10 Ways to Start Zero Waste With Items You Already Have

Spread the Sustainable Gospel!

I get asked a lot for a list of items to buy to start a zero waste lifestyle. That question always seems to make me feel bad as zero waste isn’t about purging everything you currently own to go broke buying new, expensive, sustainable products. One of the big components to reducing waste is to actually reduce your consumption. It just doesn’t make sense to buy a bunch of items from the start but to start zero waste with items you already have.

A lot of you are joining me for the 30 Days to Zero Waste Challenge and I’m so excited! So many of you are ready to reduce your waste and change your mindset on how our actions affect the earth. I couldn’t be more elated. The community is getting stronger and our voices and actions are getting heard, making a difference, and causing true change to occur.

To reduce your worry on what items you’ll need to start this challenge, I’ve come up with a list of things that you probably already own, that can be used to start a zero waste lifestyle. There will be a few items you’ll need to purchase, at some point, but for the majority, you might not have to spend a dime.

10 Ways to Start Zero Waste With Items You Already Have

Reusable Bags

Most of us have these lying around. They are very easy to acquire considering every business uses them as a promotional item which is another issue entirely. If you don’t have some, there are some great tutorials online that will show you how to turn an unwanted t-shirt into a grocery bag. You can also ask friends and family if they have any to spare as I’m sure they have a bunch for the same reason as above.

Reusable Water Bottles

A jar works perfectly well. Jars are a  true multipurpose item that can be used for just about anything. I’ll give more reasons below. You can use a mason jar or even an empty pasta sauce jar for water or any other beverage.

Paper Towel Alternatives

Ripped up, unwanted towels, shirts, sheets, curtains, anything. I know you can buy fancy “un-paper towels” but why? I use old socks that have holes or lost its mate as rags for cleaning up around my home. It’s not about being fancy, it’s about being resourceful. Read more about how to ditch paper towels HERE.

Reusable Coffee Cup

Again, a jar. They work great for about any beverage. If you are worried about the glass being hot to the touch, use a sock, a mitten, or a headband to wrap around the jar for easy handling. Hot or cold, jars work great.

Cloth Produce Bags

Ok, so we all don’t have cloth produce bags lying around, or do we? Any drawstring, cloth bag you own will work for this. I’ve had purses and shoes come with cloth, drawstring bags that I currently use for bulk items and small produce. If you want to get crafty, you can make some bags yourself or have a sewing day with mom or grandma to make a set out of old sheets, curtains, or any scrap fabric for that matter.

Reusable Utensils

Spoons and forks right out of your kitchen utensil drawer will work perfectly for avoiding the disposables on the go. Just stick a fork in your backpack or purse and you’re all set. My grandparents have always done this because they hated how the plastic utensils broke so easily. I always think of them when I give this tip.

To-Go Containers

Those stainless steel containers are pretty but there are a few things you currently have that will do the same job. Mason jars, again, can be used for transporting food on the go as well as the storage containers you have in your cabinets.


If you don’t want to buy reusable straws just opt against using the plastic straws entirely. You don’t always need a replacement to reduce your waste.

Reusable Tissues and Hankies

Another great job for those DIY rags from above. I use my husband’s old t-shirts for tissues.

Plastic Wrap Alternatives

Here’s a fun trick. Just put a plate on top of the bowl. No plastic wrap needed. I also sometimes put a damp towel over a bowl to hold in moisture if I’m covering dough.

I don’t want zero waste living to seem like an elitist, privileged, or unattainable endeavor. It can be done by many of us despite our economic situation if we really put that “Use what you already have” mindset into action. Now, you will need to purchase some things at some point like a replacement bamboo toothbrush, a reusable safety razor, or some reusable menstrual products but at least cutting out all of the above items from your shopping list should allow you to have some room for the sustainable items we can’t avoid.

How do you use what you already have to reduce waste?

18 thoughts on “10 Ways to Start Zero Waste With Items You Already Have

  1. You can actually make effective reusable menstrual pads; there are designs online if you want fancy stuff with poppers or whatever. What I did was to buy high quality face flannels (around £1 each at the time), fold them up four times, then hem up the sides. If you wear decent tight pants, they tend to stay put quite well in all but the most vigorous of activity (i did run while wearing one and it stayed put), and are perfect for days at home. Can’t wear tight fitting clothes obviously. If you soak in cold water before washing, they wash well and you can use the water for plant food. I can imagine some are going “ICK” but I had a very healthy lot of garden plants when I was doing this.

