We’ve all seen those incredible stories about the zero-waste families whose yearly trash production fits tidily into a mason jar. If you’re living a life crammed with disposables, you may be tempted to change your ways, and also be wondering if the zero-waste lifestyle has any health advantages.
Zero waste is good for the environment, which obviously has health advantages for us all. But on the individual level, there are some bonuses, as long as the stress of getting to level zero doesn’t negate all the benefits.
Chief among the advantages of zero-waste is not relying on over-processed packaged foods. That means more pre-planning of meals, including lunches for the kids. It also means buying more fresh produce at farmers markets and other vendors. You’ll want to avoid buying in bulk, so try splitting your farmers market purchases with a friend.
Additionally, you’ll need to keep your portions tidier when trying to reduce waste. Many of today’s recipes claim “serves four” but tend to over-estimate, leading to over-indulgence. As a “zero-waster,” you’ll be more tempted to pare down the serving sizes, which is good for both the environment and your waistline.
Chances are you’ll also increase your activity level as you become more environmentally conscious. That means more biking and walking for trips to local stores. And when you’re on foot or two wheels, you’ll buy less because it’s easier to carry home.
Be careful, however, when adopting composting habits. Do not compost meat, fish or dairy products. They attract rodents and other unpleasantries, and will cause a foul odor as well.
That said, if you want to go zero-waste, it’s not realistic to go from waste-heavy to zero overnight. Take your time adopting to the lifestyle, starting with a few basics:
- Avoid junk mail – You can actually register to receive less at dmachoice.org, optoutprescreen.com or catalogchoice.org.
- Don’t fall for freebies – Don’t take offers for free chip clips and pens, and teach your children to do the same. You really don’t need more wasteful plastic products in your house.
- Eat out conscientiously – You may not know until you ask, but many restaurants known for takeout –including some Starbucks – will refill your mug or offer you an alternative to the ubiquitous to-go containers. And now’s the time to learn to drink without another plastic straw!
- Look for single-serve recipes – As noted earlier, most recipes over-estimate. Look for smaller serving sizes when preparing meals, especially if you’re cooking just for yourself.
- Reuse – Don’t buy disposable razors, lighters, napkins and other items. A rag is as good as a paper towel and has a much longer lifetime. Also buy products in bottles and jars that can be re-filled.
- Understand food labeling - Dates on food labels can be confusing. “Best by” tells you how long the product is likely to remain in its highest quality when unopened. A “sell by” date is the manufacturer’s suggestion for when the grocery store should no longer sell the product, but doesn’t mean you can’t consume the product, which usually stays safe for several days after the “sell by” date.
- Know food storage - Avoid plastic, especially extremely thin plastic containers as much as possible as it is wasteful and often contains the carcinogen BPA and leaches toxic compounds. Use glass or stainless steel food containers. And when you know you’re going to have leftovers from eating out, bring your own glass jars for collecting your “doggie bag” for take-home.
- Recycle when you need to – In the zero-waste lifecycle, recycling is the last resort. Despite the benefits of recycling when compared to manufacturing new products from new materials, recycling is a long process, uses more energy and creates more pollution. Your first inclination should be to refuse, reduce or reuse.
Ultimately, you may never get to the just-a-mason-jar stage, but you can certainly do your part and help your family stay healthier as well.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.