There is an overwhelming urge when hearing about people like Bea Johnson who live beautifully minimalistic, zero waste lives to throw everything away and start fresh with earth friendly, low waste alternatives. They tend to make it look easy, because it is, once you’ve been doing it for as long as they have.
I have been working at reducing my waste for a few years now. There are so many zero waste hacks out there, and I’ve tried enough of them to know what does and doesn’t work for me. But one thing I didn’t do, and from what I have read neither did they, was throw everything away and buy a bunch of zero waste “must-haves.” Zero waste doesn’t happen overnight, and in fact, unless you live off grid and grow your own food and make your own clothes, you probably will never be completely zero waste. Not even if you have a pantry full of refilled jars.
I much prefer the term low waste, or low impact. I’m a perfectionist, and I find zero waste way too daunting of a title for me personally. And I am far, far from zero waste. But I do try. And for a busy family living in a climate that doesn’t exactly have papaya trees growing in the backyard year round (or like, at all) I think we do okay.
So in honour of plastic-free July, I wanted to share a bit about what low-waste living looks like for my family.
I also wanted to write this before I move to Edmonton where I’ll inevitably have more choices and resources. Right now, I do the majority of my shopping at the same places everyone does: the local grocery store, Bulk Barn, and of course sites like Amazon. I try to go the farmers market, I try to shop local, but it doesn’t always happen. I’m a busy, homeschooling mom and my husband works out of province. It’s easiest to run on autopilot. So trust me when I say you don’t have to make a lot of changes if reducing your waste is your goal.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably heard the basics. Reusable cloth instead of napkins, paper towels, and disposable cleaning products (I’m looking at you, Swiffer.) Tap water over bottled. Maybe you’ve reused a pasta sauce jar or two. Weekend trips walking around malls have been replaced by a hike in the woods. These are all fabulous ways to start.
It sounds ridiculous, but the gateway product for me was vinegar. Vinegar as a window cleaner. As an all purpose cleaner. As a fabric softener. Salad dressing. I mean, seriously, what can’t vinegar do? Buying a large container in bulk replaced a multitude of tiny bottles with their caps and nozzles and hoses. Yes, it’s still plastic, but it’s much less. I’ve even since attempted making it, but that’s another post for another day.
When my son was born, my husband and I got crazy about making our own foods. Because we were doing baby led weaning, we wanted to control the salt and sugar content of what we were eating as a family, which meant saying goodbye to a lot of our pre-packaged favourites. Not only was it healthier, but it saved us money and saved us a lot of garbage!
Then came joining a CSA, or Community Shared Agriculture. Basically, you invest in a local farm and you share in their success, taking home a basket of fresh produce every week during the growing season. Returning to the produce section of the grocery store in the winter was always a shock. Why is this cucumber wrapped in plastic? Why do I need a produce bag for a single piece of ginger? I just started piling produce into my cart sans bags, and I haven’t looked back.
When Bulk Barn introduced their reusable program, our household waste plummeted. Weeks, yes, weeks started to go by before I would put out a grocery bag-sized amount of trash. I was skeptical at first. Am I really going to make another stop? Am I going to remember my jars? But it became addictive. There are two Bulk Barns in my city making it a ridiculously convenient place to stop. Every week I bring in my clean, empty jars and after getting them tarred, I refill them with everything from flour and sugar to pasta and pretzels. They don’t have everything, but it’s made a huge difference with barely any effort.
All of that being said, I want to keep this honest. I want this to be attainable for you if it’s something that is important to you. So I want to offer up a few buts.
We don’t use baking soda to brush our teeth– we use the fluoride stuff the dentists recommend. I wear contacts. I have tried expensive vitamins that come in glass jars but honestly, I like my $10 multivitamin in plastic better. We treat ourselves to the occasional bag of chips or bag of cheddar bunnies, and I could not survive without Annie’s Mac and Cheese. I’m trying to love shampoo bars. Really, I am.
I bought plastic multi-blade razors for our recent trip to Iceland, and I have yet to go back to my safety razor since we’ve been back. I don’t mandate that my child can’t have plastic things or stuff that comes in plastic. He knows why I make the choices I do, but if he wants a prize from the dentist, so be it. If he wants strawberries in a plastic clamshell, I am not going to say no to a child asking for fruit. Hell, sometimes I want those strawberries in a plastic clamshell. The winters are long and the produce is terrible.
And no matter how diligent you are, waste happens. You’ll get a straw in your drink. You’ll crave a packaged food favourite. You won’t have time to make an extra stop and will end up buying your dry goods all wrapped in plastic that week. Your kid will be too polite to say no to the plastic water bottles they hand out on your flight and you’ll end up with two and they’ll sit on your counter weeks later (true story). It happens. You’ll be discouraged. But what if I reminded you that those beautiful glass jars were filled by bulk bins lined in plastic? That even cardboard goods get shrink wrapped in plastic wrap on their pallets? It’s simply not possible to be “zero waste.”
(I love The Zero Waste Chef’s post about environmental guilt. Read it! I’ll wait.)
There are a lot of other ways that you can make a difference. You can write letters to companies, businesses, and government officials. You can pick up a few pieces of trash while your kid plays at the park. You can ride your bike and consolidate your errands. There’s no one way that works for everyone. Reducing what I send to the landfill has been the biggest, most encouraging thing for me personally because it’s so tangible.
I remember the days of lugging my extra-large garbage can to the curb every week– plus compost and recycling. Anything is an improvement over that. But the one thing that absolutely doesn’t work is making yourself miserable and then quitting all together. Do what you can, when you can. It will differ from week to week.
I like the way my pantry looks with its gleaming glass jars. Having white-space in my fridge doesn’t make me panic. In fact, it’s so nice not having that guilt-session at the end of every week where I throw out a bunch of uneaten produce because I bought a package of ten instead of the two that I needed. I don’t have to dig through a bunch of old shampoo bottles and hair care products to find a comb. And honestly, it’s freeing.
I don’t think anyone should do anything just because they “should.” But I also know what a difference small, simple changes have made. If you’re interested but thinking, “I could never do that,” I dare you to make one small change. Let me know how it goes.
Are you trying to reduce your waste? What’s working for you? What’s not? Let me know below if you’d like to hear more about our low waste journey!