Zero Waste Living for Early Retirement

zero waste kitchen

Hello friends, 

I just love it when my latest geeky interest has a valid application to our goals of Financial Independence / Early Retirement. 

Two days ago I was listening to a Podcast interview with Bea Johnson who wrote Zero Waste Home and travels all over the world teaching about the Zero Waste movement. In the episode, she said that when her family decided to switch over to a Zero Waste lifestyle, they were surprised to find that their expenses dropped by 40%. That’s when the lightbulb went off in my head and I knew I had to share it with you all. 

Ok so what is a Zero Waste Lifestyle? Essentially the idea is to reduce the amount of trash you and your family create to leave a smaller impact on the planet. 

Why do we want to make an effort to change? The average American makes 4 pounds of trash a day. Trash literally leaks into every area of our health, the food waste in our landfills release earth heating gases, the toxic waste from mishandles items like paint and batteries leaches into our water systems, the micro plastics end up in the oceans from clothing, bags, etc are getting eaten by fish and going into many people’s food supplies and into our own stomachs. For our health, the next generation and  that of the world -- let’s make an effort! 

The best part is it can be easy and fun! We buy produce maybe once a week and bulk items once a month the rest of the time is just a practice of being mindful. If you are excited and want to give it a try, I suggest taking it slowly, this helps to create lasting behavioral changes. Let’s start with the fundamentals and maybe I’ll follow up with the real geeky nitty gritty in another post. 

The principals that Bea shares about are as follows:

5 concepts of zero waste.jpg

1. Refuse - The concept here is to stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need this.” When someone wants to give you something or you feel the pull to impulsively buy take a moment to consider if you do. The biggest example of this for me is on airplanes. Yes I want snacks and a drink, but if those delectable honey peanuts come in a plastic bag that is not recyclable and the plastic cup and napkin are also going straight to the trash, then it’s not really worth it for me. Instead I pack a water bottle that I fill up in the airport and bring my own snacks in a reusable container. 

2. Reduce - To put it simply: “Buy Less”. For some this will receive a lot of push back and yet, it has a lot of facets. For one it really depends how you consume. My whole Low Waste Transition journey started when a new friend told me that she only creates one small bag of trash a year. At the time, I was going through a bit of a sustainability crisis, feeling guilty about the amount of resources we were using in our home and yet not knowing how to make impactful changes without moving to a commune, where we could live off the land (which I was seriously considering). Since trash was a big part of my frustration, I knew the moment she shared what was possible, I wanted to learn all about it. Of course she mentioned the principals here but she also steered us towards buying in Bulk as a major first step. In our area there are two dedicated bulk stores where you can bring your own containers and fill them up with whatever items you desire. The best stores have everything from snacks, dried fruit, nuts, grains, beans, spices, cleaning supplies, beauty products, dog food/treats, etc. This simple and fun step allowed us to cut our trash significantly as we were no longer bringing regular packaging into the home. 

A second part to this idea is another cult interest of mine: the Marie Kondo method. 

Marie Kondo has been helping people simplify their lives by only keeping the things they love or that bring them joy. This allows for all the extra fluff to be sold or donated so its back in the use cycle and more of it does not need to be produced. For me, I’ve noticed that spending the time going through all the items in my home has made me very selective on what I bring into my home. Is it something I know to be useful or something I find beautiful? If not, no thank you. Also with less things, there is less to clean (less cleaning supplies to buy and time spent) and less to maintain or eventually replace (saving money and time). 

3. Reuse - Well where did we get our containers in the first place? At first we used plastic and glass containers we had for leftovers and then we started to save containers from pasta sauce, salsa, etc and use them again and again. Empty spice, maple syrup, honey, laundry detergent containers just get filled back up (most bulk stores also have a pile of donated containers that you can use to get started). The idea is when energy and resources have already been spent to create a product, the best thing to do is use it over and over to get the most life out of it, instead of needing to create more. 

Many common items that you have around your home that are single use: batteries,  plastic razors, plastic water bottles, tampons, etc. have a longer lasting, reusable alternative (rechargeable batteries, safety razors, stainless steel water bottles, moon cup or Thinx underwear). Doing a little research helps you find these items. 

