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Move Toward Zero Waste in 2021

Cassandra Hemenway

The phrase “Zero Waste” has been bandied about by gorgeous thirty-something Instagrammers long enough, so most of us have at least heard the term. It can seem like a nearly impossible goal, especially when the social media mavens hawking it have professional photo shoots of their not-quite-full-pint jar of yearly trash (while the rest of us do our best and still have to lug a thirty-gallon bag to the dump every couple of weeks).

I promise, I’m not going to suggest you reduce your trash to one mason jar per year. But I do have ideas for how to get started.

I can’t name all of the good reasons to start down a zero-waste path, except my own. I am appalled at the volume and toxicity of waste that abounds in everyday living in the U.S. I take small steps in my personal life to change that, with the understanding that a full-spectrum soup-to-nuts approach is necessary and must start with product and package design. However, I believe the small actions of many people can influence and change larger systems. In this spirit, I invite you to try one or more of the tips below.

A good place to start is with the five Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, as advanced by Zero Waste lifestyle blogger and author Bea Johnson. This is just one way to structure your commitment to Zero Waste; another might be based on the old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”

For today, I’ll focus on the Five R’s.

Refuse: Every purchase is an opportunity to ask: Do I need it? Do I already have it? Can I get it second hand? If it will be a new purchase, can I afford a higher quality item that will last? Can I live without it? “Refuse” is the most powerful of the Five R’s.

Refusal Tip: When grocery shopping, favor produce without packaging. Most major grocery stores carry “naked” produce. Farmer’s markets, CSAs and home gardening are all good ways to get produce without packaging as well.

Reduce: Reduction cuts across all aspects of our lives from clothing to household appliances, to food. The goal of reduction is to use or buy fewer materials, most of which ultimately end up as waste in one form or another. That may mean making do with what you have or buying one high-quality item that will last thirty years rather than a less-well-made version that may break or be obsolete in a few months.

Reduce Tip: Reduce food waste by planning meals, shopping only for what you need (even if it means foregoing that discount on buying six items or more), or learning recipes that incorporate all parts of the food, such as stems, peels, stale chips, or even cheese rinds. Use vegetable scraps and bones to make broth for soup bases or sauces.

Reuse: Reuse means getting the maximum life out of an object before consigning it to landfill or recycling. Buying secondhand is a great example of reuse. Reusing glass jars rather than recycling them is another example. Choosing reusable items over disposables significantly reduces landfilled waste.

Reuse Tip: Avoid single-use items by using reusable shopping and produce bags, coffee cups, water bottles and utensil kits. If you’re already doing that, a good next step may be replacing paper napkins with cloth. Many of these items can be found at thrift stores, received from friends and neighbors who have excess (tap into your neighborhood listserv), or accumulated slowly over time.

Recycle: It’s better to recycle than landfill, but recycling is only one part of the solution for sustainable waste reduction. Recycle after you have refused, reduced and reused. It’s important to check with your local solid waste management entity to learn exactly what goes in your recycling bin.

Recycling Tip: Ask your local solid waste management team for a handout about what goes in and stays out of the blue bin.

Rot: After reducing food waste, feed what you can to animals or compost the rest. Depending on where you live, you may be able to compost in your backyard, but that’s not the only way to “rot” food scraps. You may have a local food scrap curbside pickup service, or a convenient local drop off site. If not, post on your listserv to find out if any of your neighbors want extra materials. Gardeners love compost and may welcome your food scraps, so they get more compost for their vegetable beds.

Rot Tip: Contact your local solid waste management organization to learn local food scrap disposal options. You may be surprised how easy it is to separate food scraps and manage them as a valuable resource rather than as “garbage.” Added benefit: your trash will no longer stink!

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to going Zero Waste, but if you try any or all of the tips above, please congratulate yourself. Moving toward a zero-waste lifestyle takes constant consideration and a willingness to slow down, rethink, and make small changes that accumulate over time.

Cassandra Hemenway is the outreach manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District. She writes and teaches zero-waste skills that include composting, recycling and finding alternatives to toxins in your home. She’s an avid gardener and a big believer in small steps leading to big changes.

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