Here is your complete beginners guide to zero waste living! This beginners guide is useful for anyone, anywhere in the world looking to start their journey towards a zero lifestyle.
This guide will be especially useful for those of you in Australia as I’ve included some specific examples and resources for you. However, not to fret if you’re not in Australia, you will still learn a tonne!
Keep reading to…
- Find out what zero waste living is and how it can benefit your life and the planet
- Get tips on where to start your zero journey
- Find out where you can buy package free and zero waste items in Australia and overseas
- Learn how to dispose of items responsibly
So, let’s get to it!
What is zero waste?
The general idea is that a person can reduce their waste to zero, none, nada! At first, you might not think it’s possible but people do it!
You will see people who can fit a whole years worth of trash in a mason jar. This is generally their landfill waste as most people still recycle. However, the idea is to reduce the amount of waste you produce in total, so people try to recycle as little as possible as well!
Does that make you feel a little overwhelmed? Don’t worry, I felt the same!
My idea of zero waste living should probably be called ‘low impact living‘, ‘low waste living‘ or ‘zero waste-ish‘. The idea of reducing your waste down to a mason jar can be extremely daunting! And depending on your life, this just might never be possible.
Instead of focusing on being perfect and achieving ‘zero’ waste, let’s go for ‘low’ waste instead! This will be much more achievable and will allow you to build up momentum and keep going rather than beating yourself up for every slip.
This is a journey and you have just found the perfect place to start! Sustainable Simply is a community. I’m here to encourage you and help you along your journey as I trod along mine. Follow me on Instagram and subscribe to this blog for tips to help you along your journey! You can also join the Low Impact Living Facebook Group to find a group of like-minded individuals you can ask questions and share successes!
Why should you go zero waste?
So what’s in it for you? Luckily, a lot!
There are many reasons a person might want to reduce their waste. These might be to save money, reduce their environmental impact, improve conditions for the people who make the food and things we buy, improve their health or learn new skills. These are just a few examples of the manyyyy benefits!
But first, it’s important that you know what your why is. Keeping reading to find out why you need to know your why (ha!).
Know your why
Simon Sinek has a fantastic book and Ted Talk called ‘Start With Why’. Basically it presents the idea that unless you know your true reason for doing something, it’s going to be pretty hard to keep on doing it. This could relate to anything in your life.
For example, you want to start going to the gym but can’t seem to get yourself there. When you think about it you realise your reason or, your ‘why’, for wanting to go to the gym is actually because you want to people to think you’ve got a hot bod and not because you actually want to improve your health.
When we look at this we can see that maybe the ‘why’ you’re doing this thing isn’t strong enough to achieve the outcome you’re hoping for. If the ‘why’ was to improve your health and feel stronger, you would probably keep going to the gym (which would eventually result in that hot bod after all)!
You might be wondering why we are talking about all of this. I talk about habit change a lot on this blog as I believe it’s important for all aspects of life. Wanting to go to the gym is no different from wanting to reduce your waste. They’re both going to involve changing your habits! How else are too going to remember your reusable coffee cup every day? And that’s just the beginning!
If you really want this lifestyle, it’s important you know why. This will help your keep going and stay motivated on those days when you really can’t be bothered!
So what brought you to this page? Do you need a change in your life? Are you feeling ready to begin a new journey?
Take some time out to figure out your why before you go on.
Why I choose zero waste
I chose this lifestyle for multiple reasons. They can be broken down into two categories – environmental and personal benefits.
I’ve written a whole blog post on the environmental and personal benefits of a zero-waste lifestyle. If you ever needed any encouragement or reasons to reduce your environmental impact, you will find countless there.
When I started reducing my waste, I learnt how long things take to break down and that every piece of plastic ever created still exists today (Greenpeace). I also learnt that recycling isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be and 91% of plastic isn’t recycled (Natioal Geographic, 2017).
I also realised that living this resulted in huge personal benefits! These include:
- Saving money
- Learning new skills
- Improving my health
- Slowing down and finding more time for things that matter
So now that you know all about the environmental and personal benefits of a zero waste lifestyle, I’m sure you’re itching to get begin!
Read on to find out how…
This may sound obvious, but when things are too restrictive, it’s difficult to do them. I find its best not to restrict yourself with too many rules when starting to reduce your waste and impact. However there are two rules you can use to guide your choices along this journey! So let’s get to it.
Rule 1: Use the “5 Rs of Zero Waste”
I’m sure you have all heard of reduce, reuse and recycle but what about refuse, reduce, reuse, rot and recycle? The are the 5 Rs of zero waste. These are an updated version of reduce, reuse and recycle with refuse and rot added in. So what does that really mean? I like to refer to the triangle shown in the image below as a guide to reducing my waste.
Rule 2: Buy as much as you can second hand
Buying second hand is one of the easiest ways to reduce your environmental impact and save a bunch of money! You will also take more notice of the things you bring into your life resulting in you having less junk and more quality items that last.
When we buy something new from a store, we are creating demand for that item and for more of them to be produced. If it is a product or brand that has terrible conditions for it’s workers or a huge environmental impact, every time we buy it, we are supporting that brand and saying:
“hey it’s okay, keep going”.
Alternatively, by not buying this product or from that brand, we are saying:
“no, I don’t support you and you need to change”.
This is a much better option.
NOTE: If you want to take it further (and you should!) you can even email that brand and ask them to do better or explain why they won’t. Not buying their product is one thing but letting them know why is even better!
I for one, won’t buy something new unless it ticks multiple boxes. The brand should:
- Have fair wage and work conditions for the people who made it
- Have a low environmental impact
- Use non-plastic or recycled packaging
- Use cruelty free practices (if animals are involved)
- Be a local and small business (not always a necessity)
It can be hard to find brands and products that tick all the boxes! And most of the time, when I do, they are far too expensive for me to afford. I understand why they are more expensive but unfortunately most of the time I just can’t pay it.
That’s where second hand shopping comes in!
Whether the brand is sustainable or not, it doesn’t matter if you buy it second hand! That item is already made, someone has already bought it and it’s out there in the world. If you buy it, you won’t be directly supporting that brand. What you will be doing is stopping an item going to landfill and reusing something that someone might have thrown out otherwise.
If you want sustainably made, quality items, then that’s great! I encourage you buy as much as you can second hand. Buying eco friendly brands is well and good but at the end of the day, this still creates demand for a new product to be created! By buying second hand, no matter what it is, you will get it for a fraction of the price and stop it from going to landfill.
More on where to buy second hand items later.
Reducing your waste is not about buying new ‘stuff’ it’s about using what you have until buying something new is the only option. I like to use “The Buyerchy of Needs” shown below when I think I need something.
What I do when I think I need to buy something:
- Ask myself if I really need it, do I already have something I can use instead or can I simply go without?
- If still want it, I look for it second hand generally on eBay or Facebook Marketplace. If it’s not there, I save a search on eBay so I will be notified when it becomes available!
- I wait ! This is the most important part. In this time a few things can happen… I could get over the trend and realise I don’t need it anymore, a second hand one could become available online, I could mention to a friend I needed one and they might let me use theirs or more often than not, I will come across is it in an op shop (call it manifesting or whatever you want but having an idea of what you want and waiting works!).
- After anywhere from weeks to months I generally find exactly what I was looking for or something very close to it for a fraction of the cost of if I had bought it new!
- Only after his whole process if I can’t find it second hand and I still reallllllllly want it do I search for an environmental and ethical brand and buy new.
With some patience I promise you will generally find what you are looking for second hand and save so much money in the process! Check out the Buy Nothing Project for inspiration!
So now you have your two rules to help you out along the way and there is only one thing left to do… start! Keep reading to find out how.
Where to start
Start small! You want this change to be sustainable and long term, not just for the planet but also for you. Like most things, it will be easier to start small and move on to the next thing when you feel ready instead of tackling everything at once!
Find a community
If there was only one piece of advice I could give on where to start your journey towards a low waste lifestyle, it would be to find a community of like-minded people!
I never understood community until I lived in one of the most remote towns in Australia. Having a community made everything so much easier and I gained a sense of fulfilment helping others and finding my tribe. I am now living in a capital city again but unlike before, I have a community!
You can find your community in your local neighborhood, through local groups or online (my favourite and simplest option).
I have a Facebook group called “Low Impact Living“. Members share handy resources and ask each other questions as they journey towards a low impact lifestyle.
Other Facebook groups I love:
- My local “Buy Nothing” group – find your local ‘Buy Nothing’ group
- My local neighbourhood group – search your neighbourhood to see if you have one
- My local “Zero Waste” group – The Rogue Ginger has a fantastic list of the different groups all around Australia. See her post to find yours.
Strategies to get you started
There are a few ways you can tackle your waste. I’ve listed the different strategies in order from simplest to more advanced depending on where you’re at on your journey.
So where to begin?
1. Do a “trash audit”
A trash audit allows you to see waste you produce and if there are any common themes. Here is how you do it:
- Grab a piece of paper and a pen (or you can type if you’d like to go paperless!)
- Make three columns on your page by drawing two vertical lines
- Title each column like so “Item”, “Number” and “Alternative”
- Now empty out your landfill. If you have multiples of any items, put them together in a little pile.
- Now write down what you have! Each item will have it’s own row. Write down the item name and how much you ahve of it in the first two columns.
- When you’re down you will be able to easily see what items you are throwing out the most. Pick one or a few of the things that you are throwing out the most of and start here.
- Do a web search on ecosia for plastic free or package free alternatives for the items you chose and write down what they are in the third column. If you can’t find any alternatives, you can ask the community on the Low Impact Living Facebook Group! If you still can’t find any alternatives, find better ways to dispose of them instead of putting them in the bin. We will go through how you can do this later on.
- Keep this list! Once you are confidently avoiding those first few items, choose some others from the list, find alternatives and keep going.
- Repeat this exercise in a month or two and see if your list is any different! And you guessed it… keep going!
2. Focus on one space in your home
You’ve done a trash audit, swapped out a few things and are feeling ready to take it to the next level. You could try and focus on one area of your home and reduce your waste there first. A lot of our waste is produced in the kitchen so it might be overwhelming to start there. Maybe you could start in the laundry or study. Choose a smaller place so you can tackle that first and build up confidence and momentum.
3. Tackle a specific material e.g plastic
Once you’ve hit the ground running and built up your confidence you could try and tackle a specific material. You could try and cut out plastic, styrofoam or whichever material you like. I started reducing my plastic first by finding plastic free alternatives or buying things in glass or carboard packaging instead.
4. Reduce your recycling!
Once I had cut plastic out of my life, I decided to take it a step further and tried to avoid buying products with packaging altogether.
For example, I used to buy pasta in plastic, then I started buying pasta in a cardboard box, now I get it package free from the bulk store. This is the goal as even though glass and paper might be easier to recycle than plastic, they are still single-use items, meaning they are only used for one purpose before they are disposed of. In this case, their ‘single-use’ would have been to package the pasta. By opting for reusable or package free alternatives for items, we are avoiding a whole bunch of single-use items, meaning they don’t come into our home and don’t end up in landfill -success!
If you completed the ‘trash audit’ outlined above with your landfill, it might be a good idea to do it with you’re recycling when you are up to this step!
This time, make two more columns on the page. Title one ‘material’ and the other ‘recycle’. For each item or group of items, write down what specific material it is under the ‘material’ column – look on the packaging to find the type of material and be specific e.g. “PET” or “silver-lined carton”.
Next, google what exact materials can and can’t be recycled on your local council’s website. In the last column titled ‘recycle’, note whether it can or can’t be recycled. If it can’t be recycled you can google if there are any other places that can recycle it in your area. More on this in the disposal section below.
5. Still not sure where to start? Think about ‘The Snowball Effect’
The ‘snowball effect’ is a term accountants use when they talk about paying off your debt. You would find your debt that has the highest interest rate but is the easiest to pay off and start there. Basically you are starting with something easy but also something that has a huge impact. You will notice the change and be motivated to keep going! Rather than starting with something that is hard and has a big impact which you may discourage you from keeping on going!
This strategy can be applied to reducing your environmental impact! Think of one thing you do that has a huge impact that you can easily swap out. For me it was by starting composting. By throwing my scraps in the bin they were producing greenhouse gases that I could easily avoid. You might start by having Meat Free Mondays or by taking public transport, walking or riding more. It’s up to you! Choose something you can own and build on when you have it down!
Choose any of the strategies outlined above or work through them one by one. Keep reading to find out where to buy zero waste items.
But first! A word on de-cluttering…
A word on de-cluttering
When you’re just starting out it can be tempting to throw out everything you don’t use or need and start again! The Marie Kondo and Minimalism trends are great but this isn’t the most sustainable thing to do! You don’t need to throw out your old plastic food containers and go and buy flashy new glass ones. This wouldn’t be very sustainable. No matter how ‘eco’ a product is, the most sustainable option is not buying anything at all! Use what you already have until you can’t any longer. Remember the third R of Zero Waste… reuse!
The most sustainable option is not buying it at all.
If there are things you need to get rid of, dispose of them properly. Don’t feel overwhelmed with how much stuff you have and the amount you might want to get rid of! As you begin your journey towards a life with less impact, you will buy things with more intention and only bring things into your life that you truly need. As a result, you will use all of the things you have more and have less to dispose of in the future.
This just shows how much time things take up, whether it be working to earn the money to buy them, going out and buying them, cleaning and taking care of them and eventually finding ways to reuse or dispose of them.
Where to find zero waste items
A big part of reducing your waste involves finding alternatives for certain items. This means you may have to buy some things. As I outlined earlier, it’s always best to use what you have first and if you still need to buy something, try and buy whatever you can second hand! Of course, some things you may still need to buy new, and that’s okay too. Read on to find out where you can buy both!
Where to buy second hand items
Find a huge range of second-hand goods from furniture and gardening supplies to clothes. Set up notifications for specific items you are looking for so you don’t miss new listings.
Your local neighbourhood may also have a ‘Buy, Sell, Swap’ page which you can search for things on. I prefer to use my local buy and sell page as it means I don’t have to go as far to pick things up.
You can also always try your local Buy Nothing group as people give away a bunch of fantastic things here. Don’t be afraid to write a post and ask if anyone is seeling a certain item if you are searching for something specific. Freecycle is a similar website where people list things for free.
This one is specific to Australia and I’m not sure I even have to explain it! Similar to Facebook Marketplace and what I imagine craigslist is like.
I use the eBay app mostly for clothes and branded items. You can make a specific search e.g. ‘Gorman size 10’ and save the search so you are alerted every time a new item with that criteria is listed! Make sure you tick used in the condition box for your saved search. If there is something specific you want you will find it you might just need to wait a little while!
Depop is an app that lets people sell their preloved clothing. You can make a pretty penny selling your clothes you don’t wear here. If you buy something, be sure to ask the seller to ship in a reused or recycled bag.
Finding second hand things in person is half the fun of it! Find furniture, clothing, plants and other goods at any of the following:
- Op-shops or thrift stores
- Garage sales
- Second hand markets and ‘car boot sales’
Where to buy new zero-waste items
You can find zero waste and eco-products at any of the online stores below. However, I encourage you to look at your local bulk and health food stores first and support local!
Zero waste products for everywhere in the home. An Australian company and women-owned. Shipping within and outside of Australia.
Zero waste products for the kitchen and bathroom. Australian company. Shipping within and outside of Australia.
Biome is a fantastic online store with a huge range of items from the kitchen, to bathroom and clothes. I often buy people presents from Biome, like this marble and stainless steel safety razor I bought for my Dad. Shipping within Australia and international.
Amazing for natural and plastic free beauty products! They have organic makeup, skin care, gifts and health products. Best of all if you sign up you can get free shipping no matter how much you spend! They ship in boxes and paper too!
Small Australian business. Huge range of catering and packaging, cleaning, kitchen and lifestyle products.
Where to dispose of items
Okay team, this is the last little bit of this gigantic post, you made it! You have learnt what zero waste is, you know where to start and now you just need some tips on one last thing… where you can dispose of items!
Every year the average Australian family produces enough rubbish to fill a three-bedroom house, producing about 2.25 kg of waste each per day.Ha, Tanya, 2009, Green Stuff for Kids, Melbourne, University Press, Victoria, Australia
Set yourself (and your bins) up for success!
First, we need to set you up for success! This one is simple but it’s important so don’t skip it! All you need to do is grab some extra bins so that you have the following:
- A landfill bin
- A compost bin (if you can)
- A recycling bin
- A soft plastics bin
- A box for ‘random recycling’
- A box for things you want to sell
- A box for things you want to donate
TIP: In addition to setting up new bins, I encourage you to take some away! I took out the small bins I kept in our office and bedroom. This means we have to take our trash to the main bin and sort it properly. The extra effort of taking it to the bin also makes you think about your waste. Eventually you will produce less and less waste and won’t need them anymore anyway!
Keep reading to find out more about what goes in each bin!
You learnt about the 5 R’s earlier. This outlines that before disposing something we should first try to reuse and, or repair it first! But of course we can’t reuse everything and sometimes you’ll have to dispose of things.
Always ask yourself if you can reuse, repair, recycle, sell, donate or compost an item before you throw it away. Unfortunately, if you can’t do any of those things, it will have to go in the landfill bin.
If you’re wondering how to line your bin now that you’re reducing your plastic, don’t fret! Line your bin with newspaper instead.
This one should have even been first because it is SO important! Read my blog post on how composting fights climate change. Basically, when you compost food scraps instead of putting them in the bin, they release less methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Luckily, there are a bunch of different composting methods, each suited to a different type of living situation. If you are in an apartment, try a worm farm or bokashi bin. If you are in a house, try to set up a traditional compost bin.
Alternatively, see if your local council has a organic composting program as you may be able to put your food scraps in your green bin. Your appartment block or work might also have a shared compost bin (if they don’t, you could set one up!).
You can also search and see if anyone in your neighbourhood has a compost bin you could use on ShareWaste.
If you completed a recycling audit earlier than you will have a good understanding about what can and can’t go in your recycling bin. If you haven’t done a recycling audit, now is a good time!
If your city has a recycling guide, stick it on your fridge or print out a guide to keep on the side of the bin so no one in your household gets confused.
Recycling has to be clean and dry! Give things a wash before you put them in the bin.
As with landfill, before you recycle something, try and reuse it first! If you don’t want to reuse it, give it away to someone who will (see donate).
Your state might have a container collection scheme where you can receive 10c for a container. If you don’t need the extra cash, keep you containers and give them away to someone who can take them to the collection centre and make a profit
TIP: Keep the glass jars your food comes in for storage. Turn juice bottles into watering cans. Pop flowers in glass bottles and use old aluminum cans to house succulents. There are a bunch of ways you can reuse items destined for the recycling bin!
Remove labels from glass jars and bottles by soaking them in hot soapy water. Peel the labels off and use coconut oil and a rag to get rid of the sticky stuff,
You can recycle soft plastics at Coles or Woolworths through the Redcycle program. Like your other recycling, soft plastics need to be clean and dry.
