When we moved back to the U.S. after living abroad in Australia, I made a vow to myself to consciously reduce my use of single-use plastic and reduce waste wherever I could. Here are ten of the things I tried and stuck with.
Moves are a great time to start something new. When we transitioned back into our old home after living overseas, I wanted to go as zero waste as possible. However, it’s kind of daunting! I mean, where do you start?! So I decided the best way would be to start small and adjust as life happened. (Because life always happens.) These are my trials, errors and success stories.
Rags instead of paper towels
I put a rag bin under my sink to reduce my paper towel use. Paper towels are also not great for the environment (single-use and also wrapped in plastic). I love the idea of making cloth paper towels, but I haven’t found the time to do that yet, so I just put a bunch of cut-up clean rags shoved into an old mason jar NEXT TO the paper towels. Now it’s a choice every time I go to grab a paper towel. Do I still use paper towels? Yes, yes, I do. Some things are gross. Sometimes it’s just necessary in my opinion. Again, it’s about choice.
Stopped lining all our trash bins with old plastic grocery bags
I noticed other zero-wasters not lining their own garbage bins and a light bulb went off. Do we really need trash bags? While it’s great to reuse single-use plastic bags, it’s even better when a) you can refuse them altogether or b) recycle them at your local grocery store.
Bought a better toothbrush (when my old one got gross) + razor
There are bamboo toothbrushes on the market, but I found the texture a little off-putting. My second attempt was with a toothbrush I bought at my local market that was made of recycled yogurt containers. You can also recycle them by mail. This was a great example of one way to start purchasing with purpose. The same went for my razor. When my disposables ran out, I bought a metal safety razor. Now I’m just swapping out the blades instead of throwing the whole plastic razor away every few weeks. The blades can also be sharpened and reused. I’m just letting them pile up for now. (Note: I still travel with a disposable because I don’t think you can bring a razor blade in carry-on luggage.)
Bought more in bulk
At first I was like OH NO THE BINS ARE PLASTIC! Ah! The bags are plastic! Double ah! But we have to just start somewhere and not get caught up in the negatives. I eventually bought cloth bags after telling myself that I would make fabric ones and then three months went by and I was still using the plastic bags the store offered. (Spoiler alert: I’m human.) I store the goods in large mason jars I’ve found at thrift stores, which are much cheaper than buying new and just as good. Plus, it’s kind of nice too have a variety of shapes and sizes.
Who Gives a Crap
I swapped out my family’s regular toilet paper (basically whatever brand was on sale when I needed to purchase it) for a much better kind called Who Gives a Crap. It’s made of recycled paper and 50% of profits go to help build toilets for those in need. It’s wrapped in paper, not plastic. Our 10-year-old thinks it’s cool that it says “crap” on the packaging. They also deliver it to your door in bulk for free if the order is over $25. We all win.
Reusable Cup Vow
My travel mug was leaky and severely dented because someone who will remain unnamed kept dropping it. So I replaced it and made a personal vow to take it with me to our local coffee shop every time I go. Did you know those paper coffee cups and plastic lids aren’t recyclable? The cups have a plastic wax sprayed inside them to prevent leakage, so they also can’t be composted either. I have to be honest that I don’t carry this mug with me 24–7 like some of my friends do, but I have to say I use it about 80% of the time now and that’s better than never. I also donated about 5 plastic water bottles we had in our house and bought a better one from Swell. I do use that one daily.
Cut way back on individually-wrapped snacks
Being a mom and the only grocery shopper in the house, this was something that was 100% in my control. Instead of sending my child to school with something wrapped for both snacks at school and something for after school Every. Single. Day., we reduced it to just one wrapped snack a day. (Because going completely cold turkey felt like too much to wrangle.) This also brought in more room for nuts, fruits and veggies. We chat about packing when we’re at the grocery store together and she feels better about bringing “naked” snacks, as they say in Australia. I bought a cute reusable snack bag kit for her and we also use little metal tins. This makes it more fun. I’m big on making it fun. Beeswax wrappers are also a big hit for wrapping up muffins in her lunch (which greatly reduces our need for plastic wrap or aluminum foil). Score.
Started recycling toothpaste containers
I didn’t even know you could do this until I started researching. A local bulk food store offers this option in my area, but for now, I’m just letting them pile up until I head there next. Before this, I tried making my own toothpaste. I have to be honest, it didn’t exactly pan out. (Both the texture and the taste were total turnoffs.) Now I just recycle store-bought containers. I found that reducing waste isn’t about being perfect and that I have to be completely on board with a change in order to make it stick. It’s OK that it’s not 100% zero waste; the whole goal is to start moving in that direction.
Stopped buying household cleaners and hand soaps and started making my own
Windex is now vinegar and water in an old plastic spray bottle that I’ll eventually replace with a glass sprayer. Our bathroom hand soaps are now just castile soap and water, mixed with a little salt that’s been dissolved in warm water to thicken them up. Sometimes I put lemon oil in them to make them smell better. I noticed this past winter that my hands didn’t get nearly as dry and I think this is because castile soap is much more gentle on your skin. I bought the glass bottles that they’re stored in off Amazon. However, glass isn’t for everyone and my daughter’s ended up accidentally falling into her sink and smashing into a million pieces…so she’s back to a regular store-bought plastic bottle because you know, life happens.
If only I’d realized how simple and effective this was years ago. I definitely would have started sooner. First, you need some type of bin (with a lid!) and then you need to know what to put in it (anything that will rot). And then you’re basically set. I used a white IKEA bathroom trash bin first with a lid and then moved up to a true compost bin because someone gave it to me. I rinse it out once a week with water and give it a good soapy wash every other week. If yours gets too smelly, you can keep it in the freezer (smell-free!) or empty it every 2–3 days (that’s my remedy).