The whole zero waste lifestyle can seem pretty intimidating when you first start. With all the habit shifts, sustainable swaps, and more education than you got in grade school, it’s overwhelming! To that end, I’ve created this giant zero waste FAQ post to address some of the questions I hear most often.

Use the handy table of contents to jump directly to what you’d like to know about or simple scroll through the whole post. Most of the answers contain links to even more detailed posts. (Remember what I said about all that education and learning? It never stops!)

Best of luck and if you have another specific question for me, leave it in the comments below!

What’s the easiest way to try a zero waste lifestyle?

Practice the first R: reduce. Not only is it the very first tenet of zero waste, but it’s the single easiest way to drastically reduce your waste and save money. Plus, it helps you avoid the common trap of “oh, I’m zero waste! Now it’s time to buy all the pretty (unnecessary) zero waste items!”

Here are a few simple ideas on how to practice that first R. Refuse:

  • plastic produce bags (make your own produce bags from old fabric!)
  • going out to eat (less food waste and you won’t have to worry about straws/plastic cutlery/etc)
  • packaged produce (only choose produce that comes unpackaged and get creative in the kitchen)
  • single-use products (rather than separate chemical-filled cleaners for each part of the house, DIY just one)
  • buying unnecessary items (doing a trash audit is a great way to focus on those items)

Zero waste is accessible to everyone – at some point on the scale, obviously not everyone has the same ability to access zero waste resources. Still, the ability to refuse costs no money and no extra time.

What’s the biggest misconception about zero waste?

Easy: that zero waste is actually zero or that many years of waste can fit into a Mason jar. If anyone pushes either of those, be very skeptical and aware that they’re vastly oversimplifying our waste problem. Zero waste goes so far beyond what trash ends up in your personal trash can.

For more on this, read my post on why zero waste isn’t actually zero. Then, try these four challenges to move you beyond the ‘Mason jar mindset’.

How do I find local zero waste friends?

It’s tough! If you’re not in a major city with a pre-existing group it can often seem like there’s no one who cares. Not so! While there may not be people who are explicitly zero waste, there are people who are eco-friendly, care about reducing the toxins from their home, or like doing DIY projects. All of these people can be pulled into the zero waste movement by hosting fun events that are only partially zero waste.

The single fastest way to get something like this going is to join my Zero Waste Community Building Weekend, where we deep dive into how to set up your community and enjoy zero waste IRL. I’ll give you the exact three-month plan I used to grow Zero Waste Lafayette to 50 members, hold two workshops, and one meetup. In the first three months! You’ll get a workbook and we’ll go through the ways to tailor your plan to your specific community. Let me help you accelerate the zero waste movement in your community!

Isn’t zero waste expensive?

In a word, not really. The year I started seriously practicing zero waste I lived in a food desert without a car. My husband and I barely broke $40,000 combined. For most people buying only what you really need and reducing spending on excess clothing, toys, and general stupid stuff you don’t need will leave some breathing room in your budget. Whether you fill it back up with fewer, higher-end options is up to you.

The one place I concede it is more expensive is when making sustainable swaps for single-use items. For example, a menstrual cup may be $35. In the long run, of course it’s cheaper than buying tampons or pads every month but that’s still a high cost to someone without spare cash. Saving money for investment purchases as well as providing these items to others if you have the means are both ways to get access.

I wrote a whole post about going zero waste on a budget which talks more about our experiences as well as gives practical tips on living low-waste on a tight budget.

How do I make my [partner/mom/friend/etc] go zero waste with me?

I’ve written a whole post about how to go zero waste with a partner that doesn’t care, but it really boils down to having a lot of patience. Unfortunately I’ve got to parrot advice like “be the change you want to see” and “lure them with the aspects of zero waste that appeals to them most”, but I have a few more actionable steps in the full post.

I also like to frequently reference a famous marketing statistic: consumers need to have on average seven interactions with a company before they buy something. And zero waste isn’t just a single product, it’s a whole lifestyle change! So small, positive interactions with zero waste as often as possible is probably the best way to slowly influence those around you.

How far can we go in taking responsibility for others’ trash?

A good follow-up question to the previous, someone asked me this on Instagram and I thought it was a great thought! It’s a difficult question to answer and definitely depends on who you are and your personality. My short answer is: take as much responsibility as you can without hurting others or burning yourself out.

The longer answer is that there are some ways we can influence others. We can put up signs where we work/live and encourage people to dispose of items properly. (I have dug around in the trash at my co-working studio and recycled it while people were watching. I’ve taken home recyclable materials at a party where they wouldn’t recycle them.) The other side of that is that people make their own individual choices and that’s something we can’t force them to change. Do what you can but influence softly and in ways that won’t cause you to lose your mind!

Do compostable products like straws or bags really make a difference?

The short depressing answer is: no. (For a more nuanced look at the issue check out this post on how eco-friendly compostable products really are.) Biodegradable products are only useful if they are properly disposed of (basically, composted) which restaurants and homes almost never do. So these “biodegradable” products end up fossilizing in the landfill – they don’t get oxygen so they end up emitting methane, which is 20x more harmful than CO2. Plus, you have to think about the resources/manufacturing/transporting costs associated with those products.

Please please please think critically when you purchase “eco” products. Do they really add any value to your life or could you get by without them? What do you need to do to make sure they’re disposed of properly and will that actually happen?

How do I have a zero waste pet?

You don’t. Pets aren’t zero waste and never will be so if that’s something that really concerns you, don’t have a pet.

That being said, there are ways to reduce waste by choosing compostable or recyclable packaging for food, treats, toys, litter, etc. I don’t like to comment too much on specific options just because it varies so much from place to place. Do local research to see what you can source bulk! I also love what someone said on my Instagram feed: something along the lines of “pets have a much lower impact than any human ever will”.

NB: being smart > not sending things to the landfill. Throw away cat litter – their feces often contains a disease that can be very harmful. No flushing and no composting unless you’re sure it’s going to be used very far from edible plants.

What zero waste period options are out there?

Tons. I have a whole post on zero waste period options and at least one is likely to be a good fit for your needs. From menstrual cups to reusable pads to period underwear, options are there and you need to be willing to experiment a little to find the option that’s best for you.

And if you don’t want to use reusable options? Well, there aren’t waste-free options and there’s a pretty limited amount of options you can feel good about regarding bleaching chemicals. I do know Thinx has some tampons available. Even then, the water usage for cotton is a huge consideration. And I honestly don’t know enough about any of them to comment on with 100% certainty.

I don’t have bulk near me – I can’t go zero waste, can I?

Let me once again shout from the rooftops: even if you have access to bulk, zero waste isn’t zero. There’s so much packaging, resources, and energy behind the scenes of your purchase. NO ONE is living even close to waste-free. (If they are, we don’t hear from them because they’re totally off-grid.)

But to be a little more practical, here are some ways you can get near zero waste groceries without bulk. Shop smart, mimic bulk, and choose packaging that can be repurposed or recycled where you live. We can all make drastic reductions in our waste without bulk options.

That’s it for now! As I said at the start, feel free to leave other questions in the comment section below and I’ll add them to the zero waste FAQ!

A giant zero waste FAQ post - Green Indy Blog


Green Indy is a blog about zero waste, minimalism, and generally being less of an a**hole to our Earth (Indianapolis, specifically) by me, Polly Barks. I’m a writer, teacher, and a natural-born researcher/experimenter.

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