Zero Waste is more than just a visionary goal– it’s a practice that’s easier to adopt than you may think. The basic principle is that nothing should be thrown into landfills– that everything is somehow reused or repurposed. There’s no better place to take the practical steps towards zero waste than in your own home. We talked to Steven Mandzik, founder of A Clean Life and Zero Waste expert, about how to cut your household’s trash down to nothing.
1. Monitor. First, take a good look at how much trash you are actually sending to the landfill. It’s important to recognize what makes up your waste stream. We’re barely conscious of how much we actually throw out. “You’ll probably notice that you’re throwing away the same items again and again,” says Mandzik, much of which would be easily replaced by a reusable version.
2. Get your bins in order. The Zero Waste house has three “trash” cans. The largest is the recycling bin. Next to it is a tiny “landfill” bin. It’s small because there’s actually much less trash that is true waste. Also– if it fills up quickly, emptying it often is a good reminder that you’ve still got a ways to go to reach “zero.” The third and final bin is for compost.
3. The Three R’s. Reduce, reuse, recycle isn’t just a phrase, it’s a hierarchy. First focus on reducing the amount of waste coming into your home. You’ve heard these tips before (stop junk mail, sign up for electronic bills, etc) so we won’t get into every detail here, but here’s a good resource. (And, yes, we’re sending you to a kids website, because it’s the best collection of info around!) Next comes reuse. Figure out clever and creative ways to use durable items that were bound for the trash bin. Also be sure to make reusable goods a part of your life– coffee mugs, lunch bags, shopping bags, rechargeable batteries, and so on. If you can’t reuse it, someone else probably can. Donate old, unwanted items to charity, have a yard sale, or list them on craigslist.org or Freecycle. Finally, it’s time to recycle whatever you couldn’t reduce or reuse. And recycling deserves it’s own bullet.
4. Recycle the rest. First and foremost, learn what you can and can’t recycle in your community. Earth911 is a great resource to help you find where to recycle just about everything– from curbside pickup of glass, metal, paper, and plastic, to special drop-spots for hazardous chemicals or electronic waste.
5. Organics recycling. Think of composting as a special form of recycling. You’re taking organic waste, and recycling it back into useful, nutrient-rich organic material. If you’ve got a backyard, it’s really easy to get started. (I’m a fan of Composting 101 as a resource.) If you’re in the tighter confines of a city, check out fellow ambassador Alison Arieff’s How To on urban composting!
6. The Fourth “R.” The final point is an overarching one. As Mandzik explains, “For the system to work people will need to not only reduce, reuse, and recycle, but also to Rethink. It’s important, he urges, that we “rethink our behavior and lifestyle. This is not to say that one should make drastic lifestyle changes or live like an extremist. Rather it means questioning some basic habits.” Like not buying something because it has too much packaging. Or like remembering to keep a reusable shopping bag in your backseat, purse, or backpack.
Photo (cc) by Flickr user D’Arcy Norman
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