How We Went Zero Waste as a Family

After watching a documentary about the zero-waste movement, my family and I decided to make some serious changes. Turns out, going zero waste wasn't as hard as we thought.

Debra Wallace with her husband and six kids
This family of eight produces only half a kitchen-size bag of trash a week. . Photo: Courtesy of Wallace family

It started five years ago, on Documentary Night, which our family enjoys each Friday. (Back then it was us and our four kids, but now we have six, ages 1 to 15.) We chose an episode of Morgan Spurlock Inside Man called “United States of Trash,” about the zero-waste movement. It was like a conversion experience. We suddenly realized we were consuming so much.

Almost immediately, we vowed as a family to make some serious changes. Through trial and error, we learned that the best way to go zero waste is to pick one thing to tweak, wait until that change sticks, then add something else.

First, we started composting. Then we tackled the disposable-diaper situation, switching to cloth. We now prefer them! And once we’d gotten used to that idea, switching from toilet paper to reusable fabric wipes that take the place of TP seemed like a no-brainer. (Yes, I know how that sounds. I swear it’s not as gross as you think! We have a clip-on bidet to wash with first.) We switched to local meat, dairy, and eggs. We planted a garden, which was a significant shift, and now one of my kids’ favorite things to do is go outside and pick their own snacks.

Slowly, over the years, we made big changes and small, easy ones too: I switched to a metal razor and bought reusable menstrual products. We looked at everything in our home, and if there was a way to replace something with a reusable version, in most cases we did. We’re down to about half a kitchen-size bag of trash per week.

Are we perfect? No. I have six kids! I give myself room to get it mostly right. Also, my husband loves chips, and I can’t make Doritos from scratch. But that’s fine. We don’t need everyone doing zero waste perfectly—we just need everyone trying to do the best they can.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2020 issue as “Think Big for Your Family.”

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