Going Zero-Waste: 5 Things You Can Do RIGHT NOW!

Recently our friends and readers have been asking us what steps they can take to “go zero-waste.” Maybe they’ve have read that America alone uses 100 billion plastic bags a year. Possibly they are worried about the impact we’re having on marine life, like the whales that are being found washed-up with their stomachs full of plastic. Maybe they’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that’s now twice the size of Texas. Whatever the reason, they want to know what a single person could possibly do to help!

Living a lifestyle free of needless waste doesn’t have to be hard. With a few simple steps you can be on your way! It’s important to remember that striving towards a zero-waste lifestyle is NOT an all-or-nothing endeavor. Every little bit helps! Here are five things you can do to start RIGHT NOW!

1. Carry a “Zero-waste kit” in your car, bag, or purse.

My wife and I realized that the three single-use products we used the most were plastic bottles, to-go products and plastic straws. Instead of using these every day, consider making a Zero-Waste kit with things like reusable cutlery, aluminum straws, a collapsible container and of course, a reusable water bottle. Read more details in our Guide to Building a Zero-Waste Kit.

2. Say no to plastic bags

We buy a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. Here in China, vendors love to bag each item separately. For a while we were each using up to five plastic bags every single day. That’s thousands of bags a year! Not anymore! Buy yourself a reusable canvas bag, sold at any major grocery store. In my backpack I always carry a Trader Joe’s bag for fruits, vegetables and anything else I might buy on the way home from work. Why bag everything separately? It’s all going the same place!

Having said this, don’t throw away the precious plastic bags you might still have at home! Feel free to keep using those! Just try not to build up your supply.

3. Buy in bulk and use what you have

Of course, if you want to buy a bunch of oats, seeds, grains or nuts you can’t exactly put it all in one big canvas bag. I know it’s convenient to stop at a bulk shop on your way home and grab the necessities in plastic bags, but consider bringing some containers with you. This can be free! Use anything you have around the house. We buy a lot of Nutritional Yeast and these large containers are fantastic for buying things in bulk and storing them at home. So what if the vendor gives me a weird look when I ask them to weight my cashews in a Nooch jar? We’re trying to save the world here! And guess what, maybe she’ll go out and tell her friends about the (“crazy”) guy who went out of his way not to use plastic. Another great way to spread the word!

4. Always ask for less plastic

We know ordering online is the easiest way to get what you want easily and quickly. Heck, I post links to products all the time! I’m not asking you to stop ordering online, especially if what your ordering is helping you on your way to a zero-waste lifestyle. Just one suggestion: most websites have a “note to seller” option when you’re checking out. Just put a quick note in there requesting less packaging, if possible. Deos your new collapsible container need to be bubble wrapped a thousand times? No! Do the two sandwiches you ordered from Subway need to be bagged separately? Of course not! Even if they seller refuses, asking can’t hurt. If enough people start putting notes like this in their purchases, maybe companies will start following the trend! If we keep it up, more eco-friendly packaging options will become available.

5. No one is perfect!

Ok, so you’ve got your zero-waste kit, you’re saying no to plastic bags and straws and you’re asking sellers to use less plastic. One day, you forget to bring your straws and your favorite vendor gives you a plastic one. Another day, you really need to order a breakable item that will come shipped in bubble-wrap. It’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about it! Striving towards a zero-waste lifestyle is a process and no one is perfect. No one is asking you to abandon all worldly conveniences and go live in the woods. Remember: EVERY TIME you make a conscious decision not to use a plastic bag, that’s one less bag that could end up in the ocean. EVERY TIME you do remember your zero waste kit, you’ve won a small victory towards a better future.

Being 100% zero-waste is extremely difficult and sometimes seems impossible. But taking small steps on the way there is easy! You’ll save money, have less junk in your car and home, and most importantly will be a constant voice in the growing choir that’s chanting the same thing:

“I can make a difference!”

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Waste-Free Wednesdays: Intro to Zero-Waste Lifestyle

I have been on a journey towards a zero-waste lifestyle since the beginning of this year. What began as an item on my New Year’s Resolutions list sandwiched in between ‘lose weight’ and ‘leave China’ actually ended up changing the way I live and see the world.

Living in rural area of Shanghai has really opened my eyes to the wasteful habits that plague the world we live in. It’s hard to describe the amount of single-use plastic I see littering the streets when I walk to and from work every day. Big cities on the other hand, especially in the West, produce more waste than you can possibly imagine, but it’s all very well hidden.

Until recently, most plastic produced by the USA was shipped to China and the responsibly to deal with it was shifted. But handing your trash to someone else to deal with is not the way to go. Just like simply throwing your recyclables into the allotted containers is not actually the best things you can do for the environment, despite it feeling like a good and productive thing to do.

Recycling is the last option on the “R” list that we had drilled into our heads from a young age. Recently, the list has grown to include even more “R”s that come ahead of recycling.

  1. REFUSE
  2. REDUCE
  3. RE-USE
  4. RE-PURPOSE
  5. REPAIR
  6. And finally, if all else fails, after you’ve re-used THEN re-purposed THEN repaired, THEN you should RECYCLE.

I have learned a lot about sustainability during my journey. Although I’ve been posting tips and updates on social media, a friend pointed out the other day that I haven’t been writing much about it on my blog… and that’s about to change!

After several people have asked me for tips on how to be less wasteful, I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned on my blog in the hopes that others will be inspired to make the world a better place.

One big obstacle that everyone needs to overcome to begin this journey is actually extremely simple and happens to be a good life lesson as well. Everyone needs to realize that ONE PERSON CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!

