Zero waste living and homesteading are a perfect match! If you too are overwhelmed by messages about the plastics epidemic and the insane amount of waste we produce, especially in America, then learning to make many of your own items is one of the best ways to work towards zero waste while also striving to build and create a self sufficient homestead. Here are some ideas to help.
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Zero Waste and Homesteading
Recently, a round of US cities are cancelling their recycling programs. We still have it here but its spotty at best and recently there was a scandal about the city simply throwing away the recycling than trying to put it into the actual process of breaking it down. In fact, there has been a campaign that is gaining speed that recycling is not the answer.
If you are on this homesteading journey to not only impact your own health but to also improve the lives and environment around you, then it is only natural you would work towards a zero waste life. No one is perfect and few people attain this goal. However, being aware of your own waste is one way to combat these issues of waste, plastics, pollution and health.
Where to start
There are many different resources for trying to go zero waste but one note about “zero waste” – this does not mean “absolutely no waste of any kind.” That is unrealistic, unreasonable and not sustainable. A fabulous book is Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. She outlines changes she has made in her home (with a family!) to completely reduce her intake and disposal of refuse. Many zero waste oriented resources have a large component aimed at reducing plastics specifically. She uses the four R’s, reduce, reuse, recycle AND refuse (which is new for many of us). Another great place is Going Zero Waste, a blog on the issue by Kathryn Kellogg.
If you need some inspiration, beginner’s guides or more information on the reasons and ability to go toward a zero waste lifestyle, these two women are very helpful. Definitely check them out as a way to dip your toe in the water. Below are ways you can apply these principles on the homestead.
If you have explored becoming zero waste or even minimalism in anyway, one common refrain is to start small. That means just try to replace just one item in your home that you either made or bought in a way that has little environmental footprint.
For example, you can begin to make your own bread. This is wonderful. The only problem with this is that you need to purchase a few things. At minimum you need flour. Many people also need commercial yeast as well but you can make your own sourdough starter to replace this. If you need flour, aim for bulk flour, preferably in bags that are either made from paper or a reusable container.
The way zero waste fits in with homesteading is that you are likely striving to make your own goods anyways. Which is perfect! When possible you can make almost all of your own food right from your very own home.
If you’re lucky enough to live on a bit of land in which you can grow your own grain, you can be the entire life cycle of at least some of your food products. However, if you cannot grow your own grains, no need to worry. Aim for buying in bulk and work on producing as much as you can from as little disposable, one use waste products as possible. Then you can make many loaves of bread off of one bag rather than buying a plastic wrapped loaf every week.
Another example could be fiber arts. Even if you live in the city, you can have rabbits for fiber such as Angora. As you harvest their hair, you can spin this into yarn and make all sorts of things, including clothes and bags. Taking this a step further, if you do need to shop at the grocery store like many of us still do, then you can make your own produce and grocery shopping bags to combat the use of plastic bags for your food.
One of the best ways to start any change like this is by the task rather than the room. Similarly to the Konmari method, try to make one change and reduce or eliminate your waste for that one task. We will go through a few examples about changing you can make that will eliminate waste but also further your self sufficient homesteading goals.
If you cook from scratch you have likely found the limits of “from scratch.” Most people need at least some ingredients from the store. And the grocery store is rife with plastic packaging. If you are truly lucky, you may have a robust garden, critters, even growing your own grain and a solid farmer’s market which may (or may not) allow you to opt out of single use, nonbiodegradable packaging. If not, then there are a few things you can do to reduce your impact.
First, try to get as much from scratch from home as possible. When available, find others who grow food or raise livestock to barter for things you can make or produce yourself. When you do need to purchase, purchase in bulk. Buy flour in 50 lb sacks rather than 5 lb plastic bags. We have just four hens and no longer need to purchase eggs (including the egg carton).
At the grocery store, aim for the outer edges, get produce and then use processes such as canning and dehydrating to make baked goods and meals at home. One of the most difficult parts of even shopping is that so many things are in plastic, including apples and grapes! Make your own or buy reusable produce bags! Then you’ve cut way down on plastic. Also, do not forget your reusable bags.
