Less may be more, but zero is the best of all — at least where contributing to landfills is concerned.
A small but growing number of households are joining what has become a bona fide movement: Zero Waste. While their goal of producing no trash at all may remain elusive, some Zero Wasters do come close, winnowing their household waste down to a tiny collection of non-recyclable and non-compostable items, so little that a year's trash can fit into a shoebox or a Mason jar.
Zero Wasters help each other by sharing advice on blogs and in books, over a dozen of which have recently come out on the topic. Tips might include where to shop to avoid unwanted packaging, and where to recycle a wide range of items that most people just toss in the waste bin.
"It may be too extreme for a lot of people, but even if you can cut your trash down by even 20 percent, you'll gain 80 percent of the benefits, like saving time and money for experiences instead of shopping for unnecessary stuff that will just clog up landfills," says Bea Johnson , author of "Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste" (Scribner).
"It's about a simpler life based on being, not having," she says.
Johnson says that minimizing shopping has meant her family can afford to go on adventures like scuba diving trips; that makes it easier for her sons to accept wearing only used clothing. Buying only used clothes has contributed to cutting their household budget by 40 percent, she says.
"We can get most brands on eBay and request that they be sent to us without any non-recyclable packaging. And often the clothes and shoes are almost like new," says Johnson, who started writing about her zero-waste efforts in 2008, when the movement was still young.
Elizabeth Graves, editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Living magazine, says Zero Waste is "definitely" a movement at this point.
"We have found that millennials in particular are incredibly mindful about how they live, and living with purpose. And that's why Zero Waste is really speaking to so many people," Graves says. "More and more people are showing that while it's intimidating at first, it can be done."
The magazine's Change the Day series recently focused on "Zero Waster" Lauren Singer of Brooklyn. Inspired by Johnson, Singer started her own blog, Trash is for Tossers, with tips on how to reduce waste, and even an online store, Package Free Shop, featuring only sustainable products that need not end up in the trash and that can be delivered with minimal — and fully recyclable — packaging.
Many businesses have begun trying to reduce packaging and making it more eco-friendly.
"I won't sell anything that has packaging tape or plastic," Singer says.
She claims she's now able to fit six years of trash into a single Mason jar.
"I realized that I can make a huge difference even as one individual," she says. "It's empowering."
The mantra of Zero Wasters is Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot, adding a couple more "r's" onto the classic three. They refuse disposable containers and straws at restaurants, and have made an art form of approaching store managers and others to request that food be wrapped in paper or put in glass containers they've brought from home.
Amy Korst, author of "The Zero Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less" (Ten Speed Press), notes that once food is buried under plastics and other items in a landfill, it no longer composts as it normally would. That's why it's so important, she says, to dispose of food and other compostable waste separately from the rest of the trash.
Each community recycles items differently, so the first step is to check with your local sanitation department to learn what, exactly, can be recycled and how.
"You might be surprised at the things that can be recycled," Korst says.
There are also a growing number of online resources to help figure out where unwanted objects can go.
Korst's book features many easy ways to begin reducing your trash, like cutting down on single-use items, particularly those made of plastic. It lists resources for finding non-landfill homes for things as diverse as cooking oil, batteries, ink cartridges, formal dresses, gift cards and six-pack rings from soda cans.
"We're not crazy hippies. We're normal families with houses and kids and cars, and this is the way of the future," says Johnson.