Who knew 2020 would be a great time to start going zero waste and take small steps to reduce your waste stream? We’ve all spent a lot more time at home, and although it drove us crazy at times, it also provided the opportunity to experiment with some zero waste changes to our routine. Because we’ve slowed down, we’ve really started to notice the impact of some of our daily activities. Even though this home-lifestyle won’t last forever, there are lots of new habits we have created that we will continue to carry with us in our daily lives.
Tips to reduce your waste stream
1. Reusable straws, napkins and utensils with takeout
First, we dug out those reusable straws that we had never touched before. Bring your own reusable straws always sounded like a good idea but in reality… definitely harder to put into practice than it sounds. We were gifted a set of reusable straws several years back but had honestly never used them. It’s not easy to just carry around a metal straw. How do you clean it on the go? And I personally am a little grossed out by the idea of keeping it in my purse – it’s probably not the cleanest place to keep something you will put your mouth on. I just never did try it.
BUT, because there is a lot more takeout in our lives now, we have started requesting our takeout meals without straws, utensils or napkins. Eating takeout at home creates the perfect opportunity to experiment with reusable straws. There’s no commitment to storing or cleaning a straw on the go and you don’t even need to remember to pack it on your way out the door. All we do now, is when we are in the drive through, we simply ask for no straws. When we get home, we grab a straw and that’s that!
Cleaning the straws is easy – we have stainless steel straws that are dishwasher safe, but most of the time we wash them by hand. They generally come with a scrub tool that fits the inside of the straw. Once you get into the habit it becomes second nature to ask for no straw. This was a very quick win to reducing waste and I challenge you to give it a try! I love these things so much I purchased an extra set of smaller reusable straws for cocktails. If asking for no straw with your takeout order is not your thing, trust me – the cocktail straw is!
Since we already have all of these things at home, all we have to do is remember to ask for restaurants to not include these items to make a dent in our waste stream.
2. Brew at home: Save money and reduce your waste stream
I have never been a coffee drinker, and when I do treat myself to the occasional trip to Starbucks, a chai latte is my go-to. My husband on the other hand, needs his coffee to function. Pre-2020, he would frequent either Starbucks, or lately Dunkin’, on his morning commute. Now, while he still goes out for the occasional morning coffee, he has definitely become much more acquainted with his home brewed options – this has been a huge factor in our waste stream reduction.
My husband loves gadgets and has just about every type of coffee making machine out there. But during this time, he has found the option he likes the best and ran with it. The first great thing about making coffee at home is the cost savings. $4 doesn’t sound like a lot each day but it adds up big time! Making that coffee at home is a huge plus for the pocketbook.
The waste benefits come secondarily and happen without really trying. Think about how many times you drink coffee out of a disposable cup. Now imagine all the folks in your office that bring coffee to work in a disposable cup, multiply that by all the departments at your workplace, multiplied by number of offices in your town, city, state and country. And we are definitely not the only country addicted to coffee! That’s a lot of cups.
By opting to save money and become your own barista, you are helping to reduce tons of waste produced by disposable cups. Turns out making your own coffee is healthier too because there is a lot less sugar in homemade coffee than the one you would pick up on the go. My husband has a favorite mug that he likes to drink from, and I encourage you to find a cup/mug/thermos that you love and fill it up whenever you want a cup of coffee. Drinking a warm drink out of your favorite mug makes the whole experience a lot better!
3. Use a refillable mug for coffee shop coffee
If you truly can’t get away from coffee shop coffee, bringing a refillable mug with to the coffee shop is an easy way to avoid the waste produced from the disposable cups. The recyclability, or the not so recyclability, of disposable coffee cups is hard to ignore. First, if the cup is made from Styrofoam, it’s pretty much impossible to recycle. Styrofoam, which is plastic #6, is probably one of the worst materials to have in your waste stream. It does not melt down like other plastics and cannot be mixed in with other recyclables. Most waste haulers do not accept this type of material because they do not have the right processing equipment to handle it.
Next, paper cups seem easier to recycle because they are paper, but these cups also cannot be recycled. First, the paper cup is not truly paper. It has a thin lining of another material in order to make the paper liquid-proof so it doesn’t start to disintegrate while you are holding it in your hand. Since the cup is a mix of materials, the recycle facility cannot separate these materials during recycling processing. Recyclables need to be sorted into groups of like materials to be processed. That’s really the only reason we need here but there are a few other important recycling tips that should be mentioned.
In order to recycle something, that item needs to be clean and free of liquid. Recyclables all get mixed together while in transit to the sorting facility. If an item is dirty or full of liquid, it can contaminate other materials it comes in contact with while in transit. One of the main issues here is liquid contamination on paper or cardboard. Paper and cardboard become less recyclable if they are wet, so in order to maximize the recyclability of all of our items, we need to make sure no liquid or other contamination is being added into the mix.
All that said, you can go ahead and recycle the cardboard sleeve and the plastic top of the hot drink cup. If you have a cold drink, make sure the cup is empty and clean (no ice, whipped cream or chocolate swirl residue), recycle the cup and the lid, but toss that plastic straw. But really the best option here is to avoid having to sort through what’s recyclable and what isn’t and just use your reusable cup at home instead. It’s important to think through all of the different aspects of the items you use everyday and how that could impact your waste stream. Small changes in your daily routine can make a big difference.