Your Zero Waste Questions, Answered (Invitation to an Interview with La Nature)

I was invited by Hayley of La Nature, a zero waste store based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a Q&A on zero waste living! This was a great opportunity to answer some questions from the community about barriers to low impact living and how people at different stages of their journey can get started. Read more below!

This Q&A is reposted from the La Nature blog.

Belinda Chiu, creator of sustainability blog A Healthy Blueprint, is an expert when it comes to practicing a healthy and waste-free lifestyle. The road to zero waste can be a long one, but for most, it begins with small, easy to manage steps.

We asked La Nature’s customers to submit their questions about sustainable practices for us pass on to Belinda, as well as some of our own. Read her answers below to learn more about making the switch and how to navigate some of the most common challenges associated with waste-free living. And don’t forget to follow Belinda’s Instagram for more tips!

Q: For a generation not used to shopping zero waste, the lifestyle change can seem daunting. What are some of the easiest “starter” items they can be recommended to make the transition smooth?

The EASIEST starter items I would say is a reusable water bottle and bag. I almost never leave home without my water bottle and bag. In fact, I bet everyone already has a few reusable bottles and bags accumulated over the years from conferences, events, or from work that are waiting to be used. I make it easier for myself by sticking one folded tote in my most-used backpacks or purses so I’m never without it, and I try to leave a reusable bottle somewhere visible so I don’t forget to bring it when I leave the house.Some other starter items I’d recommend are a reusable utensil set (which you can make from utensils in your kitchen for free), a reusable straw if you typically use them for beverages, bar soaps in your bathroom and kitchen, and of course reusable cloth masks since we’re doing this interview during a pandemic!

Q: When considering which clothing to buy, how do you determine whether or not a company is properly adhering to waste-minimizing practices? What kinds of things do you look for?

I actually haven’t been in a fast fashion store in a while! I wouldn’t call myself fashion-forward so I don’t keep up with the latest clothing brands who are all for sustainability, but I will say that I was impressed with Girlfriend Collective’s website and had purchased a pair of their leggings (made from recycled plastic water bottles) a year or two ago and liked that they shared a sustainability report detailing how many water bottles were diverted from landfill, how many pounds of CO2 was prevented, and how much energy was saved. If more companies showed some form of transparency regarding their production and waste customers can make more informed decisions.I don’t add many pieces to my closet these days, but when I do I tend to browse on thredUP, an online thrift store, that way I’m doing my part to give secondhand items another life 🙂 Another thing I would recommend is if you can, try to look for clothing that’s made with one material rather than mixed (which can make it difficult to recycle).

Q: There seems to be confusion on composting certain items, wherein the product manufacturer marks it as compostable, but most centers won’t accept it. What kinds of things generally won’t be taken at compost centers, despite the label?

This gets tricky…it really depends on where your organic waste is ending up! For example, if you’re dropping off your food scraps at a community garden, they may have rules like no cooked food, meat, dairy, fish, or bones. This is to minimize any issues with pests and rodents! If you have a service where your scraps are going to an industrial composting facility, they may be able to accommodate these items. A best practice in general is to always check and ask questions–whether you are dropping off scraps at a local site, if you have a service or are participating with a program. When it comes to compostables, there’s inconsistency around what the green bags and serviceware are made of, and I’ve even heard that some of these compostable bowls had PFAS (also known as a forever chemical which is bad for us and the environment) in them! If you think about the lack of clarity around the materials used to make the materials, and the potential for contaminating what would end up becoming finished compost, it’s no surprise that composting facilities would rather play it safe and not accept them.

Q: For folks that are out and about for most of the day, what are ways they can stay sustainable even when away from home?

Bring your reusable bottle and utensils (and maybe even a takeout container)! My mom always gets upset with me because a lot of the time if I forget to bring my water bottle I will just dehydrate until I find a fountain or get back home. Now I’ve cut myself some slack and will buy something if I’m in dire need, but I will hold onto the empty container until I find the right place to recycle or dispose of it.I remember when I went upstate and ordered takeout, I was able to get my food packaged in my stainless steel container and I felt SO good about eliminating waste for that meal. When you go out to restaurants, you can try to remember to decline your straw if you don’t need it, and bring a container for leftovers if you tend to order larger meals, too.

