45 Ways to Reduce Waste (2020 update) | the ReFab Diaries
At the beginning of 2016, I committed to trimming my waste. After years of using this blog to gently reinforce the message that mindless consumerism is a problem, I decided to take off the gloves and declared my intention for the year: to trim my waste. Because we are literally consuming ourselves. And we need to wake up.


Thanks to the generous (and robust) zero-waste community that I joined, I stopped worrying about the word "zero". Zero waste is an industrial term now being applied to a lifestyle. It refers to a circular-based economy where we design without waste as an end product. We don't yet have the infrastructure, laws, or consumer demand to move us from our current linear economy to something circular. Zero waste is a goal - the lifestyle is not to be taken literally. That's why we need to educate ourselves on materials, on resources, and on how we can give companies the incentive to make change. We have to simplify and become resourceful, thrifty, and community-centered again. We have to rethink the way we consume. And we have to make less trash.

What did I learn from the experience? That every small change matters. That avoiding plastic packaging is incredibly difficult. That avoiding single-use plastic is not nearly so difficult. And that putting my money - and my energy - where my values are is worth it.

Here are 45 tips, takeaways and learnings from 51 weeks (+ 3 years) of trimming my waste: 

Low-waste clothing

1. Remake old clothing - it's liberating
If you don't think of yourself as someone who "sews", liberate yourself and hack up old garments. I've always loved doing it for Ms R - it's harder to fit things properly for me. But it's still fun and a great way to keep clothing you can't donate out of landfills. See: my mom's top and my shirt rescue.

2. Repair and mend - it's easier than you think
I have always hemmed jeans that are too long. In 2016 I made more of an effort to not only refashion but also just fix. Alter, repair and mend

3. Use what you have
Instead of throwing out rubber gloves, cut them up into rubber bands. Similarly, don't toss your ripped pantyhose. Cut them up into great hairbands

4. Rethink your old clothing altogether
Ultimately, old clothing is just fabric waiting to be reused. My friend Natasha needed to make a sweater for a tiny, very cold puppy. She used an old sweatshirt of her daughter's to do it.

5. Buy gently used when you can
I definitely buy some clothing new, but my preference is always to put second-hand first. I generally start at my favorite consignment store and, when possible, charity and thrift stores. 

Low-waste kitchen (groceries, food storage, organization and cleaning)

6. Reduce your reliance on paper towels
I have a roll of paper towel in the kitchen as a backup. But my kitchen cloths do most of the work. I have one that's only for Ms R to use when she's eating. That's been the case since she was a baby and she doesn't ask for anything other than "a cloth". (Side note on trash and raising small humans: cloth diapering is doable. If I could do it, anyone can!)

7. Simplify your cleaning products
I made my own dish soap. But no matter how much I played with concentration, it didn't work. So I've reverted to buying a locally, conscientiously made product that works. To clean surfaces, however, nothing beats lemon juice and baking soda. If the drain gets smelly, I throw a little vinegar down it and sprinkle it with baking soda.

8. Zero-waste coffee is a no brainer
If your coffee-making process involves throwing something away, reconsider what you're doing. It's so easy to trim the waste from this ritual.

9. Ditch plastic wrap now!
Reusable food wrap has changed my life. I was gifted two different products in 2016 and haven't bought plastic wrap since. It's also possible to make it yourself. Three years on: still not using plastic wrap. I *have* added wax paper back into the mix for wrapping slices of cheese in Ms R's lunch box. And because I bake in bulk and freeze things, I have some large, plastic freezer bags that I use, rinse, re-use, rinse... :)

10. Bamboo utensils are the easiest way to move away from plastic in the kitchen
In 2016, I could not afford to ditch every piece of plastic I had in favor of wood, bamboo, glass and stainless steel. As things have needed replacing, I've carefully weighed my options. When I kicked off my challenge, I needed a new set of spoons, spatulas etc. I chose bamboo. Over time I've slowly replaced things with stainless steel and wood. I recently replaced a broken dish brush with one made of wood and metal.

11. Compost if you can
Composting in my apartment has never made sense - I don't generate it fast enough to pay for a service and I don't have a back yard. But there are *great* services in Chicago (and lots of other cities) that will pick up your compost on a schedule that suits you. For couples, families, offices etc this makes a lot of sense. See Urban Canopy and Collective Resource.

