Living a busy life often means we are running from here to there, with lots of fast choices made for the sake of convenience.
Lunches out, grabbing a bottle of water before spin class, purchasing a new sweater from Target to change into on our way to a spontaneous movie date… these are all examples of the waste of convenience.
When we don’t prepare ahead of time, it’s all too easy to simply ‘buy something’ or ‘grab it to-go’ and end up with extra plastic, paper, cardboard, and items we won’t use again. To-go cups and straws fill up trash cans. And did you know most of those fast fashion clothes you donate after wearing once end up in a landfill?
If you’ve heard of zero waste, you may already have an opinion on the movement. Bloggers are putting their year’s worth of trash in a mason jar, swearing off shopping at the mall, and throwing major shade at the person carrying a plastic bag from the grocery store.
We don’t have to take it so far!
Instead of alienating anyone for their appreciation of convenience, I’ve compiled a few super easy swaps + tips for reducing waste without getting crazy. Here’s how to still live your life while reducing your impact on the environment.
How to reduce your on-the-go waste
We are all busy, often all day long. We make choices on the fly that seem necessary, but with a seriously tiny bit of planning, we can avoid a mountain of waste. Here are a few examples of places you can make an easy swap for significantly less waste.
Grabbing a takeaway coffee on your way to work.
Paper coffee cups with plastic lids and straws are filling up garbage cans everywhere. How often do you break down your cup into its individual recyclable parts, and then find the right receptacles for them?
An easy swap is to grab a reusable coffee cup or mason jar with a heat-protective sleeve. Or, if iced coffee is your preference, a cup or jar with space for a reusable straw will do the trick.
When choosing a replacement cup, look for something with insulation. Paper cups are disappointing in that they tend to disintegrate a bit as your beverage rapidly loses temperature, so not only will you be saving the environment, but you’ll be having a hotter, cozier drink in the morning.
The hard part is remembering to bring your cup! The night before, pack your work bag, purse, or briefcase with your cup so when you arrive to the coffee shop, you can save them the trouble of using paper. You can buy multiples (stainless steel vessels aren’t expensive!) so you can always have one ready even if another one needs washing.
What about the muffin, biscuit, or breakfast sandwich you grab on the fly?
Carrying a plastic or glass container just for your morning muffin can be kind of a bulky pain. A cloth napkin or folding sandwich pouch will work just as well, and will reduce a significant amount of trash in the form of to-go containers, wrappers, and more.
Before you order, just tell the server that you have your own to-go container. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and that’s okay. We aren’t going for perfection, but you’ll find that the places who are willing to work with you will be the places you return to.
Buying lunch from the food truck or from the cafe down the street.
Food trucks could be the best thing that has ever happened… except the planet. When you order food from a mobile unit, you’re often equipped with a paper plate or styrofoam box, set of cutlery with napkin, and tiny sauce cups or packets.
Just like with your morning pastry, you can bring a to-go container from home and ask to have your lunch served there.
Even better, bring your lunch from home in a reusable glass container. This will help reduce waste, of course, but you’ll also eat healthier. Restaurant food always has far more fat and calories than the food we make at home; plus, your meal will cost significantly less.
Of course, we all love eating out from time to time. And maybe the food truck won’t use your Pyrex to-go dish. That’s okay. Again, this isn’t about being a perfect zero-waste model.
It is about trying your best. Be conscious of the waste that comes along with your to-go options, and start being more proactive about how you can circumvent that waste through smarter choices.
Making your office a little less wasteful
Work may be one of the most difficult places to reduce waste, especially if your job has nothing to do with office administration or being in a leadership role. And we all know how hard it is to get co-workers on board with literally anything.
The best advice for reducing waste at work and anywhere in your life is this: lead by example.
Disposing of materials in the office trash.
Depending on your municipality’s recycling capabilities, you have the opportunity to keep a lot out of your office trash can. We all know about recycling paper, aluminum cans, and other basics that we learned about in elementary school. But did you know there are many more recyclable categories? What about compost and food waste?
Look up your city’s waste management services and find out what you can recycle and compost in your office. Take it upon yourself to bring in recycling bins for new categories of items, and help your team implement better practices.
If your office isn’t already responsibly disposing of things like batteries and printer cartridges, look into receptacles and recycling centers for those items too.
