Waste is having a moment: The Pacific garbage patch. The turtle with the plastic straw stuck in its nose. Plastic bag bans. City compost sites. Last year, you—yeah, every single one of us—probably generated 1,606 pounds of refuse. But waste isn’t just about the garbage bin. Every day, we waste the plastic we consume, throw out our food, and maybe even squander our lives.
Taking even a few steps to stop the bleed won’t be…a waste. A few steps that won’t make a huge impact on you can have a big effect on how much you throw away and how much you can lower your grocery bills, get more done and, yes, take fewer trips to the trash bin.
We compiled the best small steps you can take to minimize waste in three key areas: Food, Plastic, and Life. Here’s how to make it happen now.
How not to waste food
Up to 40 percent of the food supply in America is wasted, and not in some abstract Big Agriculture or restaurant-industry kind of way. A family of four wastes an average of $1,800. worth of food a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
These three rules can help you turn food waste around:
1) Be realistic with what you’re buying.
People are aspirational at the grocery store, says Dana Gunders, interim executive director of the anti-food-waste group ReFED. “They hope to cook more and eat better, and then life happens. By Wednesday, they’re ordering pizza and the food is rotting. Beware of overbuying, and plan for lazy nights. We all have them.”
2) Save (and savor) your scraps.
Recipes (and food Instagram accounts) train you to eat the nice-looking parts of foods (broccoli crowns) while ditching the “ugly” parts (broccoli stems). Gunders has another name for those less “liked” parts: delicious.
If you have cauliflower stalks, make: Cauliflower “rice.” In a food processor, pulse chopped stalks into a rice-like texture. Saute with butter.
If you have carrot or beet tops, make: Fresh pesto. Combine tops with pine nuts and grated Parmesan. In a food processor, blitz, then puree, drizzling in olive oil until saucelike. Season as you like.
If you have potato skins, make: Chips! Heat a pan with a quarter inch of oil over medium high. When the oil shimmers, add skins and cook till crisp.
If you have slightly expired eggs, make: Mayo. In a blender, mix yolks, a little lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and salt. Add olive oil, drop by drop, until thick. (Note that use-by dates are only suggestions; they generally don’t have to do with safety, and no regulatory body oversees them. Smell okay? Taste okay? It’s probably okay.)
3) Give leftovers a lift.
Fun fact: Casserole means “ah, nasty, not again” in French. Okay, not really. Regardless, don’t suffer through another one. Instead, enjoy these meals, which give life to leftovers.
Combine leftover vegetables, a can of tomatoes, some slightly stale bread, and eggs into shakshuka. Heat tomatoes and veg in a pan till bubbling. Stir in some cumin, red-pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Drop in the eggs, cover, and cook till the whites are set. Serve with toast.
Combine vegetables, meat, random fresh herbs, leftover grains, and bottled dressing into a grain bowl. Toss the vegetables and meat in a little dressing: layer over the leftover grains. Microwave, then scatter herbs on top.
How not to waste plastic
People buy 1 million plastic bottles—per minute (and only about 23 percent are recycled). Yes, plastic is choking our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Microplastics are making their way into our seafood. And as if that weren’t bad enough, researchers believe that chemicals in all that plastic may disrupt endocrine activity, which can lead to lowered fertility and cancer.
I thought I was pretty careful about plastic, but when I tracked my waste for a day, I was shocked to find it everywhere (toothpaste! gym shoes! beer cans!). For ways to cut back, I looked up Rob Greenfield, who wore all the trash he produced for 30 days in 2016. By the end, he was carrying 84 pounds of plastic bags, water bottles, and plastic-lined food containers. “I was barely able to move,” he says today. Most disturbing, he says, is single-use plastic. “Think about, say, a bag of potato chips. It takes five minutes to eat it. But that bag will be around for 500 years,” Greenfield says. “Does that make any sense?” It didn’t to him, which is why he’s aiming to cut plastic from his life entirely. You don’t have to go that far. Just pick your level—life’s hard; no judgment—and try his tips.
Entry-level plastic-saving tips
Don’t just recycle old to-go containers: Consume fewer of them. Bring reusable ones to your usual takeout spot and have them put your meal in there.
Cheap clothes are loaded with plasticky synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester. Cotton feels better, anyway. (Ditto wool and cashmere.)
Advanced-level plastic-saving tips
Food packaging fills up trash bins—one more reason to avoid processed food. Use cloth bags for produce and choose items not packed in Styrofoam.
Trawl Craigslist for “new” power tools—modern ones have many plastic parts. Better yet, chip in on one with your neighbor.
Pro-level plastic-saving tip
Clean up your bathroom. Shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste are often packaged in and loaded with plastics. Turn to brands that don’t use them in their products. Consider bottle-free bars for shampoo and conditioner (Humankind makes some), and plastics-free cleaning detergents (like Method).
How not to waste your life
Stacey Staaterman meets a lot of people at the top of their professional life—and who are also in the pits. She’s a career strategist and coach who spends her days advising workers who feel like they’re wasting their life. “Is there value in what I’m doing?” her clients ask. “Am I wasting my best years in this career I don’t love?”
For these folks, Staaterman pulls out a homework assignment, one she completed 17 years ago when she felt unmoored and directionless. “I ask people to write on a single page what they want their life to be like: a paragraph on your home, family and friendships, work, hobbies, mind, body, and spiritual life—anything that matters to them,” she says. “Notice that money is not on the list. Money is a tool, a means to something.”
Look at the list and rank what matters most to you. Then, instead of trying to fit your priorities into your life, build your life around them. If time with your family is key, then maybe the hustle isn’t worth it. If you need money now, then overtime might be the right call. If you’re skeptical, Staaterman’s one-pager from 2003 is tacked to her office wall, and she’s still following it. “You can take care of your situation now or wait until you’re nearly dead,” she says. Because life, indeed, is a terrible thing to waste.
David Ferry is a reporter in Los Angeles who has written for publications including Outside, Wired, and The Atlantic.