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Are you ready for a 'zero waste' lifestyle?

Living greener will involve changing some habits for sure, but Americans currently produce a hefty 4 pounds of garbage per person daily. Here are some ways to reduce your share, plus resources to learn more.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 12, 2013 11:53AM

This post comes from MSN Money contributor Liz Weston.

Most of what we buy or consume requires trade-offs. When it comes to some of the most important features -- convenience, thrift and environmental friendliness -- we often settle for one or two out of three.

A book and a few websites devoted to the "zero waste" movement have persuaded me to try a little harder on the third count.

At first I was skeptical of claims that the typical American produces more than 4 pounds of garbage a day. Just observing our household patterns, though, convinced me that we're generating a lot more trash than I thought.

And too much of that trash either wasn't being recycled or couldn't be recycled. (We're not alone. I found this rubbish map from the Economist showing the U.S. and Norway, of all places, are tops at producing trash.)

I’m not ready to go to some of the lengths that the truly devoted advocate to reduce our trash to what would fit in a Kleenex box.  But we’re taking a few baby steps:

We're finally getting a composter. We composted on the farm where I grew up, but it was a pretty simple chore. Compostable food scraps went into a bucket Mom kept under the sink. Every few days it was my job to take the bucket and a shovel to the garden to bury the scraps. They disappeared almost magically. We never turned up an eggshell or coffee filter later on. The small lot we live on now doesn’t allow that kind of "lazy composting," but the city of Los Angeles offers a $20 composter I’m going to try.

I'm remembering to take my reusable bags to the store. They’re way better than the flimsy plastic bags grocery stores provide (and that LA is about to ban). But I managed to ignore that until a lovely, expensive bottle of olive oil fell out of tear in one of those flimsies and shattered on our driveway. Now my groceries come home in strong, resilient, reusable totes that don’t let the contents roll all over my car.

Recycle (© Comstock Images/Jupiterimages)
I'm thinking about packaging before I buy. There’s usually a choice between recyclable and not. Surprisingly often these days, you don’t have to pay more for the greener option. This extends to fast food outlets. Carl’s Jr., a favorite burger chain here, wraps its food in paper and cardboard. McDonalds, by contrast, continues to use Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic. The purists would bring their own plates, cups and cloth napkins to a fast food joint, or avoid such restaurants altogether, but for now I’m content to pick Carl’s.

We just had an almost-zero-waste cookout. I’d convinced myself you couldn’t have a party without filling a trash bin, but I was wrong. I made pitchers of lemonade and cucumber water instead of providing bottled water. We used cloth napkins, regular cutlery, and real plates and glasses for the most part. The plastic cups for the kids were recyclable (as were the beer and wine bottles). I even managed to skip the Styrofoam trays that usually accompany meat: We bought some lovely tri-tip roasts from a local butcher, who wrapped them in paper. At the end of the night, the only thing that went into the trash were the hot dog wrappers. It was fun, and the cleanup wasn’t that hard.

Some resources if you’re interested in learning more:

  • The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less is a book by Amy Korst that suggests ways to reduce, reuse and recycle that range from the easy (like remembering those tote bags!) to the advanced (Diva Cups, anyone?).
  • Zero Waste Home is the blog of Bea Johnson, who wrote a book by the same name. I especially like the posts where she talks about zero waste and raising kids.
  • The Nonconsumer Advocate is a perfectly delightful Portlandian named Katy Wolk-Stanley who describes herself as a "library patron, leftovers technician, Goodwill enthusiast, utility bill scholar, labor and delivery nurse, laundry hanger-upper, mother and citizen." Her commentary about some of her more absurd Goodwill finds -- found under the heading "Goodwill, Badwill, Questionable-Will" -- are particularly hilarious.
Read more from Liz Weston at her website, Ask Liz Weston.

Jul 15, 2013 1:18PM

Ben, name one store that has that policy, I mean a store that you would actually take a bag to not the Zale's at the mall.

As for your apartment complex, have you talked to the management? Asked them to provide recycling? You say your city offers recycling, do they give apartments a pass or do they have a program your complex is too lazy to comply with, you might have grounds for the city to step in and force the complex owner/managers to comply with recycling.

I lived for several years in a complex that didn't provide recycling containers but it was no big deal to drop them off at the market that had recycling containers in their lot. At the same time I lobbied the HOA and they installed recycling bins next to the garbage, in fact it resulted in a city tax credit for the HOA.

It appears to me that you don't really care and just wanted to troll this article.

Jul 12, 2013 10:21PM

One question I have is what do you do when the stores start to keep your reusable bags out as they are a "shoplifting" risk?

The apartment complex I live in does not have recycling bins or pick up even though the city does, if I was to recycle I would have to keep the recyclables in my apartment for 3 months, and then hope that the city/county recycle site and day did not get canceled. While I was doing this I would be in violation of the complex rules about garbage in the apartment.

Something I don't see in this type of article about reducing the waste is in picking quality products that are made to last, so they don't end up in the garbage in 3-6 months.

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