Slacker’s Syllabus: Zero waste living

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Why go zero waste?

Let's face it: We create a lot of waste — and we can’t rely solely on recycling to offset it.

Zero waste living is an attempt to reduce our harm and overall impact as individuals. We can minimize our consumption, reuse things we already have, and recycle — or upcycle — as much as possible to keep materials out of landfills and in circulation.

But the idea of going zero waste can feel overwhelming — so here’s a quick and dirty guide to getting on the right path.

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There are five primary principles of zero waste living, according to Zero Waste Home author Bea Johnson:

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1. Refuse: Don’t need it? Don’t take it. This can be as simple as turning down a straw at a restaurant or a free tote bag that will likely go unused.

2. Reduce: Whether you’re dealing with food, packaging, or clothes, carefully consider how much you need and — more importantly — what you don’t need.

3. Reuse: Maximize the life of everything you own. Repair things instead of tossing them. Ditch single-use items for reusable ones.

4. Recycle: Keep things that can be reused in circulation.

5. Rot: When it’s finally time to dispose of something, compost it if possible.

Refuse single-use

Start your zero-waste journey by refusing single-use items, many of which you likely encounter daily without giving them a second thought:

Plastic or paper bags: Bring reusable totes to the store. Chances are, you already have one at home. They don’t have to be fancy; they just have to hold things.

Water bottles and coffee cups: Take refillable bottles and mugs with you on the go.

Coffee pods: Stick with traditional coffee brewing — and reusable coffee filters — to eliminate excess waste. Bonus: Coffee grounds are great for composting.

Takeout containers: Bring your own leftover containers to restaurants. When you order in, wash and reuse the sturdy plastic containers your food comes in.

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286 pounds

The amount of plastic waste each person in the U.S. generates annually, on average

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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What about the plastics you already have?

Just because something was designed to be thrown away after one use doesn’t mean it has to be. Get as much out of the plastics you have lying around: Use bags for shopping or cleaning, wash and save cutlery, and repurpose takeout containers for storage.

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That goes for non-plastics, too. Part of zero waste living is cutting back on buying new items that come with packaging waste, even if it’s with the intention of reusing them.

Take stock of what’s in your home before going on an “eco-friendly” shopping spree.

A fork from your kitchen may do just fine for on-the-go lunches, and an empty pasta sauce jar can store leftovers or pantry items just as well as that pretty container you saw on Instagram.

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Cut food waste

Food takes up more space in U.S. landfills than any other waste. Here are a few quick tips to help you cut back on trashing food:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Embrace “ugly” produce: Just because a fruit or vegetable doesn’t look perfect doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown out. Salvage as much of it as you can.

Scrutinize food labels: “Best by” doesn’t mean that you have to throw it out on that date. Get more out of your food by understanding what the labels mean.

Buy in bulk: Find a store that sells food and other items in bulk, and bring your own containers to fill. This not only cuts down on packaging, but it also helps you better understand portions so you’re less likely to buy more than you need.

Freeze or repurpose leftovers: Get creative with your food combinations or extend the life of your leftovers if you don’t want to eat the same thing all week. Have veggies that might go bad? Freeze them, then puree and turn them into a soup later.

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1.3 billion tons

The amount of food lost or wasted every year, amounting to about one-third of the global food supply. In the U.S., the USDA estimates 30-40% of the country's food supply is wasted.

Food and Agriculture Organization

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“We need to do our part to help mitigate our impact. ... If everyone shared this mentality, we'd be in a much better spot as inhabitants living off the Earth.”

Rethink your closet

Fast fashion has made clothes inexpensive, readily available, and extremely wasteful. Garments made cheaply (and with great harm to the planet) have shorter lifespans and are more likely to be thrown out than resold. Here’s how to get more out of your clothes:

Shop secondhand: Thrifted and vintage clothes stay in circulation longer, don’t require new material, typically come with less packaging.

Learn to repair: You can extend the life of your clothes by learning a few easy sewing skills. Patch up holes, reapply buttons, and, if necessary, outsource mending to a pro. Some brands, like Patagonia, even offer free repairs.

Avoid synthetic fabrics: Virgin materials like polyester, acrylic, lycra are made from plastic and contribute serious waste when they’re manufactured, washed, and trashed. Stick with natural fabrics — or recycled synthetics — when possible.

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$500 billion

The amount of global value lost every year due to underutilizing clothing

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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Zero waste is not zero-sum

Getting to a point where you’re literally creating zero waste is very difficult — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Minimizing your waste is a win for you and the planet. Don’t worry so much about “zero”; just get as close as you can. Small improvements help everyone.

It’s also important to remember that the zero waste movement is one born out of privilege. Not everyone has the means and resources to maintain this lifestyle.

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"Incremental change is great and is what is feasible for people. If you set yourself too high of a goal and you don't meet it, the danger is that you think that your efforts don't count. But the efforts absolutely do count."