When people first start thinking about reducing their waste or lowering their carbon footprint, they suddenly see the full picture of how not eco-friendly the typical American life is! They get into this panic, must-do-all-the-things mode and next thing they know, they ditch all their new habits because they tried to change way too much at once. This is not a good way to reduce your waste!
This totally defeats the purpose, right? We get so overwhelmed by everything that needs to change that we end up reverting back to our earlier practices.
It takes TIME and intentionality to change your consumer practices. We are trained to be excellent consumers who buy, buy, buy and never worry about where the excess is going. When we know more, it is SO easy to feel crippling anxiety about the future and your next steps.
My friend, the only way forward is forward.
Start changing your habits today
Anything you can do today will build. Start with one habit. One skill. For example, maybe you make one intentional shift to stop buying produce packaged in plastic. This means you start shopping where you can do that and next thing you know, you shop somewhere else. You remember your reusable produce bags and you stop buying produce in plastic. You don’t think about it anymore because it’s your new habit.
Be gentle with yourself
Also, disclosure: I am NOT perfect! There are times when life feels hectic and we get take out, even fast food. Sometimes, I forget my reusable water bottle and I end up having to buy a bottled drink on the go. When these things happen, I give myself grace. I recognize that this is a process and it’s okay to be imperfect.
I also try to figure out what led to this issue. Did I put off packing my lunch bag the night before so I could watch more of The Office instead of making sure my water bottle was ready? Do I need to prep more snacks for the road? If so, I make a mental plan to adjust my behaviors down the line. No blame. No guilt. Just moving on and being better.
How to Reduce Your Waste in the Kitchen, Home, and Garden
Looking for a way to reduce your waste across your life? Navigate to a specific section of your house or scroll away!
Reduce Your Waste in the Kitchen
1. Store produce properly
I love to garden and we always try to load our meals with vegetables. In fact, our fridge is basically eggs, condiments, leftovers, and produce. We store fruit together loose in a low humidity drawer and keep vegetables wrapped in plastic in a higher humidity drawer.
Think like a restaurant chef and use FIFO! FIFO stands for First In, First Out. It’s the practice of rotating the oldest foods to the front of the fridge and putting the newest ones in the back. This ensures that the oldest food will be used first and not wasted.
Here are some tips on how to store produce to make it last!
2. Source produce locally
If you are not able to grow your own food, look locally for alternatives! There is almost always less plastic waste and fewer food miles. Consider finding a local farm, ordering a CSA, shopping at a farm stand or farmers market, and seeking out your nearest co-op. Many areas even have online farmers markets!
3. Focus on seasonal produce
Once you learn about when produce is in season, this becomes WAY easier! It’s very rare that I buy produce out of season.
If you want to know what produce is in season right now, check out the Seasonal Food Guide!
Want to know how to tell produce is out of season? Look for origin labels. If your produce had to be shipped from Chile where the season is the opposite of the US, it’s out of season. Not a good time to buy.
You’ll also know produce is in season when there are sales! Usually produce costs the most when it is out of season and shipped great distances. When you see cherries drop to $2 a pound or oranges for 60 cents a pound, that’s a great sign that they are in season right now!
Learn about the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen to maximize your buying power while reducing the pesticides on your produce.
4. Treat meat like a garnish
I am not vegeterian or vegan, although I have been in the past. Although this issue gets complicated, I do believe that pastured meat can be part of a sustainable ecosystem. I try to buy the best quality meat I can afford and treat it really well.
We usually add lots of vegetables and some sort of bean or legume to stretch them out. This way we’re still filling our bellies and getting a nourishing meal, but we’re using less meat.
For example, maybe tonight you’ll still have tacos for dinner, but you’ll use 1 lb of beef and stretch it with some canned beans and sauteed onions.
Buying high-quality meat can be challenging, especially on a budget. Meatless Mondays is an easy way to start this process by simply eating vegetarian one night per week. As you start to think about using meat in a different way, you’ll notice ways to use it less here and there.
5. Use up food that’s going bad
As we rotate through our food, sometimes we’ll notice that the lettuce is starting to go or there are some softer green beans. We have no problem taking a couple of minutes to remove any produce that’s going bad. For lettuce or salad that is starting to wilt, we’ll even wash it again and spin it in the salad spinner! This is a great way to keep that iffy lettuce for one more use.
6. Use food after its expiration dates
Again, we don’t eat rotted food. However, we know that most expiration dates are more about when a product is no longer ideal to sell than when it actually goes bad. It’s important to learn how to tell when foods actually go bad and to get a sense of which products last long after their expiration dates.
For example, yogurt, because it is cultured with bacteria, can often last months in the fridge. Eggs last a long time, too! We have no problem buying eggs in bulk because they last us for months. I’ve never had an egg go bad, but we also eat lots of them.
Learn how to check the freshness of your eggs with a float test!
7. Ferment, culture, and preserve
We love to ferment our foods! I’m a big fan of sauerkraut and usually have 1-2 big batches either fermenting or stored in the fridge. You can ferment pretty much any type of produce out there, so this is an excellent way to extend the harvest and get some probiotics!
We also like to culture foods that normally come in disposable packing. For example, we really like organic, whole milk yogurt. Each quart normally comes in a plastic container and for the quality we like, it usually costs $4-6 per quart. We can buy one gallon of milk to make 4 quarts of yogurt. Organic whole milk here usually costs $7-9 per gallon, so we cut cost and reduce waste by making our own yogurt.
We do use milk that comes in a plastic jug, but are looking for a better source that comes in reusable glass bottles.
Oh, and we save any large yogurt containers (if we do buy some) to give to our berry farming friends! They make great cups to store seconds while you’re harvesting.
8. Buy bulk produce for preserving
Most of the time, bulk produce comes in a cardboard box. If you can process your produce for jams, pickles, or canned goods in reusable glass jars, you can reduce your reliance on the grocery store and reduce your waste!
One thing to consider: many canning facilities get produce in bulk with even less waste than the average consumer. The facilities are made to process produce effectively with less waste AND at the height of freshness. I don’t mind buying canned or jarred goods with this knowledge, but the products are still packed into retail sized boxes and shipped around the country.
Unless you live near a canning facility, your canned goods probably traveled quite a bit. You can reduce some of this waste by processing food yourself!
Plus, preserving your own produce in glass jars in an excellent way to reduce plastic and packaging waste!
9. Carry reusable products to the grocery store
This has been harder in 2020 with COVID, but normally, I carry reusable grocery bags and reusable produce bags to the grocery store or farmers market. I also bring glass jars for purchasing bulk spices and other foods, if the store allows you to pour into your own container.
10. Buy pantry staples in bulk
Although there are just 2 of us in our house, we buy pantry staples in bulk! Because we know how to store the food safely and we eat from our pantry constantly, we do not lose food to it going bag. We buy what we like to eat and we eat it!
This means that we buy foods like these in bulk: rice, flour, sugar, oatmeal, etc.
I’m actually a HUGE believer in keeping a well-stocked pantry and have organized all of my tips into a handy guide including a printable one-page checklist. Definitely check it out!
11. Ditch the processed, packaged foods
I’m not talking about frozen vegetables or jars of coconut oil. I mean we need to skip the chips, cookies, cakes, snack packs, etc. Even ignoring the preservatives and additives in most of these, they all come wrapped in plastic packaging! If you are able to source processed foods in sustainable packaging, that’s great!
For us, we just don’t buy it. Sure, we sometimes get a bag of Tim’s jalapeno chips or we’ll stash a bag of Trader Joe’s orange chicken in the freezer. But other than that, we don’t buy bread, crackers, cookies, soda, etc. This helps us eat a little lower carb, reduce our waste, and avoid preservatives, food colorings, and additives.
I DO recommend keeping something in your freezer for those emergency, I’m-about-to-order-pizza nights! One bag of frozen orange chicken doesn’t seem as wasteful as a couple styrofoam boxes, plastic utensils, and plastic-wrapped condiments. In my pantry guide, I actually recommend that you keep an emergency frozen pizza in your freezer at all times!
12. Shop at discount grocery stores
My FAVORITE chain grocery store is Grocery Outlet! It’s a great chain here on the West Coast that sells overstocked grocery items for great prices. I can often find perishable products, like dairy, for really cheap prices as those expiration dates come quickly. Especially since I know what products are safe to eat after their expiration dates, this is a great way to help divert food from the dumpsters.
They also have lots of great organic products that maybe didn’t do as well in conventional markets, so I’ve snagged some amazing deals this way!
13. Minimize takeout
Takeout food usually has a lot of waste! It’s processed and fast food companies usually ship supplies from all over the country. We love to support local restaurants, which is certainly harder with the COVID closures in our area. However, in a normal year, we try not to order takeout to avoid all the plastic waste that comes with the territory.
Instead, we cook from scratch. I know that sounds a little impossible sometimes! But, we try to cook a huge pot of something each week so there’s always some leftovers in the fridge. We also like to keep ingredients for really quick dinners on hand so even when I feel like I’m too hungry to cook, I can have the meal on the table in a pinch! I’ll be sure to share my favorite quick dinner ideas later!
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14. Avoid disposable plastics
Whether it’s from food packaging, take out, or storage in my own kitchen, we try to avoid disposable plastics at all cost. We do not have any plastic wrap in our house (instead, we use cloth bowl coverings, parchment paper, or just our usual Pyrex). You can always ask takeout places to exclude the extra condiments and utensils.
You can even carry travel utensils in your backpack or purse so you’re not stuck using a plastic spoon!
If we end up with plastic utensils, we wash and reuse them. They’re great to take on the go!
15. Travel with reusable cups and mugs
I have one stainless steel water bottle and one stainless steel coffee travel mug. I use them daily! I love the travel mugs that autoseal so my coffee stays HOT all day. Plus, the brand I use, Contigo, has a lifetime warranty in case the product ever has a defect.
16. Use air-tight storage
Our pantry is full of OXO pop containers and glass Mason jars! Although I don’t like that the OXO containers are plastic, we were intentional to buy a product we know will serve the purpose that we want. We are committed to caring for them and using them reponsibly! They help us keep our dry goods fresh and easy to use, which means we are more likely to use foods in our pantry!
You can also use Fido jars with airlock lids! We love these for fermenting sauerkraut, too.
Reduce Your Waste Around the House
1. Make sustainable swaps
Around the house including the kitchen, we buy eco-friendly products and generally in bulk. Here are some of our favorites!
- We buy the giant jug of eco dish soap from Costco and refill one bottle at a time.
- Use diluted castile soap for hand soap containers.
- We love these dishwasher tabs! We get a box of 40 at a time.
- Pour a couple of glugs of plain white vinegar in the bottom of your dishwasher to skip buying drying agents.
- We’ve used Biokleen laundry detergent for years! It’s strong, effective, and has no artificial fragrances. Each box lasts us at least a year! Plus, since it’s powdered, we aren’t paying to ship water across the country.
- Make our own Poo Pourri instead of buying the stuff packaged in plastic!
- Scrub our stainless steel pans with powdered Bar Keeper’s Friend.
- Use cleaning concentrates throughout the house and dilute into glass spray bottles when needed!
- Clean with a thrifted steam mop for easy, water-based cleaning!
2. Use reusable cloths instead of paper towels
We ordered a big set of these cotton, lint-free glass cleaning cloths and use them constantly in the kitchen. They’re great for wiping up spills and tidying up!
Recently, we also ordered some high-quality microfiber cloths for wiping down mirrors and surfaces. We’re cautious about microfiber as they can create lots of microplastics. However, we really love the window cleaning set! Of all the microfiber we tried, the window polishing cloth works better than any natural fiber we used. We can now clean windows, mirrors, and appliances with just water!
3. Use wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets
We love these wool dryer balls and mostly use them when drying things that take a while, like bedding or towels. Otherwise, we usually skip them and often hang damp items on our hallway railing to dry!
4. Fall in love with castile soap & cleaning concentrates
Castile soap is our favorite soap to use around the house! We use it to mop the floor, clean surfaces, wash out the cat little box, cleanse our bodies, and more. You can dilute it with water in a hand soap bottle and use it as DIY insect spray to fight off aphids in the garden. We always have castile soap on hand and love Dr. Bronners, but have had great experiences with a variety of castile soap brands.
Did you know? Many bulk sections have castile soap on tap for easy, low waste refills!
Dr. Bronner’s also sells a cleaning concentrate called Sal Suds you can use for heavy-duty cleaning. It will replace a variety of cleaning products in your house! We’ve recently been using this product around the house and are thrilled with its quality and value!
5. Buy used furniture, clothing & home goods
I’ve written at length about why buying used furniture is an environmentally friendly choice. It’s such a great way to offset the burden of furniture production and you often end up with more durable, longer-lasting furniture, too! This is an easy way to reduce your waste and save some money!
We also buy most of our clothing from thrift stores or secondhand retailers online, like Poshmark. I even buy brand new shoes from places like Poshmark, including quality brands like Birkenstock and Danskos!
We also source lots of home essentials, including appliances and decorations, from thrift stores and Facebook Marketplace.
Our latest score was a $5 professional steam mop with extra large pads. The newer version of the same mop sells for over $150! It was actually free because we had a credit at our local thrift store! It was missing the pads, so we ordered some online for $12.
6. Update what you have instead of buying new
Especially when you buy lots of used furniture, you get used to freshening things up. Some items just need a bit of washing up while others need repairs and resurfacing. A little paint and new fixtures go a long way!
7. Fix and maintain the products that we own
From fixing up a busted old kitchen table to vacuuming out the dryer lint basket, we like to use the products we own appropriately. We clean and repair products as needed.
