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Less waste in, less waste out

For some time, I thought that having half the garbage and twice the recycling as most of our neighbors meant we were somehow gentler on the planet.

I’ve since come to find that having a full recycling bin actually meant our family was sending almost 2500 gallons of waste out of our home each year.

Not to mention the time we were wasting, managing 2500 gallons of paper, plastic, and cardboard.

I took an inventory of our bin and found that a majority of our recycling came into our house in one of two ways:

  • mail – catalogs, magazines, medical bills, ads, coupons, and solicitations
  • packaging – food, personal care, gifts and cardboard boxes

Then I got busy figuring out how to reduce that by at least 50%. As I learned in my favorite book on this subject, refusing to bring waste into our homes is a lot better use of our time than trying to reuse or recycle it.

Less mail

For several weeks, I went through the mail and stacked anything I would normally recycle in a pile. At the end of each week, I would grab my computer and take 15 minutes to email every company something simple like, “Please remove me from your mailing list. My address is….”

I logged in to each retirement account and set the mailing schedule to quarterly only. All of the bills and bank statements were set to paperless. I unsubscribed myself from coupon and catalog mailings because most of it is available online anyway.

I registered at DMAchoice,, and to cancel catalogs, credit card and insurance offers. Through, I canceled the 4 yellow pages directories I was receiving.

I suspect this will reduce our unneeded mail by over 50% and I hope to keep hacking away at it over time.


Less food packaging

Although canned and prepackaged foods are not a big part of our diet, most of the food we buy still has some form of packaging. The grains, meat, dairy and even the produce is occasionally packaged. The best way to get around that is to buy in bulk.

The natural grocery store where I regularly shop doesn’t carry any items in bulk, so I visited a nearby Whole Foods, a store I know to have a wide bulk selection.  I live in a town of only 80,000 people, so my bulk grocery shopping options are limited to just two or three stores.

I was really surprised at the items I can buy in addition to the typical flour, sugar, nuts and beans I had expected to find.  Maple syrup, vanilla, honey, sea salt, tea, olives and coconut oil are all items I would typically buy in a package that would later be recycled – many at prices comparable to what I am already paying, and in some cases, cheaper!


I have a stockpile of mason jars for preserving food so I’m using them for bulk food storage, and the grocer was happy to weigh my jars before filling them (I leave the weight labeled on each jar so I don’t have to do this on every trip).  I also have several reusable bags on hand that I use for hauling produce and fresh bread home.

I haven’t found a replacement for every item we use but I really like the simplicity of buying high quality, fresh ingredients in just the amount we need, minus the packaging.

Less cardboard boxes

My husband, Joe, likes to joke that Fedex knows me personally. Between having two kids and limited options in a smaller city, I’ve found online shopping to be the most efficient use of my time and money. Unfortunately, that has come with a large amount of cardboard and packaging materials.

In the past, I’ve typically purchased groceries, personal care, household, gifts and clothing from online retailers. I’ve recently found conditioner, castile soap and lotion in bulk locally.  I’m switching my feminine care routine over to a reusable option and I already use a few homemade products such as eye makeup remover and oil cleansing.

Each month for the past year, we have received a box of toilet paper at our front door. I found a similar priced option locally and stocked up with a few coupons. It’s not perfect – toilet paper has a lot of packaging – but it’s a step forward.

Although I don’t see us eliminating online shopping completely, we’ve already started to reduce our dependence on this source of goods. I expect gifts and clothing to be the last to go because my favorite stores aren’t local, but you have to start somewhere, right? And I believe we have.

How do you simplify the waste in your home?

Reading Time:

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  1. Casey

    You MUST try the free app: PaperKarma…. my FAVE!! Eliminates junk mail, quick & easy.

  2. Heybeckyj

    I was just going to recommend PaperKarma, but Casey beat me

  3. Robin from Frugal Family Times

    At our place boxes and paper make a pit stop in our crafty kids hands. It eventually gets recycled – but first it’s a house for rhinos or a diorama. I feel better about the waste if it gets used really well first.

    Thanks for the tips, Tiffany – I am hopeful the websites are valid for Canada too. 🙂

  4. Dee

    Love the article and ideas. However, it should be “fewer cardboard boxes” not less. Sorry – less/fewer grammar errors are my pet peeve!

