25 Ways You Can Help Your Family Be Zero Waste

Choose the path of zero waste or low waste – whatever you want to call it – and learn about ways to ease your family into an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

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March 06, 2019
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Small Changes, Big Impact

There’s no denying that every single one of us can do more to reduce our impact on Mother Earth and live with a more environmentally mindful purpose. While some changes are small and affordable, others are investment-worthy and require more lead time. That’s all to say that a zero-waste family lifestyle isn’t something you’re going to roll into overnight; it requires attention, practice, teamwork and willpower, but it’s not impossible! Best of all, demonstrating new practices in front of your kids and engaging them in the process will make it easier for them to adhere to the same habits in their own lifestyles as they grow up.

Keep in mind that even if all you’re able to manage for your household is a change that reduces 10% of your waste, you’re still doing good for the environment. (Zero-Waste Chef crunched the numbers, and it’s pretty compelling.)

The easiest way to make small changes in your family’s lifestyle is to pay attention to your consumption habits and the types of things you find the family discarding on the regular. Find new ways to accommodate your lifestyle from that intel. Set small goals, then stretch goals, and gradually work your way up to a lifestyle that allows you to be successful in your own way. Here are 25 simple ways to get started.

#1: Carry Reusable Grocery Totes

Opt against plastic and carry along your own bags on your next grocery run. Remembering to bring them to the car after they’ve been emptied is the hardest part for me. You can get small bags that fold into a small square that fits in your purse, if that’s easiest. But somehow, kids are really good about remembering these details, so ask them to remind you to bring your reusable bags, too.

Get the How-To: Simple Chic: Make a Japanese Knot Bag

#2: Pack Reusable Lunch Plasticware

Cut your demand for plastic wrap, sandwich baggies and prepackaged lunch fixings, and make a small investment in reusable containers instead. Glass containers will last the longest, but plastic alternatives are the most kid-friendly for school lunches.

See More Photos: 10 Ways to Make Bringing Your Own Lunch Waste-Free

#3: Commit to Second-Hand Shopping

Control the impulse to buy all of the toys and new clothing off the rack (even if it’s mega on-sale). When you need something "new" such as a one-time-use kid’s outfit for a school concert, check consignment shops or borrow from a friend. Opt for hand-me-down toys. Have a stash of exclusively secondhand clothes for daycare and camp, and when your family has outgrown them, hand the items down to friends, consign them or offer them to donation sites in your area.

#4: Quit Making Food Waste

Keeping food waste at zero takes a lot of work. Start by purchasing only what you’ll be able to eat, making manageable portions and normalizing the pattern of sending leftovers in school lunches.

#5: Start a Compost Pile

As part of your goal of eliminating food waste, plan to compost as much as possible. (Any organic items are safe to compost, but you might find this robust list helpful.)

Get the How-To: How to Make an Attractive Compost Bin for Your Kitchen

#6: Love Your Garden

Grow as much as you can to change your consumer habits. Start with a windowsill herb garden if it’s a step in the right direction and graduate to an outdoor garden bed if space allows. Kids love helping manage a garden and learn a lot watching the plants flourish. Make the most of your space by making simple trellises or custom watering systems like a DIY soaker hose.

Get the How-To: How to Make a Soaker Hose

#7: Choose Reusable Straws and Drinkware

If you must use straws, buy a pack of stainless reusable straws rather than one-time-use products. Also, opt for reusable water bottles for kids for school lunches and never have to buy a pack of boxes or pouches again. Bottles with no nozzles are pretty leak-resistant (jury’s out on the rest) and you can pack a reusable straw in the lunchbox to make it easier to use during lunchtime. Say "no thank you" to one-time-use plastic bottles!

#8: Make or Buy Reusable Beeswax Food Wraps

Buy beeswax covers (or make your own) to keep food fresh and reduce the need for plastic wrap in your kitchen.

Watch the Video: Reusable Beeswax Food Wraps

#9: Learn to Mend Clothing and Other Textiles

Teaching children simple skills like how to thread a needle will come in handy infinitely throughout their life. Avoid discarding clothing as soon as it becomes stained or torn, and mend it to extend the life. Use patches, learn creative embroidery, and for stained shirts and socks, consider re-dying the fabric a fun color to disguise the imperfections.

Get the How-To: Sashiko Mending Is a Clothing Life Saver

#10: Embrace Recycling

Navigate the recycling process based on your local services. In our geography, we fully separate recyclables from garbage and find it easiest to have separate bins in our kitchen at all times. Your kids will learn with you how to identify and categorize those items.

