This blog explains how to start zero waste from scratch
Zero waste shopping Bay Area

How to start zero waste from zero

Since moving to California about a month ago, I’ve not posted one single thing about zero waste. No blog update. No Instagram post. No Facebook share. Nothing. Nada. Nichts.

This blog explains how to start zero waste from scratch
The San Francisco bay. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Did I have writer’s block? Was there nothing worth sharing? Have I given up on zero waste?

The truth is, I just felt overwhelmed and defeated and didn’t know where to start.

Even though I had only begun our zero waste journey in the UK about a year before we moved to the US, I felt like I had kinda figured out how to do zero waste back in Warwickshire.

And now here I was in the US and everything was different. Not necessarily worse… maybe just more extreme. Major supermarkets with zero waste aisles… yeay! Coffee shops serving all their drinks in plastic cups… boo! Etc.

On top of that, I had to buy so much stuff, some of it new, a lot of it in packaging, due to lack of time, knowledge, equipment, etc.

I felt like I knew nothing about zero waste and was doing it all wrong.

Sounds familiar?

But then I realized that every new start in zero waste is an opportunity, and that many of us will have been in a similar situation (moving to a new city, for example), or will encounter it at some point (deciding to ditch the plastic from your home and setting off from scratch).

So I just threw myself out there and made the quest for zero waste part of exploring my new home. I discovered areas I wouldn’t have visited had I stuck to the tourist trail. I met lovely people I would have never met otherwise. And I saved more money than I could have ever imagined.

A bicycle is a useful tool for shopping zero waste
My first attempted zero waste shop – with my bicycle in front of Trader Joe’s in Fremont

In this blog post I’m sharing my experience of starting zero waste from zero (again) and giving three useful tips on how to approach it. The key learning for me was that however you approach zero waste from zero, it’s not going to be perfect and that’s ok. And it’s better to start now than later – for the planet, for your wallet and for yourself.

How to start zero waste from scratch

Whether you’ve just started college in a different city, moved for a new job, bought your first house in a different area… or have decided that enough plastic is enough and you’re going to give your existing household a zero waste overhaul – now is a good opportunity to embark on your zero waste life!

We’ve just moved to Fremont, in the East Bay area near San Francisco, California, and this is how I (re-)started my zero waste life over here:

  1. Check out local thrift shops, farmers markets and grocery stores as part of exploring your new area
  2. Join hyper local apps and use online market places like Nextdoor, Facebook, Craigslist, etc.
  3. Call on your local community for tips and actions to help with zero waste

1 Check out local thrift shops, farmers markets and grocery stores as part of exploring your new area

Two of the biggest hurdles to zero waste are a 1) lack of knowledge (how to find stuff in bulk / without packaging / second hand) and 2) a lack of equipment (you don’t need much “equipment” as such for zero waste, but some form of containers and shopping bags are needed to buy stuff in bulk and without packaging). So start building your knowledge and collect equipment as soon as you move and start exploring:

Thrift stores (charity shops for the UK reader) are a great resource – they often sell glass jars, reusable coffee cups, sandwich boxes, jute bags, etc. for a fraction of the cost of buying them new. Who knows, you might discover new things in the area as you seek them out.

And, if like me, you actually need an entire new household (we left most of our stuff in our house in the UK to avoid shipping costs and emissions), you can pick up furniture, pots and pans, crockery, glasses, cutlery for your kitchen as you go along (again for pennies compared to buying it new).

How to start zero waste using thrift shops
The Vincent St. Paul’s thrift shop in Fremont is great for buying used furniture

Next up are your actual grocery needs – foods n stuff. Check out your local (farmers’) market(s) if there is one (I pray for you that there is). Farmers’ markets are your best bet for buying fruit & veg package free, and if you buy seasonal produce, you’ll also end up being healthier and spending less money.

If you’re lucky, the market may also have other stalls selling bread, cheese, meat, spices etc., making zero waste shopping even easier. We’ve been incredibly lucky again with our location: Fremont has four (!) farmers’ markets (or five if you count Newark, too), on three different days. Reviews to follow!

Shop zero waste at farmers markets
Image by linsight from Pixabay

If you’ve won the zero waste jackpot with your latest move, you’ll also have access to zero waste or bulk stores – these are specialty stores selling pantry staples like grains, pulses, pasta, flour, spices, and cleaning and/or beauty products in bulk. They are the key to taking your zero waste lifestyle to the next level as you’ll be able to get many ingredients or household products in bulk by weight when you bring your own container. I’ve not found one of these in our area yet but we are quite lucky with the grocery stores / supermarkets around here – see below.

Finally, the last resort – grocery stores. Before you give up any hope on becoming zero waste, do give your local grocery store a try. Even if you feel like it just screams “PLASTIC” at you as you walk in, it may surprise you after all. Have a look at the fruit & veg – maybe it has that unwrapped cucumber that’s so hard to find elsewhere? Does it have a butcher, fish counter or fresh bakery section where you can put your bread in your own cloth bag? Or does it sell nuts and snacks in bulk?

This was probably the biggest positive surprise for me here, in that even major grocery stores like Safeway have bulk aisles where you can get pulses, cereals, nuts, snacks etc. package free. So much more advanced than the UK!

A zero waste heaven bulk aisle
I found this in a normal grocery store… Amazing, I know, right!?

It’s also worth checking out smaller grocery stores run by/for local ethnic communities, such as your Chinese, Mexican, Afghan, etc., store. They’re usually good for spices and/or nuts and grains in bulk, and fresh produce and/or meat tends to be cheaper.

