Simplicity: The Path to Zero Waste

With the average American producing nearly 4.5 pounds of trash per day, we should all be looking for tips to reduce our wasteful habits. By now we’ve probably all heard about ways we can reduce our consumption, but why don’t these new habits stick around or even get a foothold to begin with? 

First, we have to understand that our modern lifestyle has been overrun by quick consumption and cheap goods. We’ve become distracted by the constant stream of information and extraneous products that flood both our tangible and intangible spaces. Nearly everything we purchase is wrapped, packaged, and boxed in some sort of (probably) unrecyclable, plastic-based material. The designers and manufacturers of all this stuff purposefully design items to be thrown away because they believe it’s a cheaper and a more “convenient” method. And of course, when we toss what we’ve consumed into the trash, we don’t have to see it any longer. The process keeps us disconnected.

The practice of reducing our waste stream should be apart of our daily life. Not another thing to add to our to-do list. That is why I believe that making less trash really starts before we start bringing our own bags and coffee cups to the grocery store or local coffee shop. The process starts with simplicity. But what does simplicity have to do with making trash?

When it comes to making less trash, simplicity is one of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle. With simplicity, we disengage from the constant feeling of being overwhelmed by our relationships with things. We disengage from the throw-away mentality because we end up investing in what we truly need. When we apply the idea of simplicity we bring meaning and value into our things, and we become less overwhelmed with our belongings. We also tend to put experiences before stuff as well. 

Through simplicity you realize what you need and value, rather than what you want. It’s an intentional and mindful reevaluation of our consumer habits, and this correlates to a whole lot less trash.  

For me, simplicity is a process of continually fine-tuning the balance of life. It gives us space and provides contentment without needing much in return. It is a continual process of editing relationships (both people & things) and learning what is needed to happily maintain life. This means simplicity is going to look different for everyone, so don’t ever compare yourself to others. The main ideas of simplicity are finding value and meaning in what you posses and what you choose to posses. Much of how we consume is impulse-based consumption, but the route of simplicity takes us on a more mindful decision making pathway. 

Simplicity in Food:

Less packaged foods, less processed and fast foods. Because of simplicity we move away from needless spending and products (imagine never again having to buy: paper towels, sponges, plastic sandwich bags, processed foods, and trash bags!) 

It allows us to become more resourceful, thrifty, and gives us challenges to make do with what you have. You’re a pioneer in the modern world!

A pressure cooker can make substantial Zero Waste meals from a few chopped veggies and beans to feed a family of 4 for mere dollars. Playing with different spices can make the same base of veggies taste entirely different! They’re also quick, easy, and delicious meals made for less, and because you’re no longer buying so much of everything else, your money can go into more unprocessed and unpackaged foods.

And remember this, 15% of the cost of packaged foods is just for the packaging itself! So when you buy unprocessed foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, etc... from bulk) you save money right from the start! 

Conscious Shopping:

Not so long ago in our American culture, the idea of throwing something out was not considered normal. In fact, products were designed to last and be repaired. We had value and meaning in our possessions. We weren’t overflowing with goods and cheap materials. If your socks had a hole in them you mended them. Today you’d just toss them and go get a bag of new socks. Making meals out of leftovers was considered a form of art and mastery, but today, we discard them for the trash.

Many of the products we currently consume are actually purposefully designed to be tossed within a few years - or even a few weeks.  When our material belongings have more meaning and value to us we are much more likely to take care of them and repair them. And when this is the case we produce less waste. 

We’re all guilty at one time or another for buying something we didn’t need. Simplicity teaches us to be mindful of our consumer habits and to rethink what we truly need, what we will enjoy, and what we will actually use for the long haul. Doing so we cut back on unwanted goods & packaging that will end up in the landfill. Instead, we wait and save for something that will last us, for items that are repairable, multifunctional, and reusable. All that clutter in our closets and drawers means one thing: feeling overwhelmed! When we start to edit our belongings we become less overwhelmed by our things. When approaching a lifestyle of less waste our aim is to feel less overwhelmed and claiming simplicity as our partner will constantly remind us to do just that. 

Experiences over Stuff:

Our Western culture tends to spend a lot of time consuming. There is nothing wrong with consuming in and of itself, but what we need more understanding of is why we are consuming in the first place. To me, appreciating the little things is developing a more intimate relationship with the simpler things in life: Grabbing a cup of tea or coffee with a friend; sitting quietly in nature; coloring with our kids; making dinner with friends; the list could go on. Appreciate all of the details that happen everyday that most of the time would have been overlooked. These tiny experiences often don’t come with price tags or waste! 

Consumer & Community Power:

In order to shift our consumer culture from one of waste-based to Zero Waste-based we have to shift how industry designs and manufactures goods. Here are a few tips to flex our consumer power! 

Let companies know you want better design and packaging. You can do this by sending an email, calling, or my favorite, using social media to get their attention.
Invest locally. Shop, eat, discover, and support your community. 
Create weekly challenges for yourself or your family. For example: plan on a week each month for not consuming anything new. Or one day a week to make no trash! 
Making less trash may seem daunting at first, but when you apply the idea of  simplicity, you can take your life of less waste into a something you live rather than something else you have to do. 

About the author of this post:
Andrea Sanders lives in Boulder, Colorado and is the founder and director of Be Zero, a non-profit with a mission to inspire, educate and activate individuals to rethink their trash and plastic footprint and lead simple and sustainable zero waste lifestyles. Learn more about Andrea and her mission at She shares daily zero-waste inspiration on Instagram @BeZeroWasteGirl