Sure, when you see the careless wastefulness going on around you, it can be extremely discouraging. Living in China, where the entire population is addicted to plastic has made me question if what I am doing actually matters. They literally buy drinks in plastic-lined cups camouflaged as paper (#sneakystyrene), with plastic lids and plastic straws that they carry in a disposable PLASTIC BAG. But I had a long-term zero-waste friend knock some sense into me.

– “How many bags and bottles do you refuse every day?” She asked me.
– “At least 10,” I told her after doing the math. “But everyone else uses up to 20!”
– “But if you save 10 bags a day, how much is that in a year?”

3,650 bags that would end up in oceans, landfills or incinerated and turned into air pollution. Does that really sound like not making a difference?

Other than refusing plastic, one of the biggest differences I make when it comes to sustainability is being vegan. Don’t panic! I’m not going to tell you that you HAVE to become vegan to save the planet. Simply skipping one meat-meal can apparently save thousands of gallons of water so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing! There are many ways that you can change your diet to make a difference without doing anything “extreme”.

SHOP LOCALLY! If you eat meat, find a local butcher, preferably working with a smaller farm. Not only will your purchases directly help a hard-working family instead of a greedy corporation, but smaller farms tend to treat the animals slightly better plus you minimize the waste that comes from shipping the meat across the country or even from abroad.

I can’t emphasize this point enough: EVERY single seemingly minuscule decision that you make every day can make a HUGE impact – never forget that.

You shouldn’t limit shopping locally to animal products. Find local farmers markets for fruit and vegetables as opposed to stale, plastic-wrapped vegetables full of preservatives in large shopping centers. You can also find a local producer of handmade beauty and cleaning supplies. Not only will it benefit the local economy, but they will be a healthier alternative for you and the world around you.

For example, I buy all natural cleaning supplies made by an Australian couple living in Shanghai. Although they come in plastic bottles, the store offers a discount if you come with an empty bottle for a refill. If you find a similar store in your area, you will only ever need ONE bottle of laundry detergent, window/mirror cleaner, etc.

Of course you can also buy your ingredients in bulk and create your own cleaning supplies. It’s much easier that you would expect, but I’ll share recipes and tips in another blog post. If you’re just beginning your journey towards sustainability, there are many other things to start doing before you become obsessed with everything DIY (like I am).

There’s one more important thing to know about pursuing a zero-waste lifestyle. It may not be the most CONVENIENT way to live, but it definitely is CHEAPER. Yes, you read that right, it is much cheaper to avoid single-use plastic! Warning: you might have to occasionally sacrifice your comfort and immediate needs. But ONLY until you get the hang of it – once you’re properly equipped with your canvas bag, collapsable food container (affiliate link), aluminum straw and re-usable water waterbottle. Again, I’ll write more about this at a later time, but a quick example is buying a safety razor.

In China, a SAFETY RAZOR only costs $10 but in the USA or Europe they can cost up to $100. It can be overwhelming to spend $100 when a disposable razor is so cheap. But unless you lose it, one of these $100 razors is FOR LIFE. I cringe when I think about the countless Venus razors I’ve bought over the years… All you need to buy for a safety razor are blades, that come packaged in paper and cost close to nothing.

If you’re interested in learning more about a zero-waste lifestyle (which I still haven’t fully achieved, and probably never will because I will never stop using toilet paper), follow my blog and subscribe to my YouTube channel! I can’t wait to share my tips and stories about my journey to zero-waste travel as well as all of my successes and hilarious failures.

Have you made any positive changes towards a zero-waste lifestyle? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Wasting Plastic: China & Recycling

China is ahead of the Western world in many ways but is still trying to catch up in others. Wasting plastic in combination with not recycling may be the most baffling thing about the country that is so desperately trying to improve it’s pollution situation. While China has taken many effective steps to reduce pollution, it could do so much more.

Like most people educated in west, I had “reduce”, “re-use”, “recycle” drilled into my head from an early age. When I lived with my parents, I would get scolded by my father for not taking the paper labels off plastic bottles when I recycled them. He would even scrub every glass , carton and plastic container religiously before recycling.

We were also big on re-using and up-cycling. Our kitchen counter was overflowing with bags that we could use again and again until they fell apart. My impressive collection of pens, pencils and markers was stored in cut and spruced up milk cartons and plastic containers. My father was as obsessed with buying expensive office supplies as he was with keeping anything that could be re-used. China could learn a lot from him…

Chinese stores are obsessed with plastic bags. When you buy fruit or vegetables, for example, you have to beg them not to put each one in a separate bag. If you ask for the price sticker to be stuck directly on an eggplant, they will look at you like you’re crazy. Just the other day, my husband came home frustrated for having to argue with vendors. Isaac managed to save five bags on one shopping trip. What if every single Chinese shopper did that? BILLIONS of bags could be saved DAILY.

Online shopping, which I am addicted to because of my newly discovered crafting obsession, is always bittersweet. Everything is in an individual bag, in a larger bag, covered generously in bubble wrap, sometimes wrapped in cardboard and finally taped shut in a box. Even items that are unbreakable. Every delivery results in a huge pile of stuff that could be recycled but won’t, just because we’re in China.

Fortunately, we live in a small village and a lot of people here are very poor. Some make extra money by collecting cardboard and selling it for pennies. We leave all our re-usable items, cardboard and glass next to the trash and everything disappears immediately. So I guess hope isn’t lost completely, but China could really step it up!

*The photo is from Isaac’s classroom. He’s trying to teach 26, six year old children about recycling!