Zero waste under someone else’s roof

Zero waste looks different for everyone. We have access to different resources, different needs, and different skills that allow us to make/do things on our own or outsource our needs.

Living in a home where you are not in charge of making purchases or where you have little sway in household consumption can make zero waste seem impossible. For one thing, a household with many people has more needs and creates more waste than a single person home, period.

I’ve lived alone and under other people’s roofs as a zero waster. Reducing your waste living in a home with other people is different than doing so while living alone, especially when those people control the purchasing decisions in some of your necessary consumption like food, electricity, and water. Apart from my experiences living zero waste, I’ve also lived in various homes, from my parents, to au pair stays, to host families while studying abroad. I was actually living with my parents for part of my transition to zero waste and I recently moved in with a family for an au pair stay.

So, if you’re  teenager living at home or an adult in some other living situation, don’t despair—there are plenty of things you can do right where you are do have a lighter impact on this earth. This post doesn't go into food shopping because if you're not a head of household, you're probably not doing the shopping.

Food choices

Your diet contributes greatly to your impact on this earth, and it’s probably within your reach to make some changes here.  A vegan or vegetarian diet is a way to be kinder to the earth and the animals. Generally, consuming more plant foods has a lower footprint on the earth than consuming animals or animal products. It doesn’t have to mean buying special groceries all the time either; if you need a snack, pick an apple (even if it comes in a plastic bag) over a yogurt. If you’re at a restaurant, pick the vegan option or sub a veggie patty for beef on your burger.

If you’re a teenager living with your family, you may or may not face opposition to consuming fewer/no animal products. I’ve been vegetarian since high school and never faced serious opposition at home, but that’s not the case for everyone. Even small adjustments like those above can help reduce your impact on the planet, and also reduce your plastic consumption. For one thing, it’s much easier to get package free apples than package free meat.

Personal care choices


Use bar soap, a bamboo toothbrush, and zero waste deodorant. Wear less makeup. Skip unnecessary moisturizers and pick up a safety razor instead of a pack of disposables next time you go to Target. Trying to reduce your personal waste under someone else’s roof takes place mostly in areas that aren’t going to affect everyone in the household--if they want to be included that’s great! If they don’t, then the changes you make won’t be an issue.

Water use

I grew up on well water, which is free, but that’s not the case for most of us. Whoever is paying the water bill in your house isn’t going to be upset if you use less. When I lived with a host family in Spain, I took quick, short showers out of courtesy because conserving water was expected of me. In other words, shorten your showers, turn off the sink while brushing your teeth, and so on. Think this doesn’t apply to you? Check out this post about why we all need to be saving water. 

Electricity use

Like conserving water, saving electricity will save money for whoever is paying the bill and is a way you can reduce your own emissions. Saving electricity is one of those zero waste things that is about our greater footprint and not just our visible waste. Unplug chargers that aren’t in use, air dry your hair, and don’t leave the light on. Here are some other ways to reduce your electricity use, and here is why our electricity consumption is linked to zero waste.


You didn’t think I’d make it a whole blog post without mentioning refusing, did you? It’s simple and effective. Are you living in a home that consumes a lot of canned soda or bottled water? Just pass on those products. Does your family shop for new things when what you already have works? Try saying ‘no thank you’ or not tagging along. If there is an excess of consumption or unnecessary waste in the household you live in that you don’t have to partake in, don’t. If anyone asks about the change, tell them about the negative impact of the seemingly small things we do every day. If you think you’ll get a negative response, make an excuse--maybe you say no to the soda because caffeine keeps you up at night. Maybe you don’t want to go shopping for new school clothes because nothing will beat the clothes you already have and love.

 If you don’t live in a home that is friendly to this, it can be tricky. For better or for worse, it’s not all that uncommon for people to push us to accept things we don’t want. All I can suggest is to not let others make you feel guilty for choosing not to do something or take something that doesn’t align with your values. No is a complete sentence, and people who push after you decline are rude, not you for politely saying no.

Digital documents or publications

Not many of us get a ton of mail these days, but if you can convert the paper you receive in the mail to a digital option, try it. Whether it be bank statements, bills or magazines, the chances are that you can forgo the paper option regardless of where you live.

Using public transit

Have you ever tried carpooling? If you’re a teenager, it means you get to spend some more time with your friends (and their moms, probably) on the way to and from things. It’s a way to save gas (and therefore money) if you can use mass transit or carpool. If possible, walk to the store or grab a bus instead of taking your car or asking for a ride. I grew up in a rural area, so public transit wasn’t available to me, but carpooling was! Even if you do have your own car, try and share rides with nearby friends and family when you’re going to the same place.

Buying second hand

What enters the household might be overwhelmingly new, but you can still either a) refuse to partake in accumulating unnecessary material things or b) consume more things that already exist second-hand. Maybe everyone in your house shops at a department store, but you can find a new sweater for this year at the thrift store. Hopefully under the roof you live, you also have some financial independence, whether that’s from pocket money or a job. Use the power you do have over your own consumption to consume in a way you agree with.

If you’re a teenager living with parents/caretakers who are opposed to buying used things, you can try and explain while you value buying second hand and the environmental impacts of first hand things like clothes. That might not be successful if they’re dead set on their ways, but consignment might be somewhere to negotiate, since consigned items are usually of better known brands or have stricter quality standards.

Using (and taking care of) your own reusables


If you have the funds, invest in some reusables and use them. I wouldn’t go so far as to expect others to help you take care of them, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t take your own lunch in a reusable lunch bag if you’ll take care of the washing. Get a water bottle (literally 49 cents from a thrift store) and use it every day. If you go shopping, put your purchases in your own bag. Just because others use the disposable option doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to your reusables.

What’s it like where you live? Is this possible for you?