Living a green lifestyle can be tough on a budget. It’s like fast food, we all know it’s bad for us, but we can’t stop. The fact is that plastic is cheap and durable and it can make it tough to jump head first into a zero waste lifestyle. I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t ever think (or intend to be) completely zero waste. But I do want to move towards living with as least waste as possible.
Although I consider myself a very environmentally conscious person, I’m still working on leaving a little footprint as possible. And moving towards this lifestyle can be really intimidating.
When I moved to different parts of the world, I used to kind of tout myself as a tree-hugging person. I recycled, I carried a water bottle instead of buying bottled water, but I quickly realized that’s not enough. The waste I produce as one small person living by myself is staggering and to think of it on a global level can be overwhelming. So after some research, I decided to look more into living a low waste lifestyle.
However, I can’t really afford to revamp my lifestyle to accommodate zero waste by growing my own food (I live in small apartment), or commit to going to bulk stores every week (I don’t live near one or own a car) , but I don’t want those excuses to what stops me from living with as least as possible. In the long run, it will probably be cheaper. So although I can’t overhaul my life tomorrow, these seven hacks are helping me ease into a much less wasteful lifestyle.
1. Using Cardboard Boxes As a Substitute For Re-Usable Bags
Using re-usable tote or canvas grocery bags is the easiest and probably most generic piece of advice given out there. I’ve been carrying reusable bags for years and to be honest, I think I really got into the habit because my grocery stores started charging for them. But one of the challenges I really encounter with not buying plastic bags is forgetting re-usable bags when I’m at the store, not having enough, or (and this happens too often) when tell myself I’m just going to “pick up” one item and come out with like 16.
In this case, it’s hard for me not to be tempted to just get a plastic bag. However, last year when I was looking to reduce my plastic bag usage, a friend recently taught me a hack to get around this. Instead of buying a plastic bag, I use a cardboard box instead. If I’m grocery shopping and realize that I don’t have enough reusable bags, I simply look for an empty cardboard box, you know the ones that hold perishable items and I use it to carry my grocery bags home instead. To date, no employee has called me out on it because really, I’m helping them clean up the store as well for boxes they would have to remove when stacking new items. Once I’m done, I recycle the cardboard as if the store would.
This hack has literally given me no excuse to buy a grocery bag, ever.
2. Buy Metal And Paper Straws
Plastic straws are the little, every day, parts of our life that we forget about. I certainly didn’t notice how many plastic straws I was using every day until I was mindful of it. Although I bring my coffee in a reusable bottle every day, I am definitely a sucker for a good Starbucks Frappuccino or Tim Horton’s Ice Capp. And that’s a plastic straw and another one.
I recently bought metal straws and while I use them at home because they are super useful and surprisingly easy to clean, I always forget them at home when I go out. Or, many times I’ll decide to pick a drink treat spontaneously and then the regret hits me as I’m tearing off the paper to open a plastic straw.
And for the few times, I do remember my metal straws, I actually re-consider bringing them because if I’m not near a bathroom to rinse them out, I don’t really want to be carrying a wet/sticky straw in my bag.
So in addition to buying metal straws, I’ve also bought paper straws. Paper straws are so easy and do the trick for a quick drink on the go. I keep them in my bag and at my desk at work and because they are paper, I compost/recycle them when I’m done and not have to worry about the cleanup or putting it back in my bag. And if you want to step it up a bit for a more expensive option, you can buy them individually wrapped in paper, either in white or in fun colors (I’m real extra).
3. Freeze Your Compost In Paper Bags And Turn It Into Stock
Composting has been kind of a new concept to me and I’ve only fully embraced in the last year or so. And I’m so glad I did! I had no idea how much food waste I was throwing out and how much of it could really be composted. After researching how composting works, I stumbled upon a hack that is a big annoyance with composting: the smell.
Unless you are in a situation where you can dispose of your compost outside every day, the smell of decaying food matter is not a pleasant scenario to be in. However, I found a small hack for this in freezing my compost (if you can spare the room). I also line my compost bin (a pretty small one on my counter because I am only one person) with brown/paper bags that I get from stores such as fast food restaurants.
And while I don’t always have the room in my freezer or paper bags on hand, it’s been a great alternative to throwing my compost in the trash.
Additionally, I’ve become more conscious of what I compost. Some things, no doubt need to be composted like banana peels and leftover meat. However, while cooking I have been trying to be better at putting my vegetable compost aside to make veggie stocks. I do something similar, I freeze the veggie compost until I have enough, and then when I have to make it, I just boil it all up. Sometimes I will have enough to make on the same day when doing a big meal prep day and then I freeze the stock for later use. This also works with bones/fat from meats (although I personally don’t make that as often).
Pro Tip: Make sure you’re stock is balanced. While it may seem like you can add anything into a veggie stock (which you almost can) I made the terrible mistake my first time of having too much onions/hot peppers/root veggies and it tasted kind of off. Try to include neutral tasting veggies, and add spices/flavourings afterwards.
4. Create A New Email And Ask For The Paperless Option
Going paperless is not only better for contributing less waste, but it’s also easier and more convenient. I love having a record of all my credit card transactions and bills downloadable when I need them and not feeling like I have to keep all of these documents, only to sit there to shred them later (I don’t have a shredder so it’s just me sitting on the floor ripping up paper).
