The world’s citizens collectively generate 3.5 million tons of solid waste every day. This trash accumulates into mountains of landfills on the earth and garbage patches in the oceans. The urgency of pollution’s impact and growing frustration with commercialism are driving the zero waste movement.

The concept of a zero waste lifestyle may seem overwhelming and extreme. However, it is far from an all-or-nothing way of living. Zero waste proponents encourage everyone to reduce trash and buy less. These simple changes can help you embrace zero — or at least less — waste.

Sack Plastic and Paper Bags

Americans are using 100 billion disposable plastic bags each year. Single-use totes carry groceries for only about 12 minutes, but the bags can take more than 500 years to degrade. One grave consequence: 100,000 marine animals and one million birds die annually from plastic bag pollution. Meanwhile, more than 14 million trees in the US become paper shopping bags every year. It takes 13% more energy to produce one paper bag than two plastic ones.

Everyone using reusable totes could help keep more than 22,000 disposable bags out of the environment. Keep a stash of bags made from materials such as canvas or cotton handy. Place them near your door or in your car so you’ll always be ready to pack purchases without the extra plastic. If you forget to bring the totes into the store, go back to your car and get them — it'll help your steps for the day!

plastic bags beach dead fish enviromantic / Getty Images


BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle)

People are buying a million plastic bottles every minute around the world. Less than 10% of those bottles are recycled, and the convenient containers take at least 400 years to decompose naturally. Bottled water isn’t necessarily a healthy option for hydration, either. Consumer Reports published findings of unsafe levels of arsenic in some bottled water brands.

Help reduce the plastic pileup by investing in a high-quality reusable bottle. Look for one that is easy to clean to avoid the accumulation of harmful microbes. Stainless steel and light-weight ceramic containers help keep beverages cold or hot for longer than many plastics.

reusable bottle with text robynleigh / Getty Images


BYOC (Bring Your Own Container)

Going out to eat or ordering takeout can meet a need for convenience, but all the plastic containers, forks, sporks, knives, napkins, and sauce packets add up to quite a load of garbage. When picking up an order, bring utensils and reusable napkins from home and leave the plastic ones at the counter. When dining in, bring your own container for packing leftovers.

takeout food containers Matthew Horwood / Getty Images


Compost to Scrap Food Waste

Preparing meals at home is another way to save money and resources. Vegetable and fruit scraps don’t have to fill your wastebasket, though. The EPA states that 30% of our garbage is made up of food scraps and yard waste. Fill a compost bin instead. Store a small bin on the kitchen counter or under the sink for easy access. Make your own or choose a bamboo, stainless steel, or plastic container to match your décor.

Homemade compost can enrich soil, curb pests and plant diseases, and decrease the need for commercial fertilizers. It can also lower your carbon footprint and methane emissions from landfills. Add your compost to soil or indoor plants at any time throughout the year without worrying about burning your plants or polluting water.

making compost at home svetikd / Getty Images


Revitalize Leftovers

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the top foods Americans discard are inedible parts, fruits and vegetables, and prepared foods and leftovers. Although some cooked foods may not be suitable for composting, they are not a lost cause. Combining those last bits of dinner with a few other ingredients can create a new, satisfying meal that stays out of the trash.

Try these ideas to extend the life of prepared foods:

  • Make an omelet with an egg and leftover veggies.
  • Chop or puree, then freeze fruits that are about to go bad.
  • Freeze excess salad dressings in ice trays (and then make your own to reduce plastic).
  • Add rice or pasta to leftover meat entrees.

leftovers plates MATJAZ SLANIC / Getty Images


Zero In on Your Closet

Americans throw out at least 25 billion pounds of clothes every year. Buying into the latest trends and choosing cheaply made garments keeps consumers in a cycle of clutter and waste. Break free by purging your wardrobe of items you no longer wear and make new combinations with what’s left. Shop secondhand for whatever you may need to fill in fashion gaps. Thrift shopping keeps clothing out of landfills and cuts way back on your bill.

woman sorting wardrobe urbazon / Getty Images


Zero Waste Cleaning

Commercial household cleaners often contain chemicals that can irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs and cause serious health problems. Each purchase of a bottle of detergent or shampoo equals less money in your wallet and another piece of plastic that will end up in a landfill or ocean. Homemade cleaners are budget-friendly, easy to make with just a few ingredients, and generate little waste.

Common items such as water, vinegar, and baking soda can be as effective as many popular cleaning brands. Purchase ingredients in bulk to save money. Fill reusable glass or stainless steel spray bottles with your DIY products and be sure to label them.

commercial cleaners diy cleaners Janine Lamontagne / Getty Images


Clear the Mailbox

Junk mail includes all unwanted solicitations, coupons, catalogs, and flyers. These take up space and time and put your privacy at risk. The Federal Trade Commission recommends opting out of receiving prescreened offers by calling 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). This number is operated by major consumer reporting agencies who will remove your name from lists for up to five years. For permanent removal, consult the FTC for details.

junk mail ideabug / Getty Images


Pull the Plug on Impulse Buying

Advertisers work relentlessly to grab your attention and persuade you to purchase items whether you need them or not. Some of us seek comfort and euphoria in collecting more and more stuff. The more we buy, the more clutter we accumulate or send to landfills.

Becoming more mindful about shopping will help curb buying on a whim. Determine if necessity or emotions trigger your desire to make a purchase. Window shopping or browsing catalogs and websites for entertainment can breed dissatisfaction and a craving for more. People with shopping addictions may need counseling or accountability partners to help curb impulsive shopping patterns.

impulsive shopping bojanstory / Getty Images


Tackle Top Waste Areas

Observe where you generate the most waste and focus on making changes in one area at a time. You don't need to do a complete overhaul; it may be more economically feasible to use up non-zero waste items first. Above all, keep in mind that every single step of joining the zero waste movement is making a positive difference for you, future generations, and our world.

family reusable bags zero waste Nomad / Getty Images


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