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Americans generate a whopping 251 million tons of waste each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and only about 35 percent of this astounding pile of rubbish is recycled or composted. Shrinking that staggering stat on a national level starts right where you have the most control—in the home. For a little guidance on where exactly to begin, we turned to Green Awards grand prize winner Bea Johnson, author of the blog and best-selling book Zero Waste Home. Johnson challenges us to rethink the “three R’s” we learned growing up. According to Johnson, there are actually five principles to uphold: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (i.e., compost). Even just committing to one of these will help improve the planet. Read on to see how easy she makes it to get started!
1. Buy Less, Live More
“Purchase only what you truly need,” Johnson says in regard to her number one rule, refuse. “By limiting consumption, you not only cut down on trash, you simplify your life and save money.” And when you do need to go out and buy the essentials, source stuff secondhand. For example, used electronics are available on Craigslist and eBay, and some manufacturers even sell reconditioned and refurbished items. When shopping online, check for a “pre-owned only” search option and then, when ordering, request that the seller ship with recycled paper and cardboard rather than plastic materials.
2. Pick Less Packaging
“Shop at a farmers’ market—they’ll take the egg cartons and berry baskets back for reuse,” Johnson says. “At the grocery store, buy in bulk and shop the deli, fish, meat, and cheese counter using your own containers.” Johnson easily shops for her family of four this way, using separate glass receptacles for different food categories. “A quart-sized jar holds two pounds of ground meat or four filets of fish,” she says. If a counterperson balks, Johnson’s tip: “Tell him you don’t own a trash can.”
3. Get Canny About Trash Cans
“If the trash can is at your fingertips, you’ll be more inclined to use it,” Johnson says. “But if it’s in another room, you’ll be more mindful of what you toss,” she adds—food for thought for places like a bedroom or office.
Because that psychology won’t work in the kitchen, though, turn a standard-size garbage can into the designated spot for compost and use that small so-called compost bin for trash. “Just swap them, and put the larger receptacle in the under-sink cabinet, where it’s convenient for food preparation—out of sight but not out of mind.” And while you’re tossing table scraps in the compost bin, don’t stop there: Unpainted and unfinished wood, hair, nail clippings, dryer lint, and even dust bunnies can skip the trash.
4. Clean More Consciously
“You can make an all-purpose spray cleaner with white vinegar and water, apply straight vinegar on mildew, and use baking soda for most other scrubbing jobs, like scouring the tub or getting scuff marks off a hardwood floor,” Johnson says. Beyond these green cleaning formulas, she scrubs and wipes with minimal waste too. Tool-wise, she relies on a compostable cleaning brush for many tasks and eschews paper towels completely. “Worn-out clothing like soft cotton T-shirts makes great cleaning rags,” she says. “Just dampen lightly for dusting.”
5. Reboot Your Bathroom
When it comes to the room in the home with the most disposables (plastic bottles, cardboard packaging, and any number of toiletries), Johnson offers a trove of ideas to help trim its trash load. “For face and body, use baking soda to exfoliate and package-free solid soap to wash,” she says. She’s big on buying shampoo and conditioner in bulk, using an alum stone as deodorant, shaving with a reusable safety razor, and trading toss-away toothbrushes for compostable wooden ones to use with a homemade powder that brightens your smile. As for TP? Feel a little better about the number of squares you use by switching to a 100 percent recycled and unbleached brand, like Seventh Generation.
6. DIY Without Waste
Johnson advises sourcing supplies for home improvement projects on Craigslist and reuse marketplaces like Away Station and Build It Green; she also points out that paint stores often sell remnants. Bent nails and stripped screws should be recycled, and even sawdust can be repurposed to absorb spills or to spread as garden mulch. And if you find yourself with leftover materials from a project, consider donating them. “When you donate, you help perpetuate the zero waste concept and contribute to making it a reality.”