#11: Use Cloth Diapers

Having gone through the process, I will say that cloth diapers are a stinky commitment, but to never have to buy or dispose of diapers makes it worthwhile. Consider it if you’re expecting, even if you only feel ready to use them 50% of the time (such as during the day, when you’re at home and not traveling). Also, rid your reliance on swim diapers by choosing a reusable cloth diaper when you take the kids in the pool.

#12: Shop Bulk

Learn how to shop in bulk (and I don’t just mean in the candy aisle). Bring reusable containers to stores that offer bulk items like rice, beans, peanut butter, pasta and more, and buy what you need without incurring any packaging waste.

#13: Choose Products With Eco-Minded Packaging

For the items you do have to buy pre-packaged, choose packaging that’s marked as recyclable that doesn’t need to hit the trash bin once it’s used up.

#14: Invest in Reusable Table Settings

Choose real plates, bowls, glassware and cloth napkins over convenience items, like paper or single-use plastic products. This is a pretty simple change to commit to in your nuclear household, but extend your efforts and offer the same experience when you entertain, regardless if it’s a party for the big game or an outdoor picnic for the extended family.

#15: Choose Experiential Gifts

Make more memories and less packaging waste by selecting gifts for experiences, rather than tangible objects. Appeal to everyone with a special treat or the gift of entertainment, rather than items that’ll be outgrown and clutter your home (and in the future, go to the trash).

See More Photos: 14 Experiential Gifts for the Person Who Has Everything

#16: Change Restaurant Habits

For the occasional meal out, bring your own to-go container and pack up the leftovers for the future. Fast-food stops generate lots of waste, so consider bringing your own utensils and reusable cups.

#17: Develop a Routine at Your Local Farmers Market, CSA or Co-Op

Support local farmers and programs rather than being reliant on big grocers for fresh foods. Make it part of your weekly or bi-weekly routine to take the family to the local farmer’s market, or join a local co-op or CSA. (Many programs accommodate busy families and offer to drop-off shares at offices to increase participation.) If it’s difficult to source local items in the offseason, consider subscribing to a do-good company that works to minimize food waste like Misfits Market, Imperfect Produce or Hungry Harvest (just to name a few).

#18: Choose an Electric Car

Learn about EV options before you buy your next car. They’re becoming more affordable, with longer battery range, and they’re good for families, too. Here’s an honest review of my family’s all-electric vehicle.

#19: Make Your Own Cleaning Products

DIY cleaning products are typically made with simple materials and are radically less expensive than store-bought cleansers. They’re usually safer for families, too. Reuse spray bottles and opt for cloth rags over paper towels when you’re establishing your DIY cleaning arsenal.

Get the How-To: Stop Buying Cleaning Sprays (Really!) With 3 All-Natural Swaps You Can DIY

#20: Build a Rain Barrel

Collect rainwater from your downspouts so that it can be reused for maintaining your landscape and managing your garden. They’re simple to install, and sometimes local municipalities offer them at low-cost to homeowners.

Get the How-To: How to Make a Rain Barrel

#21: Reuse Gift Bags

When you receive gifts in store-bought gift bags, keep them in good condition and reuse them however you’re able, whether it can be repurposed for another friends’ gift, or for that day your kid needs to lug a big school project on the bus.

See More Photos: 14 Ways to Organize Your Wrapping Paper and Gift Bags

#22: Make Energy-Efficient Updates to Your Home

When upgrades are necessary, choose products that offer improved efficiency to your home. Choose better windows and insulative window coverings. Invest in efficient appliances and LED lighting. Be sure to look into local- or state-level rebate incentives that can offset the cost of these home upgrades.

#23: Make Investments in Manufacturers Who Care About Sustainability

When buying new, opt to support manufacturers who care about craftsmanship and material sustainability, such as companies with FSC accreditations. Superior craftsmanship will last longer, and wood sourced for building is typically done with less impact to the environment. Zero-emission finishes and organic sealants also make these items family-safe investments for your home.

#24: Put Up a Clothesline

Forget the fancy front loader - being able to line dry your clothing and sheets when the weather is favorable is a true energy-free luxury. Install an inexpensive retractable clothing line from your porch and tether it to a tree in the distance on laundry days. It remains out of the way when retracted and not in use.

#25: Plan a Staycation

Maximize your school vacation time and splurge on close-to-home experiences through local museums, landmarks and events. Your change in agenda will result in fewer emissions (a short car ride is better than jumbo jet for transport), plus, there’s more opportunity to control how much waste you acquire and discard, and you can support your local economy at the same time.

See More Photos: 10 Fun Things to Do With the Kids on Your Staycation

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