Around six years ago, I was having coffee with a friend in a local café, catching up after almost a year of not seeing each other, and the subject of my veganism came into subject. My friend – who loves his steaks medium rare and loads his plate with meat every time we go to the buffet – was very skeptical about my choice to go meat free. I had done it not because of a health condition or because I believed in PETA’s (exaggerated) animal cruelty campaigns, but because I had read about how the meat industry – including all types of meat, even fish and chicken – were polluting the planet.
I wasn’t forcing my choice down anyone’s throat, nor was I the type to glare at my friends when they order the ribs while I order a vegetarian pizza, but my friend called out what he saw was the hypocrisy in my beliefs.
“What’s so hypocritical about that?” I asked.
“You’re doing it because of you want to decrease your – carbon footprint, right? – but isn’t it a bit counterproductive? You’re eating kale to save the earth, but you’re… are you going to throw that?”
He pointed towards my plastic iced coffee cup and a matching plastic straw. I wanted to defend myself, but then I realized he had a point. It wasn’t enough to just cut back on meat; I also had to reduce how much waste I made – which, even as a vegan, was still a lot.
Six years later, I’ve ditched bags of chips for homemade salted potato crisps. I’ve started bringing my own water bottle. And any plastic I do buy always has more than one use. I won’t deny that the process is difficult; it took months for me to adjust to the little nuances of not using single-use plastics. But these important tips have helped me get by and adjust to a better, sustainable lifestyle.
Stop Using Plastic Straws
I started doing this before the trend of reusable straws grew in early 2018. I know straws make a small part of plastic waste, but when you’re giving up plastic, you have to start with the little things you know you’re not going to use again. It’s easy to say one straw won’t make a difference, but if a million people said the same thing, you’d have a million straws added to landfills.
Start by not using straws when it’s necessary. When you’re in restaurants where they serve the drink in a glass or can, refuse straws and drink straight from the glass. I’ve never gotten into the bubble tea trend because it requires using a special straw just to drink it. It helps that there are reusable straws available in the market, now, though.
I’ve done my research and saw that there were only three good reasons people use straws: for the elderly who do not have the motor and eye-and-mouth coordination to drink from a glass anymore; people with sensitive teeth who want to sip a cold drink; and people who want to avoid tooth decay or staining by not letting their drink swill around in their mouth.
Apart from those reasons, I don’t see a reason why other people need straws (and don’t get me started on people who put straws in bottles designed to be easy to drink). And some who do for the sake of exceptions two and three aren’t even using straws properly because they don’t swallow the drink immediately and allow it to linger on their teeth.
Reuse Plastic Bags
Plastic bags take years to decompose, even ones that are labelled biodegradable. Even if it is biodegradable, landfills are filled with them, and the ones that fly away manage to find themselves suffocating marine life.
Shopping is an inevitable part of life. I recommend you use a tote bag or a reusable shopping bag, but when you’re faced with a time when you have no other choice but to use a plastic bag, do not throw it away immediately.
Plastic grocery bags are strong and can be repurposed the next time you need to go grocery shopping, need to store items away, or when bringing stuff over to a friend.
Shopping: Buy in Bulk, Buy from Farmers’ Markets, and Avoid Regular Grocery Stores
Speaking of shopping, going zero-waste means being very conscious about where you buy. Back then, I didn’t have a lot of options on where to shop, and the one-use plastic containers I got from groceries were always the groceries that stopped me from becoming totally one-use plastic free.
But then I realized, I could lessen the amount of waste I made if I stopped buying small amounts of everything. While there are some products you might not want to buy in bulk (e.g. bread that goes bad in a week, certain kinds of nuts), it helps you lessen the number of times you have to buy a product every shopping trip, which means less waste. I’ve also found that it’s easier to find ways to recycle bigger jars and bottles than it is with its smaller counterpart.
Being a vegan, another thing I hated were the plastic wrap around perfectly good produce. The food containers used to pack strawberries, tomatoes, and cherries were useful for packing leftovers, but there was no way to reuse plastic wrap. Which is annoying, 1) because I couldn’t buy vegetables without buying single-use plastics; and 2) because I found it unnecessary, given that fruits and vegetables already come in natural packaging.
That’s why I’ve since adapted to buying my produce every week at the local farmers’ market. It means getting up early on the Saturdays and Sundays and not having the same convenience as groceries, but it’s a small price to pay for fresh, all-natural produce. If you don’t have a farmer’s market in your area, though, going zero-waste simply means avoiding produce that’s wrapped in plastic and finding a store that actually cares for the environment and understands that produce comes in its own natural wrapper.
I’ve found that since environmental awareness has grown in the recent years, however, you’ll have a much easier time shopping with zero-waste on the brain than I did years ago. You might have heard of a store in New York called Package Free or a grocery in Austin, Texas called in.gredient. These are stores that cater to people who want to go zero-waste, so they’ve provided products that don’t come in packaging.
Customers bring their own reusable containers or can buy reusable containers from the store and can purchase food and other groceries they need. Package Free provides zero-waste items that its founder, Lauren Singer, personally uses. In in.gredient, nearly all of its products are package free and they also sell prepared food with produce grown from their own garden. Having these stores would have helped me so many years ago when I was getting started with this lifestyle change, and while I shop in stores in my area similar to them, I know they’re a good way for people to start going zero-waste.
Invest in a Water Filter
One of my more bad habits back then was buying crates of water bottles, storing it in my fridge, drinking it when I got thirsty, and then throwing the bottle away. It’s not sustainable, and it’s actually a practice that’s costing me a lot of money. Instead of buying water bottles, I’ve invested in water filters and have been drinking water from the tap ever since. As long as you buy a reliable filter source, you shouldn’t have to worry about the taste or contaminants that could be in tap water.
These aren’t all the steps I’d like to write in this article, but these are the baby steps towards living a zero-waste lifestyle. I started my journey back when there were very little outlets for an environmentally friendly lifestyle, but with reusable straws, zero waste stores, and other convenient ways for sustainable practices, it can be much easier for you to decrease your waste by a huge amount.