What is Zero Waste?

Well, it may be easier to start with what zero waste isn't. It's not about producing absolutely no garbage. Instead, it's a way of rethinking consumption along the lines of laws of sustainability found in nature, where all materials that are discarded become a resource for another to use. At its core, zero waste refers to designing, producing, and consuming goods without waste as an end goal. It can sound intimidating, but we believe that it's simple, doable, and doesn't have to be done perfectly to matter.

Zero waste in practice is about being conscious of what you’re purchasing and what you're throwing away, and then making an effort to reduce your garbage output where you can. For many people, this looks like grocery shopping in the bulk aisle, investing in reusable alternatives to disposable items, or buying new goods only when necessary, instead favoring secondhand and repairing goods. To others, zero waste means taking the extra step to find out if something can be recycled even if it can’t be put in the blue bin, handing clothes down to a friend or family member, or buying food in a cardboard container over plastic packaging.

At Zero Waste Chicago, we focus on making small changes that, combined, have big impact. We distinguish between what we can and can't influence, and instead focus our energies on what we can control. Zero waste looks different to everyone who practices it, and we're here to help you figure out how to get started in a way that feels doable for you.

How can I get started?

Below are a few ideas for ways that you can reduce the amount of waste you make, at home and on the go:

Step 1: Re-imagine Trash.


All plant-based materials can be composted into nutrient-rich soil that can in turn grow additional plants. This includes food scraps, paper, cardboard, and natural fabrics like cotton, linen, or wool. You can visit our Where to Compost page for more information on options for composting in Chicago.

Pay attention to food packaging

Perishables: We believe in there is immense personal and environmental value in cooking your own meals from fresh ingredients. Many fruits and vegetables are available without packaging. When grocery shopping, ask yourself if your fruits and veggies actually need to be placed in a bag. If they don’t (think things with skins - lemons, bananas, onions, avocados, and more) just place them in your cart; if they're more delicate and do need to be placed in a bag before purchase, bring along some reusable cloth produce bags so you can skip those clingy clear or green disposable plastic produce bags that grocery stores offer.

Non-Perishables: Food packaging is one the biggest sources of waste. Many pantry staples (dried beans, flour, nuts) are available in bulk sections at grocery stores. Bulk sections allow you to buy as much or as little of each food as you want and are often cheaper than pre-packaged foods, in addition to allowing you to use less packaging. Visit our Where to Shop guide for more information on stores that have bulk sections or offer food package-free.


While the ultimate goal of zero waste is to produce as little recycling as possible, it’s an important part of how our society diverts waste from the landfill. Chicago recycles only 9% of what is collected in blue bins, primarily due to people putting non-recyclable items in their recycling (this typically causes the whole bin to be trashed!). If you can, try to learn about what you can and can't recycle in your neighborhood, so that you can better sort your items. You can learn more about Chicago-specific recycling guidelines here.

Think of the trash as your last resort

Many items that are thrown away can be recycled or reused in some way. Before you throw something “away,” you can do an internet search to see if it can be recycled, reused, or up-cycled in some way. A few of our favorite places to donate in Chicago: Sarah's Circle (many different items), the WasteShed (craft supplies for creative reuse), and there's always your local thrift store. Or, you could ask a friend if they could use it!

Step 2: Choose to Reuse.

Invest in non-disposable goods

In the name of convenience, disposable items have become commonplace. However, we've found that we love the freedom that comes from not having to make special trips to the store to purchase tissues, napkins, or other things that we used to run out of. Instead, relying on a water bottle, a cloth tote bag, cloth napkins, or handkerchiefs are simple switches that can have a big impact long-term.

Bring reusables with you

Trash can sometimes seem unavoidable when you’re out and about - paper cups at coffee shops, styrofoam containers at restaurants for leftovers, paper napkins at your favorite local ice cream shop. Think through the types of trash that you run into outside the home and put together a small kit of reusable items that can help replace them. For example, you could use a reusable thermos for coffee on the go, bring a cloth napkin with you when meeting a friend for lunch, and tuck a reusable food container in your bag if you think you'll have leftovers after a meal out at a restaurant.

Shop secondhand

Most of what you need likely already exists. If you're able, consider checking at your local thrift store before heading to buy anything new. Secondhand goods have a much smaller carbon footprint than new, often allow you to support local businesses or charities, and are often much cheaper than new goods. You can find a list of Chicago-area secondhand stores here!

Mend/repair what you have

It can be cheaper and easier to buy something new than to fix something that's broken, but an ethic of care and repair can help us move away from being a culture of disposable goods and planned obsolescence. If you have the time and talent to fix something, set it aside to tackle when you can find the time. If you don’t have the skills to mend something yourself, it might be an opportunity to support a local business (like a cobbler or seamstress) or to learn a new skill.

Step 3: Reduce what you need.

Buy to last

Durable goods last longer and can save you money long-term over goods that are made without longevity in mind. If you have the ability to spend more on longer-lasting goods, you can drastically reduce what you throw away. You an check out our Where to Shop pages for more information on durable, plastic-free goods you might need for your transition to zero waste and where you can buy them locally.

Mindful consumerism

Mindful consumerism means choosing secondhand products, new products made to last for life (we like to look for lifetime guarantees, warranties, or company-wide repair or recycling policies), and trying to purchase only what you really need. It can take time to make this a well-engrained habit, but starting to slowly consider your purchases more carefully is central to living more lightly on the planet.

Just say no

There are so many freebies and samples that can come into our lives, from gift bags at the dentist to samples of new products at summer street festivals. They're often poorly made, plastic, or just simply unnecessary (even useless!). We try to politely refuse free items that we don’t need, from a flyer handed out on the street to a packaged snack at an event.

Reduce plastics

While some plastics are recyclable, the quality of plastic degrades over time until eventually it can no longer be recycled and must be sent to a landfill. In addition, plastic goods improperly disposed of end up polluting land and waterways, and can have devastating effects on the health of those areas. When possible, try to choose non-plastic goods and packaging over plastic.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways that you can reduce how much waste you produce. For more ideas, you can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. And, if you’d like to learn more about how you and your community can reduce waste, we'd love for you to contact us with questions or to schedule a workshop.