The 4 most important beginner zero waste switches

Looking at zero wasters online, it’s hard to see exactly how they got where they are. There are canvas shopping bags, reusable cups, sporks, jars, and a whole assortment of accessories to make you zero waste. It’s a tad misleading; while many of these things can serve to reduce your waste, they’re not useful or necessary for all of us. Zero waste cannot be purchased. No amount of purchasing will result in being more zero waste because to get as close as possible to zero waste, you must consume less. A resource is anything that can be used or serve a purpose, and using more resources than you need misses the point. Buying new means using more resources, from materials to electricity most likely generated from non-renewable resources, and while buying secondhand doesn’t require further inputs for you to have a good or product, buying things you don’t use or needs means those unused resources will go wasted.

My number one zero waste tip will always be, “don’t buy anything.” As for what you can do instead of buying something new, I say switch out these four things:

Maintenance over acquisition

The five Rs of zero waste are to be employed in their order: refuse, reduce, repair, recycle, rot. Shopping is ingrained in our culture and habits. One survey of girls by Varsity Brands and Ketchum Global Research Network found that girls aged 13-18 identified shopping as their favorite pastime. About 95% of teens and adults say they take part in some kind of retail therapy. If you’re interested in living zero waste, those habits need to become a part of the past. This is where refuse comes in, because besides food, a huge portion of our purchases can be avoided. You cannot exchange unsustainable consumption of fast fashion, poorly made goods, and unnecessary products for sustainable consumption of ethically made, quality goods; above consuming better and consciously, zero waste means consuming (buying) less.

Rather than buying and acquiring, put your energy towards maintaining what you have. Wash your clothes according to their labels. Have maintenance performed regularly on your car so it runs longer. In other words, take care of the resources you already have. As someone who has been reducing my waste as much as possible for over two years, the past week has seen me picking up jewelry from repair at a local jeweler, sewing a button back onto a coat, altering a dress so it could be worn instead of replaced, gluing a pearl back on an earring, re-seasoning cast iron pans, hanging dry & ironing delicate clothes, and repairing a ripped seam on my favorite shirt. Listing it out, I realize it seems like everything in my life is breaking, but let me assure you most weeks don’t see this many repairs. The point is, maintaining the things we already have is much greener because it requires fewer resources to repair something than buy it again, and it’s more economical. The cost of rebuying vintage jewelry, clothes, new cooking pans, and more is much higher than the cost of occasional maintenance as objects experience wear and need revitalizing.

By repairing instead of buying again, we keep items out of landfill, reduce demand for new goods, and partake in a circular economy. Just because something is thrown away or broken, doesn’t mean it stops being a valuable resource; it just means that the resource has been wasted.

Everything I used to carry to be prepared for zero waste

Everything I used to carry to be prepared for zero waste

Multipurpose over single-purpose

Zero waste and minimalism aren’t the same thing, but they coincide frequently, like in the case for having fewer, more efficient things. Multipurpose items are sensible choices because most of us have limited space, and filling our homes with single-purpose appliances or tools would take up too much precious real estate.

From a zero waste standpoint, multipurpose items get more use, meaning the resources that went into them are more fully used. For example, if you want to have a zero waste kit for your bag and decide to amass a whole variety of items, your bag will fill up quickly with a hankie, napkin, straw, bulk bags, a reusable shopping bag, perhaps a spork or travel cutlery, a reusable water bottle, and a travel mug in case you get coffee. Or, you could have a large square of fabric to use as a hankie, napkin or fold into a bento bag, a single produce bag, a single piece of cutlery, and a portable water bottle with a wide enough mouth that you could ask that your coffee be poured there. In other words, multipurpose items can save you space in your home and bags, and they often get more use than single-purpose items.

Zero waste looks different for everyone, so the multipurpose and single-purpose items you need won’t be exactly what I need. If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, a French press can make zero waste coffee and loose-leaf tea. Jars can be used for canning, dry food storage, to hold leftovers, to drink from, and transport food. Soap is soap, and there’s really no reason to have a whole variety of soaps when they clean the same way; one bar can clean your whole body. A large cooking pot can be used for small batch canning and for cooking. A mesh produce bag can double as a bulk food container out shopping. A zero waste surface cleaner with vinegar and soap, plus a disinfectant made with a product like bleach, can clean most of your home as well as any single-purpose cleaner marketed for individual parts of the home. In short, seek to use less, not more, as you proceed in making your life more zero waste.