You don’t want to come in and start bossing people around. Remember you are here to lead by example; you want people to *want* to start making smarter choices. The best way to do that is to just make it easy for them.
Create signage clearly explaining what goes in what receptacle, and make sure to check in on the system from time to time, especially when it’s new. Be open and friendly when talking to people about it, so it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to shame or punish them.
How to reduce your grocery waste and food waste at home
How often do you walk into the grocery store, get through the entirety of your shopping, only to discover you’ve left your reusable bag in your car, at home, a friend’s house… Beyond bringing a bag, there’s more waste to be mitigated in all of your shopping excursions. Here’s how.
Bring your own bag – everywhere.
It’s pretty awesome to see so many folks with reusable bags at the supermarket lately, but what about the mall? Or the pharmacy? Or the restaurant, where we often end up with a collection of styrofoam to-go boxes bundled in a bright white plastic bag?
Keeping a super-compact reusable bag (like the nylon kind that stuff down to be smaller than the palm of your hand) with you whenever you go out means you’ll never be stuck needing to use a plastic bag.
Consider replacing the disposables with reusables.
A few disposables that tripped me up forever were produce bags, bulk bags, and spice jars.
Buying grains, cereals, and treats in bulk saves tons of money and often ensures you’re getting fresher food, but those bulk bags are hard to avoid. They’re that thin plastic that can’t be reused for much else, but you definitely don’t want to keep your grains in there long-term. Same with produce bags. You can keep your produce in them in the fridge, but going without a bag will cause your greens to wilt almost instantly.
Making a small investment in reusable produce and bulk bags can save you the waste and the necessity of taking more twist-ties home. You could package your bulk in jars straight at the store, but make sure you write the tare value of the container clearly on it – even when using your bag – so the cashier doesn’t charge you for the weight of your vessel.
What about spice jars? Plenty of grocers are beginning to carry bulk spice options. Instead of throwing out the glass or plastic jar when you’ve finished the spice, or you’ve had them longer than a year (in which case they’re no longer as fresh!), consider taring the package and refilling your spice straight into your container. It might not seem like much, but those tiny jars add up over time!
Specifically with groceries: date your purchases + plan your meals.
There’s nothing worse than doing a stellar grocery shopping and then a week later, finding a third of your purchases stuffed in the back of the fridge, slowly withering away.
And, you know that feeling when you pick something up – something you made or something you bought that doesn’t have an expiry date – and you wonder, “Will this be good? Should I even try?”
Dating your food with a sharpie or label maker will help tremendously when it comes to food waste.
If you’re not yet a meal planner, simply putting specific recipes or meals on your calendar can help reduce what you throw away, because you know when you’re planning on using everything you’ve bought. When it comes to single items and leftovers, knowing the date they were added to the fridge or made will help you plan the distribution of leftovers and help you get to Fridge Inbox 0, or close to it, by the week’s end.
How to clean up and back up your digital life
Just because it’s digital and it isn’t taking up “physical” space, doesn’t mean your digital clutter isn’t making waste. How long do you spend looking for documents and photos? How easy is it for you to navigate your desktop?
At some point or another, we develop “our way” of organizing our data. Sometimes, we need a little push to take it to a better functional level, and to put our digital sphere at ease.
By organizing your digital space, you reduce your time wasted online duplicating work and hunting for necessities.
Clean out your email inboxes and unsubscribe your way to daily inbox 0.
If you read Ink+Volt often, you’ve heard me preach about Unroll.me. There is nothing better for your inbox, and it’s free. Instead of unsubscribing from each single newsletter, bits of junk here and there, and tons of emails from “notification” services, you can unsubscribe with a single click down a list of every single sender who has your email address. The ones you want to keep can be “rolled up” into a daily digest that comes to you at your chosen specified time and you can click the individual messages you want to read at your leisure.
After unsubscribing and rolling up your remaining messages, head into your inbox and clean house.
Set aside an hour or two to create folders for certain kinds of emails (personal, specific work projects, etc) and then moving messages you need to keep into those folders. Too many of us use our inbox as a to-do list. Instead, you should add action items you receive by email to a real to-do list, reply if needed, and then file the message away in an appropriate folder.
Delete anything you no longer need. Un-flag messages you flagged that no longer need attention, and file them away into the right folder.
