How to Start Reducing Waste + Live a Greener Lifestyle
A few years ago, I started feeling really uncomfortable about little things I never used to pay attention to:
The amount of trash I was taking out of my apartment every day.
The amount of expired food or sad greens I never got to eating, being thrown out.
All the plastic delivery / to-go containers of food that are so common in NYC.
The amount of paper towels I went through.
Plastic waterbottles in workout classes.
The countless coffee cups / lids / iced coffee straws.
Why I started transitioning the way I live
Chalk it up to getting older and feeling more of a responsibility to this earth we call my home, but my conscious knew it was time to start changing the way I lived. My endocrine (hormonal) issues with my Hashimoto's were the other major catalysts that made me spring to action to be a more conscious consumer and to clean up my lifestyle. But previously? I had eschewed all the ways to reduce my carbon footprint that I had then deemed too "extreme" and impractical to adopt into my life.
First, I tried to rationalize my lack of action by telling myself that one person couldn't make that big a difference; after all, I never littered, I brought totes to the grocery store, I recycled, so how much waste could I be producing? (spoiler alert-- alarmingly a lot). Secondly, whenever someone already living waste-free or 100% green would talk about "easy" steps to take, it still felt like a lot to me; it intimidated me out of even trying, because it seemed like people were saying you were a horrible person if you walked out of a grocery store with a plastic bag.
How many of you guys have felt this way?
The answer to doing this? ONE STEP AT A TIME
When I look back at all the swaps and practices I've adopted over the past few years, I'm proud at my efforts but I continually realize more changes I can and want make moving forward. For the person just starting out, I know this entire list can seem intimidating, but it's really just about starting. It doesn't matter how small, just begin-- and once those become a naturally effortless part of your routine you don't think twice about, think about the next change you can make.
The rate of climate change is also staggeringly alarming. Our wildlife and oceans are suffering in a way that is just excruciating to watch. A lot of the fish we consume literally have pieces of microplastics in their bodies because our oceans are so polluted-- and I only recently discovered how certain synthetic fabrics leech these microplastic particles into our waters when we run them in the washer! It makes me think about not only how I can restrict my clothing purchases to ethically produced items with non harmful fabrics + dyes, and also make more of an effort to care for the items of clothing I already have.
"But Minna, so much of this stuff is expensive! How can I do this on a budget?"
A common obstacle for a lot of people going greener is money. I will totally say that there are certain things that will undoubtedly be more expensive, like body care in compostable packaging, recycled/green toilet paper compared to the traditional stuff (which, by the way is treated with chemicals...), but there are also swaps like microfiber cloth towels versus paper towels, a Berkey water filter + using a reuseable waterbottle versus buying plastic waterbottles, food saver tools, etc. that may feel like a bit more of an investment at first, but actually save you major $$$ and your health in the long run. Then of course, there are plenty of free ways to make a positive impact on your carbon footprint too!
Alright, now I'm going to get into all my favorite tips, tricks, and tools I use to help me live green!
I am still FAR from perfect and being able to fit my life's waste into a mason jar, but hey I'm doing my best and continually am a work in progress. I'm dividing up this guide into 5 sections: FOOD WASTE, HOUSEHOLD STAPLES, EVERY DAY ACTIONS, BUYING HABITS, PERSONAL CARE.
Hope this helps you all start taking steps in this direction!
Honestly one of the biggest game changers-- until I started doing this, I had NO idea how much of my trash was coming from food scraps, waste, etc. Produce skins/peels (avocado skins/pits, banana peels, strawberry tops, coffee grounds (+ my biodegradable pourover filters!) pulp from juicing + nut milks, etc), scraps, leftovers, greens that went slimy, parts of veggies I can't eat or don't like like hard stalks, egg shells, and even dead flowers + greenery are accepted in food scrap programs- and boy do they add up. Triple kudos to you if you have a backyard or space to actually compost at your home with the whole worm shebang!
