Low-Waste Lifestyle: A List of 7 Lucky Changes You Can Make

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we all live on a quickly-heating, increasingly-deadly rock hurtling through space; other times, we sit in a closet with our very claustrophobic cats and an emergency kit as a blaring tornado warning suffocates any hope for sleep that night.

Did I get your attention? Good. That’s not a dramatization. That was my actual summer. Weather anxiety is a real killjoy, and guess what brings about violent and long-lasting bad weather? It’s ya boi, climate change.

Naturally, in lieu of the Rhodes counseling center, I turned to the internet for some way to stop panicking about the—at this point—inevitability of global warming and came across the most drastic lifestyle change to date. This trend is zero-waste, or low-waste, living, and it’s just what it sounds like: an individual’s concentrated effort to decrease the negative impact they leave on the Earth, but taken to the extreme of little to no waste. Zero-wasters invest in reusable things, like non-plastic straws, portable flatware, and refillable containers. They avoid buying packaged goods (particularly if that packaging is plastic or unable to be recycled), tend to buy things in bulk, and often cut down on paper waste by switching to electronics for reading and writing.

It’s not a lifestyle choice that many people can make or would even consider making. Many zero-wasters seem to understand this, but others are more militant and have trouble understanding how some people who are disabled may require a plastic straw or how some people don’t have the time to dedicate to DIY-ing literally everything in their lives. What I have come to learn is that making any amount of change is better than foregoing the whole operation just because you can’t give it 100%. I’m starting to be more waste-conscious, and you can try to incorporate as many parts of low-waste living into your routine as possible without needing to feel shame for not going all the way. But let’s start with why we should go through all this effort in the first place:

  • Nine-tenths of all solid waste in the United States does not get recycled.

  • Roughly 80% of the items buried in landfills could be recycled.

  • It takes 500 years for average sized plastic water bottles to fully decompose.

  • The energy it takes to make 1.5 million tons of plastic could power 250,000 homes.

  • Over 100,000 marine animals die every year from plastic entanglement and ingestion.

  • Glass bottles take 4,000 years to decompose.

  • While the United States celebrates the holidays, Americans produce an additional 5 million tons of waste (four million of the 5 million tons consisting of wrapping paper and shopping bags).

  • On average, Americans use 650 pounds of paper a year. Each.

  • The average office worker in the United States goes through roughly 500 disposable cups annually.

  • For every 1 ton of paper that’s produced, roughly 390 gallons of oil is used to make it.

(Statistics from RubiconGlobal)

And that’s only a few statistics. None of us can forget the 10-year doomsday deadline that the UN Climate Change report dropped on us earlier this year. So what do we do? Here are some things I’ve already incorporated into my life, and some tips I’ve picked up from other low-waste folks online.

1. No more disposable cups.

Getting coffee from the rat? Don’t take one of the little paper cups—bring one instead! You can also purchase a reusable lidded mug at the Middle Ground Starbucks and use it for all of your drinks. Pro tip: At a regular Starbucks (and sometimes at the Middle Ground if the barista is following the rules), you’ll get ten cents off when you use your own cup! I’ve seen the cup for sale at $2 - $3, which means that a $3 cup will pay for itself in 30 drinks. That sounds like a bunch of drinks to me because I don’t actually buy Starbucks much, but some people get it daily. If you’re a constant customer, you should DEFINITELY buy one. And if you’re an occasional shopper like me, you’ll still feel good every time you go in and realize your cup just got a bit cheaper. And yes! You can use the mug for both hot and cold drinks. It just takes a moment to get used to.

2. Chuck Out Those Paper towels

STOP USING THEM. Not only are they wasteful, but it’s also waaaaay cheaper to get yourself a reusable cloth for wiping up spills. You can even use cut up rags from an old T-shirt. If you’re a true college kid, it’s 100% okay to value the monetary savings over the environmental savings. (Mother Earth just gets to benefit from your frugality!)

3. Replace Those One-Use Makeup Pads/Wipes and Cotton Balls

You know those makeup wipes you use to take off your mascara at night or those cotton balls for removing your nail polish? There’s a greener alternative to those, which are usually made from polyester, polypropylene, cotton, wood pulp, and rayon fibers (those aren’t biodegradable!) You can kiss the landfill goodbye if you take up one of these alternatives:

  • Buy a pack off Etsy for as little as $4 for a pack of four. This is about the same price as a big bag of one-use cotton rounds, but these are reusable! No need to buy a new pack for months if you care for them properly. You can buy yourself a coffee with those extra savings (in a reusable mug, obviously).

  • DIY some reusable rounds of your own! Here are five different tutorials.

  • Use a rag that you already have!

4. Toothbrush

This is a big deal right now. I’ll hand it to EcoPlanet to explain more: “In the United States alone it is estimated that between 850 million, and over a billion toothbrushes, representing more than 50 million pounds of waste, are discarded and end up in landfills every single year. These toothbrushes are made from a combination of plastic (made from crude oil) and rubber for the hand piece, nylon for the bristles, and a mix of plastic and cardboard for the packaging. Currently none of these items are biodegradable, therefore they remain in landfills indefinitely. Worse, they end up in our oceans and washed up on our beaches or consumed by marine life. If they are burnt, they release a combination of toxic and greenhouse gases.”