4. Recycle - For many of us, this is a simple luxury that we may not be fully taking advantage of. Curbside, single stream recycling has been very popular around the world and especially the US, where we are allowed to mix a variety of Plastics, glass, paper, cardboard in one container that get whisked away from our driveway, never to be considered again. If you are one of the lucky people to have this opportunity at your fingertips, please take the time to visit your city’s recycling or waste website to understand what is accepted and what you need to do to increase the probability of it being recycled. For example, your city may not want you to smash cans, as the sorting machines may use the size to separate it from flat things like paper products. Please always thoroughly wash your containers as food waste (think gloppy yogurt, or smelly wet dog food) in the recycling can contaminate paper or cardboard to the point where the whole bin needs to be thrown out. Your city’s website may also have some tips on where you can take the harder to recycle items like plastic bags or #4 plastics (many grocery stores, like Whole Foods, takes these), batteries, lightbulbs, appliances, scrap metal, mattresses, etc.  

Unfortunately Recycling is a bit of a misnomer, Recycling is more accurately  downcycling, meaning that a recycled bottle will not become a bottle again, it may become microfiber or insulation, or a plastic bag. Over time plastics become so small that they end up in our waterways and in our own tummies. It’s better to limit the use of these items all together. 

5. Rot - or Compost! This is a less common curbside luxury and yet it seems to be offered in more and more places in recent years. Some cities only allow yard waste in the curbside pickup and yet others (like Boulder!) will allow all food waste and some paper products like paper towels & pizza boxes. Even if your city doesn’t have a curbside option they may accept compost drop off to their facility. Another option is to buy an at home composting system (some have worms, yay!) that will quickly transform your food waste into rich soil. These come in all sizes, some small enough for apartment kitchens or balconies. Although I have not read the Zero Waste Home book yet, Bea mentioned in her interview that she has a chart in the book that matches you to a composting system based on your needs. 

This can also save lots of money if you grow food in your garden, or just help out the health of your flowers, grass, trees, etc. Healthier soils help clean our air!

Whew! Sounds like a lot!

Well sort of. I found a lot of things surprisingly easy, let’s talk about The Low Hanging Fruit (for me):

  • Buying in Bulk: Sure I had to find new stores that offer this and learn their rules (some traditional grocery stores that have bulk sections like Whole Foods don’t want you to use your own containers from home, but you can wash theirs and reuse them), and yet it turned out to be a pretty easy and fun way to shop that makes a big, noticeable impact.


  • Clothing Swaps: I’ve always been a fan of second hand clothes and attended or hosted Clothing swap parties and yet I didn’t think too much about the zero waste effect. Not only are you getting bags of awesome outfits for free, you are also saving them from being thrown in landfills, you don’t get receipts (which usually can’t be recycled or composted because they are made of plastic) and don’t have to deal with plastic strings holding paper tags. Last week when I decided I wanted some new costume pieces for Burning Man, I decided to host a costume themed clothing swap. For the cost of a bottle of wine I served and the batch of muffins I baked, I got a bag full of great items.  

  • Make it yourself: Historically I have not been much of a maker. While my friends knitted clothing or baked treats, I was dreaming up ideas. This movement has created a bit of an opportunity for me to grow in this area. I have started making my own salsa, pasta sauce, baked treats, yogurt and more, to avoid buying it in packaging. At first it felt a little time consuming looking up new recipes but now I find it relaxing, fun and healthier.

The Harder Conversions: 

  • Bringing to go containers - I still have about a 50% success rate on this. I just need to create new habits around it. Yesterday I was even thinking of writing a note on the back of my front door, saying “Do you need to take a container?”. I’ll end up wanting to grab a drink somewhere but don’t have a container or wanting to take half my meal to go, but not having a container and having to decide if I’m going to just eat it all or take more trash. Some people have told me they keep utensils and containers in their car and yet I’m frequently on foot. I’m determined to figure it out!

  • Can I really make it all? - Some things seem harder to make like bread, tortillas, pizza and yet I think I am just in the learning phase. It’s a combination of better planning (no more emergency frozen pizzas for dinner!) and where I shop. I am beginning to buy all my produce at the farmers market despite the added expense, because it’s local and reduces a lot of waste. The baker will put a loaf directly into my reusable bag and I can put eggs in my own cartons which helps me get things waste free without having to make it all. 

A note on transitioning: If you are someone who knows me personally, you will have heard me commenting about our transition to a Low Waste Lifestyle over the past couple of months. Transitioning is the apt word because I’ve noticed that even if we significantly reduce our consumption of items that become trash like produce wrapped in plastic, we still had so many things that our past selves purchased in plastic bags and cardboard boxes lining the shelves of our refrigerator and pantry. Go easy on yourself if you try it out, you’ll definitely see a different right away and yet there is a long transition period.  

Thanks for following along with my new passion, if any of you give it a shot I would love to hear your successes and challenges. Also feel free to ask questions, I’m happy to share!


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