7 Steps to Bring You Closer to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle

Kelsey Titzman
Published on Apr 22, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Waste is a public health issue. Today for Earth Day, Osmosis Medical Education Fellow Kelsey Titzman shares seven helpful tips to help you cut down on the amount of garbage you throw out and get closer a more sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle.

Happy Earth Day! As health professionals, it’s our responsibility to keep climate change top-of-mind, and moving towards a zero-waste lifestyle is a great way to do that. The changing environment is going to have all sorts of impacts on global health, whether it’s poor air quality making life more difficult for people with respiratory conditions, or more frequent flooding increasing the incidence of water-borne diseases.

These are the things that keep me distracted from studying wondering, “What can I do?” One small way I have started positively impacting my environment is by reducing the amount of waste I put in the trash. What a great new practice to try out in quarantine?! Many of us have learned or improved upon healthy habits during this COVID-19 pandemic, so why not continue by beginning new practices to help the planet’s health, too? 

There is no doubt that this is a difficult time in our history, but one piece of positive news is that Earth’s health is improving. It would be so wonderful if we could keep up that positive planet health trajectory after the pandemic. Exploring how we can make a positive impact personally is a great place to start.  

There are so many ways you can immediately take steps to reduce what you’re throwing in the garbage. Using the seven steps below, I’ve gotten to the stage where I only have to take my trash out about every two weeks. Yep, you read that right. The long-term goal is once a month—then I will truly be living the dream! 

So, what steps did I take to get to this silver tier of trash success? It all starts with a quick audit of your household items! 

1. Compost your food scraps and all biodegradable items

I keep a large jar with a lid near my kitchen sink. All of my food scraps and biodegradable materials go in the big jar, and I throw it into my compost a few times a week. I only have a small patch of grass behind my apartment and my compost is literally just a big box with a lid. This does not have to be fancy.  A fun surprise from this that mother nature gave back to me was a butternut squash vine from one of the seeds that slipped out of the jar and ended up getting planted near my compost bin and growing 15 squash!

Osmosis illustration of the rewards of zero-waste living.

Anytime I need to throw out meat packaging, I put it directly into the dumpster so that my kitchen trash that I only take out every two weeks doesn’t get too stinky.

2. Phase out every paper product, one at a time... 

  • Paper towels, schmaper towels—how about towel towels, or an old t-shirt? 

  • Napkins: use a dish towel or get fancy with cloth napkins! 

  • Paper plates and cups: just use the real deal.

  •  Kleenexes: hankies! You can buy a pack of beautiful cloth handkerchiefs for less than $10 online. Just remember to wash them in hot water!

  • Toilet paper: this is a tough one to phase out, but you can easily switch to brands made with bamboo, which are much more sustainable. Or install a bidet! There are many great options that you can simply attach to your toilet. And due to the surge in toilet-paper-buying during these strange times, a bidet offers a practical solution to the shortage.

  • Straws: get rid of the plastic straws and even those more “eco-friendly” paper straws by buying a metal straw or a reusable straw. Or… just drink the old fashioned way. 

  • Mail: switch to paperless billing and opt out of as much spam paper mail as you can. 

  • Wrapping paper: re-use newspaper or other paper products to wrap gifts, or plan a scavenger hunt to retain the element of surprise without the waste! 

Osmosis illustration of sustainable alternatives to disposable goods.

3. Reduce how much trash you bring into your home 

  • Start using reusable grocery bags.

  • Carry a reusable container in your bag or car for to-go items.

  • When coffee shops are open again, bring your own cup! Most places are completely okay with this. Get your morning coffee in your favorite cup every day!

  • Try to buy items with less packaging and politely refuse extra packaging when it is offered. 

4. Try to think of another use before throwing items away

  • Plastic bottles make great starter planters.

  • Donate items to schools for crafting supplies!

  • Use an old container as your new snack pack. 

Osmosis illustration of plastic bottles being used as planters.

5. Repair whatever broken items you can 

Make a conscious effort to replace irreparable items with better-quality items that will last longer or can be repaired.

6. Seek out package-free products or minimal packaging products

Although this is less of an option in our current situation, buying groceries at the farmer’s market is helpful for minimizing the amount of packaging you bring into your home. In any case, make an effort to support a local business that makes a conscious effort to use minimal packaging—they need it right now.

Osmosis illustration of plastic-free food.

7. Recycle whatever you can

Spend a few minutes getting to know the recycling options and rules in your area. Recycling is great, but it was strategically put last on this list because it is optimal to reduce and reuse first (hence that whole Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. slogan—yes, it is written in that order on purpose!)

It’s also worth mentioning that in general, many recycling programs need optimizing. I highly recommend a little research on this in your free time—I was astounded at what I learned! 

Once you have followed these seven steps, take note of what’s left in your trash—for me, almost all that remained was plastic food packaging. Challenge yourself to find ways to eliminate a few more of these items now that you see what’s left over! 

Trying to do all of the above at once is admirable, but it can also be overwhelming. For me, it was better to take a Seed Habit approach with slow changes over about a year-and-a-half that gradually brought more awareness to my own consumption.

I used to think that recycling what I could was enough, but I redoubled my efforts to reduce my wasteful stamp on the world after learning about how inefficient many recycling programs were—and of course, the ever-growing prominence of global warming.

Remember, the planet’s health impacts our own and our future patients’ health. Environmental health is really just a piece of the medical and public health puzzle.                

About Kelsey

Kelsey Titzman is an OMS II at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine-Arkansas Campus who is passionate about nature, mental and physical wellness, audiobooks, cheese, public health, and family medicine.

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