Q: Some items seem to be impossible to substitute, such as the plastic containers holding essential vitamins or OTC meds. Is there any solution to get around things like these?

This is another toughie! I personally think the supplement industry gets people to spend SO much money unnecessarily, and much of the vitamins we need can be obtained from seeking a balanced diet. If we ate more fruit and veggies, and asked our doctors what other foods could help make up for deficiencies, we could avoid buying 15 different vitamin bottles. I do recognize though that not everyone has consistent access to fresh food anytime they want based on what exists in their built environments which needs to change. Sometimes prescription medicines are essential, and what I do for my prescriptions is I will ask to get my medicine ordered in 3-month supplies so all of it will come in one bottle instead of monthly. We actually have bags full of orange prescription bottles that we’ve collected from my family members that is just sitting at home until we figure out what to do with them. In the meantime I’ve sometimes used these bottles as propagation vessels for my plants, for saving seeds for gardening, and I know other folks have used them for holding onto their jewelry! You can also check out this website to see potential solutions for your bottles.

Q: This idea comes from one of our Instagram followers: “the biggest barrier to entry for zero waste living is the cost.” Can you share any thoughts you have about this sentiment?

Mainstream media can portray the zero waste aesthetic as intimidating for a lot of people. We often see companies and marketing campaigns show the latest products that customers “need” to buy in order to practice a zero waste lifestyle, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth! When I grew up, I saw my grandparents and my parents practice sustainability without many of the products we see advertised. I think for them it might not have been for the environment, but more about ways we could save money and prioritize other essentials like making sure everyone was fed and that the lights were on at home.Instead of feeling the urge to buy everything that is advertised to us, I would encourage us to assess what we have at home and only think about purchasing things as they need to be replaced. Additionally, we can be resourceful like our parents and grandparents by saving items we’ve already bought for reuse opportunities or getting creative by finding other use cases for things we already have around the house.

How to Reduce Food Waste at Home: Resources

In March, I rounded out the mini-workshop series on the topic of waste, culminating on a popular topic that many folks are talking about to their peers (and even in mainstream media): food waste. As we are still navigating pandemic-times, many people have transitioned to working from home, resulting in a shift in habits–growing food at home, trying their hand at raising houseplants, and cooking new recipes in the kitchen or supporting their local businesses through takeout and delivery services.

For this How to Prevent Food Waste at Home workshop, I invited two NYC locals, food waste prevention extraordinaire Cait Enz of Hops and Brains, and our city’s favorite four-legged passionate grassroots composting pug Astoria Pug (represented by Lou Reyes) to the conversation. These two individuals presented a wealth of information about how they prevent food waste in their households, and I was also equally as impressed and inspired by our engaged participants who shared the many ways they divert food waste in their kitchens, too!

Throughout the presentation, we presented participants with stats and resources that they could come away and utilize in their efforts to prevent and reduce food waste at home. I’ve shared many of the data sources, additional learning material, and resources that participants have included throughout the presentation for your convenience. If there are other helpful materials that should be added, please feel free to reach out and make your recommendations!

Read (Resources from the Presentation)

Listen

Do

Explore

  • Use the FoodKeeper App to optimize freshness and quality of your food items
  • Visit the ReFED Insights Engine to identify food waste solutions tailored to each stakeholder and reader
Image description: Padlet exercise with participants to brainstorm as many ways to use leftovers, hosted by Cait Enz of @hops_and_brains (IG) during the food waste workshop

Know of a resource that might be helpful to someone looking on this page? Have a recommendation for a future workshop topic? Feel free to post it in the comments below, send me an email, or direct message me on Instagram.

