Zero Waste 101: A beginner's guide

Over the last decade, the zero waste movement has gained steam as people all across the globe look for ways to live more sustainably. Today, there are dozens of zero-waste lifestyle coaches with hundreds of thousands of followers. 

What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste is a set of guidelines or principles aimed at reducing waste so that little to nothing is sent to landfill, and it's much less intimidating than it sounds.

Like eating healthier, zero-waste can be approached little by little with incremental improvements that make a big impact over time.  At its core, zero waste is about conserving resources; for the real pros, that means an entire year’s worth of trash can fit into a mason jar. For the rest of us, zero waste means cutting out waste as much as we can so we don't squander the world's resources. 

Here's a clip from Bea Johnson, considered the 'Mother of Zero Waste'. 

You might find many zero waste practices to be familiar, or maybe even old-fashion since many of our parents or grandparents embraced zero-waste habits as the norm.  Heck, the adage "Waste not want not" has been around since the 1700s. 

As the amount of waste produced in the U.S. has increased to over 4.9 pounds per person per day, entire cities including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington D.C,  and San Jose have adopted Zero Waste goals and policies to curb our growing waste problem.  

The guiding principles of zero waste are built off the popular 3R waste hierarchy many of you already know - reduce, reuse, recycle.  In the journey to zero waste, two more Rs are added, Refuse, and Rot. 

The 5Rs of Zero Waste 

Just like the 3Rs the 5R guidelines are presented in order of potency so the biggest environmental wins are gained by making changes at the top of the list. 

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot, in that order.  


It’s a gut reaction for most of us to take things when offered, especially when they’re free. From paper flyers to conference swag bags to plastic to-go utensils, how much free stuff do we take home that is never even used?  There's a similar phenomenon with dollar stores where sub-quality goods are bought for a buck and usually break and become trash after a few uses. 

The first step to reducing waste is the simple act of saying ‘no thanks’ to stuff you don’t need or can do without. So much of the packaging we use today is for items that are only useful for a few minutes but can stick around on the earth for a lifetime, or more. 


Reduce means decluttering your home so items you don't use or need can go back on the second-hand market, and buying second-hand goods too. 

Bea often shares an antidote about having a container filled with cooking spoons next to her stove until she realized one day, she only stirs with one hand, so why have so many spoons?  Good point! 

The trend to declutter has only increased with the launch on Netflix of Marie Kondo's Tidying Up . Marie, a Japanese organization and decluttering consultant, emphasizes living a clutter-free life by discarding everything that doesn't spark joy. 

For selling and buying second-hand goods, look to traditional thrift stores, consignment shops, and online market places that bring local buyers and sellers together and make transactions easy.  

Some newer peer-to-peer online marketplaces to consider are Offer Up for general goods; thredUp, Poshmark and TheRealReal for clothes, and Reverb for musical instruments. When shopping for second-hand goods, you can expect big savings even for new-with-tags and new-in-box items.  

snapshot from, an online clothing thrift shop

It's common to save 20-85% by buying items second-hand.  When selling items online or at a traditional consignment store, most companies will charge a fee varying from a couple percent to over 60% depending on the selling price and item.  


Reuse means removing all single-use items and replacing them with reusable ones. 

To find big scores in your home begin with the low-hanging fruit.  Start looking inside your trash and recycling bins to see which item or items are taking up the most space.  Then look for ways to reduce those. 

You'll be surprised what a difference a few zero-waste lifestyle changes here can make.  

  • Plastic ziplock bags can be washed and reused, or replaced with heavier, reusable silicon zipper bags.

  • Plastic wrap can be swapped out for reusable beeswax wrap. It's great for storing cheese too. 

  • Paper towels can be replaced with rags.

  • A soda machine can replace hundreds of cans of carbonated water. 

  • Use durable bags, cups, and utensils instead of disposable ones.

  • Bring your own containers for buying nuts, grains, rice, flour, seeds, and other pantry staples in the bulk section.  

    Tip: The bulk section is also handy for buying small quantities when a recipe calls for an ingredient you don't often use. 

  • Wine drinker? Try box wine instead of bottles. Today, box wine is no longer limited to sweet table wines as more high-end wine producers look to reduce their environmental footprint.  Lighter to transport and with less waste at the end, one box of wine equals 4 bottles at a fraction of the weight. 

