How to Reduce Your Household Waste (without Going Crazy)

Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of attending the town hall at Northampton High School where Senator Markey and Congressman McGovern discussed the Green New Deal. There was a lot of great conversation, and the event filled me with hope that our country might have a chance at becoming better stewards of this planet.

As is the case with so many people, the idea of a looming climate crisis has been on my mind for years, and at times I've felt quite helpless about it. It just seemed like too big of a problem. Sure, I had reusable grocery bags (that I almost always forgot to bring with me to the store), and I would try to recycle things if they were obviously recyclable. But I barely had the energy to follow through with the few things I knew I could do, much less think of solutions for other ways I was contributing negatively to the environment.

When I first started experimenting with zero waste principles, I was pretty gung-ho about doing everything perfectly. Readers who've been following my blog for a minute know that I'm a recovering perfectionist. What I discovered about this approach is that it breeds resentment. There were too many things that I felt the need to deprive myself of while I watched other people consume the "normal" way, the same way I had for years and years until I had my (at the time) recent epiphany. Engaging with the zero waste community online, I realized I wasn't alone in my anger and resentment.

I came to realize that it wasn't good for my mental health to resist society in such an extreme way, and so I take a more moderate approach now. Before we tried zero waste, our household generated a bag of trash every week. Today, on average, it takes us two months to create a bag of trash. We may not be fitting a year of waste in a mason jar - but a few simple switches have made a big difference, and I believe that similar results are achievable for many other households.

Have you been wondering how you can reduce your household's waste without making yourself crazy? There's a lot of wisdom to the mantra "reduce, reuse, recycle." Rather than sweating the small stuff, here are five projects that will allow you to make a significant difference.

Declutter and get organized.

I put this one before the others because even though we were applying the below ideas before we decluttered and got organized, we were previously only able to unlock a fraction of their potential. This was the definite turning point for our household because it freed up the bandwidth we needed to get into some new habits. It was also a major reset for our space and our stuff, allowing us to get clear about our needs and our values. Decluttering and getting organized is not an overnight process, and for a variety of reasons, I urge people to let themselves get used to living with less over time.

Learn about your preferences.

One of the reasons why it can be so hard for people to declutter and get organized is because they know they're going to have to face down some major shopping regrets. I know how painful this can be. At the same time, these painful lessons are how we learn how to do better next time. You know the phrase "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything"? Totally me, pre-tidying, at Forever21 or the beauty aisle. Getting clear on your needs and preferences is one of the many benefits. This creates a solid foundation for shopping that allows you to naturally reduce the volume that you consume without the fear of missing out.

Invest in quality.

I believe in buying the best quality you can afford for many reasons, but this post is about reducing your waste. The faster you wear through stuff, the more waste you'll create, so it's essential to invest in quality. This may mean things are a little more expensive up front - but I believe you save money in the long run. Let's use shoes as an example. Three and a half years ago, I shelled out about four times as much as I was used to spending for a pair of high-quality ballet flats. Those flats are still going strong, but when I was buying low-quality shoes, similar flats might have only lasted me a year. Even if they only last another six months, I will have broken even with my previous spending habit, but I have a feeling that they are going to last a lot longer than that. Because they are good quality, I could take them to the cobbler if and when they need some TLC rather than just throw them out. Investing in good quality isn't about buying the most expensive thing - you can find lots of high-quality items for affordable prices. It's just about taking a look at what you're buying, the materials, how it's held together, its repairability, and making a decision based on that rather than whatever's cheapest.

Replace disposables with reusables.

While the first three projects deal with reducing how much you consume, this tip tackles reusability. I didn't even start doing this for environmental reasons but budgeting reasons. For a few years in our 20s, we had a tough time making ends meet, and so we took a look at what we needed to buy regularly, and disposables were the first to go. The way we saw it was that we were basically throwing our money in the trash. We started by replacing most of our paper towels with torn up t-shirts to use as rags. Anytime we had just enough to invest in another reusable product, we did, just to take the disposable item permanently off our shopping list. There are so many details I could get into here but basically - start paying attention to the disposable products that end up in your trash and google a reusable option. Depending on what you need, there isn't always a good reusable option available yet. But you'd be surprised by how much there is available on Amazon, if not yet in brick and mortar stores.

Learn what's possible in your area.

Here in the Pioneer Valley, we happen to have a lot of resources for reducing landfill waste. In Northampton specifically, we have municipal compost and lots of different reuse and recycling options readily available. This may not be the case in your community, but I encourage you to look into it. You might be surprised! Call your local DPW or log on their website to get the lay of the land. When I first did this, it cleared up a lot of confusion I had about recycling. Recycling systems vary from community to community, and until moving here, I'd moved around a lot. There were types of containers that I didn't realize I could recycle here. In addition to your local DPW, there may also be privately owned waste management companies that provide further options to your community.

While I am grateful to zero-wasters who have been willing to demonstrate what's possible for reducing our waste, you don't need to worry about fitting your trash into a mason jar to make a difference.

With Love & Gratitude,

Anna Brunelle

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