The Busy Person's Guide to Zero Waste Living
Updated: May 27, 2021
(And Building Habits That Stick)
I should probably rename this post from “The Busy Person’s Guide” to “Everyone’s Guide” because let’s face it, we’re all busy. No matter what your situation is: kids vs. no kids, work at the office vs. work at home (and yes, being a full-time homemaker or stay at home parent definitely counts as Work at Home IMO) we all have so many demands on our time, adding ONE MORE THING can just seem overwhelming. Striving for something like Zero Waste living may seem totally out of reach.
Life without convenience meals, disposable plates, pre-made, individually wrapped snacks, paper towels, and bottled shampoo may not only sound inconceivable, it might sound completely insane.
But guess what? It’s not. If our family can pull it off, anyone can pull it off. We have two kids, three dogs, two full-time working parents, daycare, swim lessons, school events, birthday parties...you get my point. We aren’t perfect, but we’re learning, we’re trying, and we’re making it work. The trick is to avoid overcomplicating things and instead make the sustainable choice the easier choice.
I’m so glad you asked… (If you're brand new to Zero Waste and aren't sure what it is all about, I recommend reading this information before continuing on to the guide).
Make it convenient: Put your compost bin somewhere easy to get to (like under the sink) and make your trash can a little harder to get to. When it’s time to throw that apple core away, you’ll take the easier option instead of seeking out the trash bin. You can apply this to other things as well: hide the disposable cutlery and the emergency paper towels and instead put the reusables somewhere easy to get to. Put your Zero Waste snacks front and center. Hang your reusable lunch bag on a hook in the kitchen. Keep your reusable grocery bags in the car. All of these little things make sustainable choices easy.
Prioritize what you’ll DIY: If you only have time to DIY one thing that would cut down on your waste footprint, do that thing and be satfied with what you're able to accomplish, regardless of whether it is cooking at home more, baking, gardening, etc… Make a list of your interests and priorities and start there...
...and then outsource anything else you can: Don’t feel like you have to go directly to making everything yourself. If you’re strapped for time and can find a Zero Waste way to outsource something, do it! I’m an avid bread baker, but I signed up to have a bread share added to our CSA subscription so I can spend more time hiking and less time in the kitchen this summer. I get inexpensive, delicious, zero waste bread from a local bakery, and I don’t have to lift a finger. Other things to outsource: Take clothes to a seamstress for mending, sign up for a CSA or visit a farmer’s market so they’ll grow food for you, visit the local bakery...the list goes on.
Don’t feel like you have to find a substitution for everything: Okay this one was a revelation for me. When I first stopped buying snacks like individually wrapped granola bars and popsicles, I felt like I needed to make some sort of substitute for each item from scratch. I was drowning in recipes for muffins, cookies, and other goodies… and then I just... stopped. I realized that I didn’t NEED to make any of these things. We were just as well off (and probably better off) with snacks like fresh fruits, nuts, and veggies. No packaging and no prep to worry about! Sure, I still make my homemade crackers fairly often and make sweets sometimes, but I don’t feel like it is something I HAVE to do. Bonus: I have a lot more time to pursue hobbies other than baking, the kids eat better at mealtimes, and treats truly are just that: treats instead of all the time foods.
Embrace the Stop Gaps: Even if there are things you really want to try for yourself, like making your own oat milk or soup stock, you may not have the time or the resources to do everything right away, and that’s okay. Buying a jar of Better than Bouillon is less “Zero Waste” than using scraps to make your own stock, but it’s still a far cry better than buying the equivalent amount of broth in plastic cartons (plus you can reuse the glass jar). Embrace these sort of stopgaps until you have the time and the resources to take it to the next level. No one is judging.
Have a plan (and stick to it): Planning ahead will not only help you achieve your Zero Waste goals, it will also probably save you a lot of time and energy in the long run. Make a meal plan and shopping list for the week (shop your pantry first), then stick to the plan. Buying only what you need and then using it up reduces waste, and having a plan can save you a lot of time because you won’t be scrambling for dinner plans at the last minute. You also won’t be wasting money on food that gets thrown away. For more information on Zero Waste Grocery Shopping, read this post.
Prepare in bulk: Instead of preparing breakfasts and lunches every day, I like to prepare things in batches. It takes about the same amount of time to blend up 5 smoothies as it does to prep 1, so I just stash the extras in jars in the freezer to use later in the week. If I’m bringing soup to work for lunch one week, I’ll just portion it out into 5 five containers that I can grab and go. If we know we have a busy few weeks coming up, we make a double batch of dinner on the weekend and freeze the extras for a future weeknight meal. You get the convenience of a microwave meal without the plastic and waste (and it tastes SOOO much better).
Map Out Your Wardrobe: I wear a capsule wardrobe to work made up of a few pieces I mix and match several times before washing. I take care to keep them clean, and no one notices I’m wearing items again. I find I spend way less time doing laundry and my clothes stay in much better shape--both wins for sustainability. Even if you work in an industry (such as medicine) where you need to wash your work clothes each day, you can still apply this practice to non-work times, by hanging items back up and wearing them again before washing.
Take time to build good habits: This ties back to #1 (making things convenient) because it takes anywhere from weeks or months for new habits to truly stick. We reflexively reach for paper towels, visit the vending machine, and toss things in the trash. These are things we’ve been doing for years. You’re not going to unlearn years of conditioning overnight. Don’t beat yourself up if you throw an orange peel in the garbage or buy an afternoon Snickers bar. However, you can encourage yourself to build new habits by slowing down for just a few seconds to make a thoughtful decision. When you get up in the morning, visualize how your day will go and include things like packing your reusable lunch pail, grabbing your grocery bags, and walking to the composter along with your other day-to-do work and home activities.
Since we started going Zero Waste, I actually feel like I have more time to do the things I like to do. I’m more mindful, organized, and prepared than I was previously. Things like using the composter and prepping lunch ahead of time are automatic and easier than the alternatives.
Are there still things I want to try doing or making myself that I haven’t had time for yet? Absolutely. But in the meantime, I’m perfectly happy to outsource where I can and take baby steps in the right direction where I can’t. After all, this is a lifelong journey and not a race to the finish line.