For those of us in urban living environments, step 1 is to get a compost container of sorts-- you can definitely use mason jars, leftover yogurt tubs, etc., but it can stink up the fridge. I love my compost bin with a charcoal filter that I keep in my fridge (but you can keep it out if you don't have room in there) to collect scraps throughout the week, then every Saturday or whenever it's full, I drop off my compost at one of Grow NYC's drop-off sites. If you're in any other city, literally just google "compost drop off locations near me" and you'll easily find a program.
I am very adamantly anti-plastic as much as possible when it comes to my food storage; plastic, even the BPA-free stuff, can absolutely be an endocrine disruptor, particularly when exposed to heat; and let's be real, how often do you let food cool down 100% before dumping it in tupperware? Switch over to glasslock containers (please let your food cool a bit before putting the non glass lids on), use these medical-grade silicone Stasher Bags (use code MINNALY15 for 15% off) instead of plastic ziplocs, then use food huggers for things like avocados. Another thing I've noticed really helps keep my produce fresh in my drawers longer is using these ethylene absorbing pods-- hello, saving $$ on not wasting food!
LEARN HOW TO UPCYCLE YOUR FOOD
Got sad looking leftover veggies, etc? Learn how to upcycle your meals-- macro bowls are a great way to throw together a hodgepodge of ingredients for a healthy and delicious meal. This recipe for freekeh fried rice (from 2014 on my blog LOL, don't make fun of my lack of white balance in those photos) is a great way to throw together any leftover grains, veggies, and protein for a good dinner.
Also, learn how to quick pickle simple things when veggies are looking a little sad / end of life! Lately I've been loving pickling red onions to throw on salads, avo toast, bowls, etc.
This is huge guys. I am a firm advocate for investing in the highest quality water filter you can get-- for your health and your wallet. Imagine buying a $1 waterbottle even 300 days of the year: that is over the cost of the decked out Berkey filter system I have, and the best thing about Berkey compared to Soma, Brita, and those other ones? The black filters last for 6000 gallons for a double filter system, and the fluoride ones last for 1000 gallons. The Soma filter (which by the way, isn't great at filtering endocrine-disrupting fluoride) lasts for 40 gallons. Yep. This also creates far less waste for the environment.
DISHTOWELS / MICROFIBER CLOTHS
I was always taught to use paper towels sparingly because they're pricey (thanks, Mom!) but it is astonishing how much money and waste I've saved by buying dishtowels from Ikea and microfiber cloths for cleaning. I collect up the dirty ones and soak them in the sink with hot water and vinegar to disinfect them (+baking soda for bad stains or this plant-based stain remover) before throwing them in the washer.
GREEN CLEANING PRODUCTS
Dish soap, multi-surface cleaner, laundry detergent, bathroom cleaners-- try to look into the brands you buy to make sure the ingredients are biodegradable and not full of synthetics that pollute our oceans and water systems. I love that Saje launched their home cleaning products (love their dish wish dish soap, and they also have biodegradable cleaning cloths) and that their packaging is recyclable. I also love Simply Co's natural laundry detergent (founded by a girlboss, @trashisfortossers) that comes in a glass jar-- and if you are around a shop that carries their bulk powder, you can refill your container instead of buying a whole new jar!
When it comes to cleaning my floors, I used to use wet + dry Swiffer pads... I switched over to Norwex cleaning systems, and I have a single wet + a single dry pad (antimicrobial + antibacterial) I can wash and reuse.
DISPOSABLES- USE RECYCLED ITEMS
Like I said, I still do create waste-- I'm definitely not perfect at this yet. But for the waste I do create, I try to use products that are created using recycled products-- like these trash bags for the kitchen, or if I end up with a rogue plastic bag from the grocery store during an unplanned stop, I always reuse it as a garbage bag. I use 100% recycled toilet paper (and chemical free! That cartoon teddy bear isn't so cute when toxic stuff is all up in your business). For baking + roasting if I need parchment paper, I use this unbleached and fully biodegradable parchment paper.
I drink SO much tea guys-- and if you guys do too, buy it loose leaf in bulk (ridiculously cheaper), and use stainless steel mesh strainers instead of disposable tea bags-- then you can compost the tea leaves too! Yes, certain teabags are biodegradable, but some out there actually have bleached chemicals in the paper filters- -not what you imagined steeping in that cozy cup, amirite?
