A Comprehensive Guide to Adopting a Low-Waste Lifestyle

Transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle is a meaningful step toward sustainability. Reducing waste not only benefits the planet but also promotes a more mindful and intentional way of living. 

In the United States, food waste accounts for roughly 22 percent of all municipal solid waste—which contributes to a startling amount of methane gas produced, which is more harmful than carbon dioxide. Transitioning to a zero-waste lifestyle involves redirecting edible food away from landfills, offering both environmental and substantial social benefits. By channeling what would have been food waste to community organizations, homes, and individuals in need, a meaningful social impact is achieved. Additionally, the financial savings resulting from the reduction of wasted food can be allocated to support positive sustainability initiatives. Notably, the magnitude of this financial impact is considerable, with an estimated $161 billion worth of food discarded annually in the United States alone.

The low-waste or zero-waste philosophy also centers around reuse and repurposing, fostering a system where surplus goods find new homes within the community and vice versa. It goes beyond simply giving away unneeded items; it involves sharing essentials that benefit everyone.

This guide aims to provide a comprehensive overview of how to go low waste, offering practical steps for individuals seeking to minimize their environmental footprint and maybe do a little good in the process.

Step One: Assess Your Current Waste

Begin your low-waste journey by conducting a thorough assessment of your current waste generation. Analyze your trash to identify the predominant sources of waste. This initial step will help you set realistic goals and focus on areas that require immediate attention.

For example, is one-third of your trash made up of egg shells, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps (a reasonable example according to the Rainforest Alliance)? Or do you find yourself throwing away a considerable amount of paper bills? Is your trash full of plastic food containers or glass bottles? Taking stock of your trash can be incredibly enlightening as you start planning for low waste lifestyle changes to make. Keep a note on your phone with a running tally of all that you throw away, categorized by food, toiletries, containers, and so on, or simply keep a sticky note by the trash can and tally your trash that way. It may seem like overkill, but the only way to make true adjustments is by making informed adjustments. Otherwise you are putting a plan in place that may work for other people but not necessarily your specific lifestyle.

Step Two: Embrace the 5 R’s.

Adopt the principles of the 5 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot. In the 1920s and 30s, this ideal was more simplified using the mantra, “Use it up, wear it out, make due, or go without.” However, based on our nationwide consumer behavior and the staggering amount of plastic entering our landfills on a daily basis (27 million tons in 2018 according to the EPA), the principles have had to adapt slightly.

Refuse: Begin by refusing single-use items such as plastic bags or disposable cutlery. When you’re just starting out on a low-waste journey, it’s best to aim for an 80/20 approach—nailing low waste 80 percent of the time and giving yourself grace 20 percent of the time. No one is perfect and every now and again, a coffee in a disposable cup is okay. The key is to cut back as much as you can and to make conscious decisions about the waste you’re creating.

Start by carrying a canvas tote bag in your car for those spur of the moment trips to the grocery store (having a meal plan will help cut these trips back, too!). This one adjustment alone can reduce waste by an estimated 500 to 1000 plastic bags per year.

Similarly, keep a set of reusable utensils in your bag or car for take-out runs or moments when a restaurant only offers plastic cutlery. Stores like Rivermont Refillery sell bamboo utensils and reusable straws for this very purpose or, if you’re on a budget, simply grab a spare set of metal utensils from home or a thrift store and keep them secure and clean in a cotton or canvas bag.

Reduce: Look for ways in which you can reduce your overall consumption. Thinking back to your trash assessment—if one-third of your trash is food waste, how can you creatively use your leftovers to reduce that amount?

For used coffee grounds, turn them into an exfoliating scrub. Egg shells can be crushed up and sprinkled around your garden to give calcium back to the soil. Vegetable scraps can be saved and turned into a rich vegetable broth; afterwards they can be composted.

Also look for ways to get creative with your leftovers so you end up spending less on groceries (a win, win). Two cups of leftover mashed potatoes from last night’s dinner can be reimagined as today’s gnocchi or potato croquettes, or they can be used to top off a shepherd’s pie. Spinach that may be on its way out can be cooked and frozen to later be added to soups. Herbs can be turned into bright, delicious sauces or frozen in oil to add flavor another day.

Reuse: When you start looking for ways to reuse items, you begin realizing just how many options there are. Glass jars (think salsa containers and apple cider vinegar bottles) can be used to store leftovers or homemade all-purpose cleaner. Old clothing that can’t be sold, donated, or swapped can be torn into cleaning rags. Old magazines (like ours!) can be reused as wrapping paper. Even old toothbrushes can be reused for household cleaning.

If you no longer have use for a particular item but it’s still in good shape, consider donating it to a local thrift store or offering it up on a local Buy Nothing group (simply search “Buy Nothing Lynchburg” on Facebook for a group within your specific zip code). These types of circular economies keep items out of landfills and lower demand for new items needing to be produced.

It’s also important to take care of your items in general to avoid them needing to be thrown out. Keep your cutting boards and wooden utensils well-oiled and your knives well-sharpened. If you have a neighbor or friend who is talented at sewing, ask them to teach you a few tricks so you can mend your clothes and darn your socks. 

Recycling: Consider recycling as your last-ditch effort not your first option. If you’re unable to repurpose an item in any way, responsibly recycle it. Lynchburg makes recycling incredibly accessible with drop-off locations throughout the city. Bedford also has the ability to recycle glass with drop-off locations throughout the Town and county.

Rot: Finally, as has been touched on briefly throughout this guide, compost your organic waste. Not only is the process of composting pretty simple, but it also eliminates the guesswork of trying to fertilize the right plants with the right chemicals at the right time. Compost is all-natural, and can pretty much be applied to everything (veggies, perennials, shrubs, trees, etc.) any time and in any amount.

Step Three: Mindful Shopping

Part of embracing a low-waste lifestyle is becoming more mindful about your consumer behavior and the decisions that you make. Just as you would take stock of your trash and make informed adjustments that work for your lifestyle, assess your shopping habits and make adjustments that are more environmentally aware.

For example, do you find yourself “adding to cart” once a week or more when an idea pops in your head or a particular need arises? We all do. The key with mindful shopping and a low-waste lifestyle is in pausing during those moments. Does the idea still seem exciting in a week? If so, consider making the purchase. If not, then you saved yourself some money and you saved waste from entering the landfill. Alternatively, do you find yourself needing a particular tool for a one-time project? Ask a friend if you can borrow theirs or see if it’s a tool that can be rented for a short period of time.

Also consider shopping local as much as you’re able. Money spent within the local economy stays in the local economy, which ultimately works to strengthen our community. Shop from local farmers markets (reusable bags in tow). Not only will this help our local farmers, but you will only be buying exactly what you need.

Step Four: Educate Yourself

Stay informed about environmental issues and advancements in sustainability. Understanding the impact of your choices empowers you to make informed decisions and advocate for positive change. Stay updated on local recycling programs, waste management policies, and sustainable practices in our community.

Engage with your community to amplify the impact of your efforts. Join local environmental groups, participate in community clean-up events, and collaborate with neighbors on waste reduction initiatives. Collective action fosters a sense of shared responsibility and creates a more significant positive impact.

Step Five and On: Set Realistic Goals

Set achievable goals to gradually integrate low-waste practices into your lifestyle. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same applies to adopting a low-waste lifestyle. Celebrate your successes, learn from challenges, and continue refining your approach as you strive for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way of living.

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