Here are 12 EASY zero waste swaps for you to begin making some sustainable swaps in key areas of your life. Now, before you even begin this journey you need to ask yourself "what is zero waste living" and "what are the 5r's of zero waste?". There is so much confusion surrounding these terms.
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Why choose zero waste swaps
It's simple to reduce waste! So many of the products we use today create tons and tons of waste literally! Here are some alarming statistics you should know:
- There are about 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world – some 6.3 billion tons of that is trash!
- 91.3% of all plastic waste generated in the US was not recycled.
- Plastic trash kills ocean life – entanglement, ingestion, and interactions are most common.
- Plastic takes 400 years to degrade
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #1 Water Bottles
Bad news: Before your true love gave you that single-use bottle, it had to be shipped FIVE times! The first, was in the form of oil and gas because it had to blend and create something called monomers to form our un-pronounceable friend polyethylene terephthalate (PET). From there, it travels on: the PET turns into tiny pellets, melted into a mold to become an accessory to a trash bin longer than you have time to drink from it.
The bottle is shipped to a separate plant to be filled with water, and then off to the vendor that sells it to your love.
Last but not least, that bottle will outlast you AND your true love: ¾ of plastic water bottles go to the landfill and decompose over the span of 500 years. There are our top picks for reusable water bottles!
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #2 Toothbrushes/ Toothpaste
A toothbrush has three main pieces to it: usually, a handle made of polypropylene plastic, nylon bristles, and a rubber grip. Toothbrushes do not biodegrade. They get sent across the world to be sorted. Then, due to lack of proper disposal infrastructure, they end up randomly in the environment.
Although not categorically “single-use,” a toothbrush is thrown out around 3 times a year. If the standard life of a Canadian is 82, then that lands us at a whopping 246 toothbrushes per Canadian lifetime. That’s astronomical when you think of the number of people in this country, or in North America.
On the bright side, a toothbrush’s lifetime is 500 years, just like their bud the disposable water bottle. Wait a minute…! In short, it’s worthwhile to consider your other options, like a bamboo toothbrush, which biodegrades. If disposed of in a composter, it would take a matter of months.
And when it comes to toothpaste, think of all the tubes you have used up to this point in your life now times that by the billions of people who do the same, that's a lot of tubes going right to landfill, a simple swap would be zero waste toothpaste that comes in tablet form and packaging that can be reused or actually recycled.
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #3 Coffee Cups
The energy needed to make ONE disposable cup equals 3.7 cups of coffee. Zero Waste Canada attests that approximately 14 billion cups of coffee are consumed in Canada annually, and 35% of those cups are ‘to go’, which equals almost 5 billion coffee cups in a year that go to landfills.
What’s worse, disposable coffee cups are used, on average, for 13 minutes before being discarded. Even if they’re thrown in a recycling bin, they’re being thrown away: paper cups are lined with polyethylene plastic, and the lid is oftentimes polystyrene (#6- Styrofoam). One scalding issue is that when a coffee cup still has coffee in it, and it’s improperly disposed of in the recycling, it contaminates the whole bag, rendering it all unrecyclable. We have a huge selection of reusable cups in the brand directory.
We know there’s no need to explain the alternative for this one. BRING YOUR OWN CUP!
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #4 Microplastic
By definition, microplastics are plastic particles that are less than 5 millimeters in size. If you can’t visualize 5 millimeters, pull out 5 of your ‘plastics’ (credit, debit, ID, etc), and stack them flat. Or, look at single long-grain rice, which is a little bit bigger at around 7 millimeters.
There are 5 predominant types of microplastics, the most common in waterways are microfibres from clothing. Up to 60% of our clothing has some sort of microplastic in them, due to synthetic materials including polyester, nylon, spandex, acrylic, and/or polyamide. It’s not as if we are discarding clothing directly into waterways. Instead, the issue is that each time we wash our clothes, they release thousands of plastic particles. When our clothes experience friction (i.e. sit on a rock) that too leaves behind microfibres.
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #5 Food Storage
“But it’s recyclable!” Before you pat yourself on the back, most municipalities in the USA are not equipped to recycle #4 plastic, also known as low-density polyethylene plastics (LDPE). So, if you are recycling, it needs to be brought to a specialized drop-off point. Check out Plastic Film Recycling to find one near you.
Ziplocs are made from LDPE plastics, which require crude oil and natural gas to be mined from the earth. The energy used to recycle a Ziploc bag is parallel to the energy needed to create it in the first place since in BOTH cases, the materials need to be melted and re-formed. When you see “recyclable” on the Ziploc box, remember that for every one Ziploc purchased and properly recycled, you’ve essentially used the energy of two.
There are some creative alternatives out there: fabric sandwich pouches are my favourite for snacks, glass jars for preserving food in the fridge or freezer, and stainless steel containers for takeaway lunches. Of course, if you do own Ziplocs, re-use them before recycling). You can also reuse your old Tupperware or try these plastic-free storage containers.
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #6 Plastic Wrap
Some say cling wrap, some say saran wrap, but in any case, we don’t need it! Cling wrap is made of polyvinyl chloride, which is 100% non-recyclable. Best case scenario, it will sit in a landfill and leach its chemicals to its surroundings forever. Worst case scenario: it will become litter, and be ingested by animals.
It’s popular to microwave cling wrap over a bowl, but a tea towel would also do the trick. When the plastic is heated up, the water that forms underneath it could contain phthalates and contaminate the food.
