A couple years ago, I started eating less meat for completely selfish reasons, and it ended up sticking far more easily than I ever suspected it would!
For some reason, abstract ethical/environmental reasons or guilt have never, ever worked for me as standalone motivators to make lifestyle changes. However, my food-life has gotten vastly more flavorful, fun, easy, self-reliant, creative, and convenient since I transitioned into being vegetarian (and even mostly-vegan!) for totally selfish and hedonistic reasons.
It worked so unexpectedly well that I’ve started looking for other areas where I can reuse the same tactic to arbitrarily modify my habits where willpower alone has been useless for me. Disposable waste is another area of my life where I only participate because it’s such a default in America. This month, I’m working on my waste awareness, and I want to minimize my use of disposable objects, particularly the non-biodegradable ones.
My selfish reasons to generate less waste
I don’t like taking out the trash (or recycling)
Super straightforward. Taking out the trash and recycling is boring and time-consuming. The less stuff I have to lug downstairs to throw out, the better.
I save loads of space by dealing with less disposable stuff
One thing I really like about highly-reusable objects is that I only need to have one or two of them around, instead of filling up my cabinets with huge packs of disposables. It’s been great reclaiming all the physical space that disposable objects used to fill up.
I’ve replaced 100-packs of paper teabags with 2 cloth teabags, cupboards full of a bajillion different disposably-bottled brands of shampoo / bodywash / hand soaps / detergents / mystery fluids with one large refillable bottle of castile soap, and my formerly infinite pile of disposable plastic bags with a few reusable shopping bags.
I save loads of time and energy by dealing with less disposable stuff
I also love the huge savings in brainspace I get by not dealing with disposable objects! With disposables, I need to stay weirdly aware of (1) how much is left, (2) where to buy more of it, and (3) remembering to restock it next time I go on a shopping errand.
With reusable objects, I don’t need to think about running a restocking errand until the object gets lost or merits a replacement after many years of use. Instead of restocking objects once a month, I replace them more on the order of once every few years. And each category of disposable objects I stop using is one fewer errand I have to run, which gives me back more time to live my life.
I save money long-term by dealing with less disposable stuff
Reusables last for many years, and functionally pay for themselves very quickly.
One privilege-based argument against eco-friendly reusable objects is socioeconomic in nature. If you buy “eco-friendly”, sustainable, reusable objects new from a store, then yeah, they do often cost a bit more than disposables due to economy of scale and the extra cost of ensuring that your manufacturing process is eco-friendly and disposes of waste responsibly instead of chucking it into the nearest river (even though the reusables do work out to be cheaper than disposables very quickly). Also, any mass manufacturing process has an environmental impact, even though some processes are a lot less bad than others.
However, as non-rich-people have known since time immemorial, the true eco-friendly move is to BUY AS FEW NEW OBJECTS AS POSSIBLE. Instead of switching from paper towels to artisanally handmade new linen towels, you can cut up a random old crappy dog towel or dead T-shirt and use those in lieu of paper towels. Instead of buying beautiful, matching glass jars to store your bulk foods in, you can wash and reuse free mismatched glass jars that you were going to throw in the recycling bin anyways.
Disposable stuff runs out at inconvenient times; reusable stuff feels reliable
Running out of household disposables is usually a mere inconvenience. However, it occasionally crosses over into urgent territory, such as if you run out of toilet paper while pooping, or you run out of disposable period products but the nearest convenience store is miles away.
You will always run out of disposables, but you will not run out of bidet. You will not run out of menstrual cup. You will not run out of towel. I hate feeling overly reliant on disposables, and it’s nice to know that I can rely on sturdy reusable objects for many, many years.
Outdoor markets are delightful and more COVID-safe than indoor grocery stores
Outdoor produce markets such as farmers’ markets and Mexican grocery storefronts are a great way to get food without any plastic wrapping or plastic sticky labels attached, and thus a great way to reduce your waste footprint if you live near one.
BUT more selfishly, as I’ve previously mentioned somewhere in my article about going mostly-vegetarian, IT’S A LOT OF FUN GOING ON A TREASURE HUNT FOR SEASONAL VEGETABLES. In the lockdown era, it’s also a nice bonus to not think about how much time you’re spending in a closed building with a bunch of strangers who may or may not have COVID and may or may not be wearing face masks.
I love thrifting
There are some things I don’t buy secondhand, like underwear and socks. But there are a lot of objects where I actively prefer secondhand over new, such as furniture.
Used household stuff, besides being inexpensive or free, is also often weird, cool, highly aesthetic, or has a weird and/or cool backstory. I’ve scored a lot of estate type objects for free or cheap that I would never dream of buying new, such as a beloved pair of tufted velvet Victorian clawfoot chairs (bedbug-free!) I somehow found for free once on a curb.
Bulk bins are fun and save me money
If you are lucky enough to have a local grocery store or home goods store with bulk bins that will let you fill your own reusable containers, here’s the One Hot Secret Corporate America Doesn’t Want You To Know: it’s a lot of fun. Apothecarial scoops, running around like a kid in a candy store looking at different funky shaped grains, and getting whatever amount of stuff you want instead of too much or too little—yeah, I like the bulk bin experience a lot.
Another fun part of the bulk bin experience is SAMPLING. I don’t like committing to a multi-pound bag of some weird new thing I might only want to try once. It’s a lot more fun to just buy one scoop of that weird new thing to snack on, and by golly, bulk bins will let you do it.
Also, I like being able to put bulk bin food directly into containers of my choice! Many kinds of disposably-packaged foods are not stackable, so they end up flung haphazardly into a pile of bags in my pantry where I inevitably forget about the bottom bag. I like having food that actually stacks instead of falling all over the place and getting lost on the back of a shelf.
Check ZeroWasteHome’s Bulk Finder for a crowdsourced map of bulk refill stores that might be lurking around your area.
Textural & aesthetic hedonism (YMMV)
Okay, this is more of a luxury point, but honestly, I just really like the way natural materials feel. The reason I enjoy cotton & paper bags over plastic bags is the exact same reason I enjoy wearing nice fabrics.
I also like reusing my singular water bottle and travel mug instead of random disposable cups and bottles. They’re both cooler looking and more spillproof.
Owning fewer non-essentials just makes my life more pleasant
I used to acquire a LOT of random free stuff without much thought, which later came back to haunt me when I realized my house was overstuffed with many piles of things I didn’t actually want to own. I spent about two years dealing with the bulk of it (moving helped a lot), and although I’m doing a lot better now, I’m still working on decluttering.
Online shopping and free things short-circuit the reward part of my brain and fills me with regrets. When I instead acquire objects with more intention, or when I buy locally, I tend to not acquire things on impulse. Bonus: this cuts back on my overall waste footprint (and subsequent powerlifting trips to the dumpster) from throwing out boxes, packaging, and regret purchases.
Personal bonus: My cat has a weird habit of loudly chewing on plastic bags, which is curbed if I have fewer plastic bags around
- r/ZeroWaste — an extremely wholesome subreddit full of ideas for creatively reusing things and minimizing waste.
- ZeroWasteHome’s Bulk Finder is a crowdsourced map of bulk shops that let you reuse containers.
- Restaurant supply stores are another way to reduce your waste packaging around staple ingredients. Buying in bulk = less packaging per pound. I get 25lb sacks of bread flour at my local restaurant supply store for $10.
- Plastic-free home goods creators, such as: KhalaCo, Life Without Plastic, No Trace Shop, and a LOT of creators on Etsy
Plastic-free starter guides
- Plastic free household challenges | Fillgood.co
If you enjoy giving yourself weekly themed challenges, here’s a set of suggestions for parts of your household to introspect when minimizing your waste footprint.
- 100 tips for reducing household waste | Zero Waste Life
- “How to live a zero-waste life, according to three experts”
“Recycling plastic is actually a misconception. Plastic is not recycled, it is downcycled. This means it gets downcycled to poorer and poorer forms of plastic until it can’t be downcycled any further and sits in landfills. Other materials such as glass, paper, and aluminum can be recycled infinitely without degradation to the quality of the material.”
