low waste living

Tips for Living a Low Waste Lifestyle

COVID-19 is going to be affecting our way of life for some time. Let’s stay positive! I will focus on steps you can take to maintain sustainable low waste choices in your everyday life, even during this pandemic.

I’ve written about topics like recycling, composting, and choosing organic.

With COVID-19, many sustainable programs (bringing your own grocery bags, bringing your own coffee cup) have been put on hold due to fear of contamination and keeping workers safe. I completely understand.

Yet there are still ways to reduce plastic, recycle more effectively, and live a low waste lifestyle.

I will touch on topics like the Starbucks coffee cup (still not recyclable— due to the plastic lining) and Amazon plastic packaging (not recyclable in our WM curbside service in Reno).

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Plastic film packaging: What is It? What do you do with it?

Plastic film— also known as plastic film packaging— is soft, flexible polyethylene (PE) packaging such as grocery, produce, bread, zip-top and dry cleaning bags. It’s also the wrap around many products including paper towels, napkins, bathroom tissue, diapers, and more.

It’s also what Amazon uses in a lot of their packaging: air pillows, bubble envelopes, and bubble wrap.

This is a big one. I don’t know about you, but I feel bombarded by plastic film packaging. This is the stuff that is not recyclable in our curbside program. Packaging is on everything.

It is an effective barrier because it keeps items clean, but it also ends up in the landfill. It takes up to 20 years for a plastic bag to degrade in the landfill.


Collect all plastic film packaging in your household. Make sure it is clean, dry, and free of any food residue. Deflate air pillows and take paper labels off bubble envelopes.

Next step: Go to this website to find a drop off location. Call beforehand to make sure these retailers are still accepting recycling during the pandemic. As you can see, many retailers are part of this program. Raley’s, Walmart, Safeway, Lowe’s, Kohl’s. You are certain to find a drop off location near you!

Which grocery stores have temporarily banned reusable bags? Which haven’t?

Currently, because of COVID-19, some major chains don’t allow you to bring your own reusable bags. I can understand this because there is a fear of contamination and we want to protect front line workers. Raley’s, Safeway, and Whole Foods (among others) have banned reusable bags at the moment.

Natural Grocers, Great Basic Community Food Co-Op, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts (among others) give you an option of bagging your own groceries and bringing your own reusable bags— if you follow safety guidelines.

Make sure to check with your grocery clerk— rules and guidelines change frequently.

Bag your own groceries with these guidelines

There are guidelines to bringing your own bags to the grocery store. In some cases you are permitted to bag your own groceries if you follow this protocol:

  • bags are not placed on conveyor belts or any other area outside of shopping carts.
  • bags make no contact with employees.
  • groceries can be placed in a cart and bagged elsewhere (like at your car).

Target has reinstated allowing reusable bags

As of June 24, Target will accept reusable bags to use in bagging purchases and resume selling reusable bags in stores.

What are Reno’s Recycling Rules? Learn to “Recycle Right”

Reno, Nevada has been using single-stream recycling since 1991. I’ve written about this topic before and there are so many limitations to what you can put in your bin.

Even for someone like me (who loves to research this stuff!), there are confusing and hard to remember rules that are not explained in detail— the average WM customer is probably not recycling correctly. I hope I can shed some light on this!

The #1 problem that keeps your recyclables from being recycled: contamination.

Food contamination is a problem. This makes sense if you remember there are workers that have to hand sort items out of the recycling equipment that doesn’t belong there.

There are only 4 groups of recyclables that are accepted:

  • Metals
  • paper/cardboard
  • Glass
  • plastics

Recycling Tip:

Clean and rinse all recyclables, including foil. Collect clean foil into a larger ball so it is not too light to blow off the equipment.

Remove tops from glass jars.

Inspect plastics to make sure they are labeled #1-7. Do not include hard plastics, Starbucks cups, baby pouches/tops, plastic film of any kind, or any specialty item like batteries, bulbs, or electronics. See KTMB’s resource link to dispose of those items.

Rule of Thumb

If there is any food residue, it will not make the cut to be recycled. One misconception is that paper towels are recyclable. Contaminates like food or liquid on a paper towel will ruin a batch of paper recycling. Paper towels go in the trash— or compost!

Next Step: Learn how to “Recycle Right”!

Disposable PPE is not recyclable… Wear a cloth mask

In this age of COVID-19, it is now a state mandate to wear a face mask in all public spaces. It might seem obvious that these items aren’t recyclable, but personal protective equipment (disposable gloves and facemasks) are being tossed into recycling bins more often than you think.

