Going Zero-Waste as a Family

Consciously reducing waste can seem impossible for busy families. Rachel Engel will help you realize your family’s potential to help the planet and offers practical tips on going zero-waste.

In the last few years, you’ve likely heard or read about plastic in our oceans and beaches, students participating in Climate Strikes, and Greta Thunberg’s climate advocacy.

These issues have become more serious over time as scientists predict severe changes for our planet’s climate in the near future. This weight feels even heavier when our youngest generation faces the reality of climate change, and the unknown consequences they’ll have to pay for on behalf of generations before them.

Some people have felt helpless when it comes to climate change solutions. How can one human make an impact? What can I do to stop climate change from getting worse? More importantly for parents, how do I implement lifestyle changes for my entire family in a practical way?

Although blame for the climate change crisis can be shifted any way we look at it, we all are able to make a major positive impact for our planet.

One change in particular can seem a little outlandish, especially for busy families — adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. That’s why we asked local Permaculture Urban Farmer & Designer, Rachel Engel, to share her experience of going zero-waste with her husband and daughter.

Engel started her family’s zero-waste journey in 2016, inspired more from a dream lifestyle than a dreaded obligation. This included growing their own food, reducing waste, and creating a replicable urban model.

It may be overwhelming at first, but Engel’s advice is to start small and do your research. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson and Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway helped kick-start the process, along with personal trial and error and, of course, Zero Waste Facebook support groups.

Participation from the entire family is a key aspect to staying on the zero-waste track, according to Engel. As a household, the Engels set a goal of buying food without plastic packaging.

“Our big leap in waste reduction was buying our food directly from farmers at farmers markets and growing food for ourselves. We take a backpack and actively refuse plastic — it is still present even at farmers markets,” Engel said.

The family went from one trash bag per week to one bag per month, just from actively refusing food packaged with plastic.

As an added bonus, the Engels have seen an improvement in their finances and overall attitude after adopting their zero-waste lifestyle.

“Debt and taxes from over-consumption is depressing and sets a poor example for our kids to follow,” Engel said. “Being happy with less is liberating and it feels good to actively live in a mindful, purposeful, and ecologically wise way.”

Every family’s habits look different, which is why it’s so important to set your own pace and to acknowledge the little wins along the way. “If your current household waste is 2 bags a week and you go down to one, still celebrate and keep going,” Engel said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. Celebrate every success.”

A huge advantage to adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is more family time. Engel points out, “The best way to have more time to be together is to spend less time on stuff, less time shopping, less time organizing stuff.” This includes growing food together (even if it’s in a pot on the porch), making games and rewards focused on waste reduction, and learning how to compost.

“The climate crisis is here and we can do something about it while improving quality of life, reducing bills, and having more time together,” Engel said.

Feeling inspired? Here are a few simple steps to start your zero-waste journey:

  • Take stock of your waste. Maybe most of it comes from food scraps in the kitchen, or it might be from packaging from online shopping or your weekly grocery run. Once you have an idea of where most of your waste comes from, you can strategize your zero-waste life hacks from there.
  • Find your local zero- and low-waste bulk grocery stores. If you don’t have any conveniently located near you, try sticking to the bulk section of your local grocery store and skip all the plastic bags, even when buying produce — you can thoroughly wash it when you get home.
  • Buy gently-used, second-hand clothes and toys. Whether it’s Facebook Marketplace or Poshmark or your local second-hand store, the opportunities for great finds are endless and will save you a pretty penny!


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