- Plastic free guide | My Plastic Free Life
“The list is not meant to be overwhelming but simply to show what is possible. Choose a few that seem doable and that will make the most impact. No one can do it all at once. But we can all get started!”
- Sustainable Minimalism (Stephanie Seferian)
Part lifestyle simplification handbook, part waste reduction guide, with very little preaching and lots of applied tips on how to streamline your life and waste footprint without getting overwhelmed.
Random tips for tricky no-plastic areas
Disclaimers & systemic/privilege unpacking
As a massive disclaimer, this whole “reduce my waste” thing is probably significantly easier for me than the average American because many of my existing lifestyle preferences & privileges already happen to be sustainability-enabling. (Some of these factors are also foundations that I’ve spent years intentionally building into my life.)
I don’t judge anyone for not having easy access to these lifestyle factors, or for not having the bandwidth or desire to reshuffle their entire life around them. Different people are not equally enabled to pursue a sustainable lifestyle, and that’s a systemic problem, not an individual flaw. It’s not your fault if you find it difficult to make your lifestyle sustainable because capitalism is clawing you back every step of the way. It’s late-stage capitalism, bro.
Luck of the draw
- I’m able-bodied and happen to really enjoy getting around by bike. Urban bike commuting saves me enormous amounts of money and time over car commuting, or even over public transit. However, it is not physically practical for all people, it is not very practical in rural areas, and it’s challenging and dangerous in cities that lack bike infrastructure.
- Socioeconomically, I am middle-class. Since I’m not living paycheck to paycheck or working multiple jobs at once, I can financially-afford to do things like save long-term money by buying food in bulk, and I can time-afford to cook all meals at home. Since I have disposable income, I can afford to pay higher upfront costs of eco-friendly reusable products to save money long-term. (However, I strongly prefer to use existing objects rather than buy new objects.)
- I don’t have any severe allergies or food intolerances. This makes it a non-issue for me to buy food out of bulk bins. People with anaphylactic allergies or celiac disease may not able to do this because of the risk of cross-contamination.
Lifestyle preferences / choices
- In most cases, I strongly prefer reusing thrifted, secondhand, and free furniture/gear to buying new stuff. This lowers my cost of living.
- I strongly prefer living with social housemates in a co-op-like environment. This makes our rent at least 3x lower than if we were living alone or with only a partner, and makes it easier to group-buy stuff in bulk. It saves us each loads of time and energy because we like to group cook, and we all contribute to chores. We also spend much less per person on household items, because we can pool our tools, appliances, and household supplies.
- I strongly prefer cooking at home (although I do cook super lazy minimum-effort meals that usually take between 5 and 25 minutes). I am also mostly-vegan by choice. These factors hugely lower my cost of living, since I almost never get takeout and my monthly grocery budget is now half as expensive as it was when I ate meat.
Part luck, part intention
- I live somewhere where there’s a disposable-bag tax, so reusable bags are normalized here.
- I am extremely crafty and mechanically inclined. I love building and repairing things, I do my own home improvement, and I enjoy creatively reusing objects in a lot of different ways. This lowers my cost of living, though it probably doesn’t save time.
- I strongly prefer living in cities, and I have the privilege of living in one with half-decent bike infrastructure, inexpensive farmers’ markets, and bulk bin options that are less expensive than most chain grocery stores. This makes it easier to buy many of my essentials from local businesses (& shop by bike) and reduce the amount of shopping I do online or at big chain stores.
Things I’ve deliberately laid the groundwork for
- I just spent the last two years deliberately streamlining my possessions and reducing my buying habits after viscerally realizing that owning less excess stuff made me a lot happier.
- I spent 2018–2019 deliberately becoming vegetarian, and then gradually slid into being mostly-vegan. This happens to be conducive to a lower-waste lifestyle because it’s significantly easier to buy inexpensive plastic-free vegetables & grains than inexpensive plastic-free meat.
- I have deliberately set up my life so I can do all my regular errands by bike, e.g. by prioritizing living in cities with adequate bike infrastructure, learning how to maintain my bike, getting to know my neighborhood and the safest bike routes in it, etc.