Before kids, I didn’t worry about my environmental impact very much. I took transit, lived in a tiny apartment and never filled my garbage bin enough for weekly pickup (read: single career woman who was never home). When I had kids, I developed anxieties about our planet and what state it will be left in for my children. Ironically, when I had kids was also the time our family became a waste-producing steamroller leaving a trail of destruction in our wake. I swiped a paper towel to clean up every spill. I kept a heavy arsenal of foods in plastic bags lovingly referred to as “snack packs” for car trips. Speaking of the car, we drove everywhere. Takeout containers paraded into our home each week, then paraded out as waste. Diapers piled up, garbage piled up, everything piled up. (Don’t get me started on the aftermath of our monthly Costco trips.) But with every much-needed coffee—in a disposable cup, of course—I heard a nagging voice. And it started to get to me. Overwhelmed by the piles of stuff in our house, I realized I was craving less clutter in my life—less garbage, less chaos, less stuff.
At the start of this year, we made a concerted effort to get our act together—no matter how tired we were from chasing two toddlers all day. Slowly, we made little changes and began to turn things around. We began spending way less time dealing with clutter, garbage and shopping—and we started saving money. The mental burden lifted and everything became more manageable. Okay, that’s a lie: Nothing is ever really manageable with two kids under four, but there was a significant shift toward less waste and less crap (minus the diapers—that crap still piled up).
Based on my own experience and the advice of experts, here are 25 small things you can do now to reduce household waste—even if you are exhausted.
1. Practise FIFO (First In, First Out)
When I spoke with Irene Ngo, head of culinary at HelloFresh, she taught me about FIFO. It’s a restaurant term, but it can also apply to the home. When unpacking groceries, shift the older foods to the front of the fridge, freezer or pantry and put new ones in the back. This helps to prevent clutter, and you’re more likely to use products before they expire.
2. Switch to paperless billing
Our account statements used to pile up at the front door (along with our kids’ artwork, notes from daycare and restaurant flyers). Spend one evening switching all of your billing to electronic. Make sure you move them to a “safe list” so they don’t get lost in a spam folder. When they come in, mark them as “important,” then uncheck them once they’re paid. Mark your calendar each month and deal with all of them at once. Clickety-click!
3. Swap your toothbrush
I’ve been following (read: Internet stalking) Katelin Leblond of PAREdown Home for some time and finally had a chance to meet with her at one of her workshops. Leblond, a mom of two, made it her lifestyle and business to live in a zero-waste household (yep, you read that right!). She told me about bamboo toothbrushes. Honestly, I had never considered my toothbrush to be an issue, but those plastic plaque fighters have short lifespans and end up in the landfill. First, take stock of your toothbrushes and use up what you have in the house, and save the old ones for cleaning jobs. When you are ready to purchase a new one, consider a compostable bamboo toothbrush. They work just the same and don’t end up in the landfill.
4. Buy secondhand clothing
Nicole Manek, one of my mom comrades in daycare pickup, makes a living transforming vintage items into stunning pieces. As the designer and curator for Life of Manek, she has seen the not-so-pretty insides of textile-waste processing plants. “I can tell you a huge amount of textile waste is children’s clothing,” she says. Manek buys secondhand clothes for her son whenever possible. “I make a point of teaching him that these things are new to us but have been used by others and we are helping our planet by reusing them. I also like to remind him that Rocky from Paw Patrol reuses things. Rocky has really upped the cool factor for recycling at our house.” Make thrifting a weekend adventure with the kids—it can be the ultimate scavenger hunt. Mom win!
5. Buy funny-looking produce
Many fruits and vegetables are thrown away by suppliers because of their odd sizes, shapes or colours. But real food doesn’t always come in perfect packages. Ngo doesn’t shy away from buying these items at farmers’ markets or grocery stores. “You’re educating your family that food comes in all sorts of fun shapes and sizes, and helping use up food that might otherwise be thrown out as waste.”
6. Make a questionables bin
If you’re unsure of how to dispose of something, or have batteries or bulbs that can be recycled but need to go to a special facility, put them in a bin and deal with them altogether once a year, suggests Leblond. That way you aren’t tempted to trash them improperly. When the year is over, you can deal with all of them, which will take far less time than disposing of batteries one by one.
7. Support sustainable takeout
Home-cooked meals are not going to happen every night. The reality of family life means you may need to order dinner. But when you opt for takeout, you’re likely to find yourself with an overwhelming amount of plastic containers afterward. I recently learned you cannot recycle black plastic. Ugh! That makes for a lot of waste. When you’re ordering, consider supporting restaurants that use compostable or entirely recyclable containers, and always leave a note that you don’t need cutlery and napkins. One bonus? You can stop feeling guilty about pizza—it comes in a compostable box! Want to take it to the next level? Leblond asks restaurants if she can bring in her own containers for takeout.
8. Change up your coffee game
Coffee cups are a pretty big offender of the one-use-disposal eco-crime. And they are NOT recyclable because of the coating on the inside of the cups (face palm). Invest in a travel mug if you are going to purchase single coffees. It can be as simple as a mason jar with a drinking lid and sleeve. (I’ve become a bit obsessed with mason jars.) Our family recently invested in a drip coffee machine and a pair of travel mugs. I can’t believe we didn’t do this years ago: We save so much money and I can literally drink coffee within 10 minutes of waking up.
9. Join buy-and-sell groups
You might be surprised that someone could be interested in that old Baby Bullet you never use anymore and will come to your house to pick it up and leave you money, but they are, and they will! When you sell something you don’t use anymore, you keep the item out of the landfill, you stop someone from having to buy new and you pocket some cash. Totally worth it! In addition to joining buy-and-sell groups, take advantage of resources in your city like tool-share programs.
