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A Beginner’s Guide to Clean Living: The Zero Waste Movement

I’ll admit that when I first started looking into zero waste and sustainable living, it seemed impossible to understand all the different aspects of this movement, and, as I am not an expert in zero waste, this article is not a comprehensive guide of the movement. Instead, I wanted to write this because I did not understand everything about sustainable living.

The first thing I learned about the zero waste movement is that it is not literally zero waste. Instead, the idea is to produce as little waste as possible. As humans, it is impossible not to create trash, but it is possible to reduce our consumption, especially our consumption of plastics and plastic packaging.

But why does zero waste matter?

And why are people doing it?

From what I learned, most people make the lifestyle change due to concern for the environment and a desire to lessen their negative impact on the planet. Personally, I believe that zero waste is a really admirable thing to strive for, and, while it may not be possible, the mindset is the one we need if we want to save our planet.

For many of us, it probably feels as if the fate of our environment is left up to politicians and big businesses, all of whom may not be thinking in the long term. But we are capable of making personal changes that lessen the amount of trash we produce, which will help the planet and the animals who live on it. Outside of littering and our own garbage cans, we never really see the amount of waste we produce, but every single piece of plastic created still exists today, and most of it ends up in the ocean, harming coral reefs and wildlife and creating islands of garbage.

The idea of saving the planet is a bit overwhelming — just like the idea of creating no trash. Another good thing about zero waste is that it is not all-or-nothing. While some people in the movement keep their whole year’s trash in a mason jar, not everyone is expected to. You are also not expected to throw away everything you own that is not sustainable and buy new eco-friendly items — that would be counterintuitive to the movement.

The best thing you can do for the environment is to use what you already own until it is gone or broken and then to replace it with a sustainable option. Not only is this good for the environment, but forcing yourself to stop buying new, unnecessary things is good for your wallet as well. Using what you own, and making a few sustainable swaps is better than doing nothing at all. The best everyday swaps we can make are:

→ Reusable water bottle or coffee cup.

I’m sure almost everyone has already done this, but if you haven’t, it’s much cheaper, saves the environment, and it’s cuter too.

→ Reusable shopping bags.

HEB is already charging 25¢ per bag — why not just bring your own?

→ Refusing disposable items

Like, single-use cups and straws… This can be a harder swap, and some people feel self-conscious doing this, but I can tell you, from experience, it does get easier to just say no to straws and extra napkins and all the things restaurants try to give us that we don’t really need. Bringing your own reusable utensils, straws, and even reusable napkin prevents unnecessary waste. It is really easy to bring cutlery from your home and even use a small dishcloth as a reusable napkin.  

→ Buy from thrift stores and avoid fast fashion.

Not only is fast fashion unethically made, the items are cheaply made and will break quickly, creating more waste. Thrifting is a great option because it continues the life of an item that would have been thrown away, and let’s face it, it’s just so much more Austin.

→ Avoid items packaged or wrapped in plastic.

This includes buying fruits and vegetables not wrapped in plastic and not putting them in plastic produce bags. Instead, try and buy or make reusable produce bags or forgo the bag entirely. Buying items in as little packaging as possible is actually the best option, and this can easily be achieved by buying from bulk bins and using reusable produce bags or glass jars instead of plastic bags.

To some, these swaps may seem cumbersome, unnecessary, or even foolish, but these are simple things that we can and should do to avoid unnecessary waste. In fact, most of us probably have everything necessary to already implement these steps into our day-to-day routine. There is no reason to ignore our environmental problems simply because you feel as if you are not doing enough. Just one of these swaps saves one piece of plastic being thrown away, keeping the earth and your conscience a little cleaner.  

While I agree with the ideas behind zero waste and have decided to adopt the tips above as well as make other steps towards reducing waste, I still see that some aspects of sustainability that are not as accessible to everyone, such as skincare and beauty products. When looking for zero waste skincare, the most accessible options I found were Lush, Kiehl’s, and Origins, since these brands were sold in stores. These brands offer take-back programs in which customers can return old product packaging to be recycled and reused, often with a discount, which does not eliminate waste, but helps reduce it. However, these brands are not low cost, and therefore not accessible to people on a budget. Overall, I was unimpressed by the options for sustainable beauty and skincare.

I still believe that we should all incorporate aspects of the zero waste movement into our lives, even if the movement itself isn’t perfect. We all need to step up and be good to our environment, even if it means sacrificing some small conveniences, and we should encourage businesses, both big and small, and representatives to advocate for the environment as well. Our planet needs our help, and reducing waste, especially plastic waste, is something that everyone can do without drastically changing their lifestyle. •

by Bianca Ramirez

Graphics by Jasmy Liu

Bianca Ramirez is a sophomore in Government at the University of Texas at Austin. She spends much of her time reading, writing, and watching too many YouTube videos. Bianca aspires to go to law school and be an immigration lawyer.

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