A Deeper Dive into Waste and Recycling Workshop: Resources

If you joined us in February for the recycling and waste workshops, you may have learned a wealth of information from Education and Outreach Coordinator of Sims Municipal Recycling, Kara Napolitano! This presentation built off of the first part of the mini-workshop series on waste (resources here) that gave a brief overview of the recycling basics and tips on reducing waste in our everyday lives.

Kara covered a generous amount of information on how our recyclables are processed, why certain items are accepted and others are not, and gave us tips on how we can become better recyclers. The resources she has shared with us in the workshop and in this post are based in a NYC setting, and I’d encourage you to dig a little deeper if you are from another city (because every city’s recycling service may have different requirements and accepted materials).

What is and is not recyclable in NYC?

Visit nyc.gov/sanitation or check out this list. If you are a visual learner, DSNY offers free infographics and decals to help people remember which items go into which colored bins.

Free infographics on accepted recycled materials can be found on the DSNY website for New Yorkers

I’m confused about the numbering system around recycling plastics. Can you clarify what these mean?

In a nutshell, NYC’s recycling messages will say that the DSNY accepts rigid plastics and not to worry too much about what each number means. These numbers were created by the plastics industry to indicate what kind of plastic the item is made of. If you are curious, most recycling programs will accept #1 (PET or PETE) and #2 (HDPE) plastics, but always check with your city’s program to be sure!

How do I recycle soft plastics (such as plastic film, plastic bags, etc.) in NYC?

There is a website called Plastic Film Recycling that lists thousands of locations where you can drop off soft plastics in the US.

Pro tip: Shell, one of our attendees, offered a great resource from Slow Factory where they offer upcycling workshops for plastic bags!

What other items can I divert or recycle in NYC?

You are able to recycle food scraps at drop-off sites or with residential pick-up services throughout the city (bit.ly/NYCdropofftracker), and participate in textile recycling with Wearable Collections and electronic recycling locations (LES Ecology Center has recently resumed their e-waste collection events). If you live in an apartment building, you can help your building apply for textile recycling and electronic recycling bins!

An important note from Kara: Since we are still practicing public health precautions due to the pandemic, if you are going to a drop-off site, contact these locations first to find out if and what they are currently accepting.

What do I do with “hard-to-recycle” items that aren’t accepted in my city’s recycling program?

Terracycle hosts a variety of take-back and drop-off programs that you can participate in. You may choose to purchase a zero waste box, for example, or find a drop-off site for the item you’re looking to recycle. There are some recycling programs that they offer that are free, such as their contact lens and blister pack recycling program!

I want to learn more about recycling and waste; where can I find out more information?

Kara often posts additional education resources on the Sims Recycling Education Center website. If you go to this site, you can also register for more tours (and in-person ones once it’s safe to do so!) Additional tips on recycling and future events will also be shared on their social media accounts – follow @simsmuni on Twitter and Instagram!

Couldn’t find what you were looking for? Try visiting the previous workshop’s resource page where I’ve shared NYC, US-based, and worldwide resources for recycling and waste reduction. If you have other suggestions that aren’t already included here, please feel free to send your notes to me at ahealthyblueprint@gmail.com or on Instagram @ahealthyblueprint.

Recycling 101 and Waste Reduction Workshop: Resources

In early February, I hosted the first of a three-part mini-workshop series on the topic of waste. In this workshop, we covered the basics around recycling and shared some tips and tricks for reducing waste in our every day lives. For those who joined me in this event live, thank you so much for your support and engagement! It was wonderful virtually seeing you, sharing my knowledge, and learning from you at the Recycling 101 and Waste Reduction Workshop!