EVERY DAY LITTLE ACTIONS
A reuseable water bottle is something everyone should have-- it also helps remind you to stay hydrated throughout the day, and you can bring your filtered water from home! (TIP: Never drink water that has been sitting in your waterbottle for more than 24 hours-- feed that water to your plants, and then wash your bottle thoroughly with a bottle brush [dishwasher doesn't cut it]).
Then for coffee/tea drinkers, my absolute favorite leak proof thermos is this guy (I've tried them all)-- if you want a real "coffee cup" though to bring to a coffeeshop, I love this brand- and it's really cute too! Straws also tend to be one of the worst offenders of our generation-- get these stainless steel straw set (and this comes with a cleaning brush, a must otherwise things get really nasty) and keep some in your bag on the go!
GROCERY TOTES + PRODUCE BAGS
I feel like people have no shortage of totes nowadays-- I try to always keep one folded and tucked in my backpack (or keep one in your car if you have a car!) in case I make an unplanned stop for groceries or other errands. I've also now started to keep these produce bags folded in my tote bags for groceries-- I used to not use those plastic produce bags altogether in an effort to reduce waste, but then I read this article about how vile grocery carts are, I almost threw up and immediately bought produce bags on Amazon. MOST IMPORTANTLY THOUGH: make sure to wash your grocery produce + tote bags REGULARLY-- especially if you have meats/seafoods/produce rolling around in there, germs like E.coli and such can absolutely harbor in there!
Shop in those bulk bins (make your nut + hemp milks at home, save on money, artificial emulsifiers, and packaging waste), grind your own nut butters right at the store and reuse your glass jars, and try to buy items that come in recyclable or biodegradable packaging.
SUPPORT BUSINESSES THAT COMPOST, DONATE FOOD, PRACTICE SUSTAINABILITY
There are a ton of restaurants that make sure to donate all their leftover food for the day and that compost properly, and I love that because the volume of food they go through in a day eclipses any of our individual consumption-- so support those practices!
CLOTHING- FAST FASHION, SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION PRACTICES
When it comes to clothing, I really don't support fast/cheap/trendy fashion. It's terrible for the environment, our wallets, and we all end up wondering what we were thinking when we bought that high-low skirt of 2012.
In all seriousness though, I now really look to put my dollars towards companies that produce materials that are better for our health, that use sustainable practices (natural dyes, eco-conscious factories, sourcing), have ethical labor practices, value transparency, and are true lasting quality with style that is timeless for me. Some brands I love are Reformation, Everlane, Naja (code MINNALY15 for 15% off!), Alternative, Athleta (now a B-Corp!), Adidas (makes sneakers and leggings out of insane amounts of recycled plastic!), and Patagonia (they will repair any of your purchases for life).
Another amazing company I love is ThredUp-- order donation or clean out bags from them, and you can send in clothing you want to donate or sell. It's also the world's largest thrift store, so you can find really cute thrift items from there for much cheaper!
In case you guys missed it, I wrote a pretty extensive post on menstrual + reproductive health, and in it I talk quite a bit about using a menstrual cup and the transition over. It might have been one of the top things I never thought I'd do, but I cannot express enough how thankful I am that I have switched over to my Lunette cup. The health benefits, personal benefits, insanely cost-effective compared to buying a million organic tampons/pads, the eco-friendliness, it's just an all around win.
SKINCARE + PRODUCTS
I used to use those plastic dental floss single-use things that I also learned are coated in unnatural chemicals (yay!), but I switched over to natural cocofloss (a sweet reader Meera just introduced me to Dental Lace, which is biodegradable and I'll switch to that next!). I try to buy beauty products that come in recyclable glass or compostable packaging. One of my favorite multipurpose items is Dr. Bronner's Bar Soaps-- they come in recyclable paper packaging. I use it with my scrub towel rather than body wash, and when I travel I also use it as my shampoo.
I've also stopped using makeup remover wipes (sometimes still do while traveling, but I like Kaia Naturals because they're biodegradable and cruelty free) and use One Love Organics cleansing oil instead to remove my makeup.