I grew up in New England and moved to the Midwest when I was 18. I wasn’t the greatest at recycling or preventing waste when I was younger, however when I moved to a different part of the country, I was amazed to see how socially acceptable it was to discard even commonly recycled items. Soon after moving to the Midwest, I quickly found myself throwing away cans, glass, cardboard, and other basic items that could be recycled because the system didn’t support it as well as I was accustomed to growing up. In many cases, especially in rural areas, it is rare to have convenient recycling solutions to take advantage of.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of my contribution of waste on our planet that my children will soon inherit. They will question why we didn’t do more to leave them a more sustainable planet to raise their children and grandchildren. It is easy to blame the lack of resources where I live, but in reality I need to turn inward and recognize that I shouldn’t rely on recycling solutions and instead reduce the material I need to recycle to begin with. Simple example, instead of being frustrated that I can’t recycle water bottles, I should find a solution that prevents me from creating the water bottle to begin with.
In many cases, the companies that produce these products will do so in the most cost efficient manner and aren’t held accountable for the lifecycle of their product. We live in a world where it is more efficient for consumers to accept the excess waste and throw it away versus being forced to find an alternative solution. We are all working busy lives, earning money to buy more stuff, so it’s easy to understand why so many of us will rent a dumpster and forget about it.
Infographic from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding waste in 2018.
While the solutions below help reduce our waste, they should also challenge us to purchase less, further supporting our goals for a minimalist home and supporting our financial independence goals. I encourage you to calculate the future worth of the purchases you are considering in addition to acknowledging the waste that is created.
Nine Areas Our Family is Focusing to Reduce Waste
1. Electronics and Appliances – With Black Friday approaching, advertisers are in full force to persuade you that you need the next best thing. Do we really need a smart TV, or can a Roku stick do the same thing? An engineer once told me that “function is beauty” and I often use this as a deciding factor of whether to upgrade or buy something new. Does it still work? If the answer is yes, don’t replace it yet. Besides, do you really need all the new features and widgets anyway? How long before this purchase will be outdated and sitting in the back of your closet collecting dust?
2. Home Upgrades and Furniture – I’ll repeat: “function is beauty”. Are you replacing or remodeling for aesthetic reasons, or is something physically broken? We should remodel a bathroom because of a mold problem, not because the fixtures are outdated. Instead of buying new living room furniture, we recently upgraded our couch covers instead. Can you paint or refinish furniture or embrace their blemishes? Will buying something new really bring you more happiness long term?
3. Beverages – Using reusable containers and take advantage of making drinks at home with adding water. For example, coffee, tea, lemonade, or using a soda stream for carbonated beverages are all cheap alternatives. Plan ahead to fight the temptation to purchase a drink from the vending machine at work. Our family prefers filtered water, however we reuse 5 gallon jugs that we can refill when we make a trip into town versus buying individually packaged water bottles.
4. Children’s Toys – I frequently ask friends or family to consider secondhand toys for our children. I’m also challenging our family to consider quality over quantity so that we purchase toys our children will appreciate longer and will also last longer. Over the next couple months I plan to implement a rotating cycle for toys to encourage our children to stay interested in their toys longer. In the future, I will also avoid gender specific toys because I honestly believe it’s a marketing game to get us to buy more. In addition, we have 529 funds and encourage people to gift money for education instead of physical stuff.
5. Excess Food and Packaging – By meal planning, our family reduces the excess food waste buy only buying what we need and freezing what we don’t plan to use immediately. We also challenge ourselves to be comfortable buying less and freeze what we don’t immediately need. Resist the urge for convenience packaging snacks. Last night I made my own granola bars for the first time and they were fantastic. We’re also looking into opportunities to purchase milk and dairy products from a local farmer to support our local community while reducing the plastic bottles and egg cartons we throw away. Where possible, I resist buying produce wrapped in plastic and use reusable produce bags at the store.
6. Sandwich Bags and Paper Towels – I’m slowly investing in sustainable solutions that can be reused. Ever since I discovered Swedish dishcloths, I rarely use paper towels and have saved a significant amount of money. Stasher bags can eliminate the small plastic bags and are dishwasher friendly too.
7. Storage Solutions – Ideally we eliminate the need to store anything, however it’s unlikely we can eliminate all of our storage needs. Consider investing in durable glass containers for leftovers that can also be used in the oven and last much longer than the plastic equivalents. Can you repurpose the cottage cheese container for giveaway food? As for storage solutions, I will reuse diaper boxes before purchasing additional totes. I also want to implement a storage time limit on items I keep in plastic totes so that I can feel comfortable donating unused items and repurposing containers versus buying more.
8. Clothing – Nine years ago, my husband spent $200 on a high quality winter jacket for my Christmas present. I stressed over the excessive price tag for years before I realized it was cheaper than the 4 jackets I would have otherwise purchased and watched fall apart in that time. Instead of purchasing a variety of clothes that will wear out quickly, follow a short trend, or are limited to specific occasions, I’m working towards a simplified closet with quality clothes that serve a variety of purposes. It’s a process, but I continue to make small choices to reduce the excess for myself and my children.
9. Diapers – If you’re a parent of littles, you may benefit to know that cloth diapers are much less challenging than you would think and can prevent excess waste while saving you a ton of money. I purchased a set of six for $30, and while I didn’t use them exclusively, I used them enough to easily justify the cost. If you have multiple children, you may even have the opportunity to reuse them and prevent hundreds of diapers (and dollars) from being wasted. If I could swing cleaning them after working all day and class all evening, I’m convinced the minimal effort is well worth it.
Future Opportunities and Challenges we Face
Our family is far from perfect and we still create a lot of waste, but I’m curious to learn more on the categories below as we continue to challenge ourselves to buy less and waste less.
Plastic Grocery Bags – Given the pandemic, I love the convenience of curbside pickup, but it makes me sick when I see how many plastic bags are used. When you go into the stores, they are even restricting the use of reuse bags to prevent the spread of the virus. While we can recycle these, it’s still extremely wasteful and I wish there was a way to stop it. I’ve considered if there is an opportunity to help out the homeless in our community by making sleep mats similar to a group in Milwaukee a couple years ago.
Junk Mail – We get a significant amount of waste through the mail that we need to do a better job of recycling or simply preventing by opting out.
Giveaways – Ever sign up for a race or event and you get a bag of “goodies” that are actually marketing materials? I have a drawer filled with old race shirts that I never have enough time to wear, but many have unique memories that I appreciate.
Alcohol – It’s simple to make your own coffee, tea, or lemonade at home, but beer is more challenging. We’ve started supporting a local brewery while using growlers that we can get refilled, but still create waste through beer cans and wine bottles. While these can be recycled, ideally we wouldn’t create this waste if there was another way (besides giving up our love for beer!)
Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics – Shampoo, soap, laundry detergent, toothbrushes, deodorant, makeup, etc. In some cases there are opportunities to purchase a concentrated solution without all the water or buy powder in cardboard packages, but there is still a big opportunity here.
Clothing that Can’t be Donated – How many times do you throw away socks, underwear, or clothing that is too abused to be deserving of a second home? What about old towels, sheets, etc?
Off Season Produce – I wish I could say we purchase our produce from a local farmer’s market to reduce waste, but this is still a work in progress for us. Even then, there is a limited number of months to do so. What techniques do you use to prevent the strawberry containers or plastic bags your spinach is packed in from ending up in the trash?
Comment below, I’d love to hear the techniques that you use to reduce excess and waste in your home!
Questions to Consider in your Home:
- How long do you feel happy when you buy something new?
- Do you buy or hold on to items “just in case”?
- How much “pain” do you feel when you don’t have something you need?
- Do you worry about creating waste if you know it can be recycled?
- Do you need to buy something new or can you borrow from a friend or family member and return the favor one day?
- Do you really save when you buy in bulk, or do you waste more when you can’t use it all?
- Do you avoid throwing something away because you feel guilt from creating waste?
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