12. Shop bulk with your own containers, IF YOU CAN
I'm still not shopping as much as I'd like to in the bulk section of my grocery stores. I don't really eat enough grains, flour, dry beans, pasta etc. My grocery stores are also really resistant to customers bringing in their own containers. So, what does low-waste eating look like for me?

13. It looks like making jam when the berries are growing wild on a neighborhood hedge.
This was a first for me and I loved doing it! 

14. It looks like packing lunch every day for both myself and Ms R
I wish I could rave about reusable snack bags the way I do about reusable food wrap. I packed Ms R's PBJ in one every day and it started to smell really bad, very quickly. It didn't matter what I used to clean it, the smell was awful. I now use two little plastic containers for her lunch. Yes, it's plastic. But her school lunch is zero waste and so is mine.

15. It looks like produce first, and cooking from scratch
My gateway to reducing my grocery shopping waste in 2016 was changing my diet to boost my immune system. I started eating a ton of produce and still do. I buy as much of it as possible unwrapped (I don't use the green plastic bags that dot the produce section of the average US supermarket). Read more here and here.

16. It looks like bringing reusable bags to the store
It hasn't stopped mattering. And as more and more US states (and countries around the world) ban plastic bags, we're going to have to shift our perspective on plastic convenience. Chicago's bag tax kicked in in 2016 - if you forget your bags you pay 11c for plastic and 4c for paper.

17. It looks like choosing a product because the packaging is recyclable or compostable
This is one of the simplest choices you can make - eggs are a good example. Why buy them in a styrofoam carton when they're so easy to get in a recyclable package made of paper pulp?

Low-waste bathroom

18. Bamboo toothbrushes are lovely. So are Preserve's
Plastic waste from toothbrushes is easily avoided. In 2016 I used both a bamboo brush and one from Preserve. Preserve is a great example of circular economics in motion - everything is created by upcycling post-consumer plastic. Everything they make can be returned to be put back into the cycle. I recently invested in a Sonicare brush. I recycle the brush heads through Terracycle.

19. Hard soap is zero-waste and it works
When were we conned into buying "body wash" in a plastic bottle? Yes, it took me a while to find a version of hard soap that is moisturizing enough. But I found it and it's packaging free. 

20. Zero-waste deodorant
I made my own deodorant in 2016 and I loved it. However, I don't have a lot of control over the heating in my apartment so my deo melted (making it unusable). I'm now a loyal customer of Schmidts. What's the difference? Well, standard deodorant packaging isn't recyclable - not the way it's being made right now anyway. Schmidt's comes in a little glass jar (and recyclable, #5 plastic sticks). And it appears to work :)

21. Zero-waste shaving
Again, I buy Preserve. I send back used blades but the razor itself is probably 5 years old.

22. Skin products - oy
I have 40-something, sun damaged skin. A splash of water and some coconut oil doesn't cut it I'm afraid. So I use good, plant-based products from a conscientious company.

23. My shower curtain is a vintage sheet
Ha! I bought the sheet through Etsy and hemmed it. That's it :)

24. I can afford to be picky about toilet paper
In the US, it's easy to buy toilet paper (and paper towel) made from 100% recycled post-consumer paper. Why would you not? Consumer demand shapes everything so be demanding. This year, I got my first box of Who Gives a Crap - ZERO plastic packaging and a great company to support.

Low-waste laundry 

25. Cleaning with the most basic products is empowering
As I've said already, baking soda, lemon juice and white vinegar take care of almost everything.

26. Plastic-free laundry products 
Back in 2016, I was using sustainably-made detergent. Now I'm testing a few new products: Dropps, Tru Earth, and Sheets Laundry Club. So far, I'm disappointed in Dropps. The little detergent pod is supposed to dissolve, but unless you agitate it in hot water before you add your cloths, it doesn't dissolve properly and leaves residue on everything.

27. Wash in cold water 
For the washing most of us do, cold water works just fine. Especially in combination with a detergent that's been formulated to be effective.

