At the start of 2020, I made a conscious decision to work on reducing my impact on the planet by focusing on cutting back on my use of disposable items. My intention was great, but I was a little hazy on exactly how to implement it in a way that would make it stick. Because, let me be honest with you — I’m passionate about doing my part to help the planet, but … I’m human. I don’t really want to make my life harder, you know?
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to interview Kathryn Kellogg, founder of Going Zero Waste and author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste (a book that breaks eco-friendly, sustainable living down into an easy step by step process with lots of positivity and love) for an article in USA Today’s Green Living magazine, and, well, she had a lot of fantastic tips, but there was one piece of advice she offered that has quite literally changed my life: Wait.
“Wait 30 days to make a purchase when you run out of something, like plastic baggies or plastic wrap,” she suggests. Because the fact is, new products aren’t always the answer — but boy, are we ever hardwired to believe that’s the case. However, every time we buy something new, well, we’re adding to our consumption, which eventually adds to our waste, especially if we make a purchase without being really thoughtful, or replace one disposable item with another.
“So many times, we already have something that can serve the same purpose and won’t make life inconvenient at all,” says Kathryn. For example, when she ran out of baggies and plastic wrap, she simply relied more on her glass snapware — and realized almost immediately that she really didn’t need those other products (or anything else new to replace them).
Now, I did end up ordering one set of reusable silicone, freezer-safe baggies because I don’t have much in the way of glass food storage that can go in the freezer, so in some cases, something new may be necessary — but considering I’ve been meal prepping like a madwoman and storing loads of leftovers without using any single-use plastic, I feel good about that choice.
Paper towels are another area where I’ve really scaled back — and it’s so easy that I’m legitimately embarrassed that I didn’t do it sooner. I just have a bag of rags (cut up old towels and t-shirts, mainly) at the ready, and when it comes time to clean (which is all the time during a pandemic, as it turns out) or wipe up a spill, I grab one of those. I’m still working on getting in the habit of using cloth napkins, but it’s happening — and seriously, it doesn’t make my life one bit harder beyond changing that habit. Yes, they need to be washed, but am I not doing laundry anyway? (Yes, yes I am. Constantly, it seems. Thanks, coronavirus.)
Plus, there’s a major bonus to all of these swaps that’s really timely right now. Given the world we’re currently living in, where we’re avoiding going to the grocery store as much as possible and maybe trying to save money because things are uncertain, I’ve gotta say that these reusable options are doing more than helping the planet — these options are helping me during the COVID-19 crisis, too.
Where Can You Swap, Reduce, or Reuse?
Of course, there are plenty of examples where most of us are at least aware of a reusable option being available — shopping bags (normally, anyway, even if that’s not the case during a pandemic), water bottles, straws. But Kathryn has a few other go-to zero waste swaps that I hadn’t given much thought to:
- Bidet attachment (which sounded a lot more surprising before the world made a run on toilet paper this spring, I must say — now I know lots of people who have one and love it!)
- Waste-free menstrual products (she’s a big fan of thinx)
- Handkerchief (instead of tissues)
- Bars of soap, shampoo, and conditioner (to replace plastic bottles of products)
- Liquid or bar face wash (rather than make-up wipes, which have hidden plastics in them)
- Reusable dryer balls (because dryer sheets also have hidden plastics)
- Reusable tea infusers (hey, guess what else has hidden plastics! Many tea bags!)
I realize that making these changes can seem overwhelming, or maybe you’re even wondering whether there’s any point — after all, you’re just one person, right? But in the four months that my husband and I have focused on reducing our footprint, I’d say we’ve reduced our trash by a solid third, maybe more. And that’s all been done without making drastic or difficult changes; our lives are no less convenient. We’ll keep making tweaks as the switches we’ve made become ingrained habits, which I’m certain will reduce it even further.
I don’t know that we’ll ever be true zero-waste people who can fit a year’s worth of trash into a mason jar, but as Kathryn says, it’s not about perfection, but about making better choices. And that, I can do.
Anybody else out there on a waste-reduction journey? And do you have suggestions for what to use in place of plastic baggies when I clean my cat’s litter and clean up after my dog? I’m reducing as much as I can with that, but … I’m not sure how to cut the plastics out entirely there. —Kristen