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A Comprehensive Guide to Starting Your Low Waste Journey

So you’re ready to start taking some actions to reduce your waste. Yay! This is so great. We are so excited for you and grateful for your intentions and efforts and want to help in any way we can. 

Maybe you’re more interested in taking things one step at a time or maybe you are all in, ready to go hard ASAP. The good news is that there’s no one right way to start. There are, however, some basic principles to keep in mind and several categories that might help you to narrow your focus. 

Basic Principles

  • Use what you have. One of the clearest ways for us to reduce waste is to get the most life possible out of everything that we already own, even if it’s plastic. Get every last drop out of that toothpaste. Take good care of and repair appliances and furniture before you replace them with something new. Store your food properly and eat it before it goes bad. 

  • Acquire new things minimally. Many of us are used to indulging ourselves in impulse purchases and accepting every free thing that comes our way, whether it be event swag or a pen you snagged from a hotel. Think twice before accepting new things. Consider whether it will actually bring you joy, be used in your household, and will be worth the cost at the end of its life. Many of us could learn to live with a lot less, which would save a lot of unnecessary items from ending up in landfills. 

  • Aim for total biodegradability. When acquiring anything new, consider the materials used and how you can dispose of it. Natural materials including wood, bamboo, paper, cotton, and hemp will all return naturally to the earth and can also be easily composted or burned in your own backyard. Plastic takes anywhere from 200-500 years to break down and never fully decomposes. Metals also take 200-500 years, and glass can take 1 million years (think about how long rocks last)! Every time you throw something into the trash, imagine how long it will sit in a landfill before it decomposes and opt for biodegradable materials as much as possible.

  • Prioritize natural, local, and sustainably sourced materials whenever possible. A material being natural means it has a much better chance of one day returning to the earth. However, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s a sustainable choice. Wood and paper products, for example, might come from monocrops planted by clear-cutting the rainforest, which often causes real harm to indigenous peoples and wildlife. Look for 3rd party certifications that verify ethically and environmentally responsible sourcing and manufacturing practices. Local sourcing is also a powerful way to minimize carbon emissions, support your local community, and, in many cases, ensure responsible practices.

  • Dispose responsibly. Learn how to properly dispose of every item that enters your home. Check your community’s waste management or recycling website to find out what can be recycled or composted and what should go to landfill. Many items aren’t accepted in curbside recycling but are recyclable. Always check before throwing something away to see if there are other nearby facilities or drop-off points for those items, including batteries, lightbulbs, textiles, styrofoam, plastic bags, etc. Check out our series on Demystifying Recycling, both a Behind the Scenes look at how recycling facilities work and a general guide to How and What to Recycle.

  • We encourage you to let these principles soak in, and then choose one of the following categories or steps to take first that feel approachable and maybe even a little exciting to you. If there’s a particular area where you don’t feel ready to compromise, by all means, do not start with that. For example, if you’re super into fashion, the idea of learning how to take better care of your clothes might feel like a fun opportunity to flex your low waste muscles, but maybe you’re dreading the idea of shopping less, thrifting more, or adopting a capsule wardrobe. Feel free to start with another category or take some steps and leave the others. Or maybe you live in an area where it’s really hard to find bulk foods or local produce. The goal is not perfection. The goal is action, even if it’s one, and even if it feels small. Do what you can, and we’ll be behind you with every step.

    Home

    • Step 1: Declutter and get rid of unnecessary and unwanted belongings your home either using the KonMari method or organizing room by room. (Note: We think this is an ideal way to start your low waste journey even if you want to focus on another category first.) We highly recommend borrowing or buying a used copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and/or watching her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo to learn how to simplify your life by narrowing down your belongings to just the items that spark joy for you. This step is important because it helps you to appreciate (and remember) what you already have and think twice before adding anything else to your home. It’s also a great way to start your low waste journey with a clean slate.
    • Step 2: Sell, consign, gift, or donate any unwanted items. The goal is to share them with people who want and will value those things. Have a good ol’ fashioned yard sale, swap party with friends, or sell items via Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Ebay, ThredUp, etc. Ask family and friends if they’d like any items or offer up on community exchange platforms like Rooster so you can ensure your things go to people who want them as much as possible. Everything that hasn’t been claimed can be donated or consigned.
    • Step 3: Check your local municipality’s waste management or recycling website to find out how to properly recycle and dispose of materials that make their way into your home.
    • Step 4: Learn ways to properly store produce and repurpose food scraps. Food waste is one of the single largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, so finding ways to avoid it can be powerful.
    • Step 5: Learn to DIY your own cleaning products to avoid plastic containers and reduce toxic chemicals in your home. Many recipes are made with super simple, wholesome ingredients that will last you a lot longer than traditional cleaners and are chemically proven to work. 
    • Step 6: Make an effort to minimize water usage by keeping your faucets off when you can, taking shorter showers, and waiting until your dishwasher is full to use it.
    • Step 7: Research ways you can conserve energy in your home, including switching to LED lightbulbs, unplugging electronics when not in use, and replacing appliances with energy-efficient alternatives (when they’re at the end of their lives). 
    • Step 8: Compost. Composting can be achieved through a variety of means whether you have a backyard or live in an apartment. If you aren’t able to compost at home, you might even be able to find somewhere nearby you can donate to like a community garden or a neighbor via ShareWaste
    • Step 9: Plant and maintain your own garden. Growing your own food is a great way to cut back on packaging, reduce carbon emissions from transporting food, produce more oxygen, and help nourish pollinators and other animals. You can even keep potted herbs if you have a smaller space.

    Grocery

    • Step 1: Start paying attention to packaging options for everything you buy. When given the option, choose plastic-free packaging or the option with the least packaging. For example, there are often nut butter options in both plastic jars and in glass. Choose the glass jars, which are also perfect for reusing and storing leftovers and bulk foods. Paper boxes might also be a plastic-free option for some goods like pasta or detergents. You can also make an effort to avoid individually packaged items. Tea is a great example of something you can find in a variety of packaging options, ranging from individually wrapped nylon tea bags in a box with shrink-wrapped plastic to reusable aluminum containers of loose leaf tea. 
    • Step 2: Try to buy less food, more frequently. If you can, try to purchase just enough food to last you and your family to the end of the week or less to avoid items going bad before you get to use them. This is another great way to avoid food waste.
    • Step 3: Shop the outside rim of the store first -- produce section, bulk section, and salad bar -- and avoid plastic bags and containers.
    • Step 4: Bring your own containers. You can use cloth or mesh bags for bulk and produce. Glass jars are great for bulk items as well as wet items from the salad bar. Start saving containers when you’re done with them to reuse. You can even bring small ones to refill with spices if your grocery store has a bulk spice section. Here are several other items you can (usually) find in the bulk section as a plastic-free alternative:
      • Rice, quinoa, oats, and other grains
      • Many varieties of beans and other legumes
      • Granola
      • Trail mix
      • Nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate chips
      • Flours, sugar, and salt
      • Snacks like chocolate covered nuts, yogurt covered raisins, pretzels, and candies
      • Some stores even carry loose leaf tea and let you grind coffee there to put into your own container!
    • Step 5: Consider cutting out unnecessary items found in plastic packaging like juice or soda bottles, granola bars, chips, crackers, and other packaged snacks. 
    • Step 6: Support grocers and farmers markets that provide more plastic-free and package-free options. If you don’t have access to a local grocer that has much fresh produce or bulk options, send them an email or write a letter to share what you’d like to see. Businesses do what their customers want and are willing to pay for, so don’t be afraid to create demand and wield that power for the benefit of you and your community.
    • Step 7: Prioritize local and seasonal produce when possible to reduce carbon emissions, support local farmers, and get more nutrients from your food!
    • Step 8: Try to eat a more plant-based diet. Reducing our consumption of animals and animal products is one of the most impactful differences we can make as individuals. Consider trying to eat meat only once a day, on weekends, or switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. When you do eat meat and animal products, focus on buying local, humanely raised, and organic.

    Eating and Drinking Out

    • Step 1: Start paying attention to what packaging your to-go food and drinks come in. Prioritize patronizing vendors that offer plastic-free containers and keep a list or mental note. Our favorites are recycled paper (without lining) or aluminum foil, which can be cleaned and reused or recycled. Refer to our Packaging Hierarchy or your own local recycling guide to find out which items can be recycled and which can’t. Note: “compostable” bioplastic containers are not recyclable and often require special conditions in industrial facilities to actual degrade, so it’s still best to avoid them when you can.
    • Step 2: Try to make food and drinks at home as much as possible to avoid to-go containers. We recognize this is easier said than done for a lot of us with busy schedules, kids, or who just don’t love cooking, but it’s one of the single easiest ways to control your waste, so it has to be said. You can start with making your own coffee or tea and work up to more. Plus, it’ll likely save you a fair bit of money.
    • Step 3: Carry a reusable water bottle and/or tumbler with you to avoid having to use disposable water bottles or other beverage containers. Bonus: this also saves you money from buying water and gets you discounts at many merchants.
    • Step 4: Ask for no straw, utensils, bag, and/or napkins while you’re ordering if you don’t need them. Then keep an eye out while they’re packaging your food to ensure the message gets passed along.
    • Step 5: Once you’re used to carrying a water bottle with you (and probably feel like you can’t live without it now), you’re ready to level up to the full To-Go Preparedness Kit, which includes reusable utensils, straw, cloth napkin, travel container, and tote bagKeep everything in a small sack in your purse or backpack, and narrow it down to what makes sense for you. If you never use a straw, don’t worry about carrying one. You can choose to bring some utensils from home, reuse plastic ones that have crept their way into your life, or purchase some cool bamboo ones from us! The travel container is great for leftovers or food waste you want to compost at home. We also have this sweet small container that’s perfect for loading up on hot sauce, dressings, or other sauces.
    • Step 6: You can also keep a snack with you to avoid succumbing to the lure of vending machine snacks when hunger hits. We love to keep a small jar of bulk trail mix with us!
    • Step 7: Order “for here” as much as possible, whether you’re actually staying there or not. Many merchants (including Starbucks) will give you your food and/or drinks with actual reusable, washable plates, utensils, and cups if you do so, but many won’t unless you explicitly ask. If you do need to take food to-go, then you can order “for here” and then place your food in your own reusable container to avoid disposable containers. 
    • Step 8: Prioritize supporting merchants who source their produce and meat locally and sustainably.

    Personal Care

    • Step 1: Start prioritizing products with little or no plastic. You might be surprised how easy it is to find everything from hairbrushes and combs to face creams and shampoo
    • Step 2: Replace plastic items (when you run out) like toothbrushes and hair ties with plastic-free alternatives.
    • Step 3: Replace disposables like razors, cotton balls, and menstrual pads with reusable alternatives. Wait until you run out of these items before you replace them, or save a few disposable options for when you travel.
    • Step 4: Swap some of your personal care items for natural single ingredients like coconut oil, tea tree oil, and apple cider vinegar, or DIY recipes. This helps minimize questionable personal care ingredients in your home and body and reduce the number of individual products you need, as well as minimize packaging waste.
    • Step 5: Minimize your routine if you have room for it. One of the ways you can reduce waste from personal care is by using fewer products in general. 

    Clothing & Laundry

    • Step 1: Take good care of the clothes you have to ensure their longevity. Follow the care instructions on the label. Treat stains quickly. Use a pill remover to keep sweaters as good as new.
    • Step 2: Only wash full loads of laundry.
    • Step 3: Wash your clothes on cold and on a delicate cycle to preserve the fabric for longer and minimize energy usage.
    • Step 4: Hang your clothes dry to save energy and make them last longer, particularly synthetics. Or dry them on low heat if necessary.
    • Step 5: Use reusable wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets to reduce waste and exposure to harmful chemicals.
    • Step 6: When you run out of detergent, replace it with a non-toxic, plastic-free option.
    • Step 7: Prioritize buying clothes made from natural materials like organic cotton, linen, hemp, wool, Tencel, modal, or silk. These fabrics are all biodegradable, made without fossil fuels, and don’t shed microplastics when you wash them unlike synthetic materials like polyester, acrylic, nylon, and others.
    • Step 8: Use a microplastic washing bag to collect microplastics from the synthetic materials you do have.
    • Step 9: Go to a laundromat that uses water and energy-efficient washing machines, or purchase one for yourself when it comes time to replace your current machine.
    • Step 10: Learn to sew or make simple repairs, or take clothes to a tailor when they’ve been damaged.
    • Step 11: When your clothes are still wearable but no longer bringing you joy, host a clothing swap party, sell them, or try consigning before you donate to ensure they end up in a home that appreciates them.
    • Step 12: If your clothes have reached the end of their wearable life, repurpose them as rags to use around the house, or make DIY facial rounds or wipes. You can also check to see if you have a textile recycling drop box near you or try donating them to recycle at a retailer like H&M, Madewell, For Days, or Eileen Fisher.
    • Step 13: When you want to incorporate new items into your wardrobe, refer to the Buyerarchy of Needs (above). Try to borrow, swap clothes with friends, or buy second hand before buying new. If you haven’t done much thrifting in a while, you might be surprised at how many great options are available either in your area or online that offer high quality, modern options in lovely (non-smelly) shopping environments. Here are some of our favorites in Portland and San Diego. ThredUp is another great online source for consignment and thrift. If you do end up deciding to buy something new, prioritize high quality, durable items made from sustainable materials that will stand the test of time and that you can easily incorporate into your wardrobe. We recommend looking into sustainable brands via sources like The Good Trade or shopping at local boutiques.
    • Step 14: Adopt a capsule wardrobe. Hone your style and narrow down your wardrobe to fewer versatile items that pack a bigger punch. 

    Transportation

    • Step 1: When considering air travel options, choose economy seating, which allows more passengers per flight, reducing demand for individual flights.
    • Step 2: Walk, bike, scooter, rollerblade, or use other non-motorized transportation as much as possible. 
    • Step 3: Choose to go places that are closer, if possible, to minimize fossil fuel emissions.
    • Step 4: Prioritize nonstop flights when booking airfare.
    • Step 5: For your commute, consider using public transportation, carpooling, or riding a bike to reduce the number of cars on the road and carbon emissions in the air.
    • Step 6: Purchase carbon offsets for your air and/or car travel via TerraPass.
    • Step 7: Use an eco-friendly alternative for your roadside assistance like Better World Club.
    • Step 8: If you are in a position to do so, consider telecommuting an extra day per week or implementing a regular work from home policy in your workplace.
    • Step 9: Try traveling by train instead of by plane if you can.
    • Step 10: When considering your next vehicle, prioritize electric, hybrid, or high fuel efficiency cars.

    Still not sure where you should start? Shoot us an email at hello.goodintent@gmail.com, and we’d be happy to provide a free consultation to help you decide what to do next!

    If you have any other steps you think we missed, feel free to comment below!

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