20 ways to live a more waste-free life

Small changes are meaningful when it comes to reducing your personal consumption.
Zero Waste Plastic Minimalism Eco Friendly Cleaning Green
Photo courtesy of PXFuel through Creative Commons

Every day the average American generates 4.51 pounds of waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This amounts to more than 1,600 pounds a year per person — which means the U.S. population produces hundreds of billions of pounds of trash annually.

But many people are starting to rethink what they do with their trash and how to reduce the amount they produce individually each day.

“A lot of consumers just get into this mindset of disposability, and disposable things are pushed on us, so it’s hard to break that cycle, but it’s gotta happen soon cause there’s only so much the Earth can handle,” says Lorenza Zebell, the sustainability project manager for Sustain Dane.

Sustain Dane, an education-focused nonprofit, approaches sustainability holistically. “We really think that sustainability is something that everyone is a part of because we look at it from this wider lens,” Executive Director Claire Oleksiak says.

When it comes to reducing individual waste, Oleksiak says the “why” is different for every person. It’s what keeps each person motivated to make changes and decide to live more sustainable lives.

Zebell says the zero-waste lifestyle is inaccessible to many people. She’s more interested in everyone doing their best to make changes with more sustainable impacts — it’s not about being perfect.

Trashcan filled with plastics

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

“We don’t want people to feel that if you’re not doing it 100% right you shouldn’t do it all,” Oleksiak says.

A lot of decisions are largely symbolic of wanting to participate in the zero waste movement and wanting a cultural shift, Zebell says. “Like a straw means more than just a straw,” she says. “It means more than the waste that it creates. It’s … symbolic of moving toward more decisions like that.”

Zebell and Oleksiak say it’s important to use what you have before moving on to purchasing more sustainable alternatives. “Definitely don’t go out and buy all-new glass containers for your beautiful pantry,” Zebell says. “The plastic Tupperware you’ve had for years might not be beautiful and might not look like zero waste, but ultimately [using it] is the less wasteful thing to [do]. Keep using what you’ve got and find creative uses for the things that you have.”

Whether you’re starting your low-waste journey or thinking about making small changes, Oleksiak suggests tracking your progress. Whether that means counting how many bags of trash you take out each month to see if it decreases or calculating how long it’s been since you last used a plastic bag, it can support your personal success.

“It’s not doom and gloom because we do have the power individually,” Zebell says. “That’s part of why getting into individual actions like this can be so great because you feel empowered, you feel like there’s hope and you have the power to change things.”

We’ve outlined 20 ways for you to lead a more low-waste life. The smallest change can make a big impact regardless of where you start.

Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19, some of the businesses mentioned are closed and some sustainable practices may not be allowed.

1. Use what you have on hand.
Do an assessment of what you already own and figure out how you can use those things in a sustainable way, Oleksiak and Zebell suggest. Think about your purchasing and what you already have before doing anything else. ”I’ve heard different versions of the old three Rs; some call it four Rs: rethink, reduce, reuse, then recycle,” says Bryan Johnson, recycling coordinator and public information officer for the city of Madison Streets Division. “The ‘rethink’ is sort of the first step before reducing, because you have to reevaluate the waste you make and how you invite that into your life before you can even begin to tackle the problem, so you can start refusing waste you don’t need.”

2. Thrift instead of buying new.

putting a shirt that says "Be the Change" with a goodwill tag

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “It can take 2,700 liters [of water] to produce the cotton needed to make a single T-shirt.” With the large amount of water used to create clothing, it can be important to shift the way you shop for clothes by thrifting. David Johnson, the communications coordinator of Goodwill of South Central Wisconsin, says the 12 Goodwill stores in the region and the nonprofit’s home office keep 14 million pounds of material out of local landfills each year. Apart from Goodwill, there are many other thrift and consignment stores in the area, including Agrace Thrift Store, St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, Good Style Shop, Dane County Humane Society Thrift Store, Rethreads and Happily Ever After Children’s Boutique. Many of these shops are currently closed due to COVID-19.