A wonderful first step is to start a compost pile (or bin or vermicompost). There is no need for any of those leftover pieces of produce to go into a plastic trash bag. If you are resourceful, save your veggie scraps such as onion tops, garlic bottoms, carrot tops and celery bits and make your own veggie stock! Or feed the good ones to the chickens. Finally, put them in the compost to be decomposed and used on the garden in about 6 months.
Lastly, stretch ingredients. If you have to buy milk, buy as much as you can and then make all of the things from the milk: cheese, yogurt, etc. that way the only trash you *hopefully* produce is the milk carton. When possible, opt for a local creamery that reuses glass bottles.
One of the most problematic parts of a zero waste lifestyle is the aspect of cleaning. No matter where you turn, if you want to use any cleaning products, it is almost 100% guaranteed to be in plastic, non-reusable packaging. Everything from shower sprays, dish soap, laundry detergent to paper towels, scrub brushes, etc. are made with plastic that will probably never break down (due to the anaerobic nature of dumps).
Luckily, the movement plus the homesteading lifestyle means you can find many ways to avoid these usually toxic substances without meaning your house will descend into a bottomless pit of filth. The first thing I tried was soap. Unfortunately many of the ingredients to make soap (mainly lye and oil) do come in nonreusable plastic packaging. However, they can last a long time and make many, many bars of wonderful soap.
You can also make your own apple cider vinegar using apple scraps and use that in many different combinations as an all purpose cleaner, dish rinse and fabric softener.
We also completely replaced paper towels with real hand towels that we use until they disintegrate. The key word being “towel” in both, it simply needs to absorb and help clean up all messes from babies, dogs, food and waste. I just throw it in the sanitize cycle and move on. These hand towels, are actually slightly degraded regular towels, sheets, shirts, etc. leftover from elsewhere in the home. You can make your own!
Sadly, it must be said, one of the great benefits of plastics and single use items is sanitation. While plastic is not ideal, if you must use it, try to get the most durable, longest lasting items you can. For our own hens, the feeder is made of PVC and the waterer is also heavy duty plastic. The good thing is that these are easy to sanitize and clean. There are alternatives such as galvanized metal and rubber but they are much harder to find and sometimes do not last as long, thus creating the waste you are trying to avoid.
The other problem is feed. I have yet to come across a bag of feed for the chickens that is not in one use plastic bags. Hopefully you can supplement as much as possible with free range and kitchen scraps, reducing the number of bags of feed you need but likely you will have to purchase these items. You can make your own chicken feed from different bulk supplies, such as grain, meal worms, etc.
Pitfalls of Zero Waste
Zero waste is not no plastic
Zero waste, while similar, is not the same thing as “no plastic.” The aims may be the same but I am weary posts and pictures of produce in jars and metal bowls when *most* people still need to buy a considerable amount of their produce from a regular grocery store. Most of the items at the grocery are still stored in plastic containers. If it comes that way, it does not make a lot of sense (unless you are concerned about plastic leach which is important) to move it to a glass or metal container as the amount of waste you produce is going to be the same.
Location, location, location
I have certainly struggled with the problem of where I live being a limit on choosing zero waste options. Here are some of the road blocks I have encountered by simply living in an area where zero waste, environmental impact and other concerns are not at the forefront of local culture:
- Limited or no recycling available
- No city or local compost center
- Plastic bags are still the norm
- Almost all local grocery stores have produce and all meats in non-reusable plastic
- Bulk is simply not available at a near by store (or very limited such as chocolates and coffee)
- Unable to grow any grain or large livestock
- No local creamery (goat or cow)
These are all serious limitations to attempting to cut down. And they may seem discouraging. But that is why homesteading is such a vital part of going zero waste. You do not need to recycle if you do not bring the waste into your home to begin with. You can compost at home! Bring your own bags. Find a local farmer. If not, you may have to accept that if you want to buy something you, it might be in plastic. Buy bulk when you can or shop online for bulk. Find a local food mill that might work with you. If you want to consume dairy, be smart about how much and stretch when you can. Going out to eat? Bring your own take home containers! Plenty of ideas and work arounds.
You got this
It might seem daunting but you can definitely get started on a path toward zero waste. Homesteading is a perfect way to do that. Eventually and slowly some trash and waste will drop off. You may not get down to the picturesque jar of trash, but you can get much close.
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