Getting Started – A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainability

If you’re new to reducing your waste and haven’t taken any steps towards sustainability yet, this post is for you!


These are what I believe to be the most crucial items to assist you in reducing an individual waste footprint.


As a scientist, I approached this topic with the question: what do people do every day? As animals, we require food, water, and shelter. In the modern era, proper sanitation has become integral to human survival as well. There can be a lot of waste associated with each basic need, but there also can be very little, assuming we are equipped with the right tools. Humans have a variety of lifestyles, but there is consistency in addressing each of our basic needs. As a general rule, over the course of a day we will want to eat or drink. Many of us shower either every day or every other day. Despite great variation from person to person, these tendencies remain true.


With that in mind, here are the easiest swaps to make that will help you reduce waste every day of the week.

Number One: Reusable Bottles and Mugs

This is really the foundation that the low waste movement is built on.  Plastic bottles are often cited as a significant proportion of plastic waste and marine debris. As of 2017, it is estimated that one million plastic bottles are purchased globally every minute.  This figure is predicted to jump 20% by 20211. The best way to curb this plastic bottle addiction is to carry your own refillable option

Annually, approximately 600 billion (with a B) paper and plastic cups are distributed worldwide. Starbucks alone accounts for 1% or that total, or about 6 billion disposable cups2.  Unfortunately, many consumers mistake cups for hot beverages, which appear to be made of paper, as a sustainable option. In reality these “paper” cups have a lining of plastic on the inside. Because of this, the recyclability of these cups is very low.

Reusable cups are often multi-purpose, so investing in one good one is all you need. It can be your go-to for water, coffee, tea, soda, or any other liquid you might want to fill up on.

Number Two: Food Containers

We can all agree that eating is important. Food over the course of the day can look very different for each person, but many of us opt to bring lunch to work or school several days a week. Those same people likely do this by using some sort of food container, generally referred to as Tupperware. You probably already own this!

We aren’t limited to using these containers only to carry food from home to work and then back.  If you’re going out to eat and anticipate leftovers, bring one of your food containers! This will bypass getting it wrapped up at the restaurant. These containers can also be used for takeout. Just ask to get your order in your container!

There are some risks associated with plastic food containers, even those marketed as BPA-free. A recent study found that most plastics leach estrogenic compounds – in some cases, even more than the BPA-containing plastics did3. While individual risk will depend on a number of factors, preventative measures include avoiding exposing plastic containers to liquid or heat. This reduces their potential uses, but there are still safe ways to continue to use these products. Plastic food containers are great for freezing things or for storing non-food items. Otherwise, glass and metal food container options are available for items that need to be heated up.

Number Three: Reusable Bags

Reusable bags are a great place to start for a zero waste beginner, especially as we see a rise in plastic bag bans across municipalities, states, and countries. I remember being a child and hearing what I now realize was propaganda from the plastic industry: that plastic bags were more environmentally friendly than paper bags, because paper bags contributed to deforestation.  Don’t you like the rainforest? I literally begged my parents to opt for plastic when we went shopping. Of course, now we know how plastic can impact the environment.

There are so many options out there for reusable bags. You probably already have one, if not more. Make it a habit to carry around with you. They are easy to fold up and keep in a pocket or purse, or can be kept in a car in case of forgetfulness. I always have a few in my car just in case! Reusable bags can also be used beyond the grocery store. There’s no reason why we can’t bring our reusable bags to the mall while shopping for non-grocery items.

Number Four: Utensils

I distinctly remember watching a plastic spoon float by as I was aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Without qualification, plastic utensils need to go. This has been reflected in some legislation – plastic utensils have been included in some plastic straw and bag bans.


We have determined that food is important to animals. As people, we don’t always have the time to meal prep whenever we want to eat. If you ever order takeout, or get food from a fast food or casual restaurant, chances are you’ve run into plastic utensils. It’s an easy move to refuse the pollution-causing cutlery, but you need a fallback so you can actually eat your food.

The good news? This one will cost you exactly zero dollars, if you want it to.  There are options for little utensil kits, often packaged in a cute case and including knife, fork, spoon, and chopsticks. This is great, but most people already own utensils. Just pop a set in your bag and go!

Number Five: Bar Soaps

Sanitation has been a hallmark of the modern era. Cleanliness has lengthened human lifespans. Other animals show a preference for bathing as well – cats are constantly cleaning themselves! It’s no surprise that humans have a predisposition to maintaining body care. A huge part of that is hand washing in the bathroom, and the ability to shower.


Between pump hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, plastic bottles can add up. Luckily, there are bar options for all of these things! For shampoo and conditioner I particularly like Ethique. For hand and body soaps, I try to go local and handmade to support my community economy.

For those who dislike bar soaps, there are refillable options in some locations. Check out Plaine Products if you aren’t sure about the bar! Additionally, many zero waste refill or bulk stores also include body essentials.

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