Super Simple Zero Waste Tactics for Lazy People (Like Me)

When I first read Bea Johnson's Zero Waste Home, my mind was blown, and I was overwhelmed before I'd even done anything. Johnson outlines a number of tactics for avoiding all forms of waste, from junk mail to food packaging. Her family of four produces one mason jar's worth of trash per year -- my household of three adults filled up a trash bin per room per week! Since then, I've brought it down a little bit, but nowhere near Johnson's level.

The thing is, essentially, that I'm lazy. I was willing to try new tactics, but it takes a lot of sustained mental effort to change your habits, and some suggestions I wasn't sure I was ready or willing to try (like not shopping online--aaaaaaaaaaaa). Eventually, I ran out of steam. Still, some of the habits have stuck, and some are actually easier than the way I was doing things before! The following tactics are so easy and sticky that even I, a notorious couch potato, continue effortlessly to stick with them in the long term.

Making my own laundry soap

I've actually seen this used as an example of a frugal tactic that is laughably way more effort than a reasonable person would put in. I can't disagree more. My wife and I have kept it up for over a year and a half now, and I don't see myself ever going back to the prepackaged stuff. Using my own recipe is a win-win-win-win:
  • Better for the environment. There's no disposable packaging and the ingredients are nontoxic.
  • Hypoallergenic and non-irritating. This is important to me, since my skin is easily irritated by the dyes, fragrances, and some of the soaps in commercial laundry detergents. My recipe is even Borax-free, because I'm allergic to Borax; all the ingredients are super gentle.
  • Cheaper, depending on what type of laundry detergent you would otherwise buy. According to my calculations, my recipe costs about ten cents per load. (Most of that is the fancy-schmancy Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild castile soap.) This is on par with store-brand detergent, but it's cheaper for me since I used to buy fancier hypoallergenic stuff.
  • Just as effective. I've personally tested it on paint, dirt, oil, blood, sweat, and tears. (Okay, tears aren't hard to get out but I'll do anything to mention the music of contemporary jazz-rock legends BS&T.) 
  • Suitable for both high-efficiency and standard machines. This is important to me because I don't know which one I have. 
  • So, so easy to mix up. Perceived difficulty is the hurdle for most people, and some of the recipes out there do seem more complex than necessary; they may involve sourcing unusual ingredients or hand-grating bars of soap. I don't have that kind of patience. My recipe takes all of ten seconds to mix up. If I run out, it's literally easier to mix up a batch than to go out and buy detergent. I've even mixed it up in a pinch on vacation from things that were already stocked in the kitchen of the rental cabin. 
Here's my super-simple recipe:
In a quart mason jar, combine:
  • ¼ cup baking soda
  • ¼ cup liquid castile soap
  • 2 tbsp coarse salt
Fill with water (about 3 ½ cups). 
Shake or stir before use. 
Use ½ cup per load. 

Cleaning with vinegar and baking soda

Another habit that has stuck for the same reasons is using white vinegar for cleaning instead of a variety of commercial cleaning products (Windex, Fantastik, etc.) This is so simple that I feel like I hardly have anything to say about it. I just mix half vinegar and half water into a reusable spray bottle and use it to clean eeeeevverrryyythhing.

Drinking tap water out of a water bottle

I'm lucky enough to live in a city where the tap water is clean and delicious, so I openly judge my fellow city-dwellers who drink bottled water. It's not too hard to train yourself to bring a reusable bottle anywhere you think you'll want water: hikes, events, running errands, the cinema, social calls, embassy dinners, assignations with major heads of state... Even I manage to carry mine, and I'm still struggling with remembering to bring my reusable bags when I go grocery shopping. 

What makes the bottle easier, I think, is that the answer to "Should I bring my water bottle?" is almost always "yes." My bottle has permanent residence in my purse. Plus, there's an immediate financial reward to bringing it places; you get to laugh at the fat cats who buy Poland Spring or fancy PowerWater or whatever while you just fill your bottle from the free, free tap.

It also helps to get a water bottle with a straw so you don't even need to make the effort of lifting and tipping the bottle when you drink. What luxury. 

Wiping surfaces (and noses) with cloth instead of paper

Eliminating paper towels, napkins, and Kleenex is easy once you get going, because it basically boils down to swapping one thing for another equivalent thing. Any expense and effort is frontloaded in buying or making a bunch of suitably-sized cloths.

Perosnally, I'll never go back to paper for cleaning or nose-blowing. Cloth is better every time. The strength! The softness! It doesn't fall apart when it meets a wet stain! It doesn't rub your nose raw! These are known properties of cloth! Sometimes I marvel at the marketing genius who got us all to use paper, a demonstrably worse substance for these purposes.


  1. I've been using handkerchiefs and napkins for years! So fun. Every time I pull out a charming vintage handkerchief I feel a little less bad about being sniffly.

    1. Why am I not surprised that you have a collection of charming vintage handkerchiefs?! I've just been using flannel squares ("cloth baby wipes" according to Amazon). They're less classy, but soooo soffffttttt

  2. what a good idea! When my vintage stock runs out (they do eventually disintegrate in the wash) I'll have to consider that


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