  • Beer drinkers can get in on the reuse action too: grab a refillable growler of local brew! 

  • To replace single-serving size drinks or snacks, buy larger containers to portion into re-usable bottles or jars. Save money and lots of waste.

Reuse also means making the best of items that do come into our homes by using them as many times as possible before recycling or composting them. 

Reusing something that has already been produced is far more efficient than recycling because reuse conserves all the work and resources that went into making the item the first time, without all the manufacturing and transportation.

Let's take a shipping box for instance.  Better to reuse it or recycle it? 

If we can reuse the box or give it to someone who can, then we eliminate the need for a new box to be made and sold, and there is zero waste. 

Recycle: If we recycle the box, what follows is a simplified snapshot of the journey that box will take before it becomes a new box, ready for sale: 

  1.  The box is picked up and taken to a recycling facility.

  2.  The box is sorted out and baled with other recycled boxes.

  3.  The bale of boxes is sold to a paper manufacturer.

  4.  The paper manufacturer turns the baled cardboard boxes into new recycled paper.

  5.  Recycled paper is sold to a manufacturer who makes boxes. 

  6.  The paper is manufactured into a box.

  7.  The box is transported to a retailer.

  8.  Finally, the box is purchased and shipped or driven home. 

We save trees by recycling, but by directly reusing the box, all of those steps above and the energy and resources they consume are eliminated. 

Here are some other reuse ideas for making the most of what you've got: 

  • Use paper bags, maps, packing paper, and old calendars as gift wrap.

  • Set your printer to the print double-sided setting. Use the back of old single-sided prints as scratch paper.  

  • Use plastic shopping bags to line trash cans. Reminder, plastic bags are not recyclable in the blue cart. 

  • Save glass jars for making bulk purchases. Some pasta sauces come in actual mason jars, what a waste to throw those out! 


Zero waste isn’t about recycling more, it’s really about recycling less. As less waste comes into your life, there won’t be so much need to recycle.  

For the products you buy, zero-waste principals consider the end of a product's life too.  How will it be disposed of?  If an item can’t be refused, reduced, or reused, then it should be recyclable or compostable. 

Recycling is environmentally beneficial because it reuses materials we've already harvested from the earth to make new products.  Though complex and energy-intensive, the recycling process still conserves resources, water and even energy over making products from new virgin materials. 

How much energy is saved through recycling?  Check out this energy calculator and see for yourself. 

 Data source: EPA iWARM 

The most important things you can do to support recycling: 

A. Know your local recycling rules

If you haven't checked Chicago's recycling rules in the last year or so, please do.  

Knowing what to recycle, and keeping the other stuff out, is critical to keeping the recycling program running efficiently.  If you're sure you know the rules, take this quiz which covers all the big points you need to know in about 2 minutes.

Note:  For dwellers in apartment or condo buildings with more than 4 units, you have private recycling services. Check with your building manager about what's accepted for recycling, composting, etc.  Your rules may vary slightly from the City’s Blue Cart Program. 

B. Buy recycled products

Equally important to recycling is buying recycled goods.  The demand that's created by consumers purchasing goods that are made with recycled materials, is vital to the recycling eco-system.  In the words of Ed Begley Jr., "If you're not buying recycled products, you're not really recycling."

Toilet paper, tissues, notepads, office paper and even shoes are available these days made in part or 100% from recycled materials.  Look for items labeled 'post-consumer' recycled material, which means the item is made from the materials we, as consumers, recycle. 

Show brands that using recycled content is important by making the choice to buy products made from the recyclables we collect.  Nothing speaks to brands more effectively than our wallet. 

5. ROT (aka: Compost)

Food, plants, and food-soiled paper, basically anything that comes from nature can be composted.  Composting is important for two reasons, it produces a soil additive that essential to fertilizing soil without all the chemicals.  Secondly, it reduces methane - a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  

When food breaks down in an air-tight landfill "anaerobically", methane is produced.  Although landfills capture most of the methane, they don't capture enough of it.  Landfills are still the third largest producers of methane gas behind energy production and cow farmers. 

In Chicago, there are dozens of compost services and community gardens that collect food scraps to create compost.  Check out this resource to get started: How to Compost in a Chicago Apartment



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