The terms “sustainable living” and “zero-waste” can mean different things to different people. Some associate them with environmental activism and protesting against Big Oil companies, others with a lifestyle that tries to have as little impact on the environment as possible.

Since not all of us are born revolutionaries, let us look at the basic principles of sustainable living and learn how to minimize our carbon imprint and live more responsibly – both to ourselves and to nature.

Before we begin, we need to familiarize ourselves with the principle nature of sustainability. It’s a lifestyle primarily focused on minimizing the amount of waste we produce in our daily lives. In a poetic sense, we could say that with sustainability practices, we’re returning to nature and learning how to respect and live in harmony with it all over again.

Although the problem of waste and environmental pollution is nothing new, ecological sustainability only became a major topic of discussion in the last several years when it became “cool”, and today we can come across it in virtually every branch of commercial business – yes, even in the oil business.

There are a number of reasons why the popularization of sustainability occurred. One of the main factors is the increasingly evident impact that our consumer industry and our consumer habits have on nature. Another theory gives some credit to the Internet, social networks, and famous or influential personalities. The discussion about why sustainability became so popular could go on endlessly, but whatever the reasons may be, they all lead to the same goal, no matter whether it was your neighbor, Donald Trump, or Greta Thunberg who inspired or enraged you enough to become interested in it.

The Five “R’s”

Just like any other lifestyle, sustainability has its own “rules” and practices. The most basic of them is the principle of Five R’s, which is a set of five verbs beginning with the letter “R” that can help us in everyday decision-making. These are:

REFUSE
REDUCE
REUSE
REPURPOSE
RECYCLE

What the Five “R’s” aim for is fairly straightforward – they invite consumers to stop and think about how their choices could affect nature, the environment, and their own well-being. They help consumers to look at certain things from a different perspective to their own unknowingly one-sided view, and to open their minds to new possibilities of how to do things differently.

Using the principle of Five R’s, we’ve prepared nine tips for you that can help you set out on the journey of becoming a responsible zero-waste enthusiast and a follower of the sustainable lifestyle.

1. THINK BEFORE YOU BUY

The first tip is closely connected to the philosophy of minimalism and consumer habits. Minimalism is a way of life based around the principle of “less is more”. Its main ideas are simplicity and balance – both physical and mental – which can be achieved by not owning too many things. Whenever we buy something new, whether it was purchased through sustainable means or not, we need to stop and think whether we really need it – will we find a use for it? Will it make us happy a year or two later? Do we really need it? If we need the thing only for a one-time activity, could we instead rent or borrow it? It’s important to judge in these situations whether we really want the item or whether it’s going to be another dust catcher in our home.

Nevertheless, minimalism doesn’t, of course, prohibit bringing things into our lives that make us happy; it shows us the dangers of impulsive buying (like when we’re in a bad mood, or just “feel like spending money”). It’s natural to have things that we value and that make us happy, despite their being viewed as “merely aesthetic” or “unnecessary” from the minimalist perspective.

In layman’s terms, if you like to collect pink stuffed animals, guitars, or stamps, for example, and you feel like this hobby brings some value into your life, you have the absolute right to do that, and nobody should blame you for it, least of all yourself.

2. BUY THINGS SECOND HAND

Let’s stay on the topic of buying things for a while longer, since shopping is what de facto creates waste. Whenever you decide to purchase a new item, shopping second hand is the most sustainable option. Not only do you breathe new life into an old item and make a kind gesture towards both nature and your wallet, but you also support smaller businesses which provide this service. This rule applies not only to clothes but also to decorative items, electronics, tools, or furniture.

Another way to purchase new items in a sustainable way is through “swishing” events (“swishing” means swapping clothes) where the principle of sharing economy is applied, and the participants swap clothes with each other. If you’re more “old school” and like to squeeze through crowds of people, you can visit various bazaars or flea markets. The possibilities are truly many, although one must keep in mind tip no. 1: consumerism is always just consumerism, and we should shop responsibly.

3. SHOP LOCALLY AND SEASONALLY

Sustainability goes hand in hand with local producers and consumers. By supporting small businesses at farmers’ markets, you contribute to local economic growth, avoid supporting unnecessary foreign imports and, as a bonus, you’ll know where your food really comes from. Food at the farmers’ market usually isn’t suffocated in plastic wrappings, which is another plus point.

If your time schedule allows it, you can also visit zero-waste grocery stores (also called package-free supermarkets). These stores sell groceries by weight without any packaging and they put them directly into containers that you yourself bring, or that you may buy there.

On the other hand, if you’re time-constrained, you can order locally grown groceries to be delivered to your home. There are specialized companies and services offering high-quality fresh locally grown groceries and locally made products. Also, make sure to look for groceries, especially fruit and vegetables, that are in season. The production and import of exotic fruits mean longer journeys and a higher carbon footprint, so it’s better to buy from companies that use local resources as well as from local farmers and producers, who also limit the amount of packaging used on their products.

4. MAKE YOUR DIET MORE PLANT-BASED

Eating a plant-based diet is another way of reducing our ecological footprint. Extensive production of meat and dairy products has a huge impact on the environment. Depending on the sources it uses, it can contribute to the rising use of fossil fuels (in factory farming, for example), excessive use of water (or water pollution in developing countries), deforestation of rainforests, and to a higher production of methane, which is considered one of the most destructive greenhouse gasses.
The plant-based alternative isn’t without fault, of course, but in comparison to the animal-based version it’s more environmentally friendly, less harmful, and more ethical. Eating too much meat and dairy products isn’t good for our health, either. A high quality and nutritiously rich vegan diet can often fully supplant it.
When transferring to a plant-based diet, be sure to start gradually and slowly. Due to the fact that most of us have grown up eating animal products, our bodies are used to consuming them and erasing them completely and suddenly from our diet might be too big a shock for the body. Everything needs to be done gradually in order to be effective. However, if you’re not feeling like giving up on meat and dairy forever, you can at least eat less of them.

5. DON’T WASTE FOOD AT HOME

Wasting food is a global problem common to every household. Several tons of food are wasted each year in homes across the planet. Still, there are several ways to prevent it.

One method is to plan your meals and grocery shopping ahead. Organize your week, plan your meals, and write down the exact products you’re going to need to buy. That way, not only will you avoid buying unnecessary stuff, but you will also save money and you’ll be sure you’re bringing home only what you’re going to eat. Definitely avoid going shopping with an empty stomach, because that’s when we have the tendency to buy everything. The same goes for discounted items – always think carefully whether you really need them.
Another way is to store food properly. Every product has a recommended way of storage. Dry groceries, for example, should be stored in sealable jars, while some types of fruit and vegetables shouldn’t be kept in a fridge at all. By storing groceries the wrong way, we diminish their value and lifespan, which is not only a shame, but it’s also unnecessary and counterproductive. There’s no need to mention that your freezer is often your best friend when it comes to storing groceries.

Even with a lot of effort, it’s impossible to avoid creating waste entirely and so it’s important to know how to dispose of it properly. If you’re buying groceries in packaging, recycling should be a matter of course. We’re rather talking about food leftovers that are wrongly considered waste when they can be reused. For example, carrot greens can be used to make pesto, while the skins and greens of other vegetables can be used to make broth. And did you know you can even use coffee dregs as an alternative for body peeling? If the food isn’t edible, it doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. Biowaste can be composted and used as fertilizer for plants.

6. EXCHANGE SINGLE-USE ITEMS FOR REUSABLE AND PACKAGE-FREE ONES

At this point, we’re coming back to the topic of zero-waste and reusability. The goal of a sustainable lifestyle is to reduce waste and that’s why it’s essential to learn to bring as few single-use items into our lives as possible. We can achieve that by exchanging single-use items for reusable ones or package-free ones that are sustainable in the long term.

Reusable items have become the standard in recent years. As the name suggests, they’re items that can be used repeatedly and that have a longer lifespan than a single use. Reusable products that are sold include, for example, shopping bags, water bottles, luffa sponges, razor blades, or even reusable Q-tips. However, be careful when buying a new item – if you already own empty containers or little plastic boxes, you don’t have to throw them out and buy prettier alternatives. In general, the rule is “use what you already have” which means you can have a clear conscience when you use an empty ice-cream box to store that cake your mother-in-law gave you.

Another way to be more environmentally friendly is to buy package-free or ecologically made items. We’re talking mainly about cosmetic products like solid soap, hair conditioners, solid deodorants, or ecological dental floss. Pick products that were made using natural methods, weren’t tested on animals, and that are packaged in recyclable packaging, or that aren’t even packaged at all.

7. TRAVEL SUSTAINABLY

Transportation is one of the industries that is infamous for its negative impact on the environment. Some of the most serious effects it produces are air pollution, excessive noise, and a large usage of fossil fuels. These facts are generally well-known nowadays, but we still need some means of transport. The only guaranteed zero-waste and emission-free method of transport is walking. But that, unfortunately, is not always practical.

A typically more sustainable method of short distance travel (apart from walking) is using a bicycle or public transport. If you’re planning to drive a car, then do so only when it’s necessary, or you can use car sharing services – you’ll not only save money on buying a new car, but you’ll also avoid creating the need to expend energy to produce a new car. Car sharing is an interesting new means of transportation, but be sure to verify the trustworthiness of both your driver and the car sharing company.

While there are many alternatives for traveling on land, there are of course very few options for air or sea transport. The most ecological option is to avoid these completely. However, we don’t live in a utopia and forbidding people from traveling is also nonsensical, so our hands are a bit tied in this matter. The only thing we can advise is to think carefully about each decision – ask yourself if you really need to go for that sightseeing tour across the Caribbean, or if you really need to take a plane somewhere you could easily get to by train.

8. TRUST BUT VERIFY

Sustainability is a trend in today’s society, and what’s trendy sells. It’s almost impossible to avoid coming across sustainability-related ideas – be they in advertising handouts, on billboards, on social media, or on TV. Companies are starting to incorporate sustainability into their business models, plans, and ad campaigns, in which they mainly talk about reducing their carbon footprint and making their production more environmentally friendly. But do they always speak the truth? In today’s society, what’s green is good. With rising demand for natural, eco, and sustainable products, the supply grows, too. But not every company is honest about its ecological enthusiasm or really does what it promises in its adverts. Misinforming and deceiving consumers by making them think the company is “green” when it really isn’t is what’s called “greenwashing”.

Greenwashing can take on many forms and can be difficult to spot. It can include things like missing information about sustainable production methods, or a company suddenly becoming very interested in ecology, using uncertified ecological labels, or simply not fulfilling campaign promises. There are many ways it happens and that’s why we should be careful and always look with a critical eye at products claiming to be sustainable.

9. 100% SUSTAINABILITY IS UNACHIEVABLE

To conclude, we must remind ourselves that it’s unrealistic to live a lifestyle that is 100% sustainable, and that we don’t need to strive to fit a year’s worth of waste inside a single jam jar (like some environmental activists do). So, there’s no need to panic if you buy a packaged snack bar once in a while, or if you’ve just ordered food and they delivered it to you in plastic packaging.

For the same reason, don’t succumb to the pressure of your surroundings and of society. Accept constructive criticism, learn from your mistakes, but ignore accusing remarks on your “insufficient” efforts in sustainability. Relearning new habits isn’t easy and it definitely can’t be done overnight. Every effort counts and to practice sustainability “imperfectly” is perfectly okay.