6 Zero Waste Hacks for Life During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us feeling discouraged by the increase in disposable plastics despite reduced pollution levels.  

Though, even if you are using a little more plastic than usual, you CAN stay sustainable while staying home. Here’s how:

1. You can still use reusable bags.

Shopping plastic-free is tough, but contrary to popular belief, you can still use reusable bags; the cashiers just aren’t allowed to touch them in many stores, a problem easily remedied if you bag your own groceries. Worst case scenario, opt for paper bags where available or forgo the bags altogether and use the cart to bring groceries directly to your car and bag them there.

Produce bags are a bit trickier, as the cashier would have to handle the bag to weigh the item, so skip the produce bag when you can. If you need to use bags, try to get those items in stores with self-checkout options so you can still use your reusable produce bags.

Where you can, skip the grocery store! Preaching to the converted here, we know, but it’s more possible than ever with great zero waste online stores offering plastic-free lifestyle and beauty essentials. There are even some options to buy food in bulk online -- through websites like Azure Standard and The Wally Shop. So even though the bulk bins are considered a grocery no-no for now, you can still buy food plastic-free.

Farmer's Markets and food co-ops (like this one) are also fantastic resources for fresh produce and local meats. They’re a lot more personal than a big chain and you can often deal with the farmer directly. While they do sometimes come in a bit of packaging, it’s usually far less than supermarkets use and they’re often more willing to skip the packaging or give it to you in bulk. Sans corporate regulations, they’re also a lot more lenient about restrictions regarding your own containers.

No matter where you shop, resist the urge to stock up too much, especially on perishables. Better not to have food spoil before you get to it.

And remember, we can’t be perfect, especially in the face of the pandemic. Many things are out of our control, but feeling guilty about it doesn't do any good. The best we can do is plan ahead, look for stores and products that offer plastic-free options, and opt for compostable or low-plastic options when we can.

2. When it comes to takeout, ask a restaurant what packaging they use and opt for compostable or recyclable packaging.

Takeout is the new form of eating out, and it comes with a lot more waste considerations. Not to say you should abstain from eating out, but we need to take some extra steps to reconcile our zero waste goals with our need for convenience.

Opt for types of food that come in compostable or recyclable packaging rather than plastic and styrofoam. Pizza is a good choice because you can compost the box and Mexican food usually comes in recyclable aluminum foil. If you opt for things like Thai or Chinese that often come in plastic, make sure you wash and recycle the containers.

This might involve some research on your part-- ask a restaurant what packaging they use before placing an order. While you’re at it, ask if they’ll let you bring your own containers. Some won’t allow this right now but it never hurts to ask!

A lot of restaurants are struggling without being able to offer dine-in options, so finding a sustainable medium while still supporting your local takeout joint is a great way to help your community. 

3. Leave contaminates out of your recycling and use mail-in and pick up options for hard-to-recycle materials.

Despite taking preventive measures, we'll inevitably have more plastic to recycle, but we can still dispose of it responsibly even if we can’t prevent it entirely. “Recycle” after all is still one of the 5 R’s of zero waste.

One thing we can focus on right now is recycling -- not just doing it, but doing it right. Recycling comes with great intentions that rarely live up to expectations.

Start by learning what places near you will recycle waste. Sites like Recycle Now and Recycle Nation are fantastic tools to aid in your search. If your municipal recycling facilities and curbside pickup services are being curtailed as so many are, look into private-sector options. You can even use mail-in options like TerraCycle or pick up options like Ridwell for hard-to-recycle materials.

Learn what proper recycling means for your particular local recycling services. Which plastics do they accept? What materials are banned that could contaminate the whole batch? Leave them out! Most cities will have online resources that you can find with a simple Google search like “[your city] recycling rules”.

And speaking of recycling contamination, take the time to wash out leftover food and grease residue from your cans, bottles, and takeout containers to prevent one of the most common recycling contaminants. By not washing out your recycling, you're essentially throwing it in the trash.

4. Get thrifty with your clothes and buy from ethical and sustainable fashion brands. 

We’re all doing a lot more online shopping these days, and not just for things like groceries but for comfy clothing such as pajamas (which we’re blissfully seeing fit to wear more and more!). Maybe that ratty old t-shirt you usually sleep in just doesn’t cut it anymore, but how can you shop for clothing online in a sustainable way?

First, see what pre-loved options exist. Buying used is the most eco friendly way to get “new” clothes and with so many great online thrift stores, thrift shopping is as easy as pushing play on the next episode of your Netflix binge.

There are also fantastic small-scale fashion designers on Etsy that will ship in compostable packaging. Combine that with the fact that Etsy provides carbon-neutral shipping by purchasing offsets, you’ve got a great recipe to remove two of the most impactful components of online ordering. Now more than ever is a great time to support small online businesses #ShopSmall.

If you do buy from bigger brands, make sure they’re ethical fashion brands, particularly ones that offer garments made of sustainable (ideally organic and natural) materials and ship in plastic-free compostable packaging.

Still, even if we buy consciously, ordering online inevitably means more shipping emissions. Reduce this by thinking ahead and buying what you need at the same time from the same store when possible. Also consider purchasing carbon offsets to balance the scales. If you’re not in a financial position to do so, buy from brands that do it for you. 

5. Upgrade your home office with second hand technology.

A lot of folks are working from home these days, which may mean some necessary upgrades to the home office. Before you run out and drop a dime on the latest and greatest gadget, try to find what you need second hand through sites like Gazelle, Apple Refurbished, and even eBay.

Second hand gadgets are a great way to save money and avoid consuming new hard-to-recycle goods. Plus, they generally work just as well as new items.  

If the idea of used tech still scares you, make sure you buy something with a warranty, which is typically offered by professional refurbishing companies (either by brand or a third party reseller) so that you can fix, instead of replace, any malfunctioning devices. 

6. Learn a new eco-friendly skill

Have more time at home these days than you’re used to? Why not learn how to compost (yes it’s possible even if you don’t have a backyard!)? Or maybe start an apartment garden and grow your own food like herbs and tomatoes. If you have the outdoor space, you can really up your carbon-sequestering power by planting trees and shrubs. 

If your thumb is more black than green, upcycle crafting may be more your sustainability speed. Get good enough and you might even be able to turn it into a business or side hustle.

Taking the time to learn a new zero waste skill to counter the ways in which you might be forced to regress on your zero waste lifestyle is not just good for the planet, but it’ll provide a fun activity for you, too. Gardening and crafting can be therapeutic, and the possibilities don’t end there --there are all sorts of zero waste habits and hobbies you can try out. 

If the current crisis shows us anything, it is that most of us can indeed get by on less. Less consumption, less transportation, heck, even less toilet paper (albeit that one wasn’t really by choice!). So even if we’re producing a more physical waste, that doesn’t mean our zero waste efforts are for nothing.

Remember, the physical waste addressed by a zero waste lifestyle is just one part of sustainable living, which encapsulates all the waste generated, much of which we can’t even see.

So for us, there is no perfect end goal. Rather, we like to think of sustainability as a spectrum, we just try to get a little bit further along that path, day by day.

What ways have you found to maintain your sustainable lifestyle during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments below.

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This is a guest post written by Sustainable Jungle. Follow them for more tips on zero waste living, sustainable & ethical fashion, and urban gardening.

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