Zero-Waste Tips

10 TIPS TO LIVE PLASTIC FREE AND ZERO-WASTE

By Ainhoa Perez Garijo, Science Communication & Media, The Rockefeller University

 

Read about Ainhoa's journey to a Zero-Waste lifestyle here.

 

Living plastic-free and zero-waste is much easier than you would imagine. Here are 10 tips to keep your trash almost (if not completely) empty.

 

1. Realize.

The biggest problem of plastic (and waste in general) is that it’s invisible! We are so used to disposable items and to products packaged in plastic that it’s hard to realize the huge problem they actually are. To start becoming aware, you can “study” your garbage. For example, collect all the plastic items that you would throw away or recycle in a month and try to think of alternatives. Or go one day to the supermarket and take the challenge of buying everything plastic-free (no plastic bags, wrappings, containers, windows, stickers, inside liners…). It will help you start “seeing” the plastic.

But if you decide you’ll try to do just one thing, do the single most important thing: get informed! Watch documentaries (“A Plastic Ocean” is one of my favorites), read articles, attend lectures, watch Youtube videos or TED Talks… about the effects of waste (and plastic in particular) on the environment, on animals, on people… Changes will happen spontaneously each time you learn something on the topic.

 

2. Refuse.

Refuse single-use plastics, especially the big 4:

  1. Plastic bags: take your own bag to the stores (it´s a good idea to always carry a few reusable bags with you). If you forget your bag, only buy what you can carry in your hands.
  2. Plastic bottles: If you are going out for the day, take your own glass or stainless steel bottle filled with tap water. You can refill it in any water fountain, bathroom or restaurant/cafe you find on your way. If you want to drink soda, juice, lemonade… stop in a nice café and have it to stay, buy it in a glass bottle or ask if they can poor it in your bottle.
  3. Plastic cups: take your own reusable cup to buy your coffee, or have the coffee to stay in a china cup. If you go with children to a restaurant, always ask the waiter not to bring plastic cups for the kids. If you were not quick enough or some other waiter brings plastic cups, ask them to take them back. Most probably those cups will be thrown away, but if many people do that the waiters might start asking in advance.
  4. Plastic straws: ask for no straw with your drink. If you really like to drink from a straw buy a glass, stainless steel or bamboo one and take it with you. Ask restaurants to join initiatives like “Skip the straw, save a turtle” and only serve straws upon request and/or switch to paper straws.

Other things you can refuse: disposable cutlery and chopsticks (take your own bamboo or metal ones), take-out containers (take your own container in case you have leftovers), freebies in conferences and vendor shows (every time you get one of those free pens you are creating a demand to make more), junk mail (call/write/email the company to unsubscribe or use the help of sites like catalogchoice.com), napkins (take your own cloth one, which can be useful for many other things too).

 

3. Compost.

Food waste makes most of the trash that is generated in most households. You can ask your building to join the Organics Collection Program. This will make composting very convenient and also you’ll be able to compost all kinds of food waste, animal products included. Otherwise you can take your food scraps to Green Markets (but not animal products) or even have your own composting bin at home (which is easy following a couple of simple rules). Collect your compost in one/several containers, that you can wash and reuse (avoid plastic bags, even compostable ones). If you are going to keep them at home for a long time you can put them in the fridge or freezer until you take them to the compost collection site.

Besides composting, make sure that you don´t buy food in excess, and make sure you cook it, eat it or freeze it before it goes bad. When buying, pick produce that doesnt look aesthetically perfect… tons of food are discarded just because of their “incorrect” shape. And try to buy as much as possible in Farmers Markets: not only you will support local farmers, but you will also reduce pollution from transportation and avoid the very annoying stickers in fruits and vegetables.

 

4. Take your own containers to stores.

This is probably the easiest and most efficient way of reducing your plastic waste. Think about it: for every single thing you buy, you get a new container each time, and after you are done with the product inside (in many cases in just a day or a a few days) you throw away the container and buy a new one again. But if you use the same container over and over again, you only need one container for the rest of your life! It might sound very complicated to do, but it´s actually really simple. Start by taking your own tote bag to the stores and make that a routine... take the challenge of never accepting a plastic bag again. Once you have stablished that habit, just keep several bags (cloth or plastic, but that you´ll wash and reuse) and a few containers of different sizes inside your shopping bags (plastic containers are great because they are very light and you probably have lots of them around, but if you want to go totally plastic-free you can use mason jars or stainless steel containers). Use them to get your produce (avoid the fruits and vegetables that come in a bag or container), rice, pasta, chickpeas, lentils, beans, quinoa, oatmeal, nuts, dried fruits, snacks, chocolates (you can find all these in bulk), olives and pickles, peanut/almond butter, bread (a cloth bag or old pillow case is best for this), pastries (in bulk or in bakeries), cheese, fish and meat. For non-food items, you can also use your own containers to buy laundry detergent, dishwasher, cleaning products, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, body lotion...

