7 things not to buy when reducing your waste

When I am approached and asked how to start zero waste, the first thing I tell people is to refuse; I encourage them to carry reusable bags with them, or carry their goods when they forget. I say, “Skip the straw!” I tell them that keeping a reusable cup in their car will make it easier to avoid disposable cups.

About 30 seconds after the conversation ends, I imagine whoever I'm talking to buying a bunch of “must haves” like you see online.

My beginner tip is this: Don’t go out and buy anything.

That’s the tip I wish I gave out to others looking to reduce their waste. When we scroll through Instagram and Pinterest and see the beautiful homes of zero wasters or their minimalist countertops, we’re hit with that surge of consumerism: Must. Have.

The most sustainable option is the one you already own. That’s what I should tell people.

For example, here is my pasta storage:



Ugly, right? This realization that I didn’t need to buy canisters and containers in glass or ceramic for my pasta changed my spending habits when I started to look to what I had, and I realized there was no need to make a purchase.

 It isn’t as pretty to store things this way, but what happens to these containers if we don’t reuse them? They may be donated and end up on the shelves of a charity store, or they might end up in the garbage if they are passed over. They might be put in the recycling bin but not recycled. They might sit in the back of a closet at our parent’s home for years after we move out (me).

By choosing to re-purpose what you already have, you are ensuring it is not wasted. Donating and recycling are imperfect, but we can use something until it is at the end of its life. Buying something secondhand is always an option, too, but I encourage you to truly look to what you already have before making any purchases, secondhand or otherwise.

So, what are some things you already have that you can reuse instead of buying?


1. bulk bags

Many products come in their own bags. Many sets of sheets (including those sold at Target) come in fabric drawstring bags. I recently bought a bra that came to me in a fabric drawstring back. Use these things! A white cotton drawstring bag from years ago currently serves as a produce bag that I use regularly. Free. Reused. Perfectly functional.


2. Glass jars

This is an easy one. Finish that jar of pickles? Remove the labels. Put your lentils in it. Put your trash in the jar. I implore you not to buy any jars, including cute mason jars, if you regularly buy jarred products. Pickle jars, tomato sauce jars, pesto jars, jelly jars, peanut butter jars, and so on. The elusive, perfect, package free kitchen of your dreams may contain uniform jars, and honestly, mine probably does too. Recycling requires a lot of resources, even with products like glass that recycle well--if you have a use for the jar, keep it.

3. Storage containers

Tupperware, CoolWhip containers, and the like. I bet you have some (or a ton). I know many people are moving away from plastic and towards glass and metal, and I am on the same page but I recommend you keep your plastic containers because they are lightweight. Some stores will not tare (zero out) the scales for you. If you’re buying by weight and your glass jar weights more than the rice you’re buying, you’re paying for your jar as well. Plastic is great for purchasing dry goods and spices, especially at grocery stores. Save this stuff. It’s tempting to purge, I know, but you’ll hate re-buying cheap, not durable products after you toss them.

4.  Reusable cups and bottles

It seems like everyone who has ever used #zerowaste has a KeepCup, but chances are you already have a reusable cup-maybe even one with a funny saying like “Don’t talk to me before coffee” from a well meaning aunt. Use it! Nail polish remover is great at removing unwanted designs from things, too. If you only have one cup or truly have none, go get one for 49 cents at the thrift store.  On that note, use whatever water bottle you have if you’re a water drinker. Maybe you still have a chewed up water bottle from pre-school (me). Maybe you’re a serial water bottle buyer (me). Just use what you have. It doesn’t need to be a Kleen Canteen to make your water drinking more green.

5.  Package free products you still have in disposable containers

Okay, so all that means is don’t go to Lush and buy three shampoo bars if you have a full bottle in your shower. Throwing those products out in exchange for package free products is wasteful (and totally not the point). Drink the rest of your Keurig pods and search for a reusable filter, or give them to a friend. Finish that bottle of makeup foundation- don’t just throw it in the garbage and buy a new product with less/better packaging. You get the idea.

6. Products specifically for traveling with food

You don’t need tiffins to cut down on waste-you probably already have lightweight containers to use. You don’t need to buy a set of bamboo cutlery-you can use silverware from the drawer or 10 cent forks from a thrift store.

7.  Hankies

Alright, this is a late in the game switch for most of us I think. Hankies are for tears and snot. They are not doing delicate work and do not need to be beautiful. You can probably get a hanky or two second hand (then boiled) or from a grandparent for when you’re out and about and don’t want to use something homemade, but if you’re anything like me you have everything you need. I’m using fabric that was wrapped around gifts I was given as hankies. Old pillow cases or clothes can also be cut into squares and used. If that grandma above has no hankies, maybe she quilts (my grandma) and has cute odds and ends of fabric you could have.The truth is, hankies may be a change you do or do not commit to; give them a try with what you already have before buying any new.

Zero waste should not be a financial burden. If you rush out and buy shampoo and lotion bars, bamboo tooth brushes, refillable makeup, reusable razors, plastic free floss, a Kleen Kanteen, a Keep Cup, stainless steel straws, new napkins and hankies, big canvas bags for shopping, and more, you’re going to spend a ton of money and feel like zero waste is expensive. Use up your shampoo and lotion, your regular floss, and so on. You might have family or friends who will take some things leftover once you find replacements--a sister who wants razors or unopened plastic toothbrushes.

Buy more sustainable and package free products AFTER you have finished what you already have. See what you really need first- you might not need a reusable to-go cup if you don’t drink coffee or tea regularly. You’ll get there. Your shower will one day  be free of plastic bottle and overly gendered soaps and razors. It takes time.