Beginner’s Guide to Sustainable Living: Zero Waste Principles for Green Living
Last updated: September 2021
Sustainable living means a variety of things to many people. To some, it might mean a zero-waste life style. To others, it means growing a garden to feed your own family or community. Keep reading to understand what sustainable living is, why we could all be a bit more sustainable, and how sustainable living can help you improve your life.
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Sustainable Living and Ecological Wellness
I can remember the first time I heard the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Can you?
I’m sure by now many have heard of the idea of sustainable living and ecological wellness. I believe that within the past ten years, there has been a shift in the people’s mindset about our values. Today, more and more people believe that “saving the environment” is a necessary responsibility that all humans hold.
While I am not the picture of environmental activism and I don’t eat vegan, I do believe that I am responsible for being a good steward of the resources I’ve been given (i.e. the earth). And that part of being a good steward means treating things with care, not wasting resources, and choosing to conserve when I can.
So, even if you’re not in to protesting, living on a farm, or changing your whole diet, you can still make small changes daily that serve a larger impact.
Sustainable living, zero waste living, low waste living, being green – whatever you want to call it – is a very attainable and worthwhile goal to aspire towards regardless of your current way of life.
What is sustainable living?
Sustainable living is the choice to respect the environment, community, and your own personal health so much that you choose behaviors to create as low of an impact as possible.
Respect for yourself, others, and your resources is the key.
If something is sustainable, you can keep it functioning. Sustainable living means that you are promoting the functioning of our earth and communities, while still meeting your own personal needs.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that promotes your wellness, the health of the community you live in, and the continuation of the earth.
Reduce Your Impact
One of the main ideas of sustainable living is the idea that you are able to reduce your negative impact on this earth. AND that if everyone were to make small changes in their behaviors, we would see a great change.
Now, I don’t believe that everything humans do leaves a negative impact on the earth, but I do believe that many of our current day society’s actions do.
Consider the trash in our oceans, on the sides of the road, or the air quality that we’ve polluted. All of these things are very real and have been caused by humans creating habits.
Trash in our ecosystems and air quality are things that directly affect our helath, as well as the health of the animals and wildlife around us. These factors should be considered in our journey to overall health.
My husband was a boy scout as a child, and one of their mantras is to “leave no trace” when camping. This is a great mindset to have when you’re camping in backcountry because any small changes to these environments can have detrimental effects. But this mindset can help in everyday living too.
Adopting the sustainable living mindset – respect for ourselves, others, and the environment – allows us to also adopt the goal of “leave no trace” or at minimum, attempt to leave reduced trace.
Reducing your impact starts with this mindset shift.
To those of you who have not yet jumped on the sustainable living bandwagon, consider recent research that demonstrates the prevalence of carcinogenic chemicals in our foods, body products, and home supplies. This isnt made up or unfounded, but there is actual long term research demonstrating the negative effects of these chemicals in our bodies.
You heard that right. We’ve actually been using harmful chemicals in every day life for so long (read: decades), that researchers have been able to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between the small, everyday exposures throughout a lifetime, and the negative effects when we’re older. Wow.
Think about how replacing dangerous chemicals with safer products might benefit our physical health!
Not only does the sustainable living mindset promote safer product usage, but it also promotes the betterment of our earth.
In the same way that personal health is more than just an absence of symptoms, health of the earth is more than just an absence of problems. We should be aiming to improve our earth, not just plateau, and certainly not decline (i.e., what we are doing now in our non-green society).
Why NOT help the environment?
Some people that I know find it crazy that I don’t use paper towels and that I haven’t bought plastic baggies since college. My husband included.
My husband would gladly use six paper towels when a cloth would do, as I’m sure many other people would.
When we engage in behaviors like this (e.g., wasting paper towels) we show others that we value convenience and routine over respect.
However, in today’s world, sustainable choices are often times just as convenient as the conventional choice.
Here’s an example: While I choose to use a homemade detergent because it’s cheaper (check out the detergent I use – One batch cost $20 and lasted multiple years!), you can purchase laundry detergents without harmful chemicals just as easily today as the mainstream brands.
- Seventh Generation Liquid Laundry Detergent
- Mrs. Myer’s Liquid Laundry Detergent
- Molly’s Suds Detergent Powder
While you totally can make your own products at home, have a farm, etc., sustainable living can be more convenient and easy than you might think.