There was a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time, and there were plenty of resources that were mentioned in this workshop. I have shared a list of these items below, and if I’ve missed any or if you have other resources to share, please feel free to reach out to me with the details and I’d be happy to include them 🙂

Read (Resources from the Presentation)

Watch

Listen

Do

Recycling & Waste Reduction

NYC
United States
  • Find a soft plastics recycling drop-off with Plastic Film Recycling
  • Learn how to properly recycle mixed plastic packaging with How2Recycle
  • Look up how to recycle more than 300 materials in North America with Earth911
  • Find a battery recycling drop-off with Call2Recycle
  • Recycle clothing and home goods with Simple Recycling (for cities and residents)
  • Recycle electronics, appliances, and fitness equipment with Best Buy
  • Recycle your contact lenses and blister packs with Bausch + Lomb
  • Recycle your markers and highlighters (including dry erase markers) with Crayola
  • Recycle uncommonly accepted products through Terracycle (free programs and zero waste boxes)
Global

Know of a resource that might be helpful to someone looking on this page? Feel free to post it in the comments below, send me an email with the subject line “Recycling 101 and Waste Reduction resources”, or direct message me on Instagram.

Low Impact Living Goals for 2020

We have begun a new decade, and it is one of the most important ones of our lifetime. With less than 11 years left to take climate action before there is irreversible damage done to our planet from the effects of climate change, we have an important role to play as individuals and civil society members to live consciously, with the environment in mind, and with the imperative to call on our leaders and urge a shift in our systems for a livable future.

With this in mind, I have been actively trying to work on my lifestyle and seeing where I can make adjustments to reduce my environmental footprint. Here are some low impact living goals I have set for the year!

DIY beauty and cleaning products

As someone who suffered from eczema growing up, and just has what feels like chronically dry skin, I almost always have some lotion on me when I am on the go. Since I use handbags and totes interchangeably, I must have at least half a dozen little lotion bottles or tubes that I own.

While it would be counterintuitive to the zero waste lifestyle to just throw them all away, I am determined to finish these off and start making my own body lotions and butters so I can say goodbye to purchasing any large tubs and bottles.

Additionally, we can spend SO much money on cleaning products for our home: for the kitchen, bathroom, and all the places in between. With so many DIY recipes to try, and what seems to be the all-in-one magical castile soap, I am excited to see how I can keep my future apartment clean and as free of unnecessary harsh chemicals as possible.

Make my own snacks (now with more kitchen space!)

If you checked out my eco-friendly goals for 2019 post, I really wanted to attempt to make more snacks that I could bring when I am out and about. I think with the convenience of bulk snacks in our office’s kitchen, I did not really see the motivation to make my own snacks, but now that I am moving to a new apartment with a larger kitchen, I hope to work on this goal in 2020.

Cook more meals at home

Last year, I spent a good amount of my budget on dining out, and I want to make a concerted effort to use the cookbooks I already own and make some of my favorite dishes at a fraction of what I would pay at a restaurant.

Start a home compost

Ever since moving out and into an apartment building, my neighborhood does not have the brown bin collection program for me to conveniently handle my organic scraps. With more space in my apartment and an outdoor patio, I have the option to start an outdoor compost tumbler or an indoor vermicompost system. I might do the DIY route and use one of my plastic bins for a vermicompost, but I will keep you posted!

Continue carrying zero waste essentials

One of the easiest things we can all do to start reducing our impact on the environment and planet is by carrying our own reusable items and saying no to single-use plastics. I am talking about bringing your own water bottle, utensils, and grocery bag, for starters! You can work your way up from there. Because I switch bags so often I do tend to forget some of these items from time to time (and I will end up just dehydrating myself out of stubbornness and determination not to purchase a beverage in plastic), but I plan to do better this year.

What were some of your low impact or zero waste goals for this year?

Mistakes I Made While Traveling (So You Don’t Have To)

This December I flew to Latin America for work and decided to extend my trip to make the most of my time there (and attempt to be more eco-friendly by tacking on vacation time so I wouldn’t make an additional trip another time flying from NYC). I was so excited to have the opportunity to put my life skills of living low waste to the travel test–I mean, I had done a passable job when I went on a road trip to Hudson Valley, Burlington, and Montreal (carpooled).