Any emails that remain should only be the ones that require your reply. Block off time every day to tackle the emails that need your response, rather than replying piecemeal throughout the day. You’ll save time and write better messages because you’ll be focused on just one job.
The amount of time we waste each day sifting through emails, reading distracting marketing emails, and trying to find messages we flagged six months ago can be mitigated generously by keeping a clutter-free inbox.
Make sure you’re backing up your data regularly – and that you’re not backing up unnecessary data.
Anything you wouldn’t want to lose is worth backing up – and backing up neatly. Imagine your computer dies tomorrow. What will you freak out about? That’s what you need to back up — and back it up now.
Doing regular, weekly computer backups is a best-practice for anyone using their technology to create, work, or store memories. If going through your documents folder is like walking into a dumpster fire, setting aside a few hours to organize it can save you a major headache and tons of time in the future.
Best practices for organizing your data:
- Organize photos by date, starting with the year, month, and the event or name of the ‘folder’ containing a group of photos.
- Organize documents by theme, by date, by job or project, and by type. Sometimes, document folders contain PDFs, images, documents, spreadsheets, etc. Keep your space organized in the way that makes the most sense to you, keeping in mind how you hunt for files when you need something.
- Only keep on your computer’s hard drive what you access regularly. If you have an external hard drive or a cloud storage subscription, keep your hard drive fairly clean by letting most of your data live outside your computer. This might even make your computer faster, saving time while you use your regular programs.
- Grabbing a desktop wallpaper that has special squares for folder organization may help you find your organizational style.
Clean up and organize your screens.
I briefly touched on organizing your desktop screen in the bulleted list above, and I’m here to remind you to, organize your phone and tablet screens as well. Looking over my friends’ shoulders, I’m sometimes shocked by how disorganized their phone screen is. They’re constantly searching for apps they use daily among dozens of apps they never use.
Take inventory of your apps (and computer software), immediately uninstalling the ones you never use. That game you downloaded and never played again? Delete it. You can always reinstall if you want. You probably won’t.
Once you’ve rid your phone and tablet of the applications you never use, assess the remaining apps – do any themes emerge?
The themes I use in my phone to keep my screen organized:
- Daily – where I put my weather, money, health, investment, meal planning, meditation, work schedule, and Amazon Prime apps.
- Social media – which is fairly self-explanatory, but does not include Facebook or Twitter. I save those for browser use only, so I don’t get sucked into my phone.
- Office – reserved for Google Drive, marketing-related or client service, and productivity apps.
- Photography – some of the apps in this folder aren’t used often, but when I find a new photography app to try, I store it in here for later experimentation.
- Finance – all of my banking and credit card account apps.
- Entertainment – home of games, Netflix, and online shopping.
- iApps – for those pesky apps that iPhone comes with that I literally never touch.
- Places – for travel, local navigation (beyond maps, which lives on my screen on its own), and outdoor fitness apps.
- Mind – where I keep my learning-focused apps like Audible, TED, SkyGuide, Countable, and more.
The apps I use every day, all the time, live on my screen. Maps, music streaming, email, Amazon, and a few others will always stand by themselves. But, I don’t put social media apps like Instagram out on their own because I don’t want to constantly feel the temptation to open and scroll.
Turn off all unnecessary notifications.
If you haven’t yet, turning off almost every single notification on your phone will change your brain. The distraction brought on by each vibration and banner on your screen may feel normal to you now, but it’s greatly diminishing your productivity.
Each time your train of thought is derailed by a notification, you’re tasked with addressing the notification, either following it through or swiping it away, and then trying to regain the focus you had before. In time, you no longer exist in a state of focus when working on something, because you’re subconsciously anticipating the next interruption.
The only notifications I receive are texts, calls, and my work email during certain hours (which you can set). When Do Not Disturb is turned on my iPhone, I only receive texts and calls from my ‘Favorites,’ list. This made my favorites list a little longer than I might have expected (to ensure I don’t miss certain important messages ever), but it also cut down on my phone pulling my attention away from the present and wasting my mental energy on a distraction.
Are there other places you find yourself dealing with unnecessary waste in life? Even if it isn’t something physical going in the trash – anything not used for its practical, positive purpose or that takes away from your daily experience is an unnecessary waste. How else do you mitigate waste in your daily life?