How To Start Decreasing Your Waste: Earth Day 2020
While our brains are definitely elsewhere these days, April 22nd, 2020 marks the 50th Earth Day. What started in 1970, with protests on college campuses and city streets highlighting environmental ignorance and demanding new policies, has become the world's largest civic engagement event. Earth Day helped launch the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in 2016 the UN chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed.
This year, Earth Day looks a little different, with an international pandemic going on, where we are safer at home than gathering in the streets. The good news is you can do things in your daily life to take action against climate change even when you are in your home. One of the first steps to protecting the environment is reducing your waste. Even if it is in small steps, it eventually leads to a big impact.
We have all seen the “perfect” social media zero-wasters, with their tiny jars of trash and thought, “I am never gonna get there.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and likewise, your waste reduction journey does not need to happen overnight. The first step to any goal is setting your intentions, and since you are reading this, you are already on your way.
To implement a successful change, you first need to figure out where your waste is coming from. This can feel really overwhelming if you try to do it all at once, so pick a starting point. There are a few key areas in our lives that contribute to a lot of waste. Kitchens, bathrooms, closets, and day to day things like cleaning, doing laundry, or using plastic water bottles all generate a lot of waste.
Applying rough estimates will still be effective here. Tally up everything you throw away in a few days and then figure out what a month or a year looks like. Having an understanding of where your waste is coming from will help you pick your starting point. This calculator can help you asses your plastic consumption as well.
“How can I use less?” There are several directions this question can take you. Welcome to the "r" section.
REDUCE: The first direction is toward general reduction. Setting small goals like “I will stop buying single-use or plastic bathroom products”, “I will switch my plastic products with bulk refillable items” or “I will shop for clothes less often and with more intention”. Depending on where you start, these can vary, but make sure they are attainable and measurable for your lifestyle. Writing them down or sharing them with someone else will help keep you accountable. Being realistic also helps. Asking yourself, “do I want this or do I need this?” is a simple way to check in on what you are consuming.
REUSE: Reusing is another simple step in lowering your waste. There are many reusable items for both the kitchen and the bathroom, as well as many day to day items. Swap out your plastic wrap for beeswax wraps, and if you are looking for a craft, you can DIY these wraps on your own too. For your beauty routine, use reusable cotton rounds or towels in your bathroom instead of cotton ones. Think about how many articles of clothing that are in your closet that you have worn more than 30 times. How can you reuse items you already have to replace single-use ones? You can repurpose cloth towels to use around your kitchen instead of paper towels. Using and washing cloth towels will also save you money in the long run.
REFILL: This step is one of our favorites, as refilling is at the heart of The Conscious Merchant. Just like with the bulk bins you have at your grocery store, these refill stations offer things for your kitchen, bathroom and cleaning products. Here is a site to find a refill station close to you, many, including us, are still offering pick up or delivery during shelter in place!
You can refill just about anything from detergents, disinfectants, shampoo, conditioner, even face masks. We recommend refilling jars and bottles you already own to reuse that existing plastic and make sure you aren’t contributing to more waste with your cleaning or beauty routine.
REPURPOSE & REPAIR: Our closets really come into play here. Repairing and repurposing textiles we already own keeps them in our lives longer which significantly reduces waste. Here is a great resource for mending and repairing common issues without a sewing machine. Repurposing existing jars and bottles to refill items in or turning older towels into towels specifically for your kitchen are other great ways to accomplish this.
REFUSE: This is definitely the hardest and biggest step. Refusing unnecessary items can include anything from plastic utensils when you get takeout, to disposable coffee cups, and even marketing materials sent by companies. If we all opted to not get the free shirts offered at races, millions of gallons of water would be saved. You can even refuse junk mail by using a free service like Catalog Choice.
RECYCLE: One of the most common ways of reducing plastic and paper waste is recycling, but it is not a long term solution. Recycling is not available or actively used everywhere in the world. In 2018 China rocked the world when they stopped accepting recycled waste. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle, please do! But looking towards avoiding plastic packing in the first place is more helpful. When you do recycle make sure you are sorting and cleaning your recycling to local regulations, or it just gets put in the waste stream. Here is a good FAQ section on recycling from the EPA.
ROT: Disposing of your waste properly includes food waste. If you have the ability to compost, it is one of the biggest impacts you can have on the Earth. With Americans wasting about 31% of their food every year, composting turns that number into something helpful. Today, there are so many different ways to compost. If you live in an apartment or do not have an outdoor area, meet vermiculture. If you have yard space there are tons of solutions, do some research on what fits best with your lifestyle. Some cities even have compost drop off and pick up, check out if this would be an option for you.
RECIRCULATE: This applies to everything that isn’t ‘waste’. Old clothes you no longer wear should be donated. We prefer local charity shops: here is a resource to find them. You can even sell your clothes online and make some cash. Got a bike no one uses? Sell it on Craigslist.
This also applies to where you do your shopping. Check the countless online resources before you buy new items.
Using up your existing disposable items is a part of the journey to lower waste. You don’t need to throw away all your plastic items and get new reusable stuff overnight. Instead, buy reusables as your disposables run out, which is easier for your budget too. There are so many ways you can take steps towards lower waste with things you already have in your home and can adapt to lower waste items.
We want to reiterate what we started this with, do not try to do all of this at once. Set a few intentions and small goals and work on one area of your life. Then you can tackle another and another, all adding up to more good. Everyone’s waste minimizing journey looks different; get inspiration from others, but do not compare yourself. This journey is not going to happen overnight and you should be proud of any effort you make to conserve our Earth. There is still room for tons of improvements in my own life to get closer to low waste, why don’t we try to be better, together!