How do I tell if it’s a soft plastic? Do the scrunch test!
Soft plastics are the ones that you can scrunch up in your hand like potato chip packets and plastic bread bags. Takeaway containers and other harder plastics can’t be “scrunched” so these ones should go in the recycling.
Australia’s War on Waste program questioned whether soft plastics were actually recycled at Redcycle and they couldn’t get a clear answer. As far as I know the plastic is sent overseas for recycling there.
Recycling soft plastics is better than nothing but I’m not confident these plastics are actually recycled! I have tried to reduce my use of soft plastics in the first place so I have less to recycle.
TerraCycle recycles a bunch of random items you wouldn’t usually be abe to recycle. They have paid and free programs where you can post in certain types of items to be recycled.
Items you can recycle in their free programs include bread bag tabs, oral care products, Nescafe capsules, writing instruments and coffee bags. Check their free recycling programs page to see what they are currently accepting.
They also have drop off locations in capital cities. Many health food and bulk stores also have collection points where you can take your things to be recycled at TerraCycle, saving you posting them yourself. It’s worth calling around to some local stores to see if they offer this service.
Recycling clothes, fabric and shoes
I cut up clothes and fabric that are beyond repair and use them as rags! I keep a mason jar of them under the sink and in the kitchen, I use them to remove makeup, use as napkins and replace paper towels.
You can turn your old clothes and fabric into rags and donate them to your local ‘Mens Shed’ or mechanic.
Keep things you might be able to sell in a box so that you can sell them all at once when you are ready! This way you can photograph and upload a bunch of items online all at once rather than doing it one by one.
If the item is still perfectly good, try and sell it! Why not try and make a bit of extra cash and recoup some of the money you spent on it in the first place?
See the list on where to shop for second hand items to find a bunch of places you can sell your second hand items!
If you shop second hand it’s often easy to sell an item for the same price as you bought it, If you had bought it new you would probably have to sell it for a fraction of the price.
Last but definitely not least, keep a box for donations.
For years I took all of my donations straight to the op shop (or thrift store). I never thought about whether or not they would be able to sell it again or not. Out of sight out of mind right?
I soon found out that most of what gets donated to op shops ends up in landfill, just the same as if I had thrown it in the bin.
The Salvation Army alone spends $6 million a year on landfill fees for unsaleable donated goods nationwide.(ABC, 2018)
When we buy an item we take on the responsibility of figuring out how to dispose of it properly when we are done with it. Dumping it at an op shop and passing on that responsibility to them isn’t fair.
So where should you donate things?
- If the item is still in good condition and you think it can be sold, take it to the op shop.
- Post it for free on your local Buy Nothing Facebook group, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace or on Freecycle and see if anyone else can reuse it and might take it off your hands
- Try and find an organisation that might be able to use it. Places like homeless shelters, food banks, animal shelters, disability homes, kids groups. Think if anyone might be able to make use of the item and give them a call to see if they’d like it!
- Animal shelters will take old towels and blankets that are too damaged to be donated. Mechanics and Men Sheds will also take them to use for rags.
- Daycare centres will generally take plastic containers and miscellaneous goods to use for play time.
- If you have plastic cutlery or straws you don’t need anymore because you bought reusable ones, donate them to a disability home as they will use them
- Food and canned goods can be taken to Foodbank Australia
Where to next?
So that’s it my friends! Well, actually, no it’s just the beginning but your journey low to impact living will be a lifelong one so you best settle in!
We covered a lot in this post, I know. But if you asked me what the most important piece of advice in this post was, it would be to find your community!
Subscribe to this blog and join the Low Impact Living Facebook group! I and your fellow members in the community are here to help. Plus, any journey is funner with friends!
Comment below if you have any questions or thoughts, I always love to hear from you!
With love, as always,
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