2021 Zero Waste Essentials that Also Reverse Pollution and Erase Carbon Emissions

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 23, 2021

Every day, it becomes clearer just how rapidly the world is descending into a worse climate crisis. The situation may seem hopeless, but there is still lots you can do to change course and preserve Earth’s biodiversity, including using zero waste essentials.

Even seemingly mundane decisions, such as what type of shampoo or toothpaste you use, can make a big difference in humanity’s chances of reducing the damage dealt to global ecosystems. There are luckily a few things you can replace or upgrade, to reduce your carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and begin undoing human-caused pollution.

An 8 Billion Trees graphic showing how some products can harm humans and nature.

Greener Haircare Products

Haircare is surprisingly destructive to the environment. According to Bob Schildgen of the Sierra Club, even cosmetic products like hair dye have devastating impacts, making up 92,000 tons of waste in the United States each year.1

(Now, this is certainly a lot of beauty products. Still, it only comprises 0.00067 percent of the total waste thrown in American dumps annually.)1

Plus, until recently, lead acetate was allowed in many hair care products. This substance is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. It might also harm birds and mammals, and could potentially damage soil and water quality.2

Fortunately, you can easily find alternatives to such destructive products. There are numerous online tools and databases to help you home in on zero-waste hair products, such as the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep® page. There, you can check your favorite brand’s sustainability ratings, which range from one to ten. You can feel comfortable getting anything that earns an EWG Verified™ rating or 1-2.3

Another harmful haircare product is shampoo. Every facet of these products’ lifecycles contributes to its environmental destruction, spanning several kinds of threats, including:4

  • Ozone depletion
  • Toxicity to humans
  • Particulate matter (PM) pollution, or “particle pollution,” which are microscopic solid or liquid droplets that can severely harm your health5
  • Eutrophication, a sudden proliferation of nutrients in water bodies that trigger algal blooms that kill fish and damage ocean environments6

You can eliminate all these consequences from your daily beauty routine by changing up a single aspect of your hair care product lineup.

Instead of going for the typical liquid shampoo, try something new by buying a dry alternative. Experts at the Ethical Consumer suggest that dry shampoo saves an average of eight minutes of hot water running time and five minutes of blow-drying. This equates to 1.04 kg CO2-equivalent (2.29 lbs CO2-eq) slashed from your day-to-day life.7

Must-Have Sustainable Hygiene Items

Let’s get real. It’s 2021. You’re going to need a few extra hygiene items that’ll keep you safe and clean, whether you’re out and about or still sheltering in place.

The primary item you’ll need to maintain a higher hygiene standard is a face covering. People have all sorts of preferences when it comes to how they’ll protect themselves from COVID. Yet, experts have repeatedly stated that face masks are “critical piece[s] of protective equipment for healthcare workers and civilians.”8

A recent study showed that various fabric masks can be just as effective for defending your health as KN95 or surgical masks. The main issue is ensuring that the face-covering fits. Eugenia O’Kelly, lead author of the study, and colleagues concluded, “Proper fit is absolutely necessary if the mask is to offer the wearer protection.”8

An image of the 8 Billion Trees face bandana.

This is why you might want to go for something like a reusable gaiter face mask. These are excellent, greener alternatives to disposable surgical masks, as they reduce your waste and are recyclable. Plus, depending on where you buy your covering, your purchase will support carbon offset projects directly, too. Talk about reversing pollution!

Additional Sustainable Hygiene Necessities

Of course, the efforts to protect your hygiene should extend far beyond a single mask. Even your proactive health-maintenance practices can be “greenified.” For instance, consider the type of soap you use, or even your toothpaste. If it’s like many products on the market now, it probably contains a specific type of surfactant. This compound helps the soap spread by reducing its surface tension.9

Unfortunately, surfactants are terrible for the environment and your health. They are toxic to aquatic organisms and are not biodegradable, so they can last in natural habitats for years. Plus, excessive use can strip your skin of its natural oils.9

All this considered, it’s best to opt for a soap that is made naturally, with as few harmful ingredients as possible (or none at all).

Scientists recently reported that the increased use of soap during the COVID pandemic exacerbated current environmental issues. The surge in demand led to increased waste from packaging and ecosystem damage from toxicant contamination.10

An image of the 8 Billion Trees biodegradable soaps.

Because of this, experts suggest shopping for soaps made from biodegradable materials. Keep an eye out for products derived from natural compounds, like vegetable oils and plant extracts. These substances have been shown to have properties that will protect you just as well – if not better – than what you’re using right now, including antimicrobial, antifungal, and antioxidant characteristics.10

On the other hand, toothpaste contains ingredients that can devastate wildlife populations, such as sulfates and microbeads.11

Sulfates are in toothpaste and soap, often as the ingredients “sodium lauryl sulfate” (SLS) or “sodium laureth sulfate.” Sadly, these contribute to deforestation because of the ingredient palm oil. Suppliers clear large expanses of forests in Southeast Asia and other places to convert the land to palm plantations, reducing the earth’s natural carbon-sequestering capabilities.11

Microbeads make their way into surrounding water bodies, to later be eaten by confused animals, ultimately killing them when they eat too much.11

An image of the 8 Billion Trees activated charcoal tooth powder.

It only takes swapping out your current toothpaste to cut off your contribution to these issues. By switching to all-natural tooth powder, you can start whittling down your emissions without compromising your dental hygiene. Pair it with biodegradable dental floss to ensure your teeth stay squeaky clean.

An image of the 8 Billion Trees biodegradable dental floss.

Zero-Waste Home Appliances

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) states, “[R]educing