Becoming an (almost) zero-waste family

Don’t panic: You don’t have to completely eliminate your family’s trash to make a big impact on the environment. Here’s how to get started.

When she was 15, Ava Langridge watched a YouTube video that explained how environmental activist Lauren Singer fit four years of trash into a 16-ounce mason jar. Inspired, the Bay Area teen embarked on a mission to help her family of five learn to live trash-free.

“Within three months we reduced our trash from three bags a week to less than half a bag a week,” says the now 17-year-old Langridge, who has more than 45,000 followers on the Zero Waste Teen Instagram account. “Too often people see zero waste as all or nothing. I want them to know that even small actions can have a massive impact.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces 4.9 pounds of trash every day. Although some of that gets recycled, the majority—including millions of tons of uneaten food and single-use plastic—ends up in the garbage.

Most of us do our part to incorporate eco-friendly habits into our everyday lives. But some families have become part of a zero-waste movement: sending nothing to landfills, reducing consumption, reusing as much as possible, recycling whatever remains, and composting the rest. That can sound daunting—but the term itself is a bit misleading.

“Zero waste is a mindset shift,” says Kathryn Kellogg of the lifestyle website Going Zero Waste. “It’s about progress, not perfection. What’s most important is that you go into this with a commitment to wanting to do better.”

And no one expects a family to achieve zero waste overnight. “It happens slowly and requires dedication and teamwork,” says Fredrika Syren, an environmental journalist and founder of Zero Waste Family. “But the good news is that it can happen, one small little step at a time,”

In fact, once your family settles into new habits, you might find that reducing your trash is easier than you expected. Here’s our guide to starting your zero-waste journey.

Get everyone on board. Families will have greater success transitioning to zero waste if everyone in the household is on the same page. For Langridge, that meant putting together a presentation to introduce her family to zero-waste living.

“I wanted to get my family as excited about reducing our waste as I was,” Langridge recalls. “After I shared my ideas, I asked each of them to research a different topic and present back so that the information wasn’t just coming from me. I think they received it a lot better that way.”

Turn interests into action. Talk about each person’s motivation for reducing waste, whether that’s protecting wildlife, keeping plastics out of oceans, or eating more plant-based meals. Then channel those interests into actionable steps as a way to get your family’s zero-waste journey off the ground and keep the momentum going.

For instance, a younger child who has a passion for sea turtles might want to teach the rest of the family why it’s important to give up plastic straws. A teenager with a keen interest in fashion could encourage the family to be more conscious about clothing purchases and shop second-hand. Kids who love being outdoors can be tasked with taking charge of the family’s compost pile or planting an herb garden.

Know your trash. You can’t solve your family’s trash problem until you know what’s in your trash. “A lot of us are very disconnected from what we throw away because someone just picks it up and takes it somewhere,” Kellogg says.

But tallying your trash—an exercise known as a trash audit—reveals exactly what you’re tossing. That awareness is often the first step to determining which items can be swapped for reusable alternatives, which can be composted, and which can be recycled. “Going through our trash helped us become a lot more conscious about what we were consuming,” Langridge says. (Here’s a step-by-step article on performing a trash audit.)

Make small changes first. Once you have a clear picture of your family’s waste, you can start making some changes. The key to success? Start small. Is your trash can full of paper towels? Switch to cloth rags. Are individually wrapped snacks the biggest culprit? Buying in bulk can be a solution. Is there too much food waste? Start composting. “You have a lot of demands on your time, so finding the easy wins is really important,” Kellogg says. (Get tips for to throwing a low-waste party.)

Scavenge for swaps. Zero-waste wisdom says that for every disposable item, there’s a reusable alternative. Make a game of tracking down those disposables by sending your kids on a house-wide scavenger hunt.

Pick one room (the kitchen or bathroom is a good place to start), give them a list of common trash-bound items—ziplock bags, aluminum foil, and plastic cutlery, for instance—and have them check off the ones they find. Then go through the list together and make a plan to tackle the trash in that room. A good strategy is to identify a handful of easy-to-swap items (like old-fashioned pencils for the plastic mechanical variety) and phase those out first. Kids can play this game multiple times, searching for new items in a different room each time.

The best part is that you’ll chip away at your trash room-by-room while avoiding waste-reduction burnout, making it more likely you’ll stick to those habits. “Focus on building those,” Kellogg says. “Once those are built you can think about adding on and doing more.”

Rethink the lunchbox. Yogurt containers. Cheese sticks. Applesauce pouches. Single-serving items appeal for their convenience, but most of that packaging winds up in landfills. One fun solution? Challenge your kids to pack a waste-free lunch.

Start by having them bring all of their lunch trash home every day for a week. After school, kids can sort their trash into landfill, recycling, and compost. (Call it a lunchbox trash audit.) Then, have them brainstorm ways they can reduce the number of things they throw away. That could mean making homemade granola bars stored in crafty, reusable sandwich wrap, experimenting with DIY fruit leathers, or learning to bake sandwich bread. This infographic from the EPA offers some great tips to get started.

Make up a mantra. Understanding the consequences of our trash is one way to help children get behind a zero-waste mindset. That’s why a family mantra can make everyone more mindful about consumption, which is often the first step in cutting back on our waste.

A simple one for those single-use plastics? “450 years”—the amount of time scientists think it takes for one plastic bottle to decompose. Get in the habit of repeating the mantra before purchasing single use plastic items. Does your teenager always buy an energy drink after sports practice? 450 years. Does your weekly take-out dinner result in a half dozen plastic containers? 450 years.

Others to consider: “2,000 gallons” (the amount of water it takes to grow the cotton for and manufacture one pair of jeans), or “I choose to refuse …” fast fashion, a straw in my drink, or the latest cell phone when the old one still works fine.

Be patient. Tracking your family’s progress can help offset feelings of frustration that may arise. Start by setting a measurable goal—tossing two bags of trash a week instead of four, for instance, and making a list of manageable steps you can take to achieve it. Each week, sit down as a family and talk about what worked and what challenges you faced, keeping in mind that reducing waste is a process.

“I’ve shifted my approach from stressing about us not being perfect to realizing that we have already had a massive impact,” Langridge says. “We can only continue to improve.”

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