It isn’t recycling. It isn’t upcycling or reusing, either. Not even buying local. The number one way to conserve resources, both yours and the planets, is so simple and obvious that it might startle you.
The way to conserve resources is to avoid using them in the first place.
That’s right. It is just that easy. The amount of products people think they cannot live without has burgeoned to such an enormous list that it’s difficult to envision where it will stop. The truth is we just do not need all that stuff. And by learning how to “do without,” we in turn become more self-sufficient.
I have seen more than one post on social media about how those leftover plastic containers from single-use coffees can be used to make cute crafty items. That’s nice, but being able to convert trash to trinkets doesn’t justify creating all that trash. First of all, only a tiny fraction of those little cups are going to be upcycled. And is the end creation really worth using up petroleum and water to make, ship, process, ship again, discard, and ship yet another time?
Wastefulness is by no means limited to coffee containers. Our culture uses disposable and single-use items at every turn. Paper towel, plastic grocery bags, milk jars, soda cans, aluminum foil — it all contributes to a mountain of unnecessary garbage.
I am a big fan of recycling, reusing, upcycling and buying local. But none of those are my first choice. My go-to option is doing without. It has many off-grid benefits.
If you would like to try it my way but do not know where to start, here are some tips to help you begin.
1. Avoid buying food in individual serving containers. Juice boxes, little packages of cookies and crackers and other snacks, pre-made lunches, individually wrapped packets of sugar — the single serving options are endless. While it might be nice to have them for specific occasions, including them in everyday use is probably more about habit than necessity.
Try buying in larger containers and repackaging them yourself. I use glass containers, mason jars, zip-top bags I have washed out for reuse, and even empty plastic deli containers which other people passed on to me.
If larger containers are too much for your household to consume before the food goes bad, consider freezing some of it if you can.
If small packages are a must, you can still use less resources by purchasing from a local health food store where they buy in bulk and repackage in little plastic bags.
2. Try other ways of minimizing food packaging. The more whole foods you can buy and prepare yourself, the better. A 50-pound bag of flour and a softball-sized bag of yeast are a lot more economical and sustainable than the dozens of loaves of bread you would buy instead.
Preserving food in reusable containers makes a big difference. Instead of having dozens of cans and jars from store-bought tomato sauce and corn and salsa and beans piling up in the recycle bin, we have a tidy stack of mason jars and reusable freezer containers ready to be used again. I do recycle my single-use lids, but many people opt for the reusable canning lids to reduce their waste even further.
If you don’t have your own eggs, buy them locally. I always accept egg carton returns from my egg customers, and our cooperative reuse efforts result in no new egg cartons being produced on our behalf.
I buy raw milk straight from the farm — I drop off my empty half-gallon mason jars and pick up the full ones every week. You may not have that option, but you might be able to buy milk in returnable glass jars at a whole foods store. The jars can be a big initial investment, but they pay off quickly. If you milk your own dairy animals, that’s even better.
3. Avoid ‘throwaway’ cooking pans Cleaning up after roasting a turkey is just not that hard. It’s no worse than scrubbing a pan after cooking omelets or mashed potatoes — or even than plates and utensils, for that matter. That brings me to another point. There is no excuse for using disposable dinnerware on a regular basis. Again, it’s about habit, not need.
4. Minimize your use of aluminum foil and plastic wrap. I am stingy with my foil wrap, using it only when absolutely necessary and cleaning it off for another round whenever I can. Instead of plastic wrap, I reach for those reusable plastic wrap covers that look like shower caps. There are a lot of other reusable options on the market, too, from stretchy rubber covers to universal silicone lids.
5. Don’t limit your conservation to the kitchen. When shopping, don’t forget to reuse bags or buy sturdy canvas ones.
Consider how many bottles of personal hygiene products you go through. I threw my last shampoo and conditioner bottles into the recycle bin about four years ago. My entire household uses handcrafted all-natural bar soap  for bodies and hair, and we love it. We use strictly bar soap in our bathroom sink as well.
6. Replace most of your disposable housecleaning supplies with sustainable choices. You can use and launder cleaning cloths instead of buying paper towels, try a damp washcloth instead of a wet wipe, and use old-fashioned brooms and mops.
If you are already following these practices in your life, I applaud your efforts. If you are still not quite there, it is great that you are moving in the right direction.
A good general rule of thumb is to take notice of everything you dispose of. Whether it lands in the trash, the recycle bin, a thrift store, a donations box at work, or on a resale site — ask yourself if you ever really needed to have it in the first place. It’s a good idea to keep that in mind when you are buying new things — will it end up going the way of previous possessions? If so, try going without it. And in that way, you can practice the very best way of avoiding consumption.
What would you add to this list? Share your tips in the section below: