Our individual actions matter. It’s easier to just put the responsibility on others or solely corporations, but we all need to be doing our part if we want to keep our Earth livable (we only have nine more years before the tipping point of the climate catastrophe). Trying to make our footprint on the planet as small as possible is very important, and minimizing our waste is central in that (as well as eating as vegan and local as possible). There are so many common low-waste hacks out there, and while they’re always really handy, they shouldn’t be confused as the only strategies. Using veggie scraps for stock-making and banana peels for fertilizing is great, but here are some many more underrated ideas to live a low-waste life and contribute toward healing our habitats.
1. When you’re finished with a container of jam, add oil and/or vinegar to the last remaining bits and shake it to turn it into a delicious vinaigrette. If you need ideas, olive oil and white vinegar are great with raspberry jam, and avocado oil and balsamic vinegar are amazing with strawberry jam.
2. As you wait for your shower to warm up, place a big pot in the shower to catch the water, and use it for your plants or boiling pasta/rice later.
3. When you get something online save the packing material (the box, the peanuts, ribbons, etc.) for when you need to ship something or package a present (or when you need to move). A lot of people have ribbon boxes, so consider dedicating a closet, chest, or corner of a room to the materials.
4. Rather than buying microwave popcorn, buy kernels in bulks! You can either just pop them in a paper bag in the microwave or over the stove the old fashioned way (making sure to keep the kernels moving to avoid burning). Consider topping it with melted vegan butter or coconut oil and a little salt and garlic powder!
5. Use a sack of lavender instead of dryer sheets. It smells better and it lasts until it wears out (which is often up to a year). Get a small cloth sack and fill it with about 1/2 cup or 1 cup of lavender buds, and tie it tightly so it doesn’t spill.
6. If you’re getting your food in bulk (like nuts, grains, etc.) and don’t have your own containers with you (or can’t use them because of COVID), generally there’s only plastic bags in that section to fill up. Head over to where you can get coffee beans in bulk, and pick up one of the bags there since they’re usually paper. Use those for bulk foods, and once you’ve emptied them at home consider using them for pet waste, litter walks (to store the trash you find), or for a lunch sack.
7. When you need something online, google what it is (say, “pants”) followed by “zero waste store” or “sustainable” or “general store” before you buy from a big company like Amazon. This will usually come up with results from merchants who are more ethical. Try to buy from the store that is located closest to you to minimize emissions during transit.
8. Use old stockings to make hair ties.
9. When you’re done with your tea bag, empty it into your plants for fertilizer.
10. Instead of buying expensive oil diffusers or candles, forage for your own potpourri. Gather aromatic and common plants like pine, jasmine, citrus, or other local flowers, and put them in a pot of simmering water on the stove. It will fill your home with the beautiful smell.
11. When you’re almost out of ketchup, pour rice vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar and a little ginger into the bottle and shake it (add a little water if you need to). Now rather than having a little ketchup for one person, you have a whole bottle of sweet and sour sauce!
12. Cut up shirts that you would have given away to make them into cotton rounds, bandanas, and rags for cleaning.
13. Rather than constantly buying new shower curtains, spray a little tea tree oil on the bottom of your shower curtain every few days, as well as the parts of the tub that touch it to keep mold away. It works for any kind of material, so it’s a great hack if you don’t want to buy plastic shower curtains but are worried about fabric curtains getting gross.
14. Clean with white vinegar and baking soda rather than conventional sprays (you can infuse the vinegar with oils or citrus peels or pine if you can’t stand the smell). It works like a charm as a glass and metallic polisher as well. If you already do that (because this one is definitely talked about on social media), consider also repurposing your lemons after you’re done using them in cooking. Simply rub the pulp or juice (whatever is left over) on your faucets and sink, and rinse. It will polish right up!
15. When you’re done with a candle, pour boiling water into the container and let the wax float to the top. Once you get it out and rinse the container, use it to make your own candles! Consider buying coconut-based wax or soy wax, hemp wicks, and sustainably sourced organic oils, and craft away. As Instagrammers often show, you can of course always use the containers instead for plants and propagations, but assuming you’re saving all of your glass and tin containers from food products and otherwise, using them for homemade candles might be a better option. Save those other containers for the plants, bulk food, and storing knick knacks. If you get on a candle-making kick, and run out of candle containers, you can also make beautiful ones in extra glass cups or mugs you have lying around.
16. When you’ve used up a face or beauty product (hopefully it’s in glass or tin), save it and make your own product with it. It’s great to support businesses, but if you want to save money and have complete control over what you’re putting on your skin, this is a great thing to do. For example, if you have a dropper that held moisturizer serum, consider filling it with oils that help out your skin like jojoba, sunflower, grapeseed, or sea buckthorn.
17. This may be limited with COVID, but let your neighbors (and family and friends) know that you would love to know when they plan to toss out or donate things like clothes, furniture, etc. This way they check if you want it first before heading to the dump. Many cities have “buy nothing clubs” where whole buildings/ neighborhoods participate in this, as it’s a great way to reduce waste.
18. When you’re done with your cans, clean them well and use them for penholders or for watering plants evenly (simply punch holes in the bottom of it and fill it with water over the plants).
19. Buy bamboo pens rather than conventional ones (this is especially important for students and writers who use a lot of writing utensils). They look like normal pens and last just as long, but they aren’t made from plastic.
20. Save your coffee grounds! Use them to neutralize the smells in your fridge or compost, to make a face mask or sugar scrub, or to fertilize your plants!
21. If you get junk mail no matter what you try and cancel, save it for scrap paper. This is handy for people who need to take notes in school or work. Then you can recycle it. Just try to extend its life as much as possible before discarding it in the recycling bin.
22. Carry actual forks and spoons in your purse. Those bamboo ones are cute but it’s more consumption ultimately when you have perfectly good silverware at home. Keep a pair in the car, in your purse, and in your backpack if you use one. It’s also a good idea to have a mug with you if you have space, among other necessary things for eating, but with COVID no promises on how many places will let you use them.
23. A day before your bread or food expires (or just close to when it will go bad), ask yourself if you’ll eat it in time. If not, freeze it. It’s perfectly good, and it will not only avoid food waste but will save you money.
24. Just because people have certain appliances doesn’t mean that they’re necessary (and this doesn’t just go for appliances). Consumption isn’t good for the Earth, so if you can avoid it, that’s a win for the planet. For example, people have toasters. If you don’t have toast that often or are okay with using the stove instead, there’s no reason to go out and buy a toaster. See what you can make due with while still having a good quality of life. Like most low waste hacks, this will save you money, but most importantly it will help you minimize your footprint.
25. Use what you have before you buy something new, even if you want to buy something more sustainable. The most sustainable option is to use what exists up first, before consuming something else. Need to switch to zero-waste tooth tabs? Great. But first use what you have in that tube. Cut it in half once you think you’re out of it and use up every drop. Need more sustainable dress shoes? Rather than chucking the ones you have in a landfill, wear them to death before considering buying new ones. Ask yourself what is a need and what is a want. When you’re out of what you have, then yes—by all means please buy sustainably.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn