The Zero Waste movement has been growing since the beginning of the 2000s, and especially recently due to bloggers like Kathryn Kellogg at Going Zero Waste. The zero-waste lifestyle is quickly becoming more mainstream and is reaching a wide audience.
A really common topic that comes up a lot in the zero waste community is things we can swap that will reduce the amount of waste we create. There are tons of YouTube videos and blog posts out there full of ideas like carrying a reusable water bottle, using your own grocery bags, and of course infamous reusable straws.
All these swaps are great ideas and can be really helpful for people seeking to reduce the waste they create. But all of these ideas can be overwhelming for someone new.
For someone brand new to the zero waste lifestyle it can seem expensive to buy all these alternatives to wasteful items. Especially since usually these swaps are to use something more long-lasting which is usually more expensive. This can make the zero waste lifestyle daunting to newcomers and might discourage people from making these changes.
The thing is, zero waste swaps aren’t all or nothing. You don’t have to buy every swap in order to live a perfectly zero waste life. In fact, you shouldn’t!
In this article, I’ll talk about three common zero waste swaps, and how you can do them without buying anything new! The swaps you can DIY are
- cleaning rags (sometimes called “un-paper towels”),
- produce and bulk bags, and
- glass storage jars.
While it’s great that more people are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, it’s more important than ever that we’re conscious of the impact of every product we buy. Shopping second hand and repurposing what we already have is a great way to minimize our impact.
You don’t have to buy every zero-waste swap out there. In fact, you probably shouldn’t.
One of the 5 Rs (an updated version of the 3 Rs we (hopefully) all learned about in school) is to reuse. Lots of products have already been produced and manufactured. Instead of buying something new every time we want or need something, we should see if we can get it secondhand, or if we can make it ourselves with stuff we already have.
Kitchen / Cleaning rags
Paper towels, a staple in a lot of North American homes, are incredibly wasteful and bad for the environment. And it’s not just the trees that are being cut down; fossil fuels are burned transporting materials between factories and then to stores, factories require energy to process the materials, tons of water is used, and harmful chemicals such as bleach are leaked into the environment during manufacturing.
Single-use items are a modern by-product of companies trying to increase profits, and a lot of us have fallen for the marketing that tells us we need to buy these items. We don’t!
You can find them reusable cleaning rags on Amazon to replace paper towels. If you’re particularly creative and care about aesthetics, there are also lots of tutorials out there about how to make “un-paper towels” which are more or less fancy reusable rags.
If you don’t care what your rags look like, there’s an easy DIY to make un-paper towels for free!
If you have stained or damaged clothes you’re about to throw away (or promotional shirts you never wear), it takes less than 5 minutes to take some scissors to it and make yourself some rags that you can use once or twice on spills, and then keep in a bin until you do laundry.
Bulk / Produce Bags
Most grocery stores provide thin plastic bags for carrying your produce and bulk goods home. This is another single-use item that humans did without for a long time and can continue to do without. The alternative? Reusable fabric or mesh bags.
There’s lots of reusable bulk and produce bags you can buy online, and you can even get them in some stores.
This DIY swap requires a little bit of skill with sewing to make yourself. The reusable produce and bulk bag tutorial by The Kiwi Country Girl is really easy to follow.
Whether you’re buying bags from someone, or buying fabric to make your own, consider the material it’s made with; some fibers, such as cotton, require a LOT of water to grow, which adds to the impact that cotton bags have.
Just like reusable cleaning rags, these can be made by reusing fabric that may otherwise go to the landfill. So by using old sheets, thrifted curtains, or something else, you can make your produce and bulk bags with very minimal environmental impacts.
Once you bring your bulk goods home in your reusable bags, you’ll need a place to store them. That’s where jars come in.
The zero-waste community is full of pictures of impeccable shelves of food and items stored in glass jars. It can be really tempting to buy a case of (NEW) mason jars on Amazon (I made this mistake when I first started switching to a more environmentally conscious lifestyle) but think twice!
Remember, EVERY item we buy new had to be manufactured and shipped to us, and the resources used to produce it had to be extracted and transported to the factory. So we always want to find ways to avoid buying things that are new; whether that’s by reusing what we have or buying something second hand.
Think of all the different pantry items that you can find at the store packaged in glass jars and bottles. Often, once we’re done with them we toss them in the recycling. But recycling should never be our first step! We should start by finding a way to reuse them.
Some ideas for items you can get in glass jars include sauces, pickled vegetables, fruit, and jam. The extra upside of buying pantry items for the jars is that you’ll even further reduce the plastic you get rid of. Double win!
I’m not saying you should never buy anything. Oftentimes, the superior craftsmanship of someone else is necessary. But what I am saying is this:
Don’t blindly buy every zero waste swap someone suggests. Consider whether you will use it. Reflect on whether you already own something similar you can use instead of buying this. Decide if you can reuse something you own for this purpose, or if you can get it second hand.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the zero waste things you should be doing. No one can be perfect, and it’s okay to transition at your own pace. You don’t have to do everything, all at once. And things that work for others, might not work for you. And that’s okay.