So call all your banks, cellphone, or utility companies and ask for the paperless option. I especially have to be careful to opt out of all promotional mail too. I’m perfectly happy to have promotional emails sent to me because they are filtered by Gmail, but the cost of mail that I literally just throw out two seconds later is not only wasteful, it’s bad the environment (gas/oil to deliver that letter).
Another tip is to actually ask for electronic receipts if possible. I’ve seen a lot of restaurants move towards this trend and am loving it because holding onto this tiny piece of paper that I will probably lose is not only wasteful, it’s annoying. My favourite store that has gone paperless is Home Depot. They actually read my credit card number and automatically send it to the email that I have set up with them. And that’s another hack if you want emails sent to a specific account, just create another email. It takes about 5 minutes to create another Gmail account and I personally find it super useful to have an email for only promotional emails. While of course my banks and cellphone companies have my main email, its stores like Home Depot where I can give them my promotional email and on the off chance I need to return something, I can log in and get it.
Not only is creating another email far less wasteful than having actual mail arrive, but it’s also much easier to clean up than the piles of physical mail on the counter. And if you do ignore it and it piles up, promotional emails are a quick fix to pile up.
If promotional emails from a company no longer bring you joy,
Marie Kondo would be proud.
5. Use Paper Or Mesh Bags Instead of Single Use Plastic Bags
One of my biggest faults when it comes to wasteful plastic is the use of single plastic bags. You know those produce bags that are so paper thin, they can’t be used for much else and tear at an instant? Yes, those bags.
I didn’t realize how much single-use plastic bags I was using until I recently decluttered earlier this month. I literally had a whole bag filled with these flimsy produce bags that took did nothing but take up space (Marie Kondo is looking a little less impressed with this right now).
So I recently moved to buying and reusing mesh produce bags. However, if you can’t afford to move into mesh produce bags just yet (hey, I of all people know what it’s like to be on a super tight budget), try using paper bags. I know this may depend on your grocery store, but my grocery store actually has a section where they offer paper bags instead plastic for items such as mushrooms. I try not to use a bag if possible, but for items like brussels sprouts, it’s kind of hard not to have a bag. So if you can’t yet afford mesh produce bags, try either using the ones at the grocery stores or buying your own. The are much less expensive than buying mesh bags, and you can use the bag after to line your compost. Win-win.
Additionally, if you’re like me, and are still left with a drawer full of single-use plastic bags even after switching over, I’ve found a few uses for the single-use plastic bags as well. Thankfully, I live near a recycling depot that takes plastic bags, but I have also found uses for them around my homes. To get rid of my single-use plastic bags I’ve started using them as shoe bags for when I need to change shoes mid-day and as doggy poop bags. I don’t have a dog (but one day I will!) but my boyfriend’s mom does so at least it’s useful to someone. Lastly, I’ve been trying to use single-use plastic bags to cover food instead of plastic wrap. It works alright, but the doggy bags and shoe bags are much more useful.
I’m hoping to just use as much as possible, recycle the rest, and never have to rely on single-use plastic bags again.
6. Buying Washable Ziploc Bags
So as much as I tried not to have the list consist of just buying new items, I can tell you for a fact that buying re-usable Ziploc bags or super-durable plastic Ziploc bags is cheaper than constantly having to buy them. Although buying a pack of 50 bags for a few dollars seems like the better investment, I’ve learned the hard way that it is not.
I thought I had out-smarted the system when I told myself I could just wash the plastic bags and then I could re-use them without having to buy the fancy silicone bags on Amazon. Well, the joke was on me because, after one or two uses, the plastic bags would either fall apart or get so stained and crinkly, that they could not be saved.
In addition, the cheap plastic bags took forever to soak/wash, costing me a lot of time, water, and dish soap, only to end up with a crinkly, sad looking bag that no longer seals properly. Investing in good quality bags is not only more environmentally friendly, but it’s also actually cheaper when you calculate everything in. If you can’t yet afford to switch completely over because you don’t use plastic bags enough to justify it,, try looking for very durable plastic bags. It’s costlier in the short-run but saves so much more time and money in the long run.
7. Using Take Out Containers and Leftover Jars instead of Plastic Wrap
Plastic wrap, the enemy of all low waste.
Damn its convenience and tempting sticky adhesive that makes storing leftovers so easy. And let’s face it, I’m not perfect, I get take out, I still buy jars of items and things like sour cream in plastic tubs, but I do try to make .the most of them by storing halved onions or lemons that I will be using a later date in them. I used to default to wrapping them in plastic wrap but I’ve gotten better at transferring even leftovers into reusable containers and putting them in dishware before reheating them instead of defaulting to plastic wrap.
I found that the biggest part of easing into a zero/lower waste is really changing your mindset and learning to get creative with less stuff.
I don’t think I will ever be completely zero waste, but I try not to allow that excuse of shifting to an extreme lifestyle to prevent me from trying to live with lower waste. I’m now actively more conscious of how my much waste I consume produce. And while there are definitely improvements that can be made, it doesn’t all have to happen at once. I think sometimes with things like waste, it’s easy to watch one documentary, get super overwhelmed and take no action, because, hey, we’re all gonna pollute the world and kill it anyways, right?
It’s easy to look at zero waste or low waste living as overwhelming and if you can’t do it perfectly, not to do it all. But lowering your waste consumption is doesn’t have to be all or nothing, because everything counts. No matter how small it feels, the mindset you shift to when trying to live zero/low waste has an enormous impact.
What are your tips for low waste living? I would love to hear them!