Best places to buy all these things in NYC:

 

5. Look for plastic-free alternatives or make your own.

If you can´t find something in bulk or package-free, don´t worry… there are always alternatives. You just have to think out of the box and be open-minded and creative. Many of these things sound crazy when you first hear about them (I know because they sounded crazy to me too) but you might be surprised on how many of these alternatives are often tastier, healthier, cheaper and/or more convenient that the typical products you are used to. Here are some examples:

And as a general rule, if there is something you want and can´t find package-free in stores, look for a way of making your own. There are plenty of easy recipes online for everything!

 

6. Get rid of your trash can.

Once you manage to greatly reduce your garbage, this is the best way to get as close to zero-waste as possible. Collect your remaining trash in a cup or jar in the kitchen counter, and throw it in a trash can in the street when you need to. This will make you much more aware of everything you dispose of. And it also means you won’t use plastic bags for the garbage!

And even before you get to that point, try picking up some bulky items from your trash can and throwing them outside… it will greatly reduce the amount of plastic bags you’ll need to use.

 

7. Repair, repurpose or donate.

Fix your non-working items, sew your broken clothes, be imaginative and make with them something new, or use something else you already have to replace them. If you want to get rid of something, think of donating instead of throwing away. For unusable clothes and shoes a good alternative are the Fabric Recycling points in most of NYC Green Markets… they’ll use them to make insulating material. For other items, check www.earth911.com or download this app.

 

8. Buying.

The single most effective way of not producing waste is not buying! Every time that you want to buy something, ask yourself: do I REALLY need this? Can´t I reuse or repurpose something that I already have instead? Or borrow it from someone? Or can I just wait? (We are so used to getting exactly what we want in the same instant we want it, that it might sound radical to suggest, for example, to stay thirsty or hungry for a while, until you get home or some other place where you can have something to stay, instead of immediately buying a bottle of water or a bag of snacks. But think about the true cost of these purchases: the materials that have been used, the energy, the shipping… and then the disposal of a package that will never go away. Waiting for half an hour might not feel so dramatic if you keep this in mind).

If you really need to buy, then buy second hand and products made from natural materials (organic cotton, wool, wood...) and with minimal or no packaging. The best of all: start a “Thrift Shop” or “Sharing Room” in your building, where people can donate stuff they no longer use and get things they need. If you want to buy something new, some good options are the Package Free shop I mentioned before (www.packagefreeshop.com) or the online store Life Without Plastic (www.lifewithoutplastic.com).

If you want to buy a gift for someone else think of experiences instead of material things: a subscription/tickets for a museum, theater, opera..., an online gift card for a bakery, a restaurant or a spa, a cooking/music/dancing… lesson, a trip… The options are innumerable and the gifts are way cooler.

 

9. Recycling.

Recycling should be the last resource, only when you have something that you couldn´t refuse, reduce or reuse. Even though it´s better than sending something to landfills, it still takes lots of energy and carbon emissions to transport and recycle something (not to mention that collection involves tons of plastic bags). Additionally, plastic recycling is especially problematic and, contrary to glass or aluminum, it is usually "downcycled" into less desirable products that can no longer be recycled. It is estimated that less than 10% of all plastic waste actually gets recycled into a new plastic products, most of it ends up in our landfills and in our oceans. So try to make every effort to avoid plastic, even recyclable ones.

With that being said, in our journey towards zero-waste, many times our first steps were looking for products and packaging that was recyclable or made from recycled materials. So if you don’t usually recycle or you think recycling could be a good starting point for you, that´s great, but don´t stop there... keep thinking of ways to get your recycling as close to zero as possible.

 

10. Tips to live "below-zero waste".

- Start a conversation about plastic pollution and zero-waste with friends and family.

- If you see there are only a few reusable cups, forks, plates left in a cafeteria and you have your own or can go without them, leave the reusable ones for someone that would otherwise get the disposable ones.

- Pick up plastics from the street and throw them to the trash or recycling bin. While you are at it, take a picture and log it in Litterati, a really cool citizen science initiative to map and identify litter.

- Participate in a beach clean-up or volunteer on other environmental initiatives.

- Write to your favorite restaurant, cafe, supermarket, store, corporation and ask them to consider stopping or reducing their use of plastic bags/cups/straws/bottles/containers. In restaurants, you can also talk to the manager, write a note on the check or leave a card asking them to join initiatives such as "Skip a straw, save a turtle", the “Ocean Friendly Restaurants Campaign”, “Be Straw Free” or “Takeout Without”.

- Collaborate with your kid’s school to develop a zero-waste curriculum or implement zero-waste policies. Kids are really empathic and very easily understand that we shouldn’t be harming the environment and its wildlife.

- Talk to your kids about the problems of waste and set a good example for them. They will keep it in mind when they grow up and have to be responsible for their waste.

-Write/call to your political representatives and urge them to ban the use of plastic items, regulate plastic as a toxic substance or initiate a campaign in a site like change.org.

 

And if you need additional explanations, have questions about any specific issue, want to learn more about living zero-waste or have any suggestions, please email us @ scienceandmedia@rockefeller.edu or aperez@rockefeller.edu.

 

10 TIPS TO LIVE PLASTIC FREE AND ZERO-WASTE By Ainhoa Perez Garijo, Science Communication & Media, The Rockefeller University Read about Ainhoa's journey to a Zero-Waste lifestyle here