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Zero-waste culture: 10 ways to generate less waste in your personal life
While businesses have a larger role—and responsibility—in fighting climate change, the individual impact shouldn't be overlooked. After all, our personal choices do escalate to bigger results. What steps could you take now to generate less waste?
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time9 min
It's no surprise that our planet is warming up. Many initiatives aim to tackle the ever-pressing topic of climate action, from the Paris Agreement (an international treaty on climate change adopted by 196 countries in late 2015) to the European Union's Green Deal (aiming to reach climate-neutrality by 2050). And while a zero-waste company culture is vital, including some zero-waste choices in our personal life can contribute to that impact.
But how does generating less waste relate to positive climate action?
In this article, we will help you to easily adjust habits to zero-waste ones, so you can have an impact on our climate. Yes, profitable businesses and laws can make a much greater impact, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take action on a minor scale, too.
What exactly does it mean to generate less waste?
Climate change's biggest culprit is the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (CO2, CH4, and N2O, respectively). These are constantly generated by burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.
By reducing waste, we ensure the efficient use of these resources, saving energy, reducing future emissions, and even creating more jobs. In fact, generating less waste has an incredible ripple effect: it prevents further pollution since we limit the waste going to landfills, and we protect the environment by preserving natural resources.
And the cherry on the top?
Adopting zero-waste habits can help you save money, too.
It doesn't need to be a chore. If you don't cycle to work, for example—many cities don't offer a safe infrastructure for cyclists—there are other ways to make an impact. Let's look at them below.
How to generate less waste in 10 steps
1. Say no to new electronics
And yes to refurbished ones.
According to BackMarket, manufacturing a new smartphone comes with a heavy carbon footprint: 87kg of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e). On the other hand, refurbishing a smartphone comes with a much lighter load: only 7kg of CO2e.
The impact, however, is much greater than a massive difference in carbon emissions—which is where the beauty of zero-waste lies. When you decide to buy a refurbished phone, you:
Save money. Refurbished phones are technically second-hand items, so their price tag is significantly lower.
Save water. A refurbished phone requires up to 20% of the hot water utilized in the making of a new one.
Save resources. A new smartphone needs 381kg of raw materials. A refurbished phone needs zero.
Avoid electronic waste. E-waste is extremely toxic to the environment, leading to lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic contamination, for example.
Of course, phones are a good place to start—but why not consider getting refurbished electronics in general instead of new ones?
2. Say no to ultra-fast fashion
Say yes to clutter core—that is, curated, considered pieces for your home and fashion capsule wardrobes.
The World Bank states that the fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions. They are also responsible for the consumption of 93 billion cubic meters of water—which equals to the yearly water consumption of five million people.
The intense pace of fast-fashion is largely responsible for that production—but it doesn't end there. Textile waste is also a problem: every second, the equivalent to a garbage truck full of clothes ends up in landfills (The Ellen MacArthur Foundation) since fast-fashion pieces are more likely to be discarded or fall apart in a shorter period of time.
Instead of buying new clothes—or new stuff in general—opt for second-hand options (which also provide you with a unique piece!). And if an item does get damaged…well, just follow our next step.
3. Say no to buying a new winter coat
And yes to repairing and extending the wear for another season (or four). It's cheaper than buying new pieces, and it also supports the craft of local tailors, seamstresses, and even cobblers.
Pro-tip: if you do have to buy a new winter coat, consider where from. Brands like Patagonia, Barbour, and Red Wing, for example, offer repairs for life.
4. Say no to excessive energy drain from your devices
And yes to scaling back on your energy consumption and calculating your carbon emissions. That charger forever plugged into the wall socket? It's time to find a new place for it!
That's because a lot of appliances draw power when they're on standby—TVs and chargers are a few of them. Additionally, turning the lights off is a small but helpful gesture.
Additionally, you can use a carbon emission tool like Tracarbon to track and monitor your energy consumption and carbon footprint—down to the programming language used and the impact of running a laptop on a cloud provider.
When you know what's draining energy, you can easily fix it.
5. Say no to hot and long laundry cycles
And yes to 30ºC or less.
10 degrees can help you save energy—in fact, the general rule is the colder, the less waste. And yes, your clothes will be clean: laundry detergents are now optimized for lower temperatures (around 30ºC).
By washing your clothes with lower temperatures, you're also protecting them—delicate fabrics, knitwear, and colorful clothing can shrink or fade with too much heat. To make it even more efficient, deal with stains by hand first, and don't overload your washing machine.