While I had every intention of succeeding, I think it is safe to say that I had more “fails” than “wins”. Here are some of my mistakes I made while traveling so you know to avoid them when you make your next trip!

Mistake #1: I brought my reusable utensils and stainless steel straw, but I did not use them.

For the majority of my trip I was able to dine in and be able to use stainless steel utensils, but there were times where I forgot to bring my set when I ordered something to drink, and on top of that I would forget to say sin popote, por favor (“no straw, please” in Spanish).

I think out of the times when I received a drink with the straw, only one was a plastic straw, and others were either stainless steel or paper. While paper straws can be composted, it is still a single-use item and one that I didn’t need to use in the first place (and I would encourage us all to refuse single-use items whenever possible, with some exceptions here).

PRO TIP: Just bring the reusable utensils and straw with you wherever you go; it’s light, takes up such little space, and makes for an easy solution if you are ever in a pinch for these items.

Mistake #2: I didn’t bring a reusable container for food.

When you are traveling, it’s hard to gauge the portion sizes of your meals, and whether you’ll want to do takeout when you feel like having a night in. When I am in NYC, I usually always have a reusable container or mason jar because I bring my lunch to work, but didn’t think I would need it while I was here (silly me).

For the majority of the time traveling, I dined at restaurants, but sometimes there would be food that I just couldn’t stuff into my belly, but didn’t want to do takeout and have extra trash (in Costa Rica there are no more styrofoam containers, but plastic containers are still widely used). I briefly weighed the pros and cons to food waste versus takeout containers, and wanted to give the benefit of the doubt that restaurants who are taking care of disposing leftovers would have a compost bin (I was told by someone from Costa Rica that there are usually four bins: regular trash, glass/metal/plastic, paper/cardboard, and organic waste).

PRO TIP: Bring a mason jar or a collapsible container (or both). These items can serve as a beverage container for a drink or smoothie, and hold your leftovers or takeout!

Mistake #3: Sometimes I didn’t recycle or compost.

If you’re reading this and judging me, I’m not offended because I was judging myself hardcore too. I stayed in Airbnbs during my time in Panama and Costa Rica, and not a single one of these accommodations had explicit bins for recycling or composting. There were times when I would walk on streets and see a recycling bin, but they were minimal!

Sometimes when you travel you will encounter these barriers where the infrastructure just isn’t there. The best thing you can do is to adjust your purchasing and consumption habits during this time, such as not buying that juice or soda bottle (even if you are craving it!) and making sure you eat all of your food so there is nothing that a restaurant would have to throw away if they do not compost.

Okay, I listed a few of my mistakes, but I want to share some of the successes (because we’re all here to learn)!

Success #1: I did not use any of my accommodations’ single-use toiletries.

Over the years, my family and I have accumulated a ton of toiletries from the hotels we have stayed in. I think at the time we thought we were being resourceful because we knew if we had opened a product and did not take it with us, it would be thrown away (yikes!), so the next best thing would be to take it home. Of course, now that I am actively trying to reduce my waste, I bring my own toiletries from home (naked products like shampoo and body soap bars, for instance) or even the old toiletries from those hotels in the past!

There are some hotels that are taking steps in the right direction to reduce their waste, such as hotels that offer soap dispensers rather than single-use products!), and social entrepreneurs who are tackling this problem head-on.

Success #2: I carried my reusable water bottle everywhere I went!

If there is ONE thing that you can do as you start your journey to zero waste, I would say it is to bring a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go. There are so many different kinds that you can choose from (flat ones that won’t bulk up your bag, collapsible ones, glass ones if you are sensitive to other materials’ taste, and more traditional stainless steel or durable plastic ones).

I am waiting for more airports like San Francisco International Airport to ban plastic bottles to further encourage travelers like you and me to bring our reusable bottles when we are on the go! I wonder if airports count how many single-use beverage containers are thrown away at the security checkpoint every day…the number must be staggering!

As a note, I am not sponsored by any of these brands, but do own a couple of S’well bottles and a d.stil bottle!

