DIY Zero Waste Kit
By Tayler Jenkins
As the immense amount of waste generated by modern society becomes an increasingly alarming and urgent issue, many of us ponder what we as individuals can do to lessen our own contribution to this problem. Creating your own toolkit of “zero waste” items can help you to reduce the amount of items you throw away in your daily life, particularly when you’re out and about and tempted to reach for convenient single-use objects. Building your zero waste kit is also a fun way to explore how you can make a difference with just minor alterations to your daily lifestyle and it makes a great gift for your environmentally conscious friends or relatives.
A zero waste kit might sound like an oxymoron—why would you want to obtain more things if you’re trying to reduce waste? Hear me out: how many plastic bags, water bottles, utensils, paper towels, or coffee cups do you go through in a day? Week? Year? It might not feel like much, but think about that applied to your whole lifetime, and the lifetimes of the multitudes of others in the world who live the way you do. A zero waste kit will help you reduce or eliminate use of these notorious items that end up in landfills and oceans by the multitudes.
Did you know that 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the U.S. every hour?1 Or that 3,000 tons of paper towels end up in landfills every day in the U.S. alone?2 Coffee lovers, your daily Starbucks run creates 23 pounds of disposable cup waste per year, and Americans throw out 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups (which is around 75 per person) annually, which cannot be recycled and are not biodegradable.2,3
There are all kinds of reasons this is problematic: All that waste decomposing in landfills emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Plastic bags take 1000 years to decompose, and their presence is hazardous for wildlife. Styrofoam doesn’t decompose, taking up space in landfills and killing still more wildlife.3 Marine life in particular is harmed by the 45,000 tons of plastic waste that end up dumped in oceans each year.4
These alarming statistics could go on and on, but rather than focus on the negative I’d like to inspire you to be a part of the solution by showing you how to build your own zero waste kit. I obtained my first kit as part of a project undertaken by my university’s sustainability program to help students on the go reduce their waste. Beginning there, I have developed the following recipe for creating a zero waste kit:
Reusable Grocery Bag
The reusable grocery bag is where it all begins. Think about your last trip to the store or farmer’s market—how many plastic bags did it take to get your food home? In the US, we go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags per year. When you consistently bring your own bags to the store, you’re preventing that many plastic bags from getting into landfills, polluting oceans, or being consumed by unsuspecting wildlife.
If you do not already own a glass or stainless steel water bottle, let me use this opportunity to convince you why it should be the next thing you obtain, even if you do not make a zero waste kit:
- Plastic bottles waste water: It takes 3 liters of water to produce every liter of bottled water5.
- Plastic bottles pollute: Every square mile of the ocean has 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it6, and plastics don’t biodegrade—they merely photodegrade, or break down into smaller pieces, absorbing toxins and contaminating water, land, and animals that may eat them.
- Plastic bottles contribute to greenhouse gas emissions: It has been estimated that it takes over 50 million barrels of oil to “pump, process, transport, and refrigerate” bottled water7
- Buying bottled water is expensive: Bottled water can cost 1,000 times what tap water costs, and don’t let the images of mountain springs fool you into thinking you’re getting something better—in many cases, you are just paying premium price for tap water marketed as something else8
- Bottled water is not necessarily better for you than tap water: Tap water is more strictly regulated than bottled water and, based on a study by the NRDC, 22 percent of tested bottled water exceeded state health limits for contaminants. Additionally, when bottled water is stored for longer periods of time, phthalates from the plastic have been found to leach into the water7. Yikes!
I know it’s a vice, but who doesn’t love the electrifying feeling of caffeine rushing through their veins? If you enjoy coffee (or tea) as much as I do and cannot resist grabbing a cup on your way to school or work, I’ll let you in on a secret—not only does bringing your own tumbler or mug get you a discount in many coffee shops, but if you get an insulated one it will keep your hot beverages hot and iced beverages cold for hours. It’s a win-win for you and for the environment. Personally, I’m obsessed with my Klean Kanteen tumbler but if you’re on a budget you can find well-priced quality tumblers at a variety of stores.
Bathrooms frequently offer only paper towels for hand drying, and let’s be real—when they offer both air hand dryers and paper towels, it’s easy to get lazy and just reach for the paper towel. If you carry your own small towel with you—in your bag, purse, pocket, backpack, whatever—you can use it to dry your hands instead of wasting paper every single time.
Spork or Mini Utensil Set
There are few things handier than a well-designed spork. Use it in place of single-use plastic utensils to eat, to scare away people you don’t want to talk to, or anytime you want to scratch those hard-to-reach places (just kidding, but not really). My own personal spork has a spoon on one side, fork on the other, and notches on the side of the fork to act as a knife. It fits in my tumbler when I’m not using it, or just loose in my bag.
Armed with this toolkit, you are well on your way to significantly reducing your environmental impact. Of course, these are only a few ideas to help you begin thinking about reducing waste—don’t stop here! Let this be a starting point for your own journey in transitioning to a waste-free lifestyle. Think about what you throw away on a daily basis and brainstorm what you could cut back on or, better yet, eliminate altogether. What other items would you include in your own zero waste kit? Do you have any personal tips for reducing waste? Share in the comments.
Tayler is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.