6. Say no to ironing and dry-cleaning
And yes to air drying.
If you ever needed an excuse to skip the ironing, here it is: it consumes a lot of energy. "Every person emits 190 [kilograms] of CO2 equivalent in greenhouse gases each year by ironing clothes," wrote climate activist Mark Gersava on a viral Facebook post.
Pro-tip: If crisp shirts are a must; however, try and iron all your items at once since the highest consumption comes from heating up your iron.
In addition, skip the dry-cleaners—whose products might include toxic air pollutants and health-damaging volatile organic compounds (VOC)—and air dry as much as possible. This will make your laundry routine more environmentally friendly and, at the same time, increase the lifespan of your clothes.
7. Say no to 22ºC heating
Say yes to turning your heater down by 1ºC.
According to the UK's Energy Saving Trust, reducing your heating by 1ºC can save you £55 a year—and gives you a reason to wear those comfy second-hand jumpers.
Many countries are going through an energy crisis, with gas, coal, and electricity trading at much higher prices. Yes, this is an important money-saving step—but an even more important one in terms of not wasting these non-renewable resources.
Pro-tip: if you have a thermostat, adjust the temperature between 18ºC and 21ºC—a range known as ‘comfortably low.’
8. Say no to inefficient transport
And yes to trains and carpools.
Luckily, the rise in hybrid models and remote working have positively impacted commuting—mostly by reducing it or erasing it completely. Still, that's not a reality for everyone.
Going car-free was the most effective action an individual could take to reduce their GHG emissions, according to a study by Sweden's Lund University. Public transport and cycling are the obvious climate-positive choices to make, but unfortunately, not every city has a safe cycling infrastructure or a comprehensive public transport network.
If you have to drive, remember to make it as efficient as possible, saving precious resources. For example:
Low tire pressure can affect your gas usage—make sure to check them often
Go easy on the air conditioning and opt for open windows instead
Save your car for longer journeys, and carpool when possible
Cars are only one side of it—flying also can quickly increase your carbon footprint. Swap flights for trains whenever you can! In Germany, for example, a long-distance journey with Deutsche Bahn emits less than one gram of GHG per kilometer. That's because most of their trains run on 100 percent renewable power.
Travel and commuting will always be necessary, but that doesn't mean they have to impact the environment and waste non-renewable resources.
9. Say no to food waste
And yes to compost!
Food loss and waste generate around 8% of global GHG emissions. Agricultural production is the main responsible for waste volumes—but it's important to do our part at home, too. Meal-planning can help you throw away less food, as well as a weekly ‘fridge-cleaning meal’ (using up all those ingredients that are about to go bad in a soup, for example).
Pro-tip: If you really forgot about those tomatoes, though, try and compost them instead of sending them to the landfill. Some cities will collect food waste for compost, but if that's not the case where you live, you might consider freezing any food scraps and ask around at your local farmers' market if they will collect them.
Additionally, what you eat also has an impact on the climate. Simply halving your animal protein consumption can reduce your diet's carbon footprint by 40% or more! Red meat and dairy have the highest CO2e—one single cheeseburger has the same footprint as nine falafel wraps, according to The Carbon Almanac.
10. Say no to paper
While paper is often a better alternative to plastic since it decomposes more quickly and is more widely recyclable (especially in terms of packaging), reducing paper usage is also an easy, achievable zero-waste step to add to your routine.
You can start by saying no to paper bills and receipts, for example. (In addition, e-receipts are harder to lose and don't require any physical storage, which saves you precious space). Considering digital subscriptions is another option, and so is investing in an e-book reader. In addition to reducing paper usage, they can help you save money too.
Conclusion: climate action is down to our daily actions
Not everyone can sell their car or avoid long-haul flights altogether. We understand that there's a lot to be done, and the responsibility can be overwhelming.
Keep in mind that when it comes to generating less waste, done is better than perfect.
Maybe you swapped one flight for a train journey. Maybe you bought the vegan option instead of the meat one. No matter how small, taking action counts, even if it's just a few times per week.
Alternatively, you can also choose to offset your carbon emissions—that is, investing money in green projects that compensate for that long-haul flight, for example.
The UN Climate Convention keeps a valuable source of green projects that you can contribute to—but remember to use this as a last resource and not as a ‘get out of jail free card.’
The transition to a climate-neutral society is an urgent challenge—and an incredible opportunity to reassess our habits while building a better future for all.
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