Success #3: I took public transportation and shared car service rather than renting my own car to get around.

Depending on where you travel, there are opportunities for you to take public transportation using the trains, subways, or buses. It might be more convenient to rent your own car when you land from the airport, but if you are staying in a central location where there is public transportation, taxis, or ride-hailing service, I encourage you to opt for those choices instead.

There are definitely other considerations besides convenience, such as your own personal safety. As someone who is standing under 5′ tall, I should be more scared when I travel alone haha, but I ask my friends, browse the internet, and look at reviews for other travelers on the best ways to get around and make my decisions then. When I was in Panama City and San Jose this December I used the ride-hailing service Uber to get around because I felt safer plugging in my destination rather than risking getting lost in a foreign city, but in Merida when I volunteered abroad I used the public buses and was fine!

What are some of the learnings you made when traveling?

The World’s Biggest Brands Commit To Tackling Plastic Pollution, But What Else Can Be Done? (originally published on The Rising)

After World War II, the world experienced a plastics boom, with production growing at an exponential rate thanks to the material’s versatility and durability. Plastic touches nearly every aspect of our lives, from the materials used to construct buildings and homes, vehicles, and technology, to household products, clothing, and shoes. It is estimated that we have produced more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic since this time, of which less than 10% is recycled. That’s where the plastic pollution problem comes in.

Many countries in the Global North turned to China to recycle their plastics, but ever since China changed its policy, the United States and many other countries are forced to find other avenues for taking care of their plastic waste and address the plastic pollution crisis back home.

Who is responsible for the crisis and what is being done?

Plastic pollution activists and coalitions have emphasized the responsibility that the world’s largest brands play in addressing this global crisis. Civil society members from more than 80 countries hosted brand audits through clean-ups during the #BrandAudit2019 initiative, calling on these brands to change their practices of manufacturing and selling products in single-use plastic packaging.

Some big brands have taken responsibility for their role in plastic pollution and have taken action. Coca-Cola announced its World Without Waste initiative with the goals to achieve 100% recycled packaging using 50% recycled materials, and by 2030 collect and recycle one bottle or can for every item sold. Unilever made a similar announcement, promising to cut its use of virgin plastics by 50%, and collecting and processing its plastic packaging.

One social enterprise is making it a little bit easier for big brands to shift their single-use plastic packaging practices. TerraCycle recently launched the Loop Store, a global circular shopping platform that allows customers to purchase products in zero waste packaging. Following the “milkman model”, products sold through the Loop Store are stored in reusable containers that are collected, washed, and reused again.

Innovations in tackling plastic pollution

Dutch inventor Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious project that aimed to collect the massive volume of plastic found in the oceans globally. At 2,000 feet in length, this plastic collection device has successfully collected plastic since its initial trials. Other entrepreneurs are developing products made from plant-based materials, such as utensils made from avocado seeds and creating faux leather using nopal, or producing products that do not require plastic packaging, in efforts to reduce our reliance on products made with plastic.

Consumers, recognizing the power they hold by their purchasing behaviors, are also raising their concerns with companies to change their practices. In a recent petition to Trader Joe’s, customers called on grocery chain to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging, garnering over 120,000 signatures. The company acknowledged this grassroots call for change, providing a status update since their announcement in late 2018.

Conclusions and the future for tackling plastic pollution

While there is hope hearing the world’s biggest brands acknowledge the role they play in and their plans for curbing plastic pollution, it is evident that is not enough. It takes more than a few companies to set green goals in order to move the needle forward. We need to continue holding big brands accountable, foster and support new ideas that open new horizons for plastic packaging and waste, and change our own behaviors to start addressing the global plastic pollution crisis.

How One Consulting Firm is Helping Companies Go Zero Waste in NYC

Some people know what they want to do when they grow up, and others serendipitously find their calling through their life experiences. Sarah Currie-Halpern was one such person when she came to co-found Think Zero LLC with her partner Ushma Pandya Mehta. After watching the Now This video featuring Anna Sacks, Senior Associate at Think Zero LLC and co-author of the petition to tell CVS to donate their unused merchandise, I reached out to Sarah to learn more about her story.

