low waste tiny home

8 Ways to Transition to a Low-Waste Lifestyle

Rachel Lark - December 4, 2023

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One of the factors driving climate change is a lack of waste management resources. Recycling, composting and cutting back on consumption are key principles of a low-waste lifestyle necessary for reversing current trends, but several factors hinder progress. 

However, everyone plays a role in addressing the problem — you can do your part. How can you cut down on the trash you generate in your home and workplace to green your footprint? Here are eight ways to transition to a low-waste lifestyle. 

Why Cutting Back on Waste Matters 

According to the United Nations, overconsumption is one of the seven primary drivers of climate change. The problem is that everything you buy eventually lands in the garbage. Relatively few consumer goods stand the test of time. 

How does overconsumption create trouble? In three main ways. 

1. Landfills and Climate Change 

Most of what many people throw away ends up in landfills. While nearly everything besides plastic eventually breaks down into soil, landfills deprive discarded goods of the necessary oxygen for completing this process. The anaerobic decomposition occurring in these creations produces tons of methane, a greenhouse gas far heavier than carbon dioxide. 

2. Recycling Woes 

Before 2018, the United States exported much of its recycling to China for processing. Unfortunately, the practices used stateside resulted in a mess overseas, as loads became contaminated with food and plastic wrap that jammed machines, shutting down operations. As a result, the existing facilities here soon felt the strain as they weren’t equipped to handle the tons typically sent elsewhere. 

Another issue is the rise of single-stream recycling. While easier for consumers — toss everything in one bin — it leads to tremendous contamination. Food gets on everything, including aluminum cans and milk jugs, glass becomes broken into unmanageable pieces, and often, the entire container ends up in a landfill rather than risk breaking pricey equipment. 

3. Lack of Infrastructure and Services to Facilitate Waste Management 

The final problem with waste management in the United States is the lack of infrastructure to support proper recycling and disposal of organic matter. It’s not only a matter of factories. When was the last time you saw a recycling or compost bin on a public street? While they may exist in a handful of progressive communities, most areas lack such amenities. 

As a result, the burden of proper waste management falls on the individual. This method is woefully inefficient. The inconvenience affects some — few people enjoy carrying separate trash and recycling bags in their car, for example. Others live far from the nearest sorting center or simply lack the time, given increasing economic pressures creating the need for more and more work simply to stay afloat. 

8 Ways to Transition to a Low-Waste Lifestyle 

As a conscientious consumer, you want to do your part to address climate change. While you might not be able to do everything on this list, at least immediately, you can choose one or two that seem manageable and continue to green your footprint as your circumstances and resources change. 

1. Buy Less

Everyone can cut back on their consumption. Doing so saves you money, prevents waste and shows your commitment to a life more meaningful than one centered around trinkets. Reducing your consumption only makes sense, considering inflationary pressures on your wallet, and the less you buy, the less you eventually throw away. 

You also save time while moving toward a low-waste lifestyle. Who wants to spend their weekends cleaning out junk drawers and the basement? If you keep unnecessary junk out of your home in the first place, you have more time for what matters — like spending time on self-care or enjoying an outing with your family and friends. 

2. Buy (and Use) Reusables 

Are you still shamelessly carting your groceries home from the store in a plastic sack? While the intention behind store bag recycling is good, few of these end up becoming something new. Instead, they enter landfills or, worse, local waterways where they harm native wildlife. 

Reusable bags work much better, don’t break and are easy to remember once you force yourself to do “the walk” back out to your car to retrieve them once or twice. Your eggs stay safe and sound until you reach home. 

Don’t stop there. Starbucks and other major coffee shops once more allow you to bring your own cup after ceasing the practice during the pandemic. Invest in a pretty one and use it. 

3. Learn to Repurpose 

Repurposing is better than recycling when embracing a low-waste lifestyle because it requires less energy. It also helps you make new use of goods you can’t readily recycle instead of throwing them in the garbage. For example, old toothbrushes make excellent grout-scrubbers or cleaning other small objects with crevices you must get between. Cutting up old tee shirts into rags saves countless paper towels from landing in the rubbish bin. 

4. Recycle — the Right Way 

Fixing the recycling crisis truly begins at home. Sorting your goods takes no more time than throwing them in the garbage once you set up bins, and it’s necessary for planetary health. 

Find out what your local sorting center accepts and create bins for that purpose. Pro-tip: You might score free containers at the facility. Many have receptacles for large plastics — help yourself to a couple of tubs, no debit card required. 

Once you set up your practice, follow these steps to ensure your load sees new life and doesn’t jam machines: 

  • Rinse: You don’t have to use soap, but rinse off any remaining food bits before placing recyclables into sorting bins. 
  • Cap: Small items can clog machines. Ensure you put bottle caps back on all bottles instead of tossing them in separately. What about the metal caps from your favorite brewskis? Save them in a different place, as scrap metal yards will often take them and melt them to create new materials. 
  • Check the size: Avoid putting anything smaller than a credit card in the recycling bin, as it can clog machines. 

5. Compost 

Even apartment dwellers can compost these days. A quick check of Amazon reveals scores of countertop models that keep your pad odor-free while providing a place for your banana peels and eggshells. 

If you have a yard, you can build a larger model out of pallets you pickup for free at hardware stores. Here’s what you can compost: 

  • Vegetable-based food scraps (no meat)
  • Eggshells
  • Unbleached coffee and tea filters 
  • Paper towels 
  • Trees, clippings and lawn debris
  • Non-glossy paper, such as newspaper or paper bags. 

6. Advocate for the Right to Repair 

Consumer culture has resulted in manufacturers creating products that individual consumers cannot repair. Doing so may require you to ship your product to a faraway facility, pay a hefty fee and wait weeks to receive it back. Many consumers decide the hassle isn’t worth it and buy a replacement instead. 

Embrace a low-waste lifestyle by advocating for right-to-repair laws where you live. Being able to fix things yourself saves time and money and reduces the burden on the planet. 

7. Watch That Packaging 

Buying less helps, but so does selecting goods packaged in sustainable materials. Those plastic clamshells may deter theft, but they’re impossible to recycle and cut your hands up when trying to open your purchases in the bargain. Instead, look for goods packaged in compostable or recyclable wrapping. 

8. Wrap Gifts Creatively, Not Wastefully

Did you know that the U.S. generates 4.6 million pounds of wrapping paper waste each year, often around the holidays? Plus, much of it is glossy and, thus, not recyclable. There’s a better way to show your loved ones that you care. 

Instead, repurpose old newspapers or use a natural fabric to wrap your gifts that your recipient can reuse as a handkerchief or scarf. Even gift bags are a better choice as you can reuse them multiple times instead of resigning them to landfills. 

Transition to a Low-Waste Lifestyle

Transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle is essential to combatting climate change. It’s also something everyone can do. 

Choose what works for you from this list and begin embracing a low-waste lifestyle today. You’ll soon find you feel so good about greening your footprint that you go the extra mile to do more to help Mother Earth. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of Environment.co. A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.