  5. Jessica

    This post has really got me thinking. Our recycling pile mounts up so quickly and I’d love to reduce the need to recycle in the first place, I’ve never thought of it like this. We’re attempting to be more green as a family and I’d love to start making my own beauty and cleaning products, not entirely sure what can and can’t be made from home though, do you have any ideas or links to help me get started?

  6. CelloMom

    What a wonderful post! thanks for listing all those places where you can take your name off mailing lists (and why does it still take 6-8 weeks for the catalogs to stop falling into your mailbox? – that’s how long it took back in 1975).
    Very little plastic is actually re-cycled: most of it is down-cycled, as in PET bottles into fleece hoodies, not into new bottles, so yes, you’re absolutely right, recycling should be way down on the list, after reducing, re-thinking, repairing, re-purposing and a bunch of other R’s.
    For clothes, we’re starting to really like the local consignment stores – and not to forget the VA and Goodwill stores: one mom’s junk is another mom’s treasure!

  7. Lisa

    I had been feeling pretty good about myself, too! More recycling than garbage. You’ve got me rethinking my approach to being a bit of a conservationist.

  8. Michelle

    I love the thoughts! For me, Whole Foods is 40 minutes away even though I’m in the suburbs of Phila – can you believe it!? Even Wegman’s is 20 minutes away. But I love the idea of bulk. I’ve recently purchased reusuable sandwich bags and am getting ready to purchase reusable produce bags. Hopefully, somehow, I’ll be able to use less “waste” in our home too.

  9. Faigie

    I would think that I would have to be REALLY dedicated to less waste to bother emailing all those companies to stop sending me that junk mail…basically my LAZINESS gets in the way 🙂

    • Joey

      We have Red Dot in Canada (perhaps there is something similar where you live?) By adding the Red Dot symbol to your post box the carrier knows not to deliver anything send “admail”. You still get “addressed mail” but I found it really got rid of a lot of junk mail with very little effort on my part.
      ~ joey ~

      • Alissa

        That is AMAZING! Don’t think we have it in the US though. =(

    • Mie

      Thank you for posting, good perspective on things!
      unfortunately, in Denmark we don’t have bulk super markets. I’d love to get less packaging. Already bring reusable totes and produce bags to the stores. Once you get the habit, you wouldn’t do without them.

      @Faigie Lazy is when you unsubscribe and go paperless, so you can avoid the hazzle of recycling. Lazy is not keeping the catalogues – get started!


  10. Karin

    I too thought we were doing so well by having our recycling bin fuller than the regular trash, but avoiding even the recycled stuff is the real goal. I know I’ll never go as all out radical as Bea Johnson (“Zero Waste Home” author); it takes guts to show up at the meat counter with your own jar asking, “Fill this with ground beef, please!” But the reduction of junk mail – absolutely. Hooray for online subscriptions and cyber-billing.

  11. Susan NC Price

    Great reminders. Haven’t got a lot of junk mail at the moment but getting rid of the 4+ yellow pages would be wonderful, since we do all our phone lookups online.

    We dropped newspaper and magazine print subscriptions in favor of online. Our biggest single recycle category is aluminum cans–friends of our sons drink while gaming. And we get paid for those at a metals recycle place, giving the “take” to a local animal rescue group.

    I stand with the people who’ve mentioned creative reuse of nearly anything: I give old jeans to quilters, find art & preschool teachers who can use miscellaneous no-longer-used craft materials or magazines with lots of photos, etc.

  12. Taylor-Made Ranch Homestead

    We do many of the same things you do with regard to opting out of promotional mailings and receiving our statements electronically – it’s made a huge impact on the barrage of paper into this house. Much of the paper that’s left is sent to my composter as there is a need for ‘browns’ as well as ‘greens’ to compost properly. I also refuse packaging wherever possible. Instead of a jar of jalapenos I buy a raw jalapeno & slice it into the pickled jalapeno jar. I buy fresh instead of frozen or canned whenever possible, and if my option is canned vs frozen, I opt for frozen as I often use heavy bags from frozen foods to re-wrap my own homemade frozen foods then place inside a freezer bag – this allows me to reuse that freezer bag 9 times out of 10 as no food ever touches it. And of course much packaging can be eliminated if you make it yourself – yogurt is ridiculously easy to make, as is most condiments and convenience foods. I can’t do it all & to me it’s all about moderation, but it matters to me to do quite a bit.

