Simple Ways I Went Zero-ish Waste This Year

Emily O’Brien
6 min readSep 29, 2019

It’s easier than you think, and it saves money.

As an American living abroad in Australia, I came to notice firsthand at how rapidly we’re destroying the planet. Sydney, Australia, is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world; however, I was absolutely horrified the first time I leaned over the harbor railing to look into the deep-blue seawater, only to find it littered with plastic bags, takeaway containers and empty bottles. I stumbled upon straws and plastic bottle tops strewn on beaches. In the heart of the city, I saw countless bins overflowing with trash. So. Much. Plastic. When recycling bins were available, which wasn’t often, they were usually overflowing. People seemed confused about what they could and couldn’t recycle, including myself. Were those black plastic coffee lids on store cups OK to recycle? What about the cups themselves? (Unfortunately, no.)

disposable coffee cup, Sydney coffee, zero waste ideas
Photo by Ryan Everton on Unsplash

So, I started researching the problem. I figured out what I could and couldn’t recycle in my neighborhood and I started cutting out plastic and unnecessary waste wherever I could. I wondered how could I save money, consume less, live more, help the planet and keep a solid convenience factor going to save my sanity all at the same time? I didn’t go zero waste, I went zero-ish waste.

The thought of going 100% zero waste was paralyzing to me. In fact, the way our food, products and clothing are currently created, that’s not even a possibility. So I didn’t shoot for perfect, I strove to be better. Better choices, better lives, better for our planet.

Here’s how I started.

In the Kitchen

Zero waste solution: Only buy fruits, vegetables and items in bulk. Cook only from scratch.

Zero-ish solution: Plan what to cook for the week. Try to limit what comes in a package. Incorporate more whole foods. Try shopping for some items in bulk.

The kitchen seems to have the most room for improvement ranging from simple tricks — like swapping paper coffee filters to reusable ones — to more time-consuming efforts — like instituting weekly meal plans and prep and buying in bulk. The key is to start small. I swapped out our paper coffee filters to a reusable filter, something that cost a mere $5 and should last indefinitely. I bought cute cloth napkins and vowed to stop using paper towels for everything. We still have a roll under the sink because sometimes what you need to clean up is just plain gross and a rag isn’t going to cut it. (I’m looking at you, parents and pet owners.) But now with the addition of a mason jar filled with rags, cut-up old t-shirts and holey socks, I reach for the rags 9 out of 10 times and immediately toss them in the washing machine so they can be laundered by whoever runs the next load.

My daughter loves straws, so I purchased a pack of 4 of stainless steel straws and we used up the cheap plastic ones we still had left. The straws get cold when you’re drinking a smoothie, which I found to be a fun perk. Also, it’s important to note, when you begin critiquing what you have in your home already, it’s easy to be hard on yourself for some of the choices you’ve made in the past. Try not to be too judgmental. If your heart and mind are in the right place now, you’ll charge ahead with more thoughtful, eco-friendly choices from here on out. Mistakes breed change. Change is a good thing.

You Got This written in chalk, ways to reduce waste, eco-friendly inspiration
Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Going zero-ish waste isn’t about buying all new things and throwing out your old stuff. It’s about thinking how your buying power affects the planet — and your lifestyle.

Some things will flop. Like I tried making my own dishwasher detergent. It worked really well when we ran the dishwasher every couple of days, but I found when things sat in there for a while then the soap didn’t work as well. So I gave up but not entirely. I started buying a more green detergent in environmentally-friendly packaging.

I also tried making my own reusable food wraps with fabric and beeswax. While they turned out to be functional, they weren’t that great, so I bought some from a store. I still have plastic wrap for when I need to cover a big platter of food, but I reach for the reusable kind 9 out 10 times. See the pattern? It’s not about being perfect. It’s about being better.

Since I make sushi regularly and always found myself swiping extra chopsticks from the grocery store, I sprung for reusables. Another super cheap buy that lasts indefinitely. And one less thing to think about adding to my grocery list.

Another big waste issue I noticed was with single-serve snacks that I sent my daughter off to school with every day — granola bars, apple sauce, seaweed packets. She has 2 to 3 snacks per day. So now instead of those three things, she brings a granola bar, clementine and a package of rice crackers in a reusable snack bag. We still buy snacks in single-use packaging, but if she’s only taking one-a-day to school they last longer, reducing the total amount we consume throughout the year. Yes, crackers still come in a box, but you get more servings out of that one box. I limit it to one single-serve packaged snack per day. It helps.

I had multipurpose cleaning spray under my sink along with window cleaner. When those got used up, I kept the bottles and refilled them with a DIY mix — soap, water and lemon oil for the cleaning spray and white vinegar and water for the glass spray. I was surprised how well both formulas worked for only pennies on the dollar!

The more you reuse, the less you buy and the less energy and resources go into making things you’d use only once or twice before tossing.

plastic trash bag and bottle of Sprite, waste created from shopping, ways to reduce waste
Photo by Griffin Wooldridge on Unsplash

Garbage Talk

Since my neighborhood offers curbside composting, I decided to give it a try. I learned it’s one of the most important things you can do to help the environment by returning valuable nutrients back to the soil. Think about it: We’re harvesting all these fruits and vegetables and a percentage of rotten produce would just naturally fall to the ground, decompose and then nourish the soil. Now that’s not happening. We eat the produce and then put peels and remains in the landfill where it breaks down, very, very slowly.

I keep my compost bin under the sink and empty it a couple times a week, which is fine for a dry climate. If you are in a humid spot, try keeping your compost bag in the freezer, which will halt decomposition until disposed of at room temp and eliminate the ick factor.

I used to reuse plastic bags from the grocery store as garbage bags to get a second use out of them, but then I learned, after a quick Google search, that I could take them to a local grocery store for recycling. Now I just do that every few months and I don’t line my garbage bins with anything. I also started using my reusable canvas bags instead of leaving them in my trunk. Tip: Put one in your purse or backpack, or keep them on the passenger side floor of your car. If they’re right there, you’re much more likely to grab them.

Because I buy in bulk a lot, I ordered reusable cloth bags online for $10. I won’t get any money back on usage, but the satisfaction is worth it. Between all these simple changes, I’m not carting home nearly as much plastic as I once was.



Emily O’Brien

A freelance writer and editor based in Raleigh, NC. Check out her latest book endeavor: