For those of you like a good checklist, I have compiled a list of changes you can make that will not greatly change your day to day life but can vastly reduce your impact on the environment. I limited this list to changes that will save money over time. I work best when I have few options (one of the many reasons minimalism appeals to me, and the main reason I *try* to keep toys to a minimum in our house). Have I mentioned how overwhelmed I was when I first started reading about zero waste? I got caught in the trap of all or nothing thinking. If I wasn't going to choose the BEST option EVERY time, then why even bother? If I couldn't be the best, I should just resort to my old ways. When I changed my mindset, I found living a less-waste lifestyle to be more fulfilling and easier.
I think of each purchasing decisions as its own individual choice, and I've created an internal continuum of ok-->good-->better-->best. I make the best decision I can, within my financial means and within my time budget. When you start shopping with a conscience, you can easily fall into a rabbit hole of the morality of each product, brand, and store. There is a place for those conversations and concerns, but I have to pace myself. If you have limited financial resources and a limited amount of time in your day, I would recommend that you pace yourself, too. If you get take out one night, it isn't the end of the world (but try to request no plastic utensils or straws). Think small, then let the mindset grow in your life.
Basic Goals I live by:
Goal 1: Reduce or eliminate plastic
Goal 2: Choose Reusables/Eliminate single use plastic
Goal 3: If you compost, choose compostables.
Goal 4: Make do with less | Use what you have | Question needs vs. wants
First Step: TV
When my family got rid of cable TV, all of the following things on this list got easier. We got rid of cable to save money, but a natural byproduct was fewer "wants." Since we almost never see commercials, we can make more intentional decisions about food, clothing, cleaning products, etc. We have no idea what we are missing, and we are happier for it. The real bonus is that our kids don't see commercials, so they have no idea how deprived they are. If you aren't ready to give up cable, I would recommend watching shows on demand to avoid commercials.
Cost: Big money saver, even if you get a service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. We spent over $100 per month on cable, and now spend less than $30 per month on streaming services.
Ease: Depends on what you like to watch. If you love ESPN, it would be hard to give up cable. If you don't, you might never miss it. I only occasionally miss the ability to mindlessly watch the Food Network or whatever reality show is cool at the moment.
Bring your own. If you don't have reusable, start by adding one to each grocery shop or Target shop for a few weeks. They are usually between 99 cents and 2 dollars. If you have the extra dollar to spend, it is an easy way without making a big dent. Doing things in small steps (with small expenditures) eases us into it without being so daunting. Once you unpack your items, put them in the trunk of your car or on a hook by the door to remind yourself to use them for all shopping (not just grocery).
If you forget your bags or don't have them, choose to go without a bag, if possible (super easy if you have very few items). When in doubt, get paper, not plastic. You can compost it, reuse it, or recycle it.
If you must get plastic (it happens, I'm not judging), do not throw it away. Save it and return it to a store that recycles them or to a school that collects them for recycling.
Cost: Purchasing reusable bags will cost about $10 total, if you want between 5 and 10 bags. Definitely more than the free bag they will give you, but it is a one time expense. You won't need to repurchase for years.
Next time you buy, get a compostable bamboo toothbrush. They are more sustainably made and are biodegradable. Did you know every plastic toothbrush ever made is still in existence? It makes me so sad. I buy mine at our local natural food store or on Amazon. Just order a bunch at a time, so you aren't tempted to buy plastic. If you are in a financial position to do so, say "no thank you" to the free toothbrush when you go to the dentist.
Cost: On Amazon, they average a little less than $2 per toothbrush. This is about what I would spend on a plastic toothbrush, so I count it as an even exchange!
Transition to a paper wrapped (or unwrapped) bar for all of your washing needs! Soooo easy, and it can be pretty, too. Stores like Wegmans and Whole Foods sometimes sell bulk soaps in pretty colors and smells that would be just lovely on a little soap dish at your bathroom and kitchen sink. Your local farmer's market may have some nice options as well. I'm not so fancy, and I just stock up on Dr. Bronners (available at Target, Amazon, and a million other places). I store the bars in my dresser drawers, because I feel like they make my clothes smell nice. That might be a weird thing I shouldn't have said. Bars also replaced all body washes in our shower and face wash in the evening. Just be careful to avoid plastic packaged soap (although a small amount of plastic wrap on a bar of soap is probably still better than a plastic bottle of liquid soap).
Cost: A bar of Dr. Bronners will run you less than $5 per bar and will last at least twice as long as a $3 bottle of foaming hand soap and a $5 bottle of body wash. The bar is cheaper. It isn't totally necessary, but you may want to invest in slotted soap dishes to keep your soap from getting mushy. I bought some like these that I have in our showers and on our bathroom and kitchen sinks. A little money upfront, but the soap lasts longer.
Ease: Super easy
Shop used first. If you aren't picky or like the diamond-in-the-rough experience, try Goodwill or Salvation Army stores. Need something more in line with a normal shopping experience? For women's clothing, I have had good luck with stores like Clothes Mentor. If you are willing to splurge for some high quality staples, find an upscale consignment shop. We have a couple of them in Richmond, and they have supplied me with the only designer items I own. Yes, I buy new sometimes, but I almost always shop second hand first for my kids and for me.
Cost: Always less than new!
Ease: Not as convenient as just going to the mall, because you might have to drive somewhere else if you don't find what you need.
Best option: a bidet and cloths for drying. We aren't there yet in our family, so we recently started buying toilet paper wrapped in paper instead of plastic. You can find it this way in some stores (our local gas station, for one). If you find it cumbersome to buy a bunch of individually wrapped rolls, head over to www.whogivesacrap.org to buy a huge box of 48 paper wrapped rolls. They donate half of their proceeds to provide toilets for those in need.