Disposable gloves, facemasks, and other contaminated items belong in the trash.

Did you know that PPE waste and incorrect disposal is becoming an environmental hazard? Here is a fascinating article about this topic, written for Sierra, the national online magazine of the Sierra Club.

Mask Tip

For the average healthy person in Reno, there is one thing you can do to reduce waste— wear a fabric mask that you can wash between wearing. These masks from The Gap are great for your whole family.

Next step: See this CDC link to information on why you should wear a fabric face covering and how to wash them.

Consider a Composting Collection Service

A compost collection service can be an easy way to do your small part to make Reno more sustainable. I’ve written about our family’s experience with Down to Earth Composting in a recent post, and I am happy to report that this Reno start-up hasn’t missed a beat since the pandemic began.

Their business model already practices social distancing. You simply collect kitchen waste and leave your collection bucket on your porch once a week for collection. They swap out your bucket for a clean one.

I became interested in composting when I learned that about 50% of what our community sends to the landfill is compostable.

I also read statistics from the City of Reno’s Sustainability and Climate Change Action Plan 2019-2025 and I was disheartened to learn that Reno’s current waste generation— per person, per day— is almost double the national average.

starbucks mugs

Reconsider Starbucks Single-Use Non Recyclable Cup

Before the pandemic took hold of our communities and way of life, Starbucks had been testing a new prototype cup with a biodegradable liner in 5 cities. Not in Reno, unfortunately.

There is a misconception that Starbucks cups are recyclable. They are not. Because of the plastic liner inside, it cannot be recycled. (The plastic lid however can be recycled.)

Starbucks has a goal to develop 100% compostable and recyclable hot cups by 2022, but for now, cups go straight into the landfill and take up to 30 years to degrade.

Understandably, Starbucks has banned customers from bringing in their own mug during COVID-19.

Coffee Tip:

Support a local coffee roaster in Reno. You can buy fresh coffee beans to grind at home and support the local economy. If you are out and about, bring your tumbler. Making coffee at home has never been so sustainable! (and cost-effective)

packaging tips

What to do with Amazon packaging

As mentioned earlier in this post, Amazon’s air pillows, bubble envelopes, and bubble wrap cannot be recycled in WM curbside service in Reno.

The best solution I’ve been able to find is to bundle all these plastic items together. Deflate the air pillows and peel off labels off plastic bubble envelopes. Keep all plastic clean, dry and free of debris and collect with all your other plastic film packaging (plastic grocery bags, etc.). Find a drop off location that has a plastic film recycling program.

Little known fact: The bubble lined paper mailer (that is made of orange paper and lined with plastic) is particularly bad for the environment.

Even on Amazon’s website, they admit this envelope is zero percent recyclable and goes directly into the trash (landfill.) See this link for more information.

Packaging Tip:

You cannot request specific packaging from Amazon at checkout. If you choose to order through Amazon, try and order enough items at one time to warrant a cardboard box that can be easily reused and recycled.

Resource page from KTMB (Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful)

KTMB has a great list of resources for every item you can imagine that you need to dispose of during COVID-19. They have updated information to reflect any changes or modifications in service during the pandemic.

If you’re inspired… Plastic Free July

Have you heard of Plastic Free July?

Plastic Free July a movement that inspires individuals and families worldwide to choose a future with cleaner communities and oceans by refusing to use single-use plastics.

It is a great opportunity to get people thinking and talking about plastic pollution and a time to look for alternatives!

Plastic Free Tip:

Commit to one month of trying to avoid disposable plastic. For example: Pick one disposable item to avoid all month, like single-use plastic straws, coffee cups, grocery bags, or water bottles, and create a new solid habit of bringing your own reusables!

A Greener Future

I hope this post encourages you and your family to make sustainable choices in your everyday life, even during this pandemic. As you can see, there are still ways to reduce plastic, recycle more effectively, and live a low waste lifestyle.

If we make more sustainable choices collectively, just think what we could accomplish!

Maureen Lowe
Maureen Lowe

Maureen Lowe is a Bay Area native that relocated to the high desert mountains of Southwest Reno with her family in 2017. Mama to her active pup and toddler boy, Maureen is a textile designer and graduate of CCA San Francisco. With a lifelong love of nature and the arts, Maureen has made it a mission to explore Reno’s scenic trails and cultural offerings to find kid and dog-friendly outings that work in all seasons.