When we as consumers start choosing the products that are better for our bodies and the environment more often, more and more producers will begin to make these products even more accessible and convenient to access and choose.
Adopting a sustainable living mindset helps both you and the environment and requires minimal changes on your part in today’s world.
Sustainable Living Principles
While many people talk about sustainable living in terms of what product can you buy, we’re going to address the issue in terms of guiding principles.
It’s more helpful for me to tell you why you should use a stainless steel straw rather than just giving you links to websites you can purchase them.
This is a mindset shift, not just a trendy choice.
You can make whatever changes you want given these principles, and they explain why you might change detergents or quit paper towels, or start growing your own food.
Knowing the guiding principles of sustainable living can help you make intentional and independent, choices that best fits the health of your own family and the environment.
1. Reduce Your Waste & Choose Re-Usable
The first principle we’re going to address is reducing your own waste by limiting single-use items and choosing re-usable when you can.
Many people like to call this the zero-waste lifestyle. Not only is “zero waste” an unrealistic goal, but it also deters many people from starting the sustainable living journey. So instead of using the terms “zero waste” or “no waste” or “waste free”, we’re just going to talk about a reduction of waste.
Now, reducing your personal waste might look like a few small changes, or it could look like a complete overhaul. Your version of waste reduction is up to you and your own needs!
Some of the more common ways touted to reduce waste are drinking from reusable mugs, shopping second hand, mending your clothing, and buying in bulk.
For me, I’ve been shopping second hand and mending clothing for a while, but maybe sewing isn’t your thing. You could either choose to learn, or choose to make sustainable choices in other areas instead.
I don’t have the option of buying in bulk where I live, and I don’t always plan ahead with my own mug when I decide to go to a coffee shop on the way to work. But I find other ways to reduce my waste, like forgoing paper towels in favor of cloth.
One of the best ways to figure out what you could be reusing instead of throwing away is to pay attention to what you put in the trash. If you don’t drink coffee, buying a reusable coffee mug to replace the plastic and paper mugs that you’re trashing would be a waste of money.
However, if you’re a coffee addict and you notice that you throw one, maybe even two(!), plastic and paper coffee mugs away each day, then this would certainly be an impactful change for you.
Pay attention to what you throw away, note the patterns, and make one intentional change to start.
2. Take Care of What You Have
Taking care of what you have is probably the most underrated sustainable living principle, but it certainly can be impactful.
Think about it. If you bought something new every time it was advertised to you, you would have so many wasteful items in your home that never get used.
Just because the things we have are old, or even just no longer new, does not mean that we need to throw them away and get newer versions.
Perhaps a prime example of buying new items even when old items work just fine is the cellphone. Modern day society tells us that we must purchase the newest version of whatever phone we want, just because companies have started producing a newer version.
I currently have a Samsung S7 and it works just fine. I don’t need to purchase whichever version was produced this year because I take good care of my 2016 phone. I’m careful not to spill things on it, or drop it and crack the screen.
Now, I do realize that accidents happen. But for the most part, if we were more intentional about caring well for the things we have, they would last much longer and we wouldn’t need to purchase new ones.
Part of this idea might even be washing your clothes according to the label. I know I’m guilty of this! As a college student, I threw everything into the same wash. While I’ve improved my laundry routine since then, I still have a tendency not to pay attention to the wash cycle instructions on my clothes. But you can drastically improve the life of you clothes by following the instructions. By taking care of your clothes, you will buy new versions less often.
Taking care of what you have means valuing your opportunity to own the item, and recognizing the item as irreplaceable, rather than flippantly getting a new one every time it gets faded or a new scratch.
What are some ways you can extend the life of your current items and take care of what you have?
3. Be Mindful of the Resources You Use
Being mindful of the resources that you use can promote ecological health, but also can help you reach your own personal wellness goals.
When I was a child and didn’t have to pay a water bill, I took LONG showers. We’re talking twenty, thirty minutes.
But now that I’m an adult, I realize that taking long, hot showers is wasteful not only of water, but also energy AND puts some extra monetary strain on my bank account.
Noticing how our choices affect our health – be it physical, financial, or ecological health – is being mindful of the resources we already use.
Pay attention to what your behaviors say about your ecological values.
- Do you value reducing fossil fuel use? If so, maybe you take a moment to turn out the lights in a room you’re no longer in, or unplug an appliance that you’re no longer using.