3. If you buy new, look for fair trade or sustainable alternatives.
Nikki Anderson, the owner of Change Boutique on Williamson Street, says you often get higher-quality goods and eliminate the exploitation of sweatshop workers with fair trade and sustainable options. At Change, she sells goods from companies using green fibers like bamboo, hemp and eucalyptus. “It’s been really fun to see the diversification of fiber content and clearly there is lots of momentum of people working toward creative solutions with sustainability as a high priority,” Anderson says. At Change, you can find products from Fair Indigo, a clothing company based in Madison that aims to use more sustainable fabrics and dyes and ships items in biodegradable bags. Change is closed due to the coronavirus.

4. Cut out plastic in food storage.
We’ll often reach for plastic bags when packing a lunch or cover a bowl filled with leftovers with plastic wrap. Bee’s Wrap, which is available at Madison Modern Market, is a more sustainable option since it’s washable, reusable and compostable. Emma Stepien, the manager of Madison Modern Market, says the warmth from your hands will make it pliable, and then once it cools, the Bee’s Wrap seals together. “Whether a customer is fully dedicated to a zero-waste lifestyle, making an effort to cut back on plastic waste or sick of fighting with a roll of plastic wrap, this product can improve their experience in the kitchen and make it easy to transport snacks and meals when on the go,” Stepien says. Madison Modern Market is offering curbside pickup and shipping.

5. Buy in bulk.

two ball jars used for bulk items

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

For dry items like beans, oats, pasta, rice, flour, nuts, granola and spices, you can bring your own container, or BYOC. All three Willy Street Co-op locations have large bulk food sections where you can package goods yourself instead of buying prepackaged products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency report, containers and packaging account for more than 23% of materials in landfills. By buying in bulk, you avoid having to dispose of single-use packaging. Willy Street Co-op has temporarily changed its policy and is not allowing reusable bags, mugs or containers due to public health concerns. The bulk section is also closed.

6. Switch up your laundry routine.
Laundry detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets are often filled with chemicals that aren’t safe for the environment or for people. If you want to become an expert DIYer, consider making your own laundry detergent or fabric softener. Members of the Zero Waste Madison Facebook group have resources if you’re interested. For a simple switch, consider dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. Janet Marie Felted Goods, a Madison-based maker, handmakes wool felted dryer balls that can reduce static and collect lint. The products are available online or at local retailers like The Purple Goose if you want to eliminate packaging.

7. Bring a reusable bag.

grocery bag filled with items

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

Keep a reusable bag in your car, purse, office, home, etc., at all times, so if you find yourself shopping you don’t have to choose between plastic or paper. Many grocery stores  — including Pick ’n Save and Metcalfe’s Market — will give discounts for bringing bags or have spots where you can place plastic bags to be recycled. At Metcalfe’s you can also choose to give your 10-cent discount to a local charity. In 2019, Metcalfe’s raised $28,000 from reusable bag discounts to give to local charities like Porchlight Inc. Please note many grocery stores are not allowing bags brought from home due to safety concerns.

8. Bring nondisposable items to restaurants.
When you go to a coffee shop, bring reusable mugs for to-go drinks, or consider drinking your coffee out of a ceramic cup at the shop if you’ve forgotten your mug. Clean Water Action found that Americans use 108 billion disposable cups every year. Local coffee shops like Colectivo give discounts to people who use travel mugs. Cafe Domestique started the Little Mug Library last year, asking people to grab a free reusable cup that they can borrow and bring back. If you’re thinking of grabbing a treat to go or visiting a restaurant where leftovers are likely, take a reusable vessel with you so you can avoid getting a single-use Styrofoam or plastic container. Restaurant and cafe dine-in options are currently suspended.

9. Step up your low-waste game in your home.

dishwashing puck next to a brush

Photo courtesy of Green Life Living Co.

