12 Tips to Live a Zero-Waste Lifestyle for Newbies & Fun DIY Projects

By: Pauline Williams

The term “zero-waste living” is increasingly popular these days. More of us are beginning to recognize we have one planet and it’s essential we take care of it. But if you’re just getting started on your zero-waste journey, it can feel overwhelming.

To ease your stress as you embark on zero-waste living, here are 12 tips for shifting to a zero-waste lifestyle for newbies. We’ve also included a few fun DIY projects to do at home that will help you get closer to your zero-waste goals.

1. Start Small

With any new habit, you increase your odds of success by starting small. As author James Clear discusses, small wins are key to helping people establish new habits. If you want to become a zero-waste person, you should not try to change your entire life immediately.

Begin by trying one small strategy or idea for zero-waste living at a time. Pick something easy so you won’t struggle to stick with it. Then, after a few days or a week, you can add another small change. Keep building on those small items gradually, and you’re more likely to continue. Try too much at once, and you’ll probably burn out.

2. Follow the 5 R’s

Bea Johnson’s 5 R’s for a zero-waste living provides a good foundation for a newbie looking to live a more zero-waste lifestyle. They are:

  1. Refuse (anything that produces unnecessary waste)
  2. Reduce (anything you don’t need)
  3. Reuse (anything that can be used again or repurposed)
  4. Recycle (whatever doesn’t fit in the first three categories)
  5. Rot (start composting all other waste)

If you want overarching ideas for how to reduce your carbon footprint, following the 5 R’s is a good start. All of the following tips fit into one of these five categories.

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3. Use a Reusable Water Bottle

There’s no need to buy 24-packs of plastic water bottles. Plastics make up a huge proportion of municipal solid waste. If you don’t already have one or two good reusable water bottles, this is an easy step to take to reduce your carbon footprint. Take one everywhere so you don’t have to worry about needing water while you’re out and about.

4.  Consider Carefully Before Buying New

Whatever it might be, think first before you buy something new. Do you really need it? Is there an alternative? Could you borrow the item from a friend temporarily or find a used version that’s equal in quality?

Every new item you purchase comes with packaging. You then have to figure out where to store the item, how to maintain the item, and how long to keep the item. If it’s not good quality, it’ll also end up in a landfill before very long. A great option for new apparel purchases is to look for truly sustainable clothing that will stand the test of time.

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5. Borrow or Buy Secondhand

Often, we rush to buy new stuff because it’s the easiest option available. It’s also what we’ve always done. But the borrowing culture is alive and well, and there’s no reason you can’t ask a friend or family member when you need something. Power tools, for example, might be something you only use once in a while and can borrow from a friend or neighbor.

If no one you know has the thing you’re looking for, there are plenty of ways to find secondhand items for free or for a fraction of the cost of buying new. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, Freecycle, and garage sales are a few options. If you’ve never tried thredUP or The Renewal Workshop, now’s the time to check them out for great secondhand choices. You can also check out local thrift stores and shop for vintage options. This helps keep unwanted items from going into landfills, reduces the amount of packaging waste created, and gives new life to old things.

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6. Avoid Freebies

It can be tough to resist the pull of free stuff. If you go to conferences or other events, they might be handing out free swag like coasters, keychains, and T-shirts. If you’ll actually use the items they’re giving away, then, by all means, feel free to take them. But often, these freebies are poor-quality and not made to last. So learn to say “no” to freebies; that way, the companies won’t make as many of those cheap items.

7. Use Reusable Whenever Possible

So many single-use paper and plastic products are cluttering our landfills, but they’re not necessary at all. Start rethinking your everyday habits. Try to avoid restaurant takeout that uses Styrofoam. Find reusable alternatives to paper towels, toilet paper, and hygiene products. Bring your own reusable tote bags to the supermarket. The list goes on and on.

Toad&Co has amazing reusable shippers from Limeloop you can select when ordering clothing. Made from recycled vinyl, these last for 10 years and are easy to return once your order has arrived. Plus, if you receive anything in one of Toad’s recycled polybags, you can find ways of reusing them to get more life from them.

8. Go Paperless

For your bank account and any other important accounts you hold, you’ll save a lot of wasted paper by going paperless. Companies don’t need to send you a hard copy of your monthly statements anymore; you can get all of the important information in digital format.

9. Grow Your Own Food

Gardening may not be your forte right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn new skills. Pick up seeds for a few vegetables or herbs you use regularly and learn how to grow them. You’ll cut down on the amount of food you need to buy at the supermarket and gain confidence in your own abilities.

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10. Start Composting

Speaking of gardening, begin composting as soon as possible. The EPA says that food scraps and yard clippings make up 28% of the garbage we throw away. Luckily, these can all be composted, keeping them out of landfills and helping your garden grow. Composting is a huge win in your zero-waste journey.

A careful mixture of browns, greens, and water can help you have a successful compost pile. Browns are dead leaves, branches, and twigs. Greens include vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and grass clippings. Check out the EPA’s guidelines for more details on how to get started.

11. Cook At Home

You can reduce your carbon footprint quite a bit by simply cooking more of your meals at home. If you go out to restaurants frequently, especially for takeout that comes in disposable packaging, you’re producing a lot of waste. Cooking at home helps alleviate that problem. (It also saves you a ton of money.)

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12. Fun Home DIY Projects for Zero-Waste Living

There are a ton of items you can make yourself rather than buying. This usually reduces the amount of packaging you bring into your home and often results in a better product anyway. Start thinking outside the box and give some of these DIY projects a try!