Access over ownership


It’s tempting to want to have everything for yourself, at least kind of. In a culture than values self-reliance so highly, asking something of others can feel more like burdening them than encouraging stronger community ties. The idea of access over ownership is that we don’t all need to own everything that could ever serve us, but that if we share and have those resources available in the greater community, we don’t need to own them ourselves. This idea might not seem so new and shiny; after all, we’ve all had the less than thrilling experience of going to the laundromat. Access over ownership, especially beginning zero waste, is most easily understood through resources used less frequently than washing machines. For example, you might not move house every week, but when you do move house you can ask friends and family for blankets and boxes to help you do so. None of us shampoo our carpets every week, but when we need to, we can rent or borrow a carpet cleaner because it’s not a resource used so frequently that it makes sense for all of us to have our own.

In line with maintenance over acquisition, access over ownership means thinking less about having things and more about their function. As for what to own and what to opt to access, it’s a judgement call; obviously, things you use everyday and every month make sense to own. Something used less than once a year is not something you need to own, but something you can try and access through other means like borrowing or renting. Regular examples include borrowing or renting a dress for a wedding instead of buying, borrowing a tool for a project rather than buying it to use it once, and a friend lending you camping gear.

Many of us, including myself, are not nearly as comfortable asking to borrow or use things that belong to others, even our close friends and family, as we are with wasting the money to purchase it (not zero waste at all). It’s time we look to each other and not just department stores for resources. If you’re comfortable asking your aunt for her queso recipe, you may as well ask her to lend you her tiny crockpot for the party. Friends and family are happy to help and feel needed. People are often more generous than you expect.

Values over convenience

I hate to break the news, but you really don’t need that iced coffee. One of the surprisingly difficult and ultimately effective changes I made when going zero waste was to practice telling myself no. Refuse, if you will. We all love instant gratification, one-click buying, two-day shipping, and having the things we want exactly when we want them, but the rate at which we consume is not sustainable. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day was August 1st, meaning that by the first day of August, “humanity’s annual demand{ed} on nature exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in that year”. In other words, we used more than our fair share of the limited resources on our planet only eight months into the year.  

I choose my values over convenience. What’s more important than an iced coffee on the way home from work is reducing our unnecessary use of eternally-lasting and convenient disposable plastic, so if I don’t have a reusable cup, I don’t get a coffee. More important than wanting a new phone is the fact that companies like Samsung and Apple source cobalt for their batteries from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where UNICEF estimates over 40,000 children work in the mines. Our purchases do not happen in a bubble; their consequences and results ripple far away. In the US we are far removed from the production of various goods we consume every day. Our clothes are sewn in Bangladesh, our dishes are made in China, and our phones are, too; simply being made abroad does not mean a product used exploitative labor or mismanaged resources, but is there real reason to buy something new and made with unknown practices if there is another equally viable option available secondhand or borrowed?

Pursuing a zero waste lifestyle put my money where my mouth is; I buy carefully, considering how goods and products affect the environment their inputs were taken from, and the dignity of the people who made them. It may take extra time to find something secondhand or do the research to look into the ethics or sustainability of production, but purchasing zero waste also means purchasing for quality and longevity, so ideally all or most of your necessary purchases have already been looked into. Unfortunately, responsibly made goods are not accessible to everyone because of their price and availability, and although secondhand is a viable option, some things won’t be found secondhand and it’s not your fault that we’re operating in a system that makes it so difficult to buy responsibly.

As you continue reducing your waste, keep in mind all that goes into a product. Using something fully ensures that the resources that went into it aren’t wasted; when you have the choice, and many of us are privileged to choose more carefully than we do, choose something that aligns with your values, not just your whims.

You can’t buy yourself to zero waste. Switch out your plastic bristles for a bamboo toothbrush, but don’t forget that zero waste isn’t just the eco-green version of more, more, more. Zero waste is about consuming less more than it is about consuming well. As you pursue zero waste and a lighter impact on the earth, be sure to switch more than just the products you use: change your mindset.