Sasha Stone, the founder of Green Life Trading Co., offers dozens of low-waste, low-impact products on her website and is planning to open a brick-and-mortar location at 1334 Williamson St. The shop has low-waste products and a container refill section for personal care products and home goods like dishwashing detergent and glass cleaner. Stone suggests using a product until it is used up before purchasing anything new. “Throwing out an unfinished conventional product to replace it with a zero-waste product just creates more waste in the end,” Stone explains. “We encourage people to swap products one at a time when they have used up what they already own.” Stone says all people new to low-waste living should first focus on reusing, reducing and repurposing before doing anything else. For newcomers looking to reduce waste, she suggests doing a trash and recycling audit to see what they’re throwing out a lot. From there, use what you have and then explore a sustainable option. Green Life Trading Co. has alternatives for the home ranging from dishwashing pucks (replacing soap bottles), facial rounds (replacing makeup wipes), Swedish dishcloths (replacing paper towels) and safety razors (replacing nonrecyclable conventional razors).

10. Say no to straws.
Straw bans are becoming more common in the United States. In February, the Madison Common Council passed an ordinance regulating the use of plastic straws and stir sticks at restaurants. While it doesn’t completely ban straws, starting in May restaurants won’t give out straws or stir sticks unless a customer asks for one. If you’re someone who loves using a straw, consider bringing your own glass, silicone or metal straw. The ordinance is not meant to discourage restaurants from having straws for those who want to use them, and specifically for individuals with disabilities who depend on them.

11. Fill your own container with beauty products.

Three reusable containers

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

The beauty and personal care industry is a massive money generator, with sales of nearly $90 billion in 2018 in the U.S., according to Statista. Each item utilizes plastic packaging that is often not recyclable, and that stacks up. The Soap Opera on State Street encourages people to reuse containers or bring their own containers when stocking up on any household products, such as all-natural shampoo, lotion, conditioner, aftershave, body wash, bug spray and hand sanitizer. Containers must be 2, 4, 8 or 16 ounces, and The Soap Opera gives a 25-cent discount. The Soap Opera’s online store is open.

12. Eat the food in your fridge.
Twenty-two percent of what’s in landfills is food waste. While it’s organic material, Zebell says it sometimes can’t break down since it’s combined with not biodegradable goods in the landfill. “[Food waste] could be a place to start for some people,” Oleksiak says. “Thinking about, ‘How do I reduce what I’m purchasing, how do I make sure that I’m using all those ingredients that I have and then the waste that I do produce, how can I keep that in my own house for composting?’” There is no citywide compost program in place, but in 2019 the Streets Division conducted a food-scrap recycling trial run. Where the program will go next has not yet been announced, but you can establish your own compost system for your garden. Organizations like Curbside Composter also collect compost from residential customers.

13. Shop locally when possible.

Look at Anthology's inside

Photo by Timothy Hughes


Consider buying from local shops, like Anthology, before jumping on Amazon. “Shopping locally is sustainable, and supporting our local businesses is sustainable,” Oleksiak says. Zebell canceled her Amazon account more than two years ago and found that shopping locally is a good way to know who makes your products, discover shops in the community and travel fewer miles. “Say, ‘Hey, I’m going to shop locally for a month’ and just kind of see what it feels like,” Oleksiak says. “You may not 100% shop locally, but maybe you’ll go from 80% Amazon down to 40% Amazon. If we all do that, then just imagine [the impact] to our local economy,” Zebell says. “Imagine all the tiny, small mom-and-pop shops that would pop up everywhere. It would really change our community I think for the better.”

14. Think before you buy.
Zebell of Sustain Dane personally tries to keep a list of things that she wants to purchase as a way to curb her product consumption. “If I write a list and kind of let it sit [and] I don’t let myself get it right away, I find that I don’t actually want a lot of stuff that I thought I did,” she says. “If I still really want it later, then I can go through the process of shopping for the local or more sustainable option.”