  • Bake your own bread. It tastes amazing, and you don’t need the plastic wrapping.
  • Make your own laundry detergent.
  • Make your own home cleaning solutions.
  • Plant starter gardens in old containers (such as kitty litter tubs, yogurt cups, etc.).
  • Create reusable cloth napkins from old clothing and other gently used fabrics.

Conclusion

We all want to leave the earth a little better than we found it since it’s our home. Instead of feeling guilty about environmental issues, take that first small step, and start on your path to a zero-waste lifestyle. No one is perfect, but the more of us that start making these changes, the better off our planet will become.

Pauline Williams is a lifelong environmentalist. She’s worked for a number of nonprofits for the past decade. She’s constantly coming up with new projects and ideas to reduce waste in her home and business.

How To: Natural Tie Dye

As optimists to the core, we are always trying to find the bright spots and silver linings in every situation—no matter how tough. We recently asked our customers what their bright spots were during this global pandemic, and here’s a common thread we kept hearing: Having more time to slow down.

Slowing down comes in many forms, but a lot of you mentioned having extra time for projects, hobbies, family, and making more sustainable choices. So we thought this would be a great time to talk about one of our favorite slow-down, sustainable activities: How to make natural dyes from food scraps (aka tie dye your clothes in the most eco-friendly way).

Using natural dyes to spruce up old clothes is a double win for sustainability: It’s an awesome way to breathe new life into old threads to save them from the landfills—and using food scraps to make the dye is an awesome (and fun) way to make use of your waste in the kitchen. You can use all types of food scraps like avocado pits, walnut shells, and beet tops, but for these instructions, we’re going with two of our favorite natural dye ingredients: onion skins and used coffee grounds.

And a big thanks and shout out to our friend Emma for sharing this step by step guide with us—she’s a textile artist launching her own upcycled clothing line, so yeah, she’s an expert (more on her below).

What you’ll need

  • •Cotton T-Shirt (organic cotton or bust)
  • •Yellow onion skins and/or coffee grounds (two of the best natural dyes)
  • •Rubber bands
  • •A non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enamel work well)
  • •Iron mordant (optional) **

 

What is a mordant?

When dyeing clothes naturally, a mordant is needed to fix your dye to your fabric—otherwise the colors will quickly wash out and fade. Iron (ferrous sulfate) is a a commonly used mordant that “fixes” and “saddens” your colors. It’s one of my favorites and can turn golds to olives and browns right before your eyes! If you’re wondering about natural dyes that don’t need mordant, onions are a great choice. Some plants (like onions) are very high in tannins (a naturally occurring mordant), and do not need additional mordanting with iron or other metallic salts. For this project, you’ll only need a mordant (and some extra lead time) if you choose to dye your clothes with coffee grounds.

To make a mordant at home:

  1. 1. Put a handful of rusty nails in a jar.
  2. 2. Fill jar with 2 parts water + 1 part white vinegar.
  3. 3. Cover and set aside until the solution turns orangey (1-2 weeks).

 

To dye your clothes:

  1. 1. Throw your tees in the wash with a pH neutral detergent (most “sensitive skin” detergents fit the bill). When they’re nice and clean, soak them in a pot of water for at least an hour, but ideally overnight.

 

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  1. 2. Meanwhile, put your dye supplies (coffee grounds or onion skins) in a non-reactive pot, adding just enough water to cover your shirts. Bring the water to a boil and simmer (for at least an hour, but overnight if you can). For this project, I used about 10 onions worth of skin for one shirt and a half gallon bag of used coffee grounds for a second shirt (1 shirt per dye pot). It’s possible to continue dyeing with the dye pots until the color is “exhausted” (aka producing really, really light colors). You can also adjust the amount of natural ingredients to get your colors darker or lighter.

 

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  1. 3. After your shirts have soaked, you can bind them into tie dye patterns.

 

For a bullseye pattern, pinch the center of the shirt and wrap rubber bands at regular intervals all the way down. 

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For a spiral pattern, pinch the center of your shirt and twist. Once it’s fully twisted, rubber band it in “slices.” 

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  1. 4. Strain the dye materials out of your pot, drop in your shirts, and simmer for an hour. Let cool and rinse.

 

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  1. 5. If you’re using an iron mordant, now’s the time. Simmer 1 cup of your iron solution with water for 30 minutes (make sure you use enough water so that your shirts will be fully covered once you submerge them). Remove the solution from heat and dip or submerge your shirts – iron works quickly so this may only take a few minutes. Rinse out.

 

  1. 6. Hang to dry in a shady spot, then wash your shirts with a pH neutral detergent again.

 

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  1. 7. Get excited to wear your new naturally dyed tees!

 

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**A few safety notes: As a general rule, it’s best not to use any pots or utensils for food after they’ve been used for dyeing. If using an iron mordant, keep solution out of reach of children and pets; avoid breathing steam from an iron bath and simmer in a well-ventilated area. Iron mordant can be safely disposed of down the drain in municipal areas. 

 

Once you’ve gotten this technique down, it’s easy to learn how to make natural dyes from plants and other food scraps—and the world is your oyster when it comes to things to dye. Think pillowcases, dish towels, cloth for wrapping gifts (a favorite sustainable trick—get instructions here). When sustainability meets creativity, everyone wins.

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Emma Fern is a textile artist living in Burlington, Vermont. Inspired by the stories and traditions of her Appalachian ancestors, she calls upon the sustainability of age-old techniques like natural dyeing to create contemporary textiles. She’s launching her upcycled clothing line, CNTR, this summer. Follow along on Instagram @cntrcntr