2 Join hyper local apps and use online market places like Nextdoor, Facebook, Craigslist, etc.

I realize this is a bit of a no-brainer and you’re probably already doing this to save money, get stuff second hand etc. But it wasn’t until we moved here that I recognized the full potential of these networks. It’s amazing what people give away for free or sell for next to nothing. In fact, it seems like the more advanced and/or wealthy an area is (Silicon Valley in our case), the crazier it gets.

People just put stuff out on their street for free, take a snapshot of it and post it on Facebook/Nextdoor/Craigslist. Then it’s first come, first serve. Or they sell perfectly good furniture for very little money because everyone is moving in or out of this area all the time.

Second hand furniture helps with zero waste
Our living room. The sofa is new(ish), everything else was bought second hand.

We’ve managed to buy almost our entire household equipment second hand for less than $1,000 ($974 to be precise) so far – it would have been at least 5x more had we bought everything new. How we did it is one for another post…

3 Call on your local community for tips and actions to help with zero waste

No matter where in the world you’ve moved to or where you’re starting zero waste from zero, there are bound to be other people who care about the matter, too. And using the online networks mentioned above is a great way to meet these people, virtually or in person. For me, this was certainly one of the loveliest experiences of our move here and one that instantly made me feel welcome in the area.

Try having a look for the following communities and online groups:

For example, I spotted an event on Nextdoor where the company that runs the local trash collection and recycling contract gave a talk on zero waste and recycling. It was very informative and there were people of all ages and walks of life in attendance, and I met some great people there and got lots of tips and insights on how recycling works in the US compared to Europe (again, some of it more advanced and some less so. As a fellow zero waster you know that recycling is only the last resort, anyways).

Recycling is only the last resort for zero waste
Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

As a result of this, I was then able to comment on a thread on Nextdoor where a woman wondered whether fast food containers labelled ‘compostable’ are in fact composted in local recycling or not (they are! luckily…). Another person complained about the amounts of plastic used by local grocery store chain Trader Joe’s, and I was able to share some insights on the UK’s “the mass unwrap” and “#ourplasticfeedback” campaigns… now some ladies are under way to organize a mass unwrap over here!

  • Any miscellaneous interest-based groups – two seemingly unrelated groups massively helped with my zero waste journey here.

Firstly, I joined the “Germans in the Bay Area” Facebook group, more out of interest and to help with some admin-type questions (the group has over 4,200 members – who would have thought!). One of my problems for my zero waste shopping was that we only had one rental car here which Simon needed to get to work, and my beloved bicycle was still on a shipping container somewhere over the Atlantic…

So I just asked the community if anyone had a spare bicycle that I could borrow for the time being and, boom – within minutes I had three offers. I then did the same again for helmet and lock and was able to borrow those, as well, saving me from having to buy them new or renting, and thus saving money, too.

Germans in traditional costumes
Recent meet-up of the “Germans in the Bay Area” Facebook group. Just kidding.
Image by Alexandre Gonçalves da Rocha from Pixabay

As it turns out the lovely fellow German woman who lent me her bicycle is a vegan nutritionist, an avid bread lover (of course) and makes her own sourdough bread – something I’ve always wanted to do as part of my zero waste foods I make myself but never got round to doing it. So expect an article on that soon!

Secondly, I joined the “Peninsula work club” on Nextdoor – as it says on the tin, in the land of freelancers and home workers, this is a group where exactly those kind of people meet up in a coffee shop or meeting room to work, so that they don’t die from loneliness in their home office.

In that group I met a lovely Portuguese woman who not only runs her own marketing consultancy (something I aspire to, too, in my professional life ;-)), but is also super passionate about zero waste. She gave me lots of tips on online resources like Zero Waste California (an online directory of zero waste shops in the area, and a zero waste community), and more online and thrift shops to check out, like the second hand shop Savers.

Don’t worry too much about how to start zero waste… just start

One thing I’ve realized is that it’s better to start your zero waste journey now than never. The world and our planet needs you – no matter where you are and what the zero waste options are where you are – just start, or continue to make small changes, and influence the people around you. It’s a bit of a cliché but I just really love this quote from the zero waste chef:

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.

Anne-marie bonneau, @zerowastechef

Whether you’re doing it as part of a move to a new location, or are just starting out, it’ll give you an opportunity to explore your area through a new lens; to meet new like-minded people; to save (a lot) of money; and to save our planet.

Look at nature when you worry about how to start zero waste
I took a long walk around the lakes near our apartment to calm my zero waste nerves…

Let me know if you’ve struggled with adapting to zero waste after a move, or how you’ve started zero waste from scratch, by posting in the comments below. For more useful zero waste tips, personal views on the topics, and encouragement to make a difference and challenge others, please subscribe to this blog. Cheers, Bettina

10 thoughts on “How to start zero waste from zero”

  1. Hi Bettina, I really enjoyed reading your blog and get all your helpful tips and links, thank you so much for this variety of informations, you are amazing !!!
    I’m one of those persons doing zero waste imperfectly!
    I’m trying to use less waste in our “convenient” (I hate this word in relation to plastic) planet plastic and I agree, it’s not necessary to do it with perfection, just do it every day a little bit, …as so often “less is more”!
    My personally tiny daily rule since years is, “no coffee to go from the sippy cup!”

    Entirely in this sense I‘m looking forward to see you soon for a cozy cup of coffee ☕️🍪 or a nice long walk & talk


    1. Thank you Uli, so glad you like the blog and find it useful! And your “tiny” daily rule of no disposable coffee cup would make such a MASSIVE impact if everyone followed it, so keep going! 🙂 See you soon! Bettina xxx


  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!


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