A Beginners Guide to Zero-Waste Living

Zero waste items

Not so very long ago, zero waste living was something few people had heard about. Fast forward to today and it’s top of the list for many eco-conscious people, including me. Would you like to play a part in preserving the planet for future generations? I certainly would, which is why I have created this guide for beginners.


words Dawn Cowles

An Introduction to Zero-Waste Living

As a mother of four, I wasn’t overly concerned about the future of the planet when my children were young. I seemed to be so busy making ends meet that buying in bulk, ditching plastic, and making sure every meal contained all the necessary nutritional elements wasn’t high on my list of priorities. I also have to hold my hands up and confess that processed foods were a godsend. There also wasn’t the information available that there is nowadays. I often struggled to make the right choices.

The internet has opened my eyes to the harm we’ve been causing our planet. Our overuse of plastic, burning of fossil fuels, needless spending, and preoccupation with eating meat with every meal has been causing havoc for decades. Now it’s got to a point where we need to do something about our greed. I, for one, am wholeheartedly behind the idea of zero waste living, and I hope you’ll join me.

It can seem a very overwhelming thing to do, so I’ve compiled a few tips to help you.


The Guide to Zero-Waste Living for Beginners

Write Down the Reasons Why You Want to Go Zero Waste

This is a good place to start because it clarifies the reasons why you made such an important decision. Let’s face it, for many, it can be life changing. It certainly was for me, and it makes shopping a whole new experience.

Having the reasons written down also gives you something to refer to when your determination is waning. There are going to be times when you wonder what you’re doing. Being able to remind yourself of the reasons should help you get back on track.

Let me share my reasons. If you understand where I’m coming from you’re welcome to make them your own.

  • Remove single-use plastics from my life
  • Eat healthier meals
  • Save money
  • Support local businesses
  • Help preserve the planet for future generations
  • Help to keep natural areas beautiful and reduce the amount of litter
  • Reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfill
Plastic bottles, the polar opposit of zero waste living
Figure 2 – how much single-use plastic do you use daily?

Start by Eliminating Single-Use Items

It’s all too easy to get carried away with the idea of removing waste from your life and end up feeling totally overloaded. The whole idea of going zero waste is to make life less complicated not the opposite.

A good place to start is by ditching single-use items, for example, paper napkins, plastic utensils and plates, plastic water bottles and carrier bags. Here are some swaps I made:

  • Paper tissues – handkerchiefs
  • Paper towels – cotton cloths
  • Plastic containers – metal or glass containers
  • Plastic water bottles – reusable bottle made from wheat (glass, bamboo, or stainless-steel work just as well)
  • Plastic carrier bags – canvas shopping bag (one tip: keep a few in the car. It takes a while to get into the habit)
  • Plastic produce bags – sew your own produce bags from old clothes or pillowcases
  • Kitchen sponges – wooden brush and rags
  • Plastic toothbrush – bamboo alternative (I’ve not made the swap yet, because I’m waiting for my plastic one to reach the end of its life)
  • Aluminium foil – reusable products are available made from waxed fabric. Silicone mats can be used for lining pans

Don’t Rush into Buying Zero Waste Products

Spend a few hours looking around your home and you might find there’s no need to go out and buy new products. Have you got any empty glass jars, for example? Wash them thoroughly, and use them for storing homemade treats, dry bulk foods, and leftovers.

Are there any old shirts hanging up in the wardrobe that you no longer wear? Cut them up and repurpose them as handkerchiefs, shopping or produce bags.

Second hand shops, a great place to try zero waste for beginners
Figure 3 – charity shops or flea markets are great places to buy new clothes

Buy Second-hand Whenever Possible   

There’s a huge second-hand market, and you’ll be amazed at the bargains you can find. I for one, haven’t bought any new clothes for a couple of years now, and I feel in no way deprived. In the UK, almost every town has a handful of charity shops selling second-hand clothes. In the US there are thrift stores. You’ve probably got something similar wherever you live. There’s also eBay and countless other online stores.

Buy second-hand, and no new resources are needed to create them. The items have already been made. They also tend to be much cheaper than buying new, and you’re keeping them out of a landfill. It’s a win-win scenario, whatever way you look at it.

Think, Think, and Think Once More Before Buying an Item

The West, in particular, has caught the bug of overconsumption. So many of us think nothing of replacing something if it’s broken. How many times have you ended up on the High Street because you just needed some retail therapy?

There’s nothing wrong with window shopping or replacing items when they break. The important thing is to try and avoid buying things just for the sake of spending money.

If you see something you like take a step back. Think before you reach for your debit card. Do you really need it? Is your life going to be any better if you buy it? Is life going to become worse if you don’t have this item in your life?

Listen to a snippet of this Ted talk. It might make you re-think the way you shop.

Is an item so essential that it has to be replaced? Perhaps a relative has a spare one they don’t use? Maybe you can buy one second-hand?

Try Making Things Yourself

Many of the items you commonly buy come swathed in plastic. Make-up, processed food, snacks, toiletries, and cleaning products all come wrapped in plastic packaging. If you’re really committed to the zero-waste cause you can replace them all with something home-made.

I experienced a eureka moment when I made honey-roasted peanuts and honey-coated popcorn for the very first time. I’m never going back to buying them from the supermarket again. Yes, they take some effort to make but it’s totally worth it. Homemade crisps are another revelation.

Three compost bays, the perfect way to make your kitchen zero waste
Figure 4 – with your own composting area you can turn your garden and food waste into composting gold

Any Gardeners Amongst You? You Have to Try Composting

If you’re a gardener and haven’t yet explored composting you’re missing a trick, possibly the easiest way to get into zero waste for beginners. You can build your own composting area with materials you’ve probably got lying around. Alternatively, invest in a compost bin or tumbler. If you don’t want to make your own compost or haven’t got the space for such a venture, make use of your local garden waste and food recycling service.

A garbage plow moving through a sea of waste
Figure 5 – the amount of waste that ends up in landfill is staggering

If you think there’s nothing wrong with organic trash ending up in the landfill you couldn’t be further from the truth. It doesn’t decompose because the waste is simply dumped in a hole and it’s not aerated. Having both organic and inorganic material all mixed together also creates the perfect atmosphere for preserving. Methane is the by-product of these materials being dumped together, and we all know how bad that is for the environment.

Here’s a list of some of the things you can compost:

  • Eggshells
  • Nutshells
  • Toilet paper cores
  • Grass clippings
  • Flowers
  • Plant matter
  • Wood ashes
  • Hay or straw
  • Herbivore manure
  • Leaves
  • Tea and coffee grounds
  • Natural fibres such as wool, cotton, linen, silk, and hemp
  • Pizza boxes
  • Paper bags
  • Fruit and veggie peelings
  • Unbleached paper
  • Newspapers
  • Vacuum dust

You shouldn’t put food such as meat, fish, bones, dairy, oil, and grease into your compost because these attract rats.

Final Thoughts on Living Zero Waste for Beginners

Learn to Appreciate Your Possessions

As a society, we’ve become very accustomed to throwing something away when it breaks or stops working. Consumerism is a disease that is slowly spreading across the world. I’ve noticed a change here in Bulgaria where I now live, and it’s not a welcome change at all.

Markets around the world are now flooded with cheap goods, and it’s these that tend to break within a short period, prompting the consumer to go out and buy a replacement. Good quality products that are built to last are still produced. The issue is that they typically come with a hefty price tag. Nevertheless, purchasing products that are built to last generally saves you money in the long run.

If something does break then don’t immediately discard it. Take the time to check whether it can be repaired. If not then look for ways to repurpose it. Treating your possessions with the care they deserve is also going to mean they last longer.

Whether you’ve just started your zero-waste journey or are as yet undecided, I hope you find these tips useful. Keep checking in when you’ve got the time because I’ve plenty more to share.  

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