Plus, if we need a repair, we try to do it earlier on so the problem doesn’t worsen over time. Definitely keep products like a good all-purpose adhesive and duct tape around! We use Gorilla Glue for everything (even hanging plates on the wall!).
8. Shop in person and from local businesses
This is a great way to reduce the constant cardboard boxes that come with online shopping. We definitely do shop online, but we try to shop from smaller businesses online and generally try to find what we can locally first.
If we can’t find something we want locally, I love to look for handcrafted products on Etsy!
9. Make that cardboard box worth it
If we are ordering online, especially for a product we use often, we buy a few at a time to reduce the need for future cardboard boxes. For example, we love this toothpaste from Boka. We order 2-3 at a time instead of getting one box every few months. We also love that their toothpaste bottles, although not recyclable, can be rolled down all the way to get every single drop out!
If you love to garden, you can even use those cardboard boxes for no-till gardening!
10. Shop consciously for disposable products
We already shared that we use cloths for cleaning in the kitchen, but we’re also really conscious about the toilet paper we buy in the bathroom! We recommend buying either recycled content toilet paper or paper made from alternative sources, like bamboo. We explained the whole situation in Why I Refuse to Buy Costco Toilet Paper!
Also, we do usually keep a roll of paper towels on hand solely for those towel-ruining messes. For example, if our cat has an accident or there’s a giant pile of grease from cooking meat, we will usually use a disposable paper towel.
If we had newspapers at home, we would try those instead! This situation works well for us and our rolls of paper towels last a long time. We also source them with recycled content and buy in bulk to reduce packaging. We like these ones from Target.
11. Cool your house naturally
We do have an internal fan in our house but generally, we don’t use that at all. We live in the Pacific Northwest where the summers are generally 70-80 degrees. When I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we definitely used air conditioning or swamp coolers!
We’re a big fan of cracking a window, venting the house, and using box fans to move hot air out. My husband is great at this and keeps our house feeling great all the time.
12. Borrow tools you use infrequently
Although my husband loves to build and has a pretty sweet shop in the garage (pieced together with mostly used tools!), there are tools we don’t have because we don’t use them that often. Instead, we’ll ask his parents or mine to borrow a hedge trimmer, pressure washer, ladder, etc. Since they use these infrequently too, we’re generally not imposing and we don’t have tools hanging out in the garage for no reason.
13. Repurpose older materials
My husband loves to find used pallets. I love to ask him to make me planter boxes with them! I turn literal trash into actual veggies!
Earlier this year, I bought a really nice dish brush holder for my sink only to realize I’d rather use an antique green mason jar I’ve had for years. Let yourself think about the items you already own in new and different ways beyond their original purpose!
14. Be thoughtful about big purchases
I shared my thinking about this HERE, but we generally purchase most large items used. In fact, the only major piece of furniture we bought new was our mattress.
We’re in the market for a new sectional, but we’re saving up to buy a good quality one that is made to last. We may end up buying one used if a great quality couch comes on the market, but if we end up buying new, we are going to make the most environmentally responsible choice we can on our budget.
15. Shop with longevity in mind
My family thinks I’m a killjoy because when I’m shopping at a store, I’ll find something I like, wander around with it for a while, and put it back. Sometimes I’m sad to put it back! But I always think: will I still be using this product in 2 years? 5 years? Is it made to last that long?
I remember longing after a beautiful, bronze-colored coffee travel mug from Godiva. It came packaged in one of those plastic-front holiday gift sets. It was SO beautiful! But I could see how the narrow base would make it easy to knock over. I was sure it didn’t lock in the heat the way my Contigo mug does. Plus, although the outside was beautiful, I was sure it was not made to stand up to years of use. What would I do when it looked back and no longer worked well? Donate it? Trash it? Recycle it? It went back on the shelf.
If a product won’t stay in good shape in the next couple years, it doesn’t come home with me.
16. Pause before buying
If there’s something I want, I’ll usually think about it for a while before I buy. There are exceptions to this, especially if it’s a product I use often and love and it goes on sale.
For example, I was ordering essential oils online recently and I LOADED up my cart with everything I wanted. I gleaned through that list and took off a few things one day. A few days later, I realized there were a few more things I could leave off for now. Although my cart had almost $300 worth of stuff in it, I ended up spending about a quarter of my original cart by focusing only on products I knew I would use right away.
Stop those impulse buys by sleeping on purchases. Simply wait to order until tomorrow. Chances are, you’ll realize you can take something out of your cart or skip the purchase completely.
