’t worry. I bought a whole bunch of plastic-free kitchenware at TJ Maxx last week and although I think the checker lady was confused at first, I was able to carry my goods home in my own bags. You never know who around you might be influenced by your actions!
Don’t Forget About Produce Bags
So you’ve got your fancy new shopping bags, but you go to the store to get half a dozen apples and reach for… a plastic produce bag. *GROAN* Don’t do it! If you are handy with a sewing machine (or even just a beginner), there are quite a few tutorials on how to make reusable produce bags (here and here). If you don’t know how to sew or don’t have the time, you can always just purchase some.
This was actually the very first thing (aside from the Brita) that we did to reduce our waste. It is so incredibly easy (and cheap!) to sew your own cloth napkins. It was actually my very first sewing project when I got my machine. And, you definitely feel super fancy when you use cloth napkins. I actually came up with my method of making napkins because I didn’t want to freaking hem the edges of a bazillion napkins (hemming is the worst – so much tedious ironing!), so my doubled fabric saves that. This tutorial is basically the exact way I do it, although mine are much smaller. I believe I start with about 9″x9″ squares of fabric. These are great for everyday use (they’re about the size of paper napkins you buy at the store), although I’m thinking about making some that are a bit larger (and nicer… and less stained) for when we have company.
And what is the best way to do this project on the cheap? Go to your local thrift store and find a bed sheet that you like. I happened to stumble upon a beautiful floral sheet while perusing my local Goodwill, and it ended up being perfect for my napkins. Just wash the fabric in a hot cycle before you start the project to make sure it’s clean. No big :)
Handkerchiefs Instead of Paper Tissues
When I started considering the things that made up the bulk of our trash, tissues were at the very top of the list. We were constantly taking out the bathroom trash, which was basically only tissues! I began looking into ways to make cloth tissues, but old fashioned hankies kept coming up in the discussions I was reading. Way easier than trying to make your own.
Now, before you freak out about this… it’s not gross/dirty/etc! The Mister will often carry one around all day and use it multiple times when he’s outside working, but for the most part, we use them once and throw them in a dirty hanky basket. Since they’re white, I just wash them in hot water with bleach (with the rest of our whites) and they’re good to go. I did noticed it was a bit challenging to find good quality hankies… we tried multiple brands from multiple stores without much luck. The majority of them were really scratchy. Then my mom found these Stafford Handkerchiefs at JCPenny and they rocked my world! I went back and bought two more packs (and am considering picking up a couple more just to have for the future). They are SO soft and amazing! FYI, you find hankies in the men’s department, usually with wallets/watches/ties/etc.
Actual Towels Instead of Paper Towels
I will admit, we are still working on this one. We haven’t gotten a good system for making it super convenient to grab a towel instead of a paper towel since we have such limited counter space. I really need a basket of sorts…
Anyway. I have heard that the best towels to replace paper towels are bar mop towels or huck towels. Both are on my list to try but we have such a massive assortment of random towels right now that I can’t justify purchasing more at this point. BUT, some of them are getting pretty ratty, so hopefully I can try some new ones out and give a bit more insight. But really, there’s no need to use a paper towel for *most* situations. Don’t worry so much about them getting dirty/stained/etc. Keep a separate set nice for dish drying / hand washing, and use the heck out of the other ones.
Really, the only time I truly see a need to use a disposable towel is in the situation of raw meat. I’m not sure if the bacteria would wash out or not, so it’s probably best to be safe. But even then, if you have old t-shirts that are ratty or don’t fit, cut them up and use them for that purpose. You’ll still throw them away, but at least they’ll get a second life for a bit.