    ~Taylor-Made Ranch~
    Wolfe City, Texas

  13. Bek @ Just For Daisy

    Love it! Thankfully because we’re rural/remote we don’t get junk mail delivered. However, I will sign up to those sites to ensure we don’t get the unsolicited mail offers that do occasionally come.
    I’m also going to do an inventory of the mail from banks, insurers etc too. Thanks for sharing your tips! 🙂

  14. Mary Lenahan

    Thanks for the great blog post! I went to the websites you posted and signed up to opt out of junk mail, catalogs and phone books. I also shared these links with my fellow FB friends.

    Thank you for making me reevaluate my recycling bin!


  15. Wynne

    I’ve had good luck with Freecycling packaging from online purchases –others want the boxes and packing pillows.

    • Tiffany

      Wynne – what a great idea. Thanks for mentioning it!

  16. Trenholm M

    I grew up in a town of 5,000 people. We grew veggies in a garden to eliminate waste. I also love Whole Foods 🙂

  17. Leah

    GO BULK! We are huge proponents of bulk food and shared on our facebook wall 🙂 Not only is it cost-effective, but it means your purchases are based on KNOWLEDGE about the item, instead of being based on MARKETING on the package… Thanks for this piece and we hope it keeps the bins empty from the get-go!

  18. Vivian

    I had to chuckle a little when I saw the intro to your article, I knew right away where you were going! As a mother of seven children, we can generate some trash! Or at least we could, but we cook from scratch, I don’t shop enough to get a lot of catalogs, and we work at recycling items before we toss them. I live in a little suburban neighborhood, and on trash day we have the least amount of trash often only one half full can. The biggest factor I see is we rarely by processed food, so there are fewer boxes and plastics to toss. We also have chickens and they take care of the kitchen scraps that don’t go to the compost. All that being said, we have an obscene glass recycling bin durring football season, as we host the ‘guys’ every Sunday for the ‘game’

    • Tiffany

      Hi Vivian! A thought on your “glass” problem, do you have a local location where you can buy pony kegs or growlers? It’s one option for refillable containers for beer.

  19. Alissa

    I came to this same realization about a year ago! The saying goes:
    Reduce – Reuse – Recycle
    for good reason.

    My intention goes in seasons – and this is a good reminder because I think I’m back in a “high” season for recycleable waste right now. Need to tackle the bulk mail. And, as the holiday season approaches, I know I’ll be tempted to buy a lot of stuff online – hello Amazon Prime! Just the other day, I made a mental note to use my wish list to track the things I INTEND to purchase over the course of several weeks, so that I can put everything into just a couple larger shipments.

    • Tiffany

      Hey Alissa, the author of the book I mentioned above (Zero Waste Home) has added to the mantra. She uses Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. A lot of the things I mentioned above came out of my desire to Refuse to bring unnecessary items into our home.

  20. Celia

    I love the zero waste approach but in the UK there are so few scoop your own bulk stores, I could almost say none! I wish Whole Foods would open up over here…maybe I should email them?

  21. Chelsea

    We recycle our cardboard boxes as much as possible by using them to send things out. Baby clothes to go to friends, donations to the charity store, packages to be mailed, etc. If a cardboard box is still in good condition, I try to save it and package things out in it. We often find ourselves only putting our recycling bin out every other week, despite weekly pick-up. We can also compost cardboard where we live, so that helps as well.

  22. Eve

    Hi Tiffany!
    Thank you for this great post. I totally agree with you: we shouldn’t aim at recycling more, but instead refusing and reducing unnecessary consumption. Your post got me thinking about online shopping. Living in a remote Albertain location, I find myself shopping online from time to time. After reading, I immediately sent an email to requesting less packaging and investigating the possibility of avoiding secondary packaging altogether, etc. One voice is a step in the right direction; hopefully more will unite with us to create some change! I have a question for you. When you talk about your regular grocery store and the choice to shop for bulk elsewhere, I’d like to know if you told your regular grocer about your desire to shop for bulk to entice them into rethinking the way they currently do business? If you did, what happened? It might help us reach our goals a bit faster if we tell companies what we really want 🙂
    I’m looking forward to reading more posts from you!

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