On the bright side, cling wrap is easily replaced, and with a fantastic solution that actually helps preserve your food! Beeswax wraps can cover half-cut citrus, and veggies, or be folded into a pouch for a snack. It can preserve cheese and herbs and cover a dish with no problem. Are you a baker? Yep- your dough can rise covered by a beeswax wrap! Malleable, reusable, and replaceable once it’s worn out. Then, it carries on to its biodegradable and/or compostable beeswax retirement. Silicone has also become a popular replacement for plastic, but does silicone biodegrade?
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #7 Take-Out Containers
Take-out can come in many forms, and there are, of course, compostable takeout containers that some service providers have upgraded to. But for those that haven’t upgraded, you’re probably taking food home in either styrofoam or plastic container. Styrofoam takes the least energy to produce, however, it is entirely unrecyclable. The production of a plastic container has a larger carbon footprint, however, if it is re-used 5 times, it would have a similar carbon footprint to styrofoam- and is also unlikely to be recycled. Meanwhile, plastic Tupperware containers need to be re-used at least 18 times to come out even.
However, “coming out even” will not solve the environmental overwhelm caused by plastics. One study estimates that the equivalent of 55 000 car output of greenhouse gasses annually could be reduced by creating a system to recycle disposable takeaway containers. Half of what’s thrown in a Vancouver municipal garbage can are either takeout containers or disposable cups.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your choices: Support businesses that are both happy for your patronage, and happy to contribute less waste to the environment. If they allow you to pack leftovers in the jar or container you bring from home, great. If they use minimal or eco-friendly packaging, also great!
Easy Zero Waste Swaps #8 Toys
Did you know that just about every soft toy is made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride)? Soft toys are things like teething rings, squeeze toys and bath toys- all of which tend to end up in a child’s mouth. What’s harmful about PVC is that chemicals are added to them, for example, phthalates and dioxides. Health Canada notes the possibility of "reproductive and developmental abnormalities in young children when soft vinyl products containing phthalates are sucked or chewed for extended periods."
In 2018, Canadian Dollarama stores had large-scale recalls due to the excessive number of phthalates in a skip ball toy. Months later, another recall: dolls and their accompanying furniture houses. Post-purchase (or, post-recall), plastic toys are simply not recyclable since they are typically made of a variety of mixed plastics that would need to be processed separately for each type, not to mention the glues and adhesives that fit them together.
Alternatives to plastic toys are your best bet!
Zero Waste Swaps #9 Cleaning Products
Bottles for cleaning products are made of high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), just like milk jugs and shampoo bottles. It’s a flexible, squeezable plastic that’s still resilient enough to hold liquids. But are they really necessary?
Cleaning products are among my favorite thing to replace because it reflects the DIY opportunities of the Zero Waste movement. Most can be replaced with some combination of lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar, and water, meaning you can buy white vinegar in bulk quantities (one plastic bottle), and choose what containers you mix your solutions in on your own. Or you can consider refillable cleaning products.
Although #2 plastic is more likely to be recycled and turned into plastic lumber, outdoor patio furniture, playground equipment, etc, its also easily minimized. It’s a double win: cut the over-complicated cleaning products, and put less #2 plastic in the recycling bin! We have a ton of guides with some of the best natural cleaning products on the market today.
Zero Waste Swaps #10 Coffee Pods
The anatomy of a K-cup is complex: Made of #7 plastic, a filter, and a foil top, it is almost entirely unrecyclable. #7 plastic falls into the “other” category and is not recyclable in most places. What’s more, a coffee pod takes over 150 years to break down.
You know there’s an issue when the inventor of the product itself discredits it. The inventor of the K-Cup comments on the Keurig Green Mountain Sustainability Report: “No matter what they say about recycling, those things will never be recyclable... The plastic is a specialized plastic made of four different layers."
If you already own a Keurig, the best alternative would be to use a reusable pod that still works in your machine: a container with a filter that you can pour grounds into, wash and use again. Or, pull the old coffee maker, french press or Aeropress out of retirement and enjoy your cuppa old-school!
Zero Waste Swaps #11 Razors
Disposable razors are not recyclable, and there is no market for them to be recyclable. Similar to plastic toys and coffee pods, the amount of work that goes into the disassembly of a razor’s plastics and its adhesives simply does not offer a return on investment for recycling companies.
Terracycle has partnered with Gillette to try and create a better system, however, you could control it at the source by changing what you purchase. There are reusable safety razors, which only involve changing out the blade itself, and I’ve also learned of a company called Preserve which is made of recycled yogurt cups and has blades that need to be sent back to the company to be disposed of properly.
Easy Zero Waste Swap #12 Grocery bags
Plastic bags are made of low-density polyethylene, just like most flexible, plastic wrappings. A plastic bag takes up to 1000 years to decompose, and even then- they become microplastics, so they never really do disappear. Here’s an interesting timeline about plastic bags, from when polyethylene was discovered, to when the bags themselves were created and patented in Sweden in 1965. Yes- there was life before plastic bags!
Used for an average of 12 minutes, plastic bags need to be made redundant by replacing them with reusable bags. Did you know, you can even make your own reusable bag out of a t-shirt?
What is a zero waste product?
A zero-waste product is an item that can be composed at the end of its life, creating no waste. Or an item that can be reused over and over again, like a rescuable coffee cup. The idea is to choose one of these two options over single-use plastic, like straws.
How do I start living a zero-waste life?
First, you need to decide what zero waste means to you. It's not a one-size-fits-all type of deal. We don't all have access to the same things, so you need to find what works for you. I also recommend starting in one area of your home first, the kitchen and the bathroom typically create the most waste, so choose one. Start by using up what you already have, then slowly start to replace those items with more sustainable ones. Change takes time, so have patience and give yourself a break!
These are all perfect examples of how zero waste swaps will save you money in the long run. What have been your easiest zero waste swaps? Drop a note in the comments below.
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