Zero Waste Basics

Commit to a reusable water bottle instead of piles of disposable plastic water bottles. Photo by Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office.

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, Utah Recycling Alliance

Confession: I do not live in a zero-waste household. Sure, I have made significant shifts over the years. I’m rarely seen without my voluminous travel mug, and I almost always have my water bottle and utensil set with me. When I grocery shop, I loudly refuse single-use bags, but I still get milk, juice, and other items in plastic containers. If the plastic can be recycled, I put it in my recycling bin, which is three times larger than my trash can. But I also buy those non-recyclable child squeeze containers, which are the only way I’ve found to get my toddler to eat vegetables. 

I am not hitting that 90% diversion threshold to be considered Zero Waste. And that’s ok. We all have competing priorities. Whether it is time, convenience, or getting the kid to eat some veggies, we have to make decisions daily about what we can and can’t do. Achieving Zero Waste is a commitment that doesn’t happen overnight.

But all efforts toward Zero Waste matter. Small changes add up, especially on large scales. The most recent figures released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that Americans continue to produce about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day. Some of that does get recycled or composted, by the largest chunk ends up in our landfills. More than 327 million people live in the United States. Can you imagine if we all cut our daily waste output by 25 percent? The result would be a collective impact far greater than a small proportion of people achieving Zero Waste.

We can all make steps in line with the ethos of Zero Waste. We can help conserve resources by using the traditional reduce, reuse, and recycle model, and we can expand those ideas to refusing things we don’t need, repairing broken items, repurposing materials in new (and potentially better) ways, or just letting things rot. Below is a tiered list of steps toward Zero Waste, starting with easy “bring your own” items.

Tier I: Bring your own

Online ads and plenty of Pinterest posts push buying an all-new zero waste kit. But chances are you already have some of the items or could purchase them at a low cost locally from a thrift store. Essential items include:

  • Water bottle
  • Travel mug
  • Utensils (spoon, fork, knife, chopsticks, etc.)
  • Grocery bag
  • Reusable container, preferably glass or collapsible silicone
  • Cloth napkin

Tier II: Adjust your food habits

A lot of our waste surrounds our food culture. We order takeout, we purchase food in plastic containers or boxes, and we throw away billions of pounds of food. Tips for reducing waste related to food consumption include:

  • Purchase only what you will consume
  • Avoid takeout—eat at the restaurant or cook at home when possible
  • Bring a to-go container to the restaurant for any leftovers
  • Shop the produce aisle—many fruits and veggies come plastic free
  • Bring your own bags for groceries, produce, and bulk dry goods
  • Store leftovers in the fridge using beeswax or other reusable wraps 
Fix-It Clinic
Come to a URA Fix-It Clinic to use tools and work with repair coaches.

Tier III: Think holistically about Zero Waste

The more one evaluates their own waste generation, the more opportunities for change they see. Below is a non-exhaustive list of additional ideas to reduce waste:

  • Buy second hand clothing, furniture, etc. 
  • Use reusable bags for all shopping
  • Repair broken items—if you need tools or assistance, visit an upcoming Utah Recycling Alliance Fix-It Clinic
  • Eliminate plastic from hygiene products—buy bar soap and shampoo, or go to stores that will refill your old containers
  • Skip straws if you are able, even the reusable ones because they are unnecessary