Cost: Bidets can run anywhere from under $30 for a cold water spray to hundreds of dollars for a warm water, multi pressure set up. I can't speak for any of them, because we haven't made the switch. If you make the change, though, you could certainly save money in the long run.
The paper wrapped TP from Who Gives a Crap runs a dollar a roll, which is a little more than the $.72 per roll I would spend at Costco for plastic packaged TP. In this research, though, I see that I can get a huge box of paper wrapped toilet paper at Costco for about $.50 per roll. If you have a membership already, this would be your best financial bet.
Ease: Super easy. Order online or buy in store if it is available.
This will eventually be its own post, but, if you are comfortable with your body, a menstrual cup is about as green as a period can get (with the exception of free bleeding - my sister sent me a blog she found, recently, and I am happy to decide for all of you that it isn't practical for you. Don't do that). In conjunction with a reusable pad or period panties, you could be done with disposable menstrual accommodations altogether.
Cost: As cheap as $13 for a cup. So, the upfront cost is more than a box of tampons. However, the longterm cost is far less. Period panties are an expensive option, especially if you want enough to get you through an entire period. At $30-$40 per pair, you are looking at a big investment that will pay for itself over the course of years, not months. That said, they are pretty amazing. Reusable menstrual pads (so many cute options on Etsy - because you wouldn't want to bleed all over something not cute) will set you back about $5 per pad. Over the course of a year, it is cheaper than disposable, with a higher upfront cost.
Ease: Easily available online, and, once you are comfortable with it, using a cup is easier than a tampon or pad (no wrapping and throwing away and fewer changes). Period panties and reusable pads are a little more labor intensive, since you have to rinse and wash them.
For more details, check my full post on this here. You can simply cut back on paper towels just by using rags you have in the house. If you don't have rags, cut up old towels or old t-shirts for quick wipe-up jobs. We don't have fancy rags, and I don't feel like I need them. Empty out a kitchen drawer or a basket on the counter to hold rags or towels that are as easy to grab as a paper towel. Have some sort of container readily available to hold used rags if your laundry room isn't right off the kitchen.
Cost: Maybe less than paper towels/ if you have old towels/tshirts/burp cloths you can cut up and use. If you don't have that, you could spend $10 fo six dish towels. There are also some fancier options (like Gleen, available online here).
Laundry - Dryer Balls
When you aren't ready to ditch your Tide, you might find the simple switch from dryer sheets to wool dryer balls to be easier. Clip on a safety pin to help with static.
Cost: You can get a six pack for as little as $10, close to the price of a huge box of dryer sheets, and it is a one time expense.
Ease: Even easier than dryer sheets, since they just stay in the dryer all the time.
Lunches for Work or School
Ditch the paper bags and ziplocks. Replace with an insulated lunch bag and container. We always had these sitting around, so the upfront cost was a non-issue when we switched. If you Pinterest zero waste lunch, you will see an array of beautiful stainless and glass containers. If you are buying new, these are the longest lasting options, BUT, if you have plastic containers in your home, use them!!!! I am a firm believer that we should get life out of the plastic we already own, and delay putting it in the landfill. It will have a long enough life there, eventually. Yes, some people are really wary of using plastics, and that's cool.
Cost: Maybe nothing if you have plastic containers sitting around. They don't have to be fancy. If the plastic containers don't have individual compartments, I use silicone cupcake liners, like these, to keep items separate. If you are buying new, stainless containers for kids lunches will last forever. More expensive up front, but they don't wear down like plastic. These lunch bots are available on amazon for $16, and are big enough for a substantial sized lunch - get them here. My girls like Lunch Bots the best, because they can use a mainstream lunch box. My littlest uses a Planet Box, which costs ten million dollars, but is my absolute favorite. It is perfectly proportioned, and is all in one piece. I lose plastic container tops all the time, so that is a plus for me. Get a Planet Box here. All three of my kids use the Planet Box water bottle, and it is, by far, the most durable water bottle they have used.
That is a long explanation for, moving to reusable packaging for your lunch could cost you about as much as a package of brown bags and some ziplock bags, if you buy plastic and a cheap lunch bag. It may take closer to a year to break even if you go for a stainless lunch system.
Ease: Easy. One time expense, and it's no harder to pack in a container than ziplocks. You do have to wash the containers between uses, so you might want to have a couple of spare lunch containers.
Where to shop:
When you can, shop local. When you can, shop natural, bulk, non plastic. When that isn't practical, choose stores that tend to have the things you need with less packaging. In a perfect world, I would have the time and money to hit all the stores I need to in order to stock my kitchen and home with zero waste products (bulk, bakery fresh, meat from the butcher, etc.). This is not a practical choice for me, so I pick and choose. Feel free to do the same. I shop bulk at a local store most weeks, and I bring my own bags and containers to the regular grocery store. Even so, I can't find some less waste options locally, so I still use Amazon, as well. I don't beat myself up, because, if we purchase these items, the stores will stock them more, making them more accessible to folks who don't have a natural food store or are too intimidated to frequent them. I still count that as a green living win. I have no desire to keep zero-waste and less-waste as a little elite secret. It should be mainstream to make sustainable shopping choices! Target, Walmart, Amazon, and the like aren't going anywhere, so I choose not to sweat it when I need to shop there.
Bottom line: Local is good. Natural is good. When you can make it work.
Cost: Local and Natural will almost always cost you more, but it doesn't cost more just to visit these places. If you work them into your daily travels, you will settle into a routine of what you are willing and able to purchase there and what you should get elsewhere. If this isn't practical, don't sweat it.
Ease: It's more work to shop with a conscience. If you have the means, it is worth it.