Setting up house zero waste: Dos and Don’ts

Moving out or setting up a new residence is often an exciting time; I’m lucky enough to have always moved by choice, rather than extenuating circumstances, and have recently been setting up house in a Galway, Ireland, far from my native New York State. It’s the second time I’ve set up house since I started living zero waste; the first was back home, but this is the first time I’ve done so in an unfamiliar city and country, and without the luxuries of time and car.

I’ve had one smooth, zero waste move, and another that was less-than-stellar and wasteful. Here’s what I’ve learned:


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Do

Plan

If you can prepare ahead of time, it’s better. Determine what you need as far in advance as possible. It will depend; for example, the USA, you’ll need a longer list than in Ireland, because most residences in the there don’t come furnished. If you know what you need and when you need it by, it’s more likely you’ll manage to source it consciously and won’t but as many unnecessary things.

Ask around

If you’ll be moving somewhere near your family or friends, there’s a good chance they have some things they don’t need and would be happy to give you. Many of us have cluttered houses with an extra this or that we don’t need, and older family members have often had things to give me.

Search secondhand

Buying secondhand is the most zero waste option because it doesn’t require the use of new resources. You can get almost anything you need secondhand, including most home goods. There is only a handful of items I never found secondhand or used in good condition in the USA, such as dish towels, glass measuring cups, shower curtain liners, a clothes horse, bed pillows, frying pans, and a mop and bucket set. I eventually admitted that those items weren’t available secondhand in my area, but it’s worth checking.

Have faith in a hot wash and dry for linens, and clean everything else well.

Make time

Remember that planning I mentioned? Do it in advance. The longer you have to get the things you need, the more likely you can source them in an ethical way. Depending on how much you need, it might take a few weeks to see it pop up on an online market or more than one trip to the store to find.

Keep it minimal

Setting up house usually means acquiring things; while zero waste promotes using your resources as thoroughly as possible, it’s tied to the idea that things effectively go wasted if unused. You have to buy some things to set up your home, and that means consuming, which is not-so-zero-waste.

Get the items you’re certain you’ll use and let extras wait; it’s easy to be carried away by suggestions of what other people think you need. You can always get something later if it’s necessary.

Don’t

Rush

If you can start preparing to set up house before you move in, you will be much better off. In Ireland, I’ve had to buy some necessities quickly, meaning if they weren’t at secondhand stores the day I was available to go, I had to buy new; this has left me with some unnecessarily new things that I would have otherwise bought used.

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Decorate

Decorating too often leads us down aisles of department stores looking at knick-knacks and other wastes of resources; there’s nothing wrong with beautifying your space, but using a lot of unnecessary resources to decorate with new products doesn’t add up in terms of conscious living. Decorate after you’ve set up your basics, and search secondhand and DIY options.

Stop searching

If you’ve followed the other dos, then you will have plenty of time to find what you need. There’s no reason to give up if what you want to buy isn’t available secondhand the first time you look. It will without a doubt be available new in the future if you don’t find it used, but it’s likely you’ll have to look more than once and at multiple places to ethically find household goods if you’re picky.

Replace unnecessarily

If you’re setting up home for a second or third time and simply restablishing somewhere new, be wary of replacing things for no reason. Of course, things that don’t work for you should be replaced, but replacing perfectly good things has problems. To begin with, if you replace something functional that already exists with a new product, you’re supporting the use of new resources rather than preexisting resources, which means there are more ways which what you’re purchasing can be an ethical compromise. Who made it? Where? How did it travel? How were the component parts created? Was there any exploitation of people? Of resources? And as far as the item you’re giving away, when you get rid of your old resource, there’s no sure way to know it’s staying in use and in the circular economy. Secondhand stores sometimes throw away goods, so donation isn’t a perfect way to ensure things stay in use and unwasted.

In short, replacing unnecessarily can come with a slew of questions. Use and benefit from the things you have. Contentment isn’t found in unnecessary acquisition, but with appreciation of what you have.

Let others fill your home

If you’re setting up house, it’s quite possible your loved ones are excited for you; encourage them to be excited in a way that helps you and doesn’t negatively impact the world. They can bring dinners, help paint, help move, or even buy you necessities in a way that you agree with. Regardless, it’s a good time to establish boundaries, like not wanting new, unethically made goods filling your home. This can help prevent explaining the same things again when you don’t want novelty socks made by exploited people at Christmastime.

Buy for someone else

Like always, you can’t purchase your way to being a new person. It may be tempting to say this will be the home where you learn to cook, but if you can’t boil water, don’t purchase the trappings of a chef’s kitchen. Buy for the lifestyle you have and will continue rather than only filling your home with things for the person you want to be. If you care to establish new habits, do so first and then purchase anything you really need once you’re settled.

Get caught up

Pretty much any milestone these days is celebrated with consumption of material goods. Marriage, wedding registry. Graduation, gift. New job, treat yourself to new clothes. Giving and celebrating are beautiful, but there’s no need to celebrate purely through buying. As exciting as it is to set up a new home, don’t get caught up in filling the space with things. What matters is the time spent and the memories made in a place, and you can’t buy your way to a home full of laughter.


I hope you enjoy this period of moving and establishing, and don’t feel to weighed down by stress. You will have to buy some things new and it may not be within your power to get them ethically, be it for reasons of cost, availability or time. Respect and care for the items you own, and the best way to honor the resources we buy and the efforts of those who make them is to use them fully and keep them in use. Happy zero wasting!