I'm sure you've heard of the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle", right? Well, in the Zero Waste community we add a couple extra R's into the mix. I live by the phrase "Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot, Recycle", in that order. Here is an upclose and personal look at each of these categories to start you on your Zero Waste journey!
Top 10 Things We Should Be Refusing:
1. Straws- Plastic straws are my biggest pet peeve. Many people use them ONCE and then toss them...they cannot be recycled. They contain BPA (ew) and use fossil fuels to produce. More than 500 million disposable plastic straws are used in the United States every day and would fill more than 127 school buses daily, or more than 46,400 school bus loads per year. My favorite thing to say to a bartender is "I'll have a margarita with salt and NO STRAW please." I have 2 stainless steel straws that I bring with me all the time, just in case I need a straw.
2. Bags (both paper and plastic)-According to the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World report, each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That's over one million plastic bags used per minute. In 2015, plastic bags came in 2nd to cigarette butts in the trash. These bags (and most other single use plastic) take up to thousands of years to break down, and they usually end up in the stomachs of marine life. Or littered on the ground. I have 4 reusable grocery bags and life has never been easier.
3. Take out containers- Bringing your own take out container to the bodega or restaurant reduces the amount of plastic or styrofoam (GROSS) is used, creating less demand for production. If I know I'm getting food out somewhere, I take a container that I already have with me to have them put the food into. It saves them money and it helps save the planet!
4. Receipts- Thermal receipt paper contains BPA and cannot be recycled or composted. Plus, you touch the receipt, then go about your day touching your face, mouth, etc with the toxin all over your hands. Many places are able to email your receipt to you, so if you need the record that's a great option.
5. Single use coffee cups- According to a study conducted by Starbucks and the Alliance for the Environmental Innovation (in April of 2000), each paper cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24 lbs of CO2 emissions. If you buy just one cup of coffee or tea in a disposable cup every day, you’ll end up creating about 23 lbs of waste in one year. Carry your own cup!!
6. Single use water bottles- Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation. Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year. However, the U.S.’s recycling rate for plastic is only 23 percent, which means 38 billion water bottles – more than $1 billion worth of plastic – are wasted each year. Plus the tap water here in NY is better regulated than bottled water. Klean Kanteen sells awesome stainless steel reusable water bottles!
7. Plastic silverware/Paper napkins- Again, plastic stinks! I carry my own bamboo flatware (from to-go ware) and cloth napkin (made by a friend) in my bag at all times. You never know when you'll need them! I ordered a bunch of cloth napkins from someone on etsy to have in my home for meal time. I haven't had paper towels in my apartment in over a year!
8. Freebies- free samples at the store just generate more plastic waste.
9. Business Cards- This is one of my favorite things to refuse. If someone offers me a card, I simply take a photo of it and hand it back. Business cards are expensive and people are usually grateful to hold onto theirs.
10. Junk Mail- Who loves junk mail, raise your hand. Noone likes junk mail!! Call your bank and those pesky credit card companies and whoever else is sending you junk mail and ask them politely to take you off the list.
What you reduce is a very personal thing, based on location, family, and finances. Here's a few things that I've done to reduce:
1. I only take and buy what I need. My New Years Resolution was to only shop secondhand and small business for the year, and it has been wildly successful and it's reduced my waste while plumping up my wallet!
2. I use one bar of soap to wash my face, hands, and body... and one bar of soap for shampoo and conditioner. I have a loofah that was grown from a loofah plant and I use a super classy safety razor. That's 4 shower items I use as opposed to face wash, body wash, hand soap, foot wash, etc. We don't need all those chemicals on our bodies and my skin has never looked better.
3. I reduce energy and water use by not using hot water except in the shower and I turn off the water in between dishes when I'm washing them.
4. I reduced the energy I use by letting my hair air dry and then styling it, and I never preheat the oven.
5. I live in NYC, so walking and public transportation are the norm, but if you're in more of a suburb, perhaps invest in a good bicycle? Carpooling is always a good way to cut down on pollution as well.
When I purchase a product, I evaluate it's entire life cycle. Where did it come from? How long will it last me? What will I do with it when I'm done? For this reason, I still have tons of plastic take out containers from my pre-zero waste days. Once those break, then I'll invest in some more stainless steel or glass tupperware. I also re-use all the jars I had from before zero waste (and I collect other people's empty jars as well) instead of buying cute new mason jars. While glass is way better than plastic, it still takes energy to make. Many things that I reuse are listed above in the "Refuse" section, so take a look! In addition, when I shop at the Farmers Market I always give back the containers/rubber bands/etc so that they can be reused. Same with hangers from the dry cleaners if I ever have to go (which is very very rare). What things do you use daily that can be reused?
Rot just means to compost. You can compost just about anything except plastic. You just have to make sure if you're taking your scraps to a facility to be composted that you know what they'll accept. I take mine to the Tucker Square Greenmarket on the Upper West Side, and Earth Matter is their composting facility. You can compost food scraps (Earth Matter takes about 30% meat for their compost), toilet paper rolls, paper bags, coffee grounds, coffee filters, tissue paper, cooking twine, hair (both animal and human), etc. It not only gets rid of the need to buy plastic garbage bags, but food waste sent to a landfill is buried and decomposes in the absence of oxygen which produces methane, a significant greenhouse gas. Plus, it's so awesome to know that you've helped create soil! Visit earthmatter.org for more info!!
Recycling is my last resort. It's of course a good start, but it was a good start 30 years ago. Plus, I discovered that after going zero waste I didn't use as many recyclable things anyway! Is recycling better than the landfill? YES. Does it have it's own issues that should be avoided? YES. The only things I recycle are the cans of wet cat food and the bags that his litter and dry food come in. Oh, and right now I either reuse or recycle wine bottles, but I'm on the hunt for an artist who will take them for their projects! Why not just recycle? Well, several reasons. One is that contamination gets around. An aluminum spray can that held lead paint may get recycled into an aluminum soda can...those toxins will stay within the aluminum. Another reason is that air pollution is still a problem. Various recycling plants have been deemed high priority violators by the EPA, and one plant in the northwest has even owed $962,000 in fines for violating the Clean Air Act for the last 5 years. Lastly, we have paper sludge (EW). Paper is recycled by soaking it, smashing it down, and wringing out all the waste fibers, dyes, cleaning chemicals, etc. Those toxins then flow freely into the earth and air. YUCK!!