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Zero Waste 101: Reducing Your Footprint

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Reducing waste is one of the most important steps you can take to lessen the impact your actions have on the environment. Between the food you eat and the electricity you need to power your home, you may not even realize how much you consume, and how much that consumption affects the world around you. We already produce millions of tons of waste every year, but The World Bank expects global waste production to increase 70% by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.

You may not be able to curb global consumption, but you can make an effort to change your own habits. It isn’t as hard as it seems, especially if you start by focusing on waste reduction at home. Here’s what every beginner needs to know to get started:

Decrease Your Food Waste

The food you don’t eat probably makes up a significant portion of your total waste. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that food waste takes up more space in municipal landfills than any other kind of material or item. This makes your kitchen the perfect place to start your waste reduction efforts.

Be thoughtful about the food you purchase. Try meal planning, or at the very least, making a grocery list that you can stick to. Take a look at your fridge and cabinets to see what you already have; that way, you won’t double-buy something and you can plan your list around the food you need to use up.

Store your food properly to keep it fresh for as long as possible. If something is going bad or you know you won’t be able to eat it in time, put it in your freezer so you can use it later. As you begin to cook your food, don’t forget to eat your leftovers and find ways to use up any lingering odds and ends. When you truly can’t use what you have, consider donating it to a local food pantry, shelter, or nonprofit organization that can.

Shop at Local Farmers Markets

When you do get groceries, shop at farmers markets in your area. This is a simple but effective way to purchase fresher, higher-quality food that happens to be better for the environment. Locally sourced food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to you, so it has a smaller carbon footprint. There’s also a larger chance that it was produced by a small, local farm that doesn’t rely on the same harmful agricultural practices as larger farms.

It’s also far easier to reduce waste when you shop at a farmers market instead of a grocery store. The food itself isn’t prepackaged. You can bring reusable bags and containers to transport your food, instead of single-use plastic or paper bags. Further, you’ll be faced with a smaller selection, encouraging you to purchase only the food you need.  

Start Composting

Composting is the process of recycling organic materials and creating compost, or nutrient-rich decomposed matter. All organic materials decompose naturally, but when you compost them, you can create the ideal conditions for decomposition and speed up this process. You can use the resulting compost as an enriching fertilizer in your garden.

There are many additional benefits of composting at home — the primary one being that it reduces your food waste. With less waste, you may be able to cut back on trash pickups, saving on your garbage bill. When mixed in with soil, composting reduces the need for watering lawns and plants, allowing you to conserve water and lower your monthly water bill. With compost, you can spend less on fertilizers and other gardening supplies.

However, you can’t just toss unused food or scraps into your yard and call it a day. You need a designated compost pile where your food can decompose. You also need to familiarize yourself with what can and can’t be composted, as well as how to properly process those materials. Take some time to learn about how to compost, so when you get started, you can hit the ground running.

Avoid Single-Use Items

Single-use items are meant to be disposed of right after they’re used. Often, they are made of materials, usually plastic, that are harmful to the environment and take a long time to decompose. These items are ubiquitous in the modern world, but experts believe single-use plastics are a significant contributor to the climate change crisis.

Though you may not even realize it, you likely go through multiple single-use items each day. Some of the most common examples include:

  • Water bottles;
  • Paper towels and napkins;
  • Cutlery;
  • Straws;
  • Paper cups;
  • Coffee cups;
  • Paper and plastic bags;
  • Food containers and wrappers;
  • Packaging, such as bubble wrap;
  • Six-pack beverage rings.

According to one estimate, only 9% of all plastics have been recycled, even though many plastic items are recyclable. Instead, the vast majority of plastic items end up in landfills or the natural environment. Given our current reliance on single-use plastics, 12,000 metric tons of plastic are projected to meet the same fate by 2050.

For this reason, it’s best to avoid single-use plastics altogether. Look for ways to replace single-use items with reusable ones instead. For instance, try bringing your own to-go mug to a coffee shop so you don’t have to use one of their paper cups, or carry around a durable water bottle that you can refill as needed. If you have to use a disposable item, try to find one that’s made of compostable or biodegradable materials, and dispose of it appropriately.

Be patient with yourself as you adjust your habits, as it’ll take time to get used to them. Start with one or two small swaps, get comfortable with those, and then begin to introduce additional changes when those are second nature.

Rethink Energy Consumption

Waste reduction doesn’t just refer to physical goods; it also encompasses the resources you use, including electricity. Between power-intensive appliances and vampire energy, you consume a significant amount of electricity each day.

In the United States, the average home uses 11,000 kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity each year.  However, there are significant variations in use, depending on location. For instance, homes in the South — ranging from Texas up to the Virginias — are likely to use the most electricity because they rely on air conditioning during the long, hot, and humid summers. 

No matter where you live, there are many ways to start conserving energy. Turn off and unplug any lights, appliances, and other electronics when they aren’t in use. Depending on where you live, you may be able to switch to a prepaid electricity plan, which will encourage you to keep your power usage under a certain threshold each month. Simply swapping out incandescent light bulbs for LEDs can go a long way in lowering your energy consumption.

Conserve Water

Water is another valuable but scarce resource that is all too easy to waste. In the United States, the average American uses over 80 gallons of water each day. Like electricity, usage varies considerably depending on location. For example, California uses far more water than any other state, due to its large population and ongoing drought.

But even if you live in an area where water is abundant, you should still make an effort to conserve it. Turn off the faucet unless you’re actively using it so water doesn’t run unnecessarily. Be mindful about using water in your yard, such as making sure your sprinklers only spray where they’re supposed to and spending less time watering. Take shorter showers; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends keeping showers under five minutes, which should be enough time to get clean without wasting water. 

Learn to Repair Rather Than Discard

Don’t treat your belongings as disposable. Instead of throwing away something that is broken or worn down, try to fix it. You can make your possessions last far longer and keep things that are still useful out of landfills. 

Clothing, shoes, furniture, outdoor gear, electronics, and appliances are commonly replaced at the first sign of wear and tear, but they can often be repaired. You may be able to do some minor fixes on your own, like sewing up a hole in a sweater. Others, like repairing a broken dishwasher, may require some professional help. 

When you do need to throw something away, learn how to dispose of it properly. Familiarize yourself with local recycling laws and follow them closely. Pay particularly close attention to the rules for disposing of hazardous waste — like light bulbs, household cleaners, and electronics — so they don’t cause any further damage to the environment.

Buy Second-Hand Items and Donate Used Goods

Participate in the second-hand economy whenever you can. This means both buying second-hand items and donating your possessions when you no longer need or want them. You can look at thrift stores, local events, and online platforms to both buy and sell or donate second-hand goods.

Not only is purchasing used items better for your wallet, but it also helps reduce waste. You physically prevent more items from ending up in a landfill. You don’t have to deal with the wasteful packaging that typically accompanies new goods. There are even additional environmental benefits, such as reducing the demand for scarce natural resources and lowering carbon emissions associated with shipping and transportation.

Ultimately, it may not seem like much, but a little goes a long way. Your efforts to reduce waste matter. However, these aren’t the only tactics you can use to lessen the amount of waste your produce. In time, you can incorporate other strategies to have an even greater impact on the world.

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