  2. Great post. I have my grandmother’s old handkerchiefs and just didn’t think to actually use them. That’s what they were created for so why not?

  3. In China, I learned to put a washbasin in my sink to catch the water from washing my hands and use it to flush the toilet when it fills up. Of course you have to flush the toilet when there isn’t enough hand washing water yet, but it saves a flush here and there, which adds up.

  4. Excellent! I am so much in agreement with your ideas of using what you already have. Cloth handkerchiefs: so much kinder than tissues. I sometimes use old muslin nappies if I have a heavy cold.

  5. I love the tips and wish I had thought of many of them when I was married 38 years ago! However I did use cloth diapers, and have composted all of my life, and hate waste of any kind. Over time I’ve replaced cloth unpaper towels for paper towels, etc. But my favorite thing these days is my muslin coffee filters! I was surprised at how much better the coffee tastes and no coffee filters to buy again! I have three kinds of pots and made filters for each of them. Great blog post!

    • That’s fantastic! You’re doing an amazing job! The filters are the best, aren’t they? 🙂 Thanks so much for reading. <3

  6. Okay, I’ve read about six of your articles in the last 20 minutes and I love all of them. So informative, and you have such a great writing style. Definitely taking your reusable/sustainability tips with me 🙂

  7. I’m sewing fabric bags for produce. I had a package of paper sacks that I bought to make meals for homeless people. I have a whole lot left over. They are used for storing onions and potatoes. It is all biodegradable (unlike plastic). I did buy some flour sack towels that are helping us to avoid disposable items. I’m using some of the towels to make produce bags. I quit buying k cups and have been using a cone pour over drip coffee maker.

  8. Hi Everyone! I love the topic! I, too, have an excellent tip which I use, faithfully, daily when at home. I use worn out washcloths, large ones..cut into 4’s, pieces of fabric too small for anything else, (ok, we ALL have these kinds of cloths around the house!). If you enjoy sewing or the fabric has a propensity for fraying, just surge or use a simple stitched edge or hem. The longer they last, the more CHA-CHING and use you’ll get after washings. I use them as cleanup cloths after using the toilet. (On my bod, not on the porcelain!). You can’t imagine how CLEAN and DRY they make you feel! No more residual bits left behind, tangled and messy, no second, or third or fourth wipe needed. They are marvellous and SOFT! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE them. I have an ice cream bucket with tight lid near the toilet, into which I add a 1/2 teaspoon of laundry soap and a 1/2 teaspoon of bleach. Then I add enough cold water (to activate these) and fill the pail 2/3 to 3/4 full. After I’ve used the cloth, folded to recheck for cleanliness:) I pop it into the bucket to let it soak, until the bucket is full. They are sooo clean and odor free just soaking! Then on a day when I’m doing laundry, I drain the liquid into the toilet then pop it all into the washer, use hot water, very small load, detergent and a bit more bleach and they always…sparkle!! It is not advisable to leave them dry in a bucket, please! For those ladies still menstruating, cold water soaking and draining as you desire. I also recommend Oxi-clean and hot water or bleach to sanitize. You know, the royalty wouldn’t use paper, it’s far too messy. But we’ve somehow come to think it’s fine. But paper is terrible, messy, inadequate and wasteful, for the pocketbook and the environment.
    I hate having to use paper when away from home. I also leave paper available for my guests, Visiting family know how I spoil myself with the finest, and they can choose whatever method they like!

  9. I am just curious if reusable towels are really better for the environment that paper? You use a ton of water and detergent to wash the reusable ones and the paper degrade in the dirt so fast. I mean, I could bury them in my back yard and next spring when I garden they’d be dissolved. Plus, I do not need more laundry to do.

    • Surprisingly, manufacturing paper and replacing it over and overuses far more water than throwing a few towels in a washing machine. As much as 35 – 45 Gallons of water to make 1 lb (pound) of paper – it’s insane!

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