A New Look at Zero Waste

By David Johnston, Utah Recycling Alliance

With changes at work and changes in our daily lives, it only makes sense that our daily waste is changing too. Used safety masks, alcohol swabs, (sometimes half-empty) sanitizer bottles and other cleaning supplies flood the system. So too do cardboard and packaging waste, with online retail the ideal practice of those working on social distancing. Some incredible inventions have come about (necessity demands innovation, after all) that lessen these new waste impacts, but, as always, one-off inventions cannot solve our world’s waste problems. As we settle into new norms of home offices, social distancing, having kids home from school and shifting entertainment habits, so too do we need to consider our eco-impact and make positive changes in our lives to lessen this impact.

Below I’ve outlined several strategies for minimizing waste, maximizing recyclability and ensuring sustainability remains a foundation of your lives in this new era. No need to overwhelm yourself – just start with 2 or 3. Or, if you already incorporate some of these practices, take a closer look to see if there are ways to do them even better!

As always, when in doubt about what is or is not recyclable, seek answers locally, either from your city directly or from your waste hauler; all sorts of answers can be found on your local waste service websites

New Daily Waste

Let’s rundown those now-ubiquitous daily cleaning and health products, shall we?

  • Recyclable: empty (not mostly empty) hand sanitizer bottles; cleaner spray bottles, after the spray-mechanism top has been removed; hand soap bottles – see cleaner bottles; boxes from bar soap (assuming dry)
  • Not recyclable: protective masks; toilet paper and paper towels (but the clean stuff can be shared if you’ve got an excess!); alcohol swabs; cleaner wipes

With shelter-in-place orders, social distancing efforts and fewer retail stores open comes more mail order shopping. Please remember:

  • Recycle your cardboard boxes, but be sure to take out plastic wraps and film, Styrofoam and anything that is not cardboard
    • Packaging paper can also be recycled, but don’t leave it nested inside your cardboard box
  • Plastic film and wraps, including those air-filled plastic pillows, cannot be recycling in your curbside bins, but can be returned to many grocery stores for recycling along with grocery bags
    •  Check with your local store to see if this is an option
  • Styrofoam is NOT recyclable!

More Home Cooking & Other Shopping Habits

I’ll admit it – pre-coronavirus me was someone who ate out almost every lunch, and I’ve never been consistent in bringing my own cutlery or to-go containers. The waste builds up, and this isn’t to mention the packaging waste of the various foods prepared in the kitchen. Now that I’m working remotely and working hard at social distancing, I’m cooking a lot more. With this transition to home cooking comes all sorts of great choices on the shopping side of things.

  • Focus on bulk food purchases when and where possible
  • Look for foods with less packaging
  • Want to go one step further? Reduce your meat meals each week or go completely veggie!

Home Offices

In many office spaces, the decisions are made without you really thinking about it: recycling bins are placed where they’re placed, printer paper and ink are purchased without your considering the source or the recycled content, announcements or fliers are both emailed and printed to be handed out without the need for both, and on and on. For those of you who have transitioned to working remotely, now you’re in charge!

  • Maximize recycled content in your purchased paper and be sure those cartridges you’re ordering are recyclable (through mail-in programs or otherwise)
  • Be sure to print on both sides, and if you have any misprints, turn it into scrap paper for note taking or personal documents
  • Give your computer and monitor and everything else drawing power a rest when you’re not using it – put it to sleep or shut it down completely
  • Put a recycling bin right under your desk – no excuses to not recycle

Kids Out of School

Having your kids home from school creates all sorts of new, unexpected waste and messes. And some waste-wise questions you may have never considered. What do I do with a broken crayon? How many paper towel rolls does it take to make a castle? Is glitter recyclable? Just how useful is tape in building a fort, is it recyclable, and how long does this fairy fortress need to occupy my living room? (Forever, forever is the answer)

  • Some fun ideas from The Recycling Partnership:

    • Complete a Recycling Scavenger Hunt around the house and yard, having children find empty bottles, cans, old newspapers, magazines, and cardboard.
    • Educate children on the benefits of recycling, including opportunities to create homemade recycling containers for bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms, which produce the majority of recyclables in the home.
  • Maximize reuse when gathering together craft or game materials for your kids – discarded office materials, cardboard boxes and so much more lying around the house can be transformed into all sorts of fun arts and crafts

Electric Habits

With so much more time indoors, with kids at home and out of school, and with streamed entertainment increases, your home’s electricity usage is likely headed up in these coronavirus days. Sam Schipani highlights all sorts of energy-reduction strategies in this Homestead article – here are a few highlights:

  • Open your windows, let in the sunshine and turn out your lights
  • Focus on full loads of laundry and dishes – prepare for more of the latter, in particular
  • If you’ve got the yard or space indoors, air dry your clothes
  • Take a look at energy settings on your electronic devices – many have low energy modes that can drastically reduce operation

We are in majorly uncharted territory with these coronavirus developments, and our advice above is by no means meant to be an additional burden. I know that your minds and your hearts are on the immediate crisis of coronavirus. Still, for those of you that have the time, the resources, and the emotional bandwidth, please do what you can to continue down the greenest path. Sustainable practices don’t need to be hard nor do they need to be all-or-nothing. Start by picking two of the goals from above and see how it goes from there.