28. Line drying and dryer balls
I'm lucky to have a line in the basement of my building and I use it. But I also hang things in my apartment. Line drying is not only an energy saver, it's a clothes saver. I promise your clothes will last longer! When I do have to use the dryer, I use wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets.

Low-waste craft - aka, upcycling

Upcycling has always been my way into talking about the way we buy too much and waste too much. I love to remake junk and that didn't stop in 2016. Here's what I shared:

29. A roundup of 40 of my favorite upcycling projects from recent years.

30. How to turn a sentimental cork into a fridge magnet.

31. How to give a discarded souvenir clock a new life with white paint and line drawing.

32. How to build a hallway coat rack out of palette wood and vintage hangers.

33. How to repurpose tea/coffee pots and thrift-store glass

If you feel like you're an upcycling novice, here are a few great tips for beginners. 

LOWER carbon footprint

These are probably the most significant changes I made in 2016 and they all still hold. Aligning your values and your spending (and saving and investing) is powerful.

34. Switch to clean energy 
If you're interested in supporting clean energy sources, send your money their way.

35. Invest in good rechargeable batteries

36. Break up with your big bank
How big are big banks? Big. And even bigger since the financial crisis - go figure. Here's a list of the biggest in the US. How dirty are they? Dirty. So consider breaking up with your megabank.

I'm not rich, but I have savings and investment accounts, and my salary is deposited directly into a bank account. In 2016, after doing a ton of research, I moved my savings and checking accounts to Amalgamated Bank. Why them? Well, not because they're new or trendy. They've been around for a long time and are credit-union owned. Most importantly, they wear their corporate social responsibility on their sleeves and always have. And finally, they have a decent banking app, so I'm not losing any of the conveniences offered by US megabanks.

37. Divest from fossil fuels
In 2016, I moved my investments to Aspiration and continue to explore new ESG investing options. Want to check how dirty your investments are? Go here. 

Low-waste decluttering

Thanks to Marie Kondo, decluttering is a thing everyone knows about. The problem is: as we get rid of the clutter not bringing us joy, where do we send it? There is no away. And I'd argue that adding your clutter to a landfill is a less than joyful path to take. So...

38. Here's a long list of ways to deal with stuff you don't want

39. Here's a list of ways to recycle things you didn't know you could recycle. From bras to tennis balls.

Low-waste inspiration

More than ever before, I actively sought inspiration in 2016. I joined online communities, found amazing zero-waste folk across social media, added my blog to networks and lists, and talked to upcyclers a lot.

40. Share what you're doing - it can have an impact
Convenience-driven consumerism is a habit we won't easily break. But in 2016, I watched my office of 35+ people change some of their habits. Here are 15 ways we reduced waste at work.

41. Be inspired by small efforts around you
Not all upcycling is ideal. But I always like to show off what is attempted around me every day. Like these glass-bottle borders. 

42. Go to festivals and support upcyclers
I admire - and am inspired by - anyone who takes defunct materials and turns them into new, beautiful, useful things. In 2016, I had help covering Chicago's Remix festival and was able to spend a lot more time talking to the makers I wrote about. 

43. Community matters!
I joined the Zerowaste Bloggers Network and I'm so glad - what an amazing group of people. We're all over the place:

44. Trim your holiday waste
In general, I like to buy experiences instead of things. But if I do buy stuff, I aim to give vintage, used, consumable or really useful gifts. And my tree? Well, I didn't grow up with real Christmas trees so I have no sentimental attachment to them. I *am* sentimental about ornaments though... most of mine are gifts from friends, souvenirs from my travels or just reminders of home. And 2016 was the year that my mother brought me this little wire tree from South Africa. I'm guessing this is what the holidays will look like in my home for many years to come.

45. Don't wait to start. Just start. 
I committed to changing my habits four years ago, and I've made some big changes. But reducing waste is a process that involves a lot of small decisions every day. So, if you're wondering where you should start... don't overthink it. Start by remembering your reusable bags more often. By rejecting little plastic stirrers and drinking straws. By supporting clean energy initiatives, clean(er) financial institutions, local farmer's markets and consignment clothing stores. Find lots more inspiration at Going Zero Waste.

Here's to wasting less in 2020!

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