One Simple Choice to Reduce Waste This Holiday and Forever

Plastic is everywhere.

The world is producing 380 million tons of plastic every year, and 50% of that is for single-use purposes – useful for a minute, part of the environment for centuries.

Plastic is valuable in medical supplies (including my eyeglasses!), auto parts, and machinery.  But it's also woven into our clothing, bedding, rugs, and furniture.  It's ubiquitous in toys, stuffed animals, disposable diapers, and feminine care.  We eat off it, drink from it, wrap food in it, and give it to our babies to chew on.

I hope this bothers you as much as it does me.  But what are we doing about it?

a beautiful life of garbage?

Isn't zero waste just too hard?

For some people, the term "zero waste" is as scary as "minimalist."  Just as some think that minimalists get rid of almost everything they own, live in a white room with a mattress on the floor and a 10-item wardrobe, and shun all books, pictures, hobbies, and comfort, others believe a zero waste lifestyle is limiting, labor-intensive, and maybe even un-American.

I applaud those who aspire to zero waste living, but I'm concerned that many of us will try it and fail (or not try it because it seems too hard), and reject the idea completely.

However, if many of us made just a few changes, it would create major impact.

Here's the math...

Say the average person creates 1,000 pounds of waste a year.  If 10,000 people embrace the zero waste lifestyle and cut their waste by 90% each, that would divert 9 million pounds of garbage from landfills.

That sounds amazing – until you imagine what would happen if 1 million of us made small changes that reduced waste by just 10% each.  That would prevent 100 million pounds of garbage from entering landfills.  Now we're talking!

If you've been resisting change because you aren't sure you can commit to a zero waste lifestyle (that's me!), this post is for you.  Make one simple decision, and you'll be on your way to a more sustainable future.

Choose to refuse.

Refuse single-use anything by saying no thank you, and opt for reusables instead.  Refuse what you don't need or have any use for, including freebies.  Refuse to waste products you buy or to buy products that are are wasteful.

You may be doing some of this already, but if you're like me, you could do more.

10 specific improvements you can actually make

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1.  Refuse the bag.

Bring reusable grocery bags on every shopping trip (no excuses!), and reusable produce bags too.  These washable bags keep produce fresh and will even work for rice, oats, beans, and nuts in bulk.  Always carry a foldable tote so if you stop at the drugstore or buy a new blouse, you have your own bag.  My Chico bags are years old and still going strong.  They stuff into their attached pouch and take almost no room in my purse, but are strong enough to carry library books.

2.  Refuse the water bottle.

Carry a reusable bottle instead.  Most tap water in the U.S. is safe to drink (and it's regulated by the EPA, which has stricter and more transparent reporting than the FDA, which regulates bottled water), but you can always install a filter if you have concerns.

3.  Refuse single-use tableware.

Keep a set of utensils (including chopsticks and straws) at work, school, or in the car.

4.  Refuse plastic food containers.

If you tend to bring leftovers home from restaurant meals, leave one of these glass food storage containers in your car.  Buy eggs in cardboard containers, not Styrofoam.  Look for a butcher who will wrap your meat in paper instead of Styrofoam and plastic wrap.  Buy cookies and other baked goods in old-style bakery boxes rather than plastic shells.

Christmas latte
5.  Refuse the coffee pod.

Did you know that Keurig produces 10 billion non-biodegradable K-cups every year?  With a French press, you can make just one cup of coffee or a whole pot.  You can even brew tea.  There are no pods, no filters, no waste.

Additionally, stop buying coffee in plastic-lined cups with plastic lids (ala Starbucks and others).  Why not go inside the shop and enjoy your latte in a real mug?

6.  Refuse single-use cleaning items.

Stop buying paper towels and return to cloth dish towels and washcloths.  Get some cotton napkins while you're at it.  Instead of a Swiffer, this microfiber mop works like a dream, and the pads are washable and last a long time.  You don't need toxic floor cleaners either – 1/2 cup of white vinegar in a gallon of warm water works even on wood.  Add a squirt of dish soap if you're cleaning greasy residue.

7.  Refuse excess packaging.

One easy way to avoid excess packaging is to refuse single-serving items.  Resist buying mini-packs of chips or cookies, for example, in favor of one larger bag or box that can be divided into reusable containers.  Skip juice boxes and teach your kids to drink water when they're not at home.

Some companies are reducing packaging, using 100% recycled (and recyclable) plastic, or transitioning away from plastic altogether, such as Method cleaning products, Ethique body care products, and Unilever personal care, home care, and food brands.

I'm a fan of Green Toys, made in the U.S. from recycled plastic milk jugs and packaged in recyclable cardboard.  Apple Park makes cute, affordable stuffed animals from organic cotton, filled with corn fiber instead of polyester, packaged in paper.  But your best option may be used toys.  Thrift shops and yard sales are good options.  Look on Etsy or Ebay for Lego sold in bulk, and ask for it to be shipped simply in paper and cardboard.

8.  Refuse the non-recyclable.

The holiday season is especially bad for landfills.  One big culprit is the 5 billion pounds of returned gifts likely to be trashed every year.

Another big source of waste is everything we use to wrap our gifts.  None of this can be recycled:

  • wrapping paper, gift bags, and greeting cards that are shiny, glittery, velvety, beaded, or contain a foil texture
  • wrapping paper still stuck with tape
  • bows
  • ribbon
  • sticky gift tags
  • glittery or otherwise embellished greeting cards (glitter is a micro-plastic that ends up in our water and won't biodegrade for centuries)

brown paper packages
In fact, if any of these end up in curbside bins, they ruin the entire batch of recycling and it all winds up in the landfill!

Look for products that can be recycled, like this set of kraft wrapping paper.  Make bows with paper raffia, and adorn your packages with handmade paper snowflakes or small evergreen cuttings.  You could also wrap gifts in old road maps or Sunday comics from the newspaper.

At the very least, put someone on "bow patrol" to collect and save them during present exchanges.  Save gift bags too, and use them again next year.  There are at least a half dozen bags that keep making the rounds in my family.

As for holiday greetings, e-cards are the modern choice.  I love Jacquie Lawson e-cards – they're beautiful and different to what you'll see anywhere else.  A reasonable annual fee lets you send as many personalized cards to as many people as you want for every occasion.

If you have elderly relatives who don't do email (as I do), choose glitter-free, foil-free cards made from recycled paper and printed with eco-friendly ink.  These are surprisingly hard to find, but Tree-Free Greetings are a lovely option.  They have Hanukkah and Kwanzaa cards as well!

If you receive some glittery cards this year, be sure to recycle the unembellished back of the card.  The front could become a gift tag, a tree ornament, or even be framed for holiday d├ęcor.

9.  Refuse to waste food.

Food takes up more space in U.S. landfills than anything else, according to the EPA.  Americans throw out billions of pounds of food every year, representing a huge waste of labor, water, fossil fuels, and packaging.  It's also morally indefensible, since there are millions who go hungry.

Christmas cookies
Composting is one option, but not everyone has a yard where they can build a compost heap, or space (or desire) for one of those countertop bins.  But since we're trying to encourage lots of people to cut waste by a little bit, if composting freaks you out, there are plenty of other options.

  • Do a better job of meal planning so you don't end up throwing ingredients away.
  • Group similar items together in your refrigerator and pantry so you can keep track of what you have.  Check those supplies before you head to the store so you don't overbuy.
  • Always shop with a list.
  • Stop buying things in bulk if you can't use them up before they go bad.  You aren't saving money if you don't use all you purchase.
  • Avoid creating "orphans" in your pantry.  Forgo recipes that call for one teaspoon of a spice or part of a fresh or canned ingredient that you won't use for anything else.  Unless you routinely cook ethnic food, save more exotic dishes for restaurant visits.
  • Designate one area in your refrigerator for leftovers so you can see what you have and remember to use it before it goes bad.

Good organization and a minimalist approach of "just enough but not too much" can go a long way toward solving the problem of food waste.

10.  Refuse to overuse.

Unlike a true zero waste master, you might still purchase bottles of laundry detergent or shampoo.  But find what I call the SEA – the Smallest Effective Amount.  Keep reducing the amount of detergent you use per load until it becomes ineffective at cleaning your clothes – then use just a smidgen more.  Do the same with all your other personal and home care items, and even things like ketchup and salad dressing.  Each bottle will last longer, saving you money and reducing plastic use.

A more sustainable lifestyle doesn't have to be difficult.  Choose to refuse, and you'll have a big impact on the environment while saving money too.  It's a win win!


  1. Brilliant suggestions all Karen! Thank you!

  2. I bought holiday themed fabric, hemmed up various size pieces, added real ribbon for closing, and used those over and over for years.
    Linda Sand

    1. Great idea, Linda! I'll bet your family loved seeing those bags come out each year.

  3. There is a UK company that produces 'naked' organic shampoo bars that resemble rather interesting bars of soap. Also hair conditioners in the same format. I've been using these products for over four years, resulting in frequent comments, from my hairdresser, on the very good condition of my hair.

    I am not writing to promote the brand but the naked format. There might be American companies that produce similar products.

    The products are vegetarian and not tested on animals. The initial purchase seems expensive but a bar of shampoo used two to three times per week lasts around three months; working out very much cheaper than regular 'wrapped' products. The conditioner lasts even longer.

    Lush is a UK company with 250 stores in the USA. They sell creams etc in returnable containers.

    I'm sorry this sounds as though I'm an advertiser, I'm not, I'm just enthusiastic about minimising waste.

    Have a wonderful Christmas and year ahead.

    1. Thanks, Anne. I think I've heard of those shampoo bars from Lush. Great to hear from someone who has long experience of using them!

  4. Plastic bags in stores are getting more and more uncommon over here in Germany. They used to cost a little fee for a long time already, and now you don't get them anymore at all in supermarkets or stores. You can get paperbags (sometimes for a small fee), cloth bags (for a fee), or re-usable large bags made from recycled plastic (these come in handy for your next shopping trips!). Some supermarkets also offer sturdy cardboard boxes (again, for a fee). The vast majority of people will bring their own bags. You get used to it :-)

  5. What great ideas. It’s important to implement even a few small steps at a time. I haven’t given a thought to glitter, gift bags and wrapping paper. I’m going to be looking for biodegradable options going forward. Thanks for the info!

    1. You're welcome, Lisa! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


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