Starting a journey towards zero waste can seem overwhelming at the beginning! Rather than tackling the concept as a whole, I found it helpful to break zero waste down into little chunks.
Zero waste for beginners doesn’t have to be information overload. Enter this zero waste beginner guide.
I’ve compiled the ten most helpful steps for beginners to get a handle on their zero waste practices. Try one or two each week until you feel comfortable with that step – then move on to the next. Along the way you’ll find other questions or practices you want to explore too!
Grab a pen and paper or a note-taking app and get ready to make your zero waste goals become reality.
1. Tell someone about your goals
Start your zero waste journey by sharing your goals with someone you talk to often. A simple “Have you heard of the zero waste movement? I’m going to try to make less trash to help the environment” is enough to start a conversation. There are two reasons for sharing your intentions:
- You create a sense of accountability for yourself. You now have someone that will – likely – check in with you every so often to see what you’ve accomplished.
- You spread the word of zero waste. Your friend or family member may have their interest peaked by your explorations.Who knows – they may cultivate some zero waste habits of their own!
While telling people about your zero waste intentions isn’t foolproof, it is a great start to officially attempting a trash reduction lifestyle.
2. Refuse single-use items
The holy grail of the zero waste lifestyle: refusing single-use items. Single-use items are products created with the intention of only being used once. They’re a huge drain on resources with a fast turnaround into the landfill. Examples of single-use items include:
- plastic bags
- coffee cups and lids
- plastic straws
- paper napkins
- styrofoam containers
- reusable cutlery
You get the idea. The list goes on and on, full of items meant for an ultra-convenient lifestyle with no thought to their effect on the environment.
Luckily, you can avoid these items by either refusing them outright or bringing reusable alternatives when you know you’re likely to encounter single-use items. One great way to do this is by creating a zero waste kit, which is also the next step on starting your zero waste journey.
3. Make your own zero waste kit
A zero waste kit is a small number of items you carry with you to succeed when you’re out of the house. Tailor it to your needs, but a zero waste kit might typically include a water bottle or reusable mug, cloth napkin, fork, cloth bag, and/or a container.
You can see my zero waste kit here. Use it as a base, but make it work for your lifestyle and the situations you’ll encounter on a day-to-day basis.
A word of warning: you may want to pack up everything you could possibly ever need but you’ll get tired of lugging all that stuff around and start leaving it at home. Remember to prepare for very frequent situations, not random what ifs.
4. Try a zero waste DIY
Take control of what you bring into your house and use by trying a zero waste DIY. Especially cosmetics, cleaning products, or food. Doing it yourself can not only help you source items unpackaged, but also make you more aware of what ingredients are actually in the items you use.
To avoid waste, only practice DIY alternatives once you’ve run out of the commercial product. Don’t ditch the plastic-packaged [whatever] while it’s still useable! Instead, identify products that can be replaced once they run out. Then plan for when it happens.
5. Do a trash audit
Think fast: what’s in your trash can right now?
You probably can’t answer that question, can you? That’s kind of the point. Once you get a full view of what you’re actually tossing, it’s easier to pinpoint lifestyle changes to make to reduce your waste.
Trash audits are one of the best ways to ID and plan around the trash you already make. It’s essentially a study of what kind of trash you make. To see more about how to conduct your own trash audit (and see my trash!) check out this post.
I also offer a guided e-book called Minimize Your Trash. It helps outline the process and gives you concrete steps to reducing the waste you identify. It also comes with helpful worksheets to plan and track your progress.
6. Go on a bulk shopping trip
One of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce your waste is to eradicate food packaging. Not only is a zero waste grocery shop the best sort of instant gratification, it’s also a good way to eat more unprocessed foods. (What heavily-processed foods are in bulk? Not many!)
For a zero waste shopping trip, you’ll need to think of what you need to replace. Here’s a handy list of instead of… try…:
- instead of plastic produce bags, try cloth bags. (See your options here.)
- instead of plastic packaging, try unpackaged bulk items. (Use bags or jars to fill.)
- instead of plastic or paper bags at checkout, try bringing your own cloth totes.
Unless you’re in a major city (and even then!), it’s pretty unlikely you’ll be able to get a 100% unpackaged shop every time. But don’t worry – zero waste isn’t really zero. You’ll see a drastic reduction in trash from being more cognizant of packaging waste in the first place.
If you don’t have a store with traditional bulk aisles, no worries! Read more on this post about how to shop low-waste without bulk options.
7. Set 2-3 short-term goals
Especially when starting your zero waste journey, creating tangible goals is very important. Otherwise it’s easy to feel like you’re putting a ton of effort without much reward. Short-term goals are a great way to measure your lifestyle changes. Just remember: any goal you create should be realistic, measurable, and time-sensitive.
Bad example: I will make no trash. (Not realistic, and there’s no time frame.)
Good example: I will reduce my weekly trash from two bags to one by the first of July. (Realistic, measurable and time-sensitive!)
Interested in diving into any of these tasks with more depth and guidance – while also providing zero waste access to low-income communities? That’s what Zero Waste 101 is for:
8. Learn a new skill
Learning skills that help you become more self-sufficient is an important part of reducing your waste and moving away from our linear economy. Instead of buying, learn to create. Skills that compliment your zero waste efforts include:
- sewing or mending your clothes
- cooking or preserving your food
- gardening skills
- making your own DIY products
There are many other skills you could pick up that would be great assets for a less wasteful lifestyle. It all depends on your interests, abilities, and desires. Everyone has different skills, so define your niche and start from there.
You can use online resources such as Skillshare or look for local classes.
9. Switch to a reusable period option
The environmental impact of using single-use period products is probably the simplest, most concrete way to look at the problem. By numbers alone, you generally use about 20 pads or tampons every month. That’s 240 per year or anywhere between 5,000 and 14,000 throughout a full lifetime of menstruation.
While not the largest environmentally detrimental practice you’re doing, it’s still a number worth talking about. Whether you choose to use cloth pads, period panties, or a cup, there’s a simple money and resource-saving product out there for you.
See my full post on zero waste period options here.
10. Share your knowledge with others
The final step of the zero waste beginner guide: passing along your experience to others. Practicing zero waste as an individual is important, but we need whole communities participating to make a real difference. Sharing your zero waste wins (and fails!) with others in a supportive way is critical – and there are plenty of ways to do it!
That’s it! The 10-step zero waste beginner guide: have you completed any (or all!) of these steps? Where did you first start on your zero waste journey?