15. Bring your own bottle — the other BYOB.

filling up a waterbottle

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

According to National Geographic, it takes at least 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose, not to mention that it requires 2,000 times the energy to produce a plastic water bottle than to fill a container with tap water. The environmental impact of reusable water bottles extends beyond the plastic packaging. Grocery stores, boutiques and fitness studios sell reusable or nonplastic water bottles. Fontana Sports has a large collection of top brands like Nalgene, Camelbak and Hydro Flask. The Wisconsin Historical Society Shop has bubbler-themed water bottles that are great for the Wisconsinites who like to refill their bottles at a bubbler. Both businesses have online shopping available.

16. Cut down on paper products.
Cut down on the number of paper towels you use by switching to cloth towels and rags. While you can go thrifting for towels or repurpose ripped clothing into rags, you can also shop locally for cloth towels. Booth 121 in Monona has a wide selection of tea towels from Lodi-based Home Sewn featuring Wisconsin-themed designs and pop culture references as well as sassy sayings. On average, 13 billion pounds of paper towel is used every year. Green Life Trading Co. offers UNpaper towels, which are durable cotton flannel towels that can cling together and be rolled up after washing. By swapping to a reusable option, you’re not only saving materials, but you’re also saving money because you won’t have to buy more paper towels. Both stores have online shopping available.

17. Go package-free for hair care.

six shampoo and conditioner bars

Photo courtesy of Lush

A company with more than 250 stores in the U.S. and Canada, Lush leads the way when it comes to package-free beauty. For shampoo bars, conditioner and henna hair dyes, Lush goes “naked,” which means it doesn’t use packaging. Since 2005, the company has sold 41 million shampoo bars, preventing the production of 124 million plastic bottles. By visiting the storefront at Hilldale Shopping Center, you bypass the need for shipping materials. When a packaging-free option isn’t possible, Lush uses only recycled or reusable materials to make containers. Green Life Trading Co. also has shampoo and conditioner bars. Lush’s retail locations are currently closed.

18. Sign up for paperless bills and receipts.
Declutter your mailbox by signing up for paperless bills. Many credit card, insurance, utility, phone, internet and cable companies offer paperless billing options. Going paperless might not be the best choice for everyone, but it could save paper, which means saving water, energy and trees and preventing waste. In 2017, paper and cardboard were the largest component of municipal solid waste, according to the EPA. In addition to offering paperless billing, more local businesses are using checkout systems where you can get your receipt by email as opposed to getting a printed receipt.

19. Change up your coffee routine.

two coffee pods with a coffee cup

Illustration by Nicole Peaslee

If you love brewing coffee every morning with a Keurig or single-serve coffee maker, consider a more sustainable alternative. Local coffee company True Coffee Roasters first started producing coffee pods in September that are organic and compostable — making it the first Wisconsin roaster to do so. Tom Weigand, the owner and co-founder, says it was a way to provide a green alternative to customers while providing the convenience of a K-Cup. While Keurig is aiming to make all K-Cups recyclable by the end of 2020, it still takes decades for them to decompose if they’re thrown away. Since True Coffee’s pods are compostable, they take a week to decompose and can be thrown directly in a garden. Weigand says most pod equipment that is available is for commercial use. True Coffee sells the pods through Gold Star coffee service which can provide brewers for offices. True Coffee is looking into other brewers that would be more ideal for homes and smaller offices when trying to replace K-Cups.

20. Connect with others.
As a way to help with accountability, Oleksiak suggests getting a group of people together to act as a support network for a sustainability journey. “If you talk with other people about it and have support in that, and told someone you’re doing it, you have kind of a place to go back to and check in and see where it’s going,” Oleksiak says. Another great resource is the Zero Waste Madison Facebook group. Zero Waste Madison, which is run by Sasha Stone of Green Life Trading Co., is a place to learn from others interested in reducing waste. Members consistently share tips and advice, and if you’re just beginning your sustainability journey, they can answer questions and get you started.

Maija Inveiss is digital content editor of Madison Magazine.