“Simply defined, zero waste means not sending anything to the landfill,” says Bill Hoffman, UL corporate fellow and research scientist for UL Environment. Think back to your grandparents (or great grandparents) using every part of the animals they raised and hunted, or how they took product packaging and repurposed it into items such as feedsack dresses. They let nothing go to waste, and the zero waste lifestyle embraces that mentality.

Today, on average, Americans each produce nearly 4.40 pounds of landfill-bound garbage every day, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Behind all of our massive waste is the bigger picture – the demands of our throwaway lifestyles on the planet, eating up finite resources, as explained in the video “The Story of Stuff.”

Plastic is particularly nefarious, as it takes hundreds of years to decompose fully, yet breaks down into toxic microplastics in the meantime, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration. We clog the oceans with 5-12.7 million metric tons of plastic every single year, according to UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. This pollution kills at least 100,000 marine animals and more than 1 million sea birds every year, reports Ocean Crusaders.

Help reduce these negative impacts by taking your own version of the zero waste challenge. First, examine your purchasing patterns, and then make changes.

“To get to zero waste, everything should be recycled, composted or eliminated,” Hoffman says. Although it won’t be easy, Hoffman adds, some families have done it – or gotten close. Any changes you make toward becoming a more sustainable consumer add up. You can:

1. Swap plastic water bottles with your own reusable bottle – and bring your own reusable traveling mug to coffee shops. Loulou River urges these as steps No. 1 and 2 in her book The Ultimate 66 Day Challenge - The Zero Waste Challenge How to Guide. She points out that even recycling water bottles only reduces the energy needed to create a new one by 10 percent because it’s super energy intensive to recycle plastic, so these bottles usually don’t get recycled even when you throw them in the recycling bin (but do recycle them if you find them to help keep them out of our oceans and other waterways). According to Greenpeace, the top six soft drink companies only use a combined 6.6 percent of recycle plastic in their plastic bottles. As for takeout coffee cups, most of these can’t be recycled, meaning 2.5 billion get tossed into landfills every year.

2. Invest in your own reusable metal or glass straw and pack it with you. Americans use 500 million disposable plastic straws a day, enough straw waste to wrap the circumference of the earth 2.5 times or to fill Yankee Stadium over nine times in a year, according to the Last Plastic Straw.

3. Bring your own containers for restaurant leftovers or takeout food. Plastic pollution of all kinds causes so much damage that Earth Day Network made it the focus of Earth Day 2018 and offers a free kit with tips that can help you to reduce your family’s use of plastics.

4. Think about the 5Rs, as Bea Johnson describes in Zero Waste Home, The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing your Waste:

  • Reduce what you do not need.
  • Reduce what you do need.
  • Reuse (or repair) what you consume.
  • Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
  • Rot (compost) whatever you can.

5. In practicality, this means taking steps like these from Amy Korst’s The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less:

  • Shop the bulk aisle for savings and to reduce packaging waste, consider buying eggs from a local farm/farmer’s market to avoid the egg cartons waste, and consider sourcing meat from a local farmer.
  • Purchase gently used items and donate them when you’re finished using them.
  • Keep reusable bags in your purse or car.
  • Reduce food waste.

With these types of changes, mixed in with your family’s creative ideas, you’ll get closer to a zero waste lifestyle. And that makes a difference. As the Dalai Lama says, "This planet is our only home; we are all responsible for taking care of it.”