What on Earth do we do? Those of us who are capable make a simple switch — Bamboo toothbrushes!

These brushes are made of bamboo, a quick-growing and self-replenishing plant that’s much more sustainable than plastic. My toothbrush’s bristles are still made out of bristles that must be tweezed off and thrown away at the end of the brush’s life, but this little bit of plastic is so much less than a regular brush.

I have seen variations online with bristles that are made of biodegradable product, but I’ll have to wear out my current one before I look for an even better option next time.

These are slowly becoming more common at regular stores, and I bought mine in the clearance section of Kroger. It’s best to look around in grocery stores for these first to cut down on shipping waste, but you can also order them online. I would link some options here, but the truth is that there are just too many brands, and I haven’t tried any of them! Make sure you don’t spend more than $5 on a single brush, though. I’ve seen them priced as high as $25, and that’s just ridiculous.

5. Look for new eco-friendly brands to support.

Look, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but it just feels so much better to support an up-and-coming, environmentally-conscious brand than to throw hundreds of dollars at moneyed jerks who like to place a pink tax on deodorant. Oppress us all equally, dammit!

I’m always on the lookout for brands who can fulfill my low-waste needs when I don’t have the time and skills to DIY something myself. Right now, I’m trying toothpaste and deodorant from a brand called Wildist. They use completely natural ingredients and recyclable packaging.

Wildist isn’t cheap if you’re used to drugstore prices! I actually got these on sale, but at full price, one tube of toothpaste is $8 and one stick of deodorant is $16. If you have the money to support them, please go ahead. Do not fret! The array of low-waste products available online is starting to expand. And if you save money with other low-waste options, you may find yourself with enough money to start accumulating at least one more natural alternative even if you can’t invest in every area of your life.

6. That Time of the Month!

This is actually a switch I haven’t made yet, but plan to make in the near future.

It’s no secret that people with menstrual cycles spend a stupid fortune on one-use products to soak up all of the residual blood from when we hunt as werewolves once a month. Or at least that’s what I do. Huffpost says we spend an average of over $18,000 on our period over our lifetimes. And as far as Mother Nature goes, “Tampons, pads and panty liners along with their packaging and individual wrapping generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year, and they all contain plastic – in fact, pads are around 90% plastic!” (Organicup). What's an eco-punk werewolf to do?

Invest in menstrual cups and/or reusable pads.

The Penny Hoarder claims switching to menstrual cups can save a period-haver $100 a year. Here are two videos to help you start on your menstrual cup journey: An Honest Review of the Diva Cup (by another HCR contributor) and How to use a Menstrual Cup – In-depth Instructional Video. If pads are more your jam, you can find handmade reusable pads of all kinds on Etsy for as cheap as $4 per pad. Here are some I found (1, 2, 3) and reusable pad tips.

7. Nix the plastic bags.

If a cashier asks “Paper or plastic?,” enthusiastically shout “NEITHER!” in response. (Don’t.) Start bringing canvas bags with you when you shop. But don’t feel the need to buy new bags: search through your house first! I had two already, and I recently bought a third for $2 at City Thrift. (It’s that cute floral one from Aerie in the photo!)

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 380 billion+ plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year. The United States uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. Very few cities actually offer services for recycling plastic bags, and often the only place you can drop off these bags to be recycled is at the grocery store. Kroger, Whole Foods, and Walmart as well as some Targets and Lowe’s will gladly take your plastic bags, but it’s just better overall to refuse the bag in the first place.


Now you have the physical tools, but there’s one more NECESSARY life change to make: Calling your representatives.

The problem is much bigger than any of us. And we aren’t the major culprits here. Over time, most companies have become more greedy, less ethical, and less regulated. We can go vegan, refuse to shop fast fashion, and even become complete ascetic role models, but that won’t change the fact that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. BUT DON’T DESPAIR—Well, do. But then get up and fight. We live in a country with representatives who must answer to their constituents. We pay their paychecks. Pick up that power that suffragists fought for, that organizers continue to fight to expand, and use it.

  • Vote in EVERY. ELECTION. Yes, even the itty bitty local ones. Especially the itty bitty local ones. Those are the ones that keep Memphis’s water clean.

  • CALL. YOUR. REPRESENTATIVES. Use CommonCause to find out who represents you at every level, and contact them by phone or email to tell them how you feel about corporations contaminating our groundwater.  Do a bit of research to find organizing groups in your area, like the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club, and keep up with them to learn about the issues that impact you. Sometimes, organizations will happily supply you with a script in case you get nervous on the phone.

Although individual choices are fantastic, we always need to step back and view the issue of climate change on a larger scale. We have power in numbers. The trouble is just in building those numbers and not scaring new folks away by demanding they go vegan and stop creating any waste ever. Everybody who can call their reps should, and everybody who can’t should reach out to those who can.