- Do you value reducing emissions into the atmosphere? If so, maybe you take fewer trips in your car, or combine all of your errands on one day rather than five.
These are some common examples, but you’ll need to examine your own life to really make a difference.
Where are you using more than your fair share of water, energy, or even food? What are some ways that you could cut back or eliminate mindless resource use?
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4. Make Conscious Choices to Avoid Toxins
If you’re buying conventional products off of any store shelf, you are likely exposing yourself and the environment to harmful chemicals.
There are harmful chemicals like phthalates, BPA, triclosan, parabens, PEG, and formaldehyde, among others, in plastic containers, body care products, canned food, menstruation products, cleaning supplies, detergents and dish washes, and even mattresses and furniture.
Basically, harmful chemicals are almost everywhere in our products. And as we discussed earlier, small exposure might not be harmful, but small exposures daily, over a lifetime have been shown to be detrimental to human health.
So, what can you do? Well, part of this sustainable living lifestyle is purchasing products that are toxin-free.
Notice, this is the first time I’ve explicitly mentioned that you should change your purchasing patterns.
I don’t believe that to be sustainable you should throw all of your “non-sustainable” products away and buy new, trendy items. That would be totally bonkers and very much against sustainable living principles!
But, when it comes to these household and body care items, I do believe that it’s important you buy new, more sustainable choices the next time around.
Here are some of the purchases I’ve made in my own home to be more sustainable and promote a toxin-free or toxin-reduced lifestyle. I’m careful to find products that aren’t just greenwashing (using packaging to make you think it’s better than it is) and that won’t break the bank. You all know I’m all about reducing monetary waste too 😉
Click through these and find the best low-toxin products for your sustainable living lifestyle!
5. Attempt to Improve Your Environment
Finally, it’s time to focus on improving your ecological health.
While the previous principles have involved, for the most part, small and simple changes, improving the environment goes a step beyond.
To improve the environment you live in, you’re going to have to give back.
Often, this looks like growing your own food, composting, or installing re-usable energy sources. Each of these ideas strives to make the environment you use better than when you found it.
Instead of using foods from big-agro companies, you’ve grown veggies in your own backyard or herbs on your windowsill. Rather than letting your egg shells and banana peels rot in the landfill, you’ve created nutrient-rich compost for your veggies. Instead of putting greater emphasis on the fossil fuel industry, you’ve chosen to use sunlight when you can, and harvest your own water through a rain barrel.
These suggestions are a great place to start once you’ve adopted the other sustainable living guiding principles, but there are many other ways to improve your environment not mentioned here that might be applicable for you too.
If you are interested in starting any of these practices to improve your environment, I’ve provided some great resources here that I’ve personally used on my sustainable living journey!
- 12 Best Herbs to Grow Indoors
- 22 Food Scraps That Magically Regrow
- How to Grow Your Own Food, Even if You Live in an Apartment
- The Best Guide to Container Gardening
- Your Full Guide to Apartment Composting
- How to Make a $10 DIY Compost Bin for Your Garden
- This is the Easiest Way to Save Rain Water
- DIY Rain Barrel – Sized for an Apartment
There you have it. A beginner’s guide to sustainable living. If you follow these sustainable living principles, or even adopt just one, and make intentional choices to promote these values, you can make a lasting impact on your earth and your own personal health.
Sustainable living doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. You can start wherever and however you need to.
If you’d like more ideas on specific changes you can make in your home to be more sustainable, check out my post All Natural Home: Make Eight Simple Changes for Huge Improvements. In this post, I give specific changes you can make in every room in your house to be more sustainable and improve your own health.
If you’re thinking about ways you can combine reducing your impact on the environment AND your pocket book, check out my post How to Save Money on Groceries: Spend only $35/week!. I talk about ways you can reduce food waste, such as meal planning and eating leftovers.
Let me know what changes you’ve made in your life to improve your health, your family’s health, and the health of the environment in the comments below! I love hearing from you guys and get inspired by your progress!
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Disclaimer: Although I am a mental health professional, I am not YOUR mental health professional. The information provided on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and using this website does not establish a counselor-client relationship, or constitute provision of mental health services. I am not responsible for any damages resulting from your use of the content on this site, as the information provided does not substitute for collaboration with a health professional. Please consult with your health professional before making changes to your health regimen.