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Sarah’s experiences in marketing and working for the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability set her up on a path to zero waste. A lifelong vegetarian, Sarah always had sustainability on her mind. After running the Solid Waste and Zero Waste programs with the Mayor’s office and working with different stakeholders, she realized there was a huge need for the private sector to address their waste production and that she needed to work with businesses to reduce their waste.

That is when Sarah and Ushma decided to co-found Think Zero LLC, a zero waste consulting firm specializing in helping real estate companies, schools, residential buildings and other businesses develop strategies and tangible action plans to reduce and divert their waste from landfill and incineration. Through her marketing background, Sarah recognized that behavior change was one of the most important factors in reducing waste, and that incentives (i.e. discounts) and penalties (i.e. fees) can serve as great motivators for clients and their constituents.

Ushma (left) and Sarah (right) at a clean-up event with Parley in Lower East Side, Manhattan

Now three years old, Think Zero LLC has achieved numerous levels of success with their clients, from simple switches in building sanitation practices, such as changing from single trash bins to dual bin dollies, switching to clear trash bags to hold staff accountable of the waste they throw out versus recycle, and even supporting a client’s efforts to achieve the TRUE certification. They will be rolling out a self-guided waste reduction/diversion program for companies and organizations of all sizes to take part in efforts to become zero waste. Check out their website for more information!

4 Zero Waste Beginner Mistakes We All Make

When I first learned about the concept of “zero waste”, I threw myself into researching these icons in the sustainability space and learning what the average person like me could do to reduce my footprint. Let me be frank with you and say that I made mistakes when I first started out, and I continue to encounter hiccups along the way.

Here are some mistakes that you might make starting out on the zero waste journey, and how you can address and avoid them.

Replacing ALL of your plastic items by buying new plastic-free products.

There is a valid concern for wanting to have plastic-free containers when it comes storing your food and beverages – bisphenol A (BPA) is a key chemical used in plastics and mimics the estrogen hormone, which has been shown to exacerbate health problems such as breast cancer. However, this does not mean you have to toss all of your plastic containers and purchase new items (this defeats the principle of zero waste). Think about other ways you can utilize your plastic containers: arts and craft supplies, spare buttons and screws, desk organizers, and more!

If you do need to get some plastic-free food or beverage containers, before you purchase brand new products, ask your network of friends and family to see if they have any they are planning to throw out that you can take off their hands. You can also search thrift stores for some great deals.

Stocking up on reusable cotton tote bags.

If you have a habit of collecting cute graphic tote bags like me, this will be a wake-up call. One of my friends sent me an article about how cotton tote bags are terrible for the environment. At first I was skeptical, because single-use plastic is worst invention of all time, right? BUT after considering the resources needed to produce an organic cotton bag vs. a flimsy single-use plastic bag, we should think twice about purchasing these cotton tote bags in the name of sustainability.

If you already have them in your possession, do not beat yourself up over it! Be sure to make the most use of them and take one with you wherever you go, just in case you make any unplanned purchases when you are out and about.

Buying all “essential” zero waste items (especially ordering online).

I love the aesthetic of zero waste items, from stainless steel container sets, to assorted glass cylinders for bulk goods, but if you already have items at home that serve this purpose, you do not need to go out of your way to buy new products! By buying new items for the sake of having that zero waste “feel” at home and when you go out, and getting rid of something perfectly good, you are not practicing zero waste.

Have you heard of the phrase, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Think of this principle when you embark on your zero waste journey.

Recycling EVERYTHING.

We all want to be Lauren Singer, “the girl with the trash jar” as she calls herself. We can get ambitious with the items we want to divert from the landfills and decide we want to recycle anything and everything. Growing up, I was taught to recycle: blue bin meant glass, plastic, and metals, and green bin meant paper and cardboard. What I did not know was that certain products of each material were accepted by my recycling facility until I visited the SIMS Municipal Facility this year.

