25 Tiny, Easy, and Free (!) Zero-Waste Habits You Can Start Right Now

published Apr 11, 2024
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Living more sustainably can feel like a huge undertaking, but even small adjustments help — and they don’t have to cost you anything. It’s all about building up little habits so that eco-friendly choices feel more automatic in your day-to-day routine. Plus, there are plenty of ways to make zero-waste swaps fun, from using them as an excuse to get together with friends, find a new hobby, or learn more about your neighborhood. To get started, check out these 25 ways to waste less without spending a dime

Credit: Design: Apartment Therapy

1. Join Your Neighborhood Social Media Groups

Your neighbors can help you save money, thanks to social media and app-related neighborhood groups. See if you can find groups on Nextdoor or social media apps where folks are giving away items. Ever since I joined my Buy Nothing group on Facebook, some of the free items I’ve scooped up include two night stands, a book stand, and — this is a big one — a portable treadmill. I also regularly swap puzzles with folks. Another tip: Check Facebook Marketplace for free items near you. (Just be safe when you’re planning pickups and drop-offs, no matter what avenue you choose.)

2. Host a Clothing Swap

Use your spring cleaning as an excuse to hang out with friends. Ask a few folks to join you in a clothing swap, and make it fun with snacks and wine (or non-alcoholic bubbly). Clean out your closet and get rid of any items you don’t wear anymore or just want to regift. Choose a time and place, and then get everyone together to “shop” through the clothing piles. 

3. Opt Out of Utensils for Takeout Orders

This one is a small adjustment, but it can make a big difference if you order out often. Before you hit that order button, check to see if you can choose to skip utensils. That way, they don’t make it into your order (and then your junk drawer, where they’ll sit until you throw them away later). Pro tip: Some shelters accept donations of plastic utensils.

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4. Bring Your Own Straw

On a similar note, if you have reusable straws at home (and can use them comfortably), keep some in your bag or car for future meals away from home. That way, you won’t have to reach for plastic or paper straws on your next coffee shop trip. If you don’t have any, ask around and see if folks have any extra reusable straws or utensil kits. I got an unopened, sealed package of metal straws from a neighbor in my Buy Nothing group. 

5. Ask About Reusable Cups at Coffee Shops

This policy varies from place to place, but some coffee shops might be open to serving you a latte in your reusable cup. Some even offer discounts when you bring your own mug. If you go to coffee shops all the time, the amount of paper and plastic this simple swap saves can add up quickly.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

6. Repurpose Containers for Storage

If you’re getting ready to declutter, your instinct might be to visit a dollar store or big-box store for organizers to get your mess under control. But before you do, look around your home and consider what you can use around you, instead of buying new. Reuse takeout containers, candle holders, shoe boxes, gift boxes, and mugs to corral your clutter. Or make use of those takeout containers to store your own leftovers after cooking. 

7. Organize a Craft Night

Instead of tossing that cross-stitch kit you started but never finished, get a group together for a craft and art-making night. Use whatever supplies you have on hand and encourage folks to bring materials they can find at home, without buying anything new. Make it a full evening by doing a “paint and sip” night by serving up some drinks (alcoholic or not) and snack boards.

8. Donate to a Creative Reuse Store

Remember that half-opened container of acrylic paints you never used? Or that extra embroidery thread? Consider grabbing any leftover art supplies and taking them to a creative reuse store. These shops carry everything from fabric and gift bags to sewing patterns and washi tape. Folks can then come shop for supplies at cheaper prices, and you can avoid a collection of dried-up paints. 

9. Scrapbook Your Receipts 

Instead of throwing your receipts out right away, consider keeping them (or at least stashing a few away) for a journaling session. You can follow one TikTok user’s lead and glue receipts onto a sketchbook or notebook page, then doodle around it. Or write a couple of paragraphs about where you went and who you were with. Future you will have fun flipping through these.

10. Challenge Yourself to a Chopped Meal 

I’ve watched many, many seasons of Chopped, the show that asks professional chefs to make incredible dishes out of random, not-at-all-related ingredients. You can use the same idea to do your own fridge and pantry challenge. Aim to use up the items that are about to go bad, so you can avoid tossing them. Bonus points if you want to invite friends over to sit down for dinner afterwards, so they can enjoy your new creations. 

11. Restock Your Reusable Bag Supply

Avoid getting any plastic or paper bags from the grocery store by double-checking your supply of reusable bags. Do you have a few extras in the trunk of your car? Are there smaller bags you can stash in the purses you use the most? If you are low on totes, ask friends or neighbors if they have extras on hand.

12. Visit Your Local Library

The library does a lot more than just circulate books. When you get a local library card, you can take advantage of plenty of perks. For starters, checking out books can save you money. But you can also look into offerings like digital magazine issues, streaming movies, and virtual courses. 

13. Use a Free Sewing Machine to Mend Your Clothes

On that note, your local library might also offer access to sewing machines — for free. If you’re skilled at sewing, but don’t have a machine at home, consider using a loaner to mend clothes. Rather than throwing shirts or leggings away, see if you can fix them and give them new life. Some libraries also include guides if you’re new to sewing.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

14. If You Can’t Keep Wearing It, Make It a Cleaning Rag

Maybe you find a few shirts or leggings that you’ve already tried mending, or they’re just too raggedy to donate. In that case, repurpose your clothing into cleaning rags. Time to get the scissors out and give that old free T-shirt a new purpose.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

15. Repurpose Your Aluminum Foil

Instead of immediately throwing away a piece of aluminum foil or plastic wrap that you used to cover up leftovers, consider putting it to work to scrub your glass or ceramic dishes. 

16. Find a Local Compost Program

If you live in an apartment complex without a green bin, research local spots for composting. There might be a drop-off station near you where you can take your food scraps, rather than throwing them in the trash. Check to see if your city or neighborhood offers free pails to store your scraps.

17. Use Your Freezer

Your freezer can help you reduce food waste. For starters, if you know you won’t use an entire package of meat, separate what you will use from what you can freeze. You can also find plenty of guides on how to best freeze your food, so you can maximize your fridge space.

Credit: Maria Do

18. Pickle Your Veggies

Another alternative to throwing away food scraps, pickling your veggies can also add an extra dose of flavor to any meal. If you’ve got a red onion that you haven’t used up, for example, pickle it and you’ll have a delicious topping for tacos, burgers, and whatever else your heart desires. 

19. Repurpose Tea Canisters

If you fancy a good cup of tea in the morning and always find yourself with empty tea tins, put them to good use instead of throwing them away. Try using a canister to store kids’ toys for travel or turning one into a mini flower pot.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

20. Save and Reuse Packing Materials

When you get a package delivered, see what packaging materials you can save to use again later. Hold on to things like tissue paper, bubble wrap, or cardboard — you can most likely use them later. 

21. Get Creative with Gift Wrap

Skip the store-bought gift wrap and get crafty with what you can find at home. Use paper bags, newspapers (à la Dolly Parton), fabric, old magazines, scarves you don’t wear, and other materials to wrap your gifts. Bonus points if you use some of the art supplies you have on hand to decorate the package.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

22. Use Odds and Ends to Make Pet Toys

As a cat person, I can attest to the fact that sometimes my cat loves a strip of cardboard more than the toys I actually buy her. Even the least expected scraps of fabric can become a great toy; just be sure not to leave anything out for your cat to accidentally ingest. You can also use household items like old sheets to make dog toys.

23. Keep Your Used Coffee Grounds

After you make yourself a cup of coffee, consider keeping the grounds for a variety of uses, from repelling mosquitoes to cleaning pots and pans. You can also use them to mitigate other scents in your fridge, or your general space.

24. Propagate Plants

If you know someone with a green thumb, see if you can propagate a plant or two from their collection. Not only are they pretty, living decor, but many plants are also useful around the home. Take, for instance, the aloe vera plant. If you can propagate one and keep it at home, it can help soothe burns and moisturize your skin. That way you can skip buying a bottle of aloe vera gel at the store.

25. Plan More Picnic Dates

Next time you plan an outing with friends (or a new crush), suggest a picnic. Take advantage of sunny days and pack a bag with a blanket, snacks in reusable containers, and cloth napkins. Bring a book or a small board game. Enjoy the day and think about all the money you just saved.