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Making an Impact with Zero Waste: 7 Simple Ways to Get Started

254 million tons. This staggering number is the amount of trash that the US produces annually. Add this to the fact that America’s recycling rate is estimated to be as low as 35% and it’s easy to see why so many feel their efforts to save the environment don’t matter. While it is true that we have a significant waste issue, thinking that individuals can’t make a difference is part of the problem. Individual efforts can make an impact—especially when focused on zero waste.

Zero waste is a collective movement that aims to send no waste to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. It strives to do so by encouraging the use of sustainable materials and resource salvaging to reduce pollution, save natural resources, and protect our natural environment from further damage. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) plays a significant role in this by laying out policies and practices that help individuals and businesses reach this goal.

You don’t need to know everything about zero waste to get started and begin making an impact. Try these seven tips to see for yourself!

1.Say No to Plastic Water Bottles

Problem: As of 2017, the number of plastic water bottles sold per minute hit 1 million.

Solution: Swap to a reusable water bottle. Beyond a bottle at home, you may also want to keep a reusable bottle in your vehicle or to-go bag so you always have one on hand. Many offices and public places now have filtered bottle refill stations.

Impact: If you drink 3 plastic water bottles daily, you can save 1095 water bottles a year with a reusable water bottle.

2.Replace Plastic Bags

Problem: These hard-to-recycle bags take hundreds of years to decompose. Plus, their lightweight build makes them an easy wind target, blowing them into our waterways where they get mistaken as food by wildlife or pose a danger for entanglement.

Solution: While many people are on board with reusable grocery bags, many forget about plastic produce bags. You can either get reusable produce bags or skip them altogether. Those that don’t use produce bags usually leave their produce loose and simply wash it when they get home.

Impact: If you use 7 plastic bags and 5 produce bags on your weekly grocery trip,you can save 624 plastic bags a year by going reusable.

3.Reduce Office Paper Use

Problem: According to Save on Energy, we could build a twelve-foot wall from New York City to Los Angeles with the amount of office paper tossed yearly.

Solution: There are several solutions to combat office paper use to help your business go zero waste. This includes reducing paper needed by using a smaller font size, shrinking margins, and printing double-sided. Other printing paper can be avoided altogether by emailing memos, reports, and meeting notes. Finally, be sure to recycle any paper that is used and no longer needed.

Impact: Aside from tree pulp, each sheet of paper you don’t use saves 3 gallons of water.

4.Illuminate with LEDs

Problem: Traditional lightbulbs aren’t energy-efficient and suck up far more power than necessary. Additionally, they throw heat, which in turn may require more air conditioning during warmer months.

Solution: Swap out the lightbulbs around your home and office for LEDs. Keep in mind that old lightbulbs can be recycled at many home hardware stores.

Impact: LEDs last 20 times longer, so you can save 20 lightbulbs per bulb. Plus, each LED bulb uses 80% less energy to produce the same level of brightness as a traditional bulb.  

5.Skip Buying New Clothes

Problem: Thanks to fast fashion, clothing is piling up in landfills. This wastes the natural resources it took to produce them and takes up landfill space.

Solution: Buy your clothes secondhand and donate any you won’t use to help keep clothing out of landfills. Alternatively, you may want to consider a community clothing swap or a swap among friends. It is the perfect way to get rid of old clothes without tossing them while refreshing your wardrobe.

Impact: You can save approximately 1,800 gallons of water by buying a used pair of jeans. This is the amount of water it takes to produce enough cotton for new jeans. Need a new T-shirt? Save approximately 400 gallons of water by going with a previously owned option.

6.Go Green with Your Period

Problem: Menstrual products are contributing to plastic pollution with everything from the plastic lining in pads to tampon applicators.

Solution: Ditch the disposables for eco-friendly alternatives such as menstrual cups, washable pads, or period underwear. Many find that these options are not only less wasteful, but also cheaper, more comfortable, and healthier than disposables with questionable chemicals.

Impact: Approximately 11,000 disposable pads or tampons get used throughout a person’s life. To calculate exactly how many pads and tampons you can save by switching to sustainable options, we suggest trying an online period calculator. It will also calculate how much money you can save!

7.Replace Paper Towels

Problem: 20,000 gallons of water is polluted and 17 trees are destroyed to produce a ton of paper towel. Plus, unlike other paper products, once used they can’t be recycled.

Solution: Eliminate paper towels altogether by using cloths or reusable paper towels. Another option is to cut up worn-out clothing to create rags for quick clean-ups.

Impact: By replacing 2 paper towel rolls a week with reusable alternatives, you can save 104 rolls a year.

Continuing Zero Waste

There are so many ways that zero waste can benefit the environment, your wallet, and even your lifestyle. The 7 changes above are just a glimpse of the impact that individuals can have on the environment by going zero waste.

To identify more problem areas beyond what we listed above, try combing through your home and daily routine to look for other places you are wasteful. For example, you may find yourself throwing out a sponge after doing dishes or tossing a few coffee pods in the trash throughout the day. The good news is that you can easily remedy these issues with sustainable swaps like dishcloths and a French press.

If you are serious about finding the root cause of your waste, you may also want to open up your garbage bag and do a trash audit. Make note of what you find, then brainstorm and research ways to improve. This method is particularly great for making a more individualized zero waste plan that targets your needs.


Change for our environment starts with small efforts by individuals that lead by example. And these efforts certainly don’t have to be complicated to make a difference. When we turn to zero waste to guide our eco-efforts, there are many easy changes that we can make that will have big impact.

Author Bio

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.


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