10. Make the best diaper choice for your family
I had a plan of using cloth diapers, but my baby came early and I was caught off-guard with parenting, so it became priority zero. In my mind, you were either team cloth or team disposable. But today, there are a spectrum of choices. Maybe you use cloth diapers with disposable liners, make your own wipes or just try a more eco-friendly brand. Do what works best for you, keeping the environment in mind.
11. Avoid buying oversize packages
I’m a recovering addict of the giant membership stores, but Ngo points out: “As appealing as the lower price may be, it’s only worth it if you use it up in its entirety before it expires. Only purchase in high volume if the ingredient has a long shelf life.” Plus, a lot of those items are double or triple packaged. I make a point of looking for the least amount of packaging, but if you end up with a bunch of cardboard boxes, we have crafts for that!
12. Ditch squeeze packs
Those little squeeze packs of puréed fruit and veggies are convenient but sadly not recyclable through most municipal programs. Skip the squeezer and stick with classic fruit like bananas, which come in their own handy containers. If your tiny human is not ready to give up these handy packs, look into alternative recycling methods.
13. Extend the life of your clothing
Between grocery runs and playdates, drop torn or outgrown clothing off at a tailor for mending; even in the era of fast fashion, it’s still cheaper than buying new. Or try to do the sewing at home and save yourself the trip. Next time your kid sprouts a hole in his jeans, make these adorable heartfelt patches—you can totally do it yourself, and it takes less time than you think.
14. Bulk up
Buying foods in bulk minimizes the amount of overall packaging you consume. You can shop just a few times a year for dry goods. It’s cheaper, makes grocery shopping way less time consuming, and you’ll rarely run out. Bulk Barn has even introduced a reusable container program, so you can have a zero-waste shopping experience. High fives, Bulk Barn.
15. Carry a takeout kit
No time to pack your lunch? We get it. Keep a simple kit on hand for grabbing food on the go with less waste. Put cutlery and a cloth napkin in it to avoid using the disposable versions at grab-and-go restaurants. Bonus: The days of nerdy lunch containers are over, and now you can find many cute containers that are also light and compact.
16. Replace dryer sheets with reusable dryer balls
I never remembered to use dryer sheets to begin with, but Leblond makes a good case for switching to balls. “I use wool dryer balls sprayed with essential oils instead of dryer sheets,” she says. “Did you know that dryer balls actually reduce the drying time by soaking up water? We were a bit timer crazy when we first started using these and we noticed a drop in drying time between 10 and 25 percent, depending on the load.” Store-bought balls last for upwards of 500 washes, or you can make your own with wool you have stashed at home. This dryer ball DIY is at the top of my craft to-do list.
17. Use reusable bags—for produce too
It’s time to end the plastic bag madness. Get into the habit of bringing bags with you, and keep reusable produce bags with them, too. Still, you’re bound to forget sometimes. If you do, ask for boxes, which are a much more eco-friendly option.
18. Put a “no junk mail” sticker on your mailbox
I admit, it’s pretty cute when my preschooler gets excited about her “pizza letters,” but I’m constantly tossing these flyers. I also added “no solicitors” to my sticker. So far so good!
19. Ditch disposables in the kitchen
Paper towels, plastic wrap, paper napkins, sandwich bags, oh my! Use up your stash and quit buying them. Try using a silicone baking sheet in place of tinfoil or parchment. I now keep a big bowl of clean cloths on the counter that I use a few times, then throw into a laundry bin placed within reach. Manek buys cloth napkins from thrift stores. “My four-year-old feels very grown up using cotton napkins, although a lot of the time his shirt and pants win as the most-used napkin,” she says.
20. Shop your village
Don’t be afraid to approach parents and friends who have kids who are bigger than yours and make them offers on hand-me-downs. Manek says, “I did this with a boy in my son’s daycare, asking his mother if she would sell me his snowsuit when he outgrows it. I also befriended a woman whose son is a year younger than mine, so she gets all the stuff he’s outgrown.”
21. Use up the entire produce
Ngo recommends keeping veggies intact. “We get in the habit of peeling most of our produce (think squash, potatoes, carrots and citrus fruits) and discarding the skin, but did you know that the peel contains most of the fibre and nutrients?” She roasts vegetables with the skin on, and zests lemons, limes and oranges to freeze and use later in muffins or salad dressings.
22. Take stock
When I asked my daughter what my job was, she said I “put things in bags.” I usually am shuffling things around in an endless traffic jam of toys, socks and clutter. I’m starting slowly, one horrifying drawer at a time, to declutter it all. I started by doing inventory of my pantry: I had three bags of panko crumbs and protein bars that were older than my kids. By taking stock, I can use up the good food and make room for my new mason jar system to organize grains and dry goods.
23. Clean out your inbox
Unsubscribe to all those retailers to avoid temptations for over-consumerism and do away with distracting e-waste.
24. The freezer is your friend
It’s common to forget about the fresh produce about to expire in the fridge. Ngo says, “If you notice that some ingredients are starting to bruise or wilt, freeze them. Most fruits and vegetables can be frozen, then used in smoothies, soups and stews at a later date.” It’s best to first freeze fruits or vegetables in a single layer on a baking sheet, then transfer them to reuseable containers.
25. Make a family gimme list
When attempting a zero-waste lifestyle, Leblond’s family cleverly sat down and made a list of items they were not ready to give up. “In the beginning, my husband and I had individual ‘mulligan lists’ consisting of a few can’t-live-without personal luxury items as well as a number of household essentials,” she says. “Over the following weeks, as we went about daily life, our lists grew to 14 and 16 items.” Together, they made a goal to reduce each list to 10 items within a year. Even if you’re not ready to go 100 percent waste-free, making a list can put things in perspective, so you don’t feel deprived and lose your motivation.