To learn what can be recycled in NYC, visit this page. And when in doubt, throw it out. It is better not to contaminate the recycling collection with a questionable item!

Being zero waste is not a perfect science and even the most experienced individuals who have been practicing zero waste can get it wrong sometimes. If you have made any of these mistakes, do not be too hard on yourself! Continue to learn from the zero waste community and achieve the low impact lifestyle you wish to have.

How to Encourage Sustainability in Your Office

Many of us work in organizations/companies whose missions vary greatly – some may be lucky enough to work for an organization that puts the environment at the center and focuses its efforts on promoting sustainability. If your organization does not actively work toward this, here are five ways that you can foster sustainability practices and norms in your office.

Bring your own ___________.

I have had years of experience bringing lunch from home, so I have no problem bringing lunch to work in my own reusable containers. This saves me money in the long run when I meal prep, and I also save on the containers that would normally be used for takeout.

The National Coffee Association conducted a study and found that on average 64% of Americans drink a cup of coffee a day. Just think about how many disposable coffee cups are being used at the minimum for a second: there are over 327 million people in the US, so after you crunch the numbers, that is more than 209 million cups being used and thrown away every day! Just imagine the difference it makes to bring your own drink tumbler to purchase your coffee in the morning, or better yet, make your coffee at home and put it in a good ol’ mug!

Shopping deal: use code CB-WEL19 for 20% off on a reusable tumbler at Reduce Everyday!

Opt for “green” office supplies.

We are not at the point yet where we can be completely paper-free, and some people like the ability to write things down, or print things out when they attend meetings. Instead of purchasing virgin printing paper or notepads, purchase recycled printing paper and office supplies.

If your office has a kitchen, take advantage of and use the reusable dishware and utensils! There is no need to use the disposable options (and better yet, request your office administrator to stop buying disposable options altogether).

Save electricity.

How many people are in your office, and how many computers are running on any given workday? Computers can eat up a lot of electricity, so when you leave for the day, put your computer on sleep mode or shut it off.

In addition to computers, lights are always on during work hours! While we can’t shut them off in the shared workspace, we can all do our parts to turn off the lights after leaving a meeting room or phone booth.

Think about food.

Okay, you might be wondering, how do I encourage sustainability practices and norms through food? But think about when your office gets catering for special events. How often do you get handfuls of disposable plates and utensils? Sometimes catering is unavoidable, so make sure you put in the request to decline any utensils and dishware the next time you have to order catering, especially if you have it in your office.

So we’ve covered containers and now we’ve covered dishware and utensils, but what about leftover food, specifically food scraps and other organic waste? Does it end up in the regular trash because there is no compost collection service in your office? (Do you see where I’m going here?) Talk with your office administrator to see if compost collection services are available and being utilized in your building; if it currently isn’t adopted throughout the building, a small step is to advocate for compost collection services in your own office. It might take some time (working with overcoming the fear of pests and odor, as well as allocating budget for this recurring service), but don’t give up! I am still gently nudging my colleagues to get composting in my organization.

Some suggestions to look into if you live in NYC: Common Ground Compost (traditional composting) or Vokashi (using the bokashi method for fermenting your organic waste)

Create community norms in your office.

Change starts with you. If no one has started getting people on the sustainability train yet, it’s your cue to be the conductor. I organized a recycling 101 brown bag session with my friend from GrowNYC and my colleagues LOVED it (I need to do one again!), implemented a contacts blister pack collection system to send to TerraCycle to recycle, for starters (my coworkers enjoy bringing in their discards too!).

Some of my colleagues now bring in their items they want to donate instead of throwing items into the trash, which I love! And another colleague specifically set aside time with me so she could get some tips for phasing out plastic use in her home.

While change does not happen overnight, setting an example and taking initiative can lead to some surprisingly good results.

What are some sustainability initiatives you started in your office?