17. Start a budget
The world cannot sustain the endless buying and shopping we do, especially as Americans. One way to reduce your waste is reduce what you buy. When you’re on a budget, you’re naturally more intentional about your purchases due to a price standpoint. This natural pause point also allows you think about if this is a purchase you’ll really need (like the step above).
I find that when I’m on a budget, I’m way better at slowing down and waiting for the item to come to me. That sounds odd, but I’ll often think, “Oh, it’d be nice if we could find….” I’ll check Facebook Marketplace for the item. I’ll check my favorite local thrift store. If they aren’t there, it’s not my time. Then, one day, a friend will say, “Yeah, I’m getting rid of some old ____” or I’ll go to the thrift store, and exactly what I looked for will be there!
Another way of thinking about this is that pretty much anything you might want to buy new is already in your area. If it’s not available in your used marketplaces yet, give it time. It will be eventually!
18. Stop giving junk as presents
A few years ago, I just could not bring myself to buy one more plastic-wrapped piece of junk for the holidays. Unless I KNOW for a fact that this item will be loved and cherished by the recipient, I don’t buy packaged items. Especially with lots of kids in our family, this one can be tricky! Instead, I follow the tips in the next step!
19. Make gifts from scratch, upgrade their standbys, or gift experiences
My favorite gifts to receive are handmade! As a gardener and home cook, I love to receive gifts that help me do my best in those two places. For example, I’d be thrilled to get a homemade composting system or a gift card to my favorite seed store! My sister and brother in law make beautiful wooden signs that add so much character and charm to my home. I love to receive gifts like this!
Some people are NOT into handmade gifts, and I get that. For those folks, I usually offer an upgrade for something they love or gift an experience. Yes, I often give gift cards! Since I won’t buy something that person won’t like or use, this can make me a boring gift giver unless I know the person well!
I also love to buy next-level products for hobbies. For example, if you love to cook, I may buy you a really nice set of freshly pressed olive oils or fancy baking chocolate (those sound so nice!). I’m definitely not afraid to give gourmet foods or alcohol for gifts. They are consumable items that people love to get!
Otherwise, it’s so nice to gift time together – a day exploring a nearby town, a dinner together, a concert, a cooking class, etc. These strengthen our relationships and reduce waste at the same time!
Reduce Your Waste in the Garden
1. Grow your own food
As an avid gardener, I love to grow my own produce and flowers! Since the food is coming in directly from the garden, there is no packaging, no waste, etc. When I pull plants that have bolted, I simply let them break down on the mulch in our yard instead of throwing them in the trash.
We’re working on finding the perfect compost system for us to turn our garden waste into nutritional plant food! We miss having chickens – they were the best at clearing up excess garden scraps!
2. Store produce properly
We can work really hard for our garden harvest, but if it goes bad before we can eat it, then it’s just more waste. We try to rotate through our fresh produce quickly and move the oldest food towards the front so we see it first. This like FIFO in restaurants: First In, First Out. Keep the oldest foods towards the front of the fridge so you eat them first.
We also like to make recipes that can handle lots of vegetables to make sure we use the food before it goes bad! These are both really easy ways to reduce your waste.
Here are some tips on how to store fresh produce!
3. Preserve your produce for long-term storage
Depending on what we are harvesting, we’ll preserve the food a different way. We love to pickle fresh vegetables to reduce our sugar consumption and ensure we don’t waste any of our produce. This year, I pickled peppers, onions, and cucumbers. We also made blackberry and strawberry jams.
But honestly? My FAVORITE long-term way to store fresh produce is usually to freeze it! I explained that in my post How to Freeze Berries, but it’s just not berries. I’ve frozen lots of different types of produce and shared how to do that in detail. You can even freeze in glass jars!
My friend Lisa at The Self-Sufficient Homeacre has an essential guide on how to store and harvest your root crops!
4. Buy soil locally
Instead of heading to the hardware store and buying 20 plastic bags full of soil or compost, we buy soil and compost in bulk at local facilities. Of course, there are products we buy in bags like our organic fertilizer (we order in bulk so we just waste one bag). But, we don’t feel as bad about that when we know we are diverting more plastic bags from the landfill from our bulk soil purchases.
If we are buying a small amount of something, like just a little bit of compost, we definitely will buy it in a bag, but we try to get whatever we can without a bag when possible. This is another reason why we’re exploring the best homemade composting systems, too!
Lower your carbon footprint gradually
Although this is a long list, there are still so many little things you can do to reduce your waste in big and small ways! The most important thing is to start somewhere. Pick an easy habit to change and focus on it until it’s natural!
Please help us be even better! What are your tips that are missing from this list? Please tell us how you reduce your waste in the comments below!