How to Live a Zero-Waste Life, According to Three Experts


“Recycling should be the last option.”

The world produces a whopping 2.3 billion tons of waste each year. Much of that trash contributes to the harmful pollution of our oceans and lands. And get this: Americans produce three times more than the global average.

We reached out to three experts for tips on how to cut out all that trash. They explained what drew them to the zero-waste movement and offered tips on how you can cut out the waste in your own life — one single-use plastic at a time.

Anita Vandyke, author of ‘A Zero Waste Life’

Wake-Up Call: What drew you to sustainability?

Anita Vandyke: My zero-waste lifestyle started when I was 26 years old and was going through a ‘quarter-life crisis.’ I had climbed up the corporate ladder and was a successful engineer. Despite the monetary success, I was not truly happy. I was stagnating in my personal growth and I realized I needed to align to my core values. I turned towards minimalism and zero-waste living.

As they say, ignorance is bliss. Since I’ve educated myself on these important environmental issues, I can no longer ignore the state of our planet. It is empowering really.

What’s the main takeaway from your book ‘A Zero Waste Life’?

Zero-waste living means reducing your waste, but also not wasting your life away. Plastic is mother nature’s non-renewable resource, and time is ours. Let’s not waste either one.

Recycling should be the last option. The best option is to lower your waste and avoid plastic packaging altogether. Recycling plastic is actually a misconception. Plastic is not recycled, it is downcycled. This means it gets downcycled to poorer and poorer forms of plastic until it can’t be downcycled any further and sits in landfills. Other materials such as glass, paper, and aluminum can be recycled infinitely without degradation to the quality of the material.

I know a lot of people that are kind of lukewarm about living more sustainably. What message do you have for them?

I have three easy ‘quick wins’:

1. Replace your disposables, like paper napkins, with reusables, like cloth napkins.

2. Make secondhand your first choice.

3. Head outside! By seeing how amazing Mother Nature is, I have come to appreciate that every step is important in helping our planet.

Jhánneu, Zero-Waste YouTuber

Is it completely possible for someone to be completely waste-free? Which areas are the hardest to cut down on when you’re trying to cut down on trash?

I don’t really like to say zero-waste because I think the only way you could possibly be zero-waste is if you live on a farm in the middle of nowhere and grow your own food. Even if you buy almonds in bulk at the grocery store, they will still have likely come in packaging. It’s about lessening your waste.

How can one use less waste in their beauty routine?

How can you live less without compromising what you want? The key is finding products that are multi-use. I have a blush that comes in a bamboo container and can be used as a blush, eyeshadow, and highlighter.

Also, I’m sure you can relate, but sometimes you’ll buy an eyeshadow palette and only use half of the colors anyway. So buy an individual eye shadow instead!

On your feed, you talk about making the zero-waste movement more inclusive. What do you hope to see more of in the sustainability sphere?

When I started my YouTube channel, I could barely find any person of color making zero-waste videos. If everyone in this space is white, how can we expect people of color to relate?

Many YouTubers will talk about buying things in bulk, without noting that some people don’t have access to grocery stores in the first place. I am in a place where I have the privilege to be able to drive to a bulk store, but not everyone does. And so, because I come from nothing, I can think back to that time and say, ‘How can I make sure I’m inclusive to everyone?’ I try to make sure my content is mindful of the fact that not everyone can afford that $30 reusable metal container or has physical access to those types of things.

What message do you have for anyone who’s nonchalant about watching their plastic consumption?

As Americans, we’re very disconnected from our waste because we don’t see where it goes. I think to get more people on board, we need to understand how this affects us on a daily basis. If you’re someone that eats fish, you’re most likely eating plastic because microplastics end up in the ocean. And obviously, I don’t think you need to explain why eating a petrochemical is bad.

With Covid-19, I find myself using a lot of disposable cleaning supplies. Do you have tips for people trying to reduce waste and still stay safe?

I make my own solution with rubbing alcohol, water, and essential oils. I also use reusable cloths instead of paper towels.

You can cut up old T-shirts to make them, put them in the wash, or soak them in rubbing alcohol if you want to sanitize them. Whenever someone comes over, they’re like, ‘Where are your paper towels?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t own paper towels now.’

Kathryn Kellogg, National Geographic’s spokesperson for plastic-free living and author of ‘101 Ways To Go Zero Waste’

Wake-Up Call: Could you tell me a little bit about your journey to promoting sustainability? I read on your blog that it actually began with a trip to the doctor.

Most people like to reduce their waste because they want to help the planet. I started because I wanted to help myself. I had a serious hormone imbalance. So I started making more natural lifestyle changes like avoiding plastic because many plastics interfere with the hormone system.

On your Instagram, you write ‘Zero waste isn’t about recycling more. It’s about recycling less!’ Could you break down how you view a zero-waste lifestyle?

I started my blog when I moved out to California. I wanted people to know that there were easy changes they could make that would save them money, time, improve their health, and be better for the planet.

The true definition of zero-waste living is to avoid sending things to the landfill. The definition I personally like is, “to completely write waste out of existence,” because there’s so much more you can waste beyond what you put in your trashcan. Zero waste isn’t about recycling more, it’s about recycling less. The most common phrase most of us know is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but most of us skip right over reduce and reuse, and head straight to recycle.

You’re the author of ‘101 Ways To Go Zero Waste.’ What are some tips from the book?

Especially during the pandemic, making sure your recycling properly is huge. Head to your waste hauler’s website to make sure you’re putting exactly what they ask for in the bin and nothing more. Also, make sure the recyclables are clean and dry.

Or try to implement a 30-day buy ban. This will help you consume less and make sure you’re analyzing what you actually need. I like to do this anytime I see something that I really really want. I tell myself to wait 30 days and if I’m still thinking about it and really want it 30 days later, I’m allowed to go crazy.

Follow Anita, Jhánneu, and Kathryn on Instagram.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This originally appeared on Medium.