There’s nothing quite like a camping trip to remind you just how many disposables have crept into your life, even when you thought you were being vigilant. You pare down to essentials for a time, with just a few changes of clothing, a handful of hygiene essentials and enough food to fuel active days. Yet still you find your trash bag filling …

American culture is not conducive to a zero-waste lifestyle. Few products are manufactured with what William McDonough calls “cradle to cradle design,” having all their components reusable or recyclable. But immersed as we are in a culture of extravagant waste with only the most rudimentary systems of reuse and recycling, there’s a lot we can do with the first (and oft-neglected) element of the waste reduction trio: reduce.

Reduce is first in the lineup because if we succeed in stemming the flow of stuff entering our homes and lives, there’s far less to reuse and recycle. Not only does reducing help save dwindling resources and decrease pollution, it also represents a huge potential savings in personal time and money – something few of us would refuse.

Reduce comes in several flavors. There is reducing the inevitable packaging that comes with items you truly need (like food). This form of reducing isn’t hard but takes vigilance – remembering to buy in bulk; bringing containers and bags to markets; and making your own key staples (at least the easy ones like yogurt, ice cream, granola and household cleaners – no butter-churning or cheese-making required).

Then there’s reducing the wants that masquerade as needs (often to the tune of an advertising ditty). The best line of defense here is to sidestep the advertising (i.e., turn off the TV) that generates an endless stream of new “wants” – creating deficits we never knew we had. Another option is to “bookmark” those wants, noting them for future reference but not acting on them right away.

Putting wants on hold for a while creates a helpful period of discernment in which to carefully weigh the pros and cons of the potential acquisition and consider the long-term costs and commitment of ownership. Where will the new item be stored? How frequently will it be used? Where was this item made and what resources went into its manufacture? When broken or no longer needed, where will it go?


This line of questioning can put squealing brakes on what might have been an impulse buy, as Madeleine Somerville observes in her humorous guide, “All You Need Is Less”: “Seriously, having to mentally run through something’s life cycle before you hand over your hard-earned cash to buy it is so depressing and exhausting that I rarely end up making the purchase at all.”

And finally, there’s reducing the “needs” that aren’t true needs but ones created by manufacturers. Personally, I find this one of the simplest and most rewarding means of eliminating waste wholesale, with no time-consuming research or probing self-reflection required. Not only will you have a satisfactory life without these items, but it will likely be a healthier one (and you’ll have more cash left for priceless life experiences – like camping trips).

 Bottled water. What’s typically just purified tap water in none-too-pure plastic may be a critical resource in storm-ravaged areas, but it’s an extravagant waste of resources and money for everyday use.

Dryer sheets. Why coat your clothes (and skin) with fragrances reminiscent of convenience store bathrooms? Spare yourself what Somerville aptly calls “stinking little lard napkins.”

Fabric softener. Make still more room in your laundry area by eliminating this chemical-laden laundry additive, with its overpowering scents and dubious health effects.

Lawn chemicals. The dangerous impacts of these toxins on humans, wildlife and pets are well documented. Fortunately, there’s ample guidance on healthier alternatives and lawn care professionals who now offer organic approaches.


Leaf blowers. Not only do these sound like ’70s-era muscle cars, they spew out nearly 50 times more particulates than a light-duty vehicle.

Air “fresheners.” More aptly air degraders, these endanger health with hazardous volatile chemicals. Use a box of baking soda or a bouquet of bay leaves.

Single-serve food packages. These hold allure for those faced with daily lunch-packing (I can attest), but they’re a waste of both money and resources. Invest in reusable containers and fill them with food that’s more nutritious than most of what’s offered in single-serve containers.

Personal care products. Of course you don’t have to eliminate hygiene basics, but consider refusing most of what accumulates in bathroom cabinets and drawers. We all know where those marketing claims of “glamour and radiance in a bottle” lead: to a cluttered vanity.

Start anywhere on this list or create your own list of dispensible “indispensibles.” There’s no shortage of options, given how our lives overflow with non-essentials. When it comes to reducing household waste, it seems most efficient to leave garbage at the store. Refusing items like these at the retailers is a triple win for consumers, leaving us with more money, better health and a less beleaguered planet.

Will opting out of these purchases substantially change our wasteful consumer culture? Not if it’s just a few eccentrics who shop more selectively and carry bags and containers in to be filled.

But as Somerville points out, the more people who commit to reducing waste through these daily practices, the less weird the choices become. She ends her book with an invitation that I’ll extend to you: “Your job, now that you know (all this), is to make me look less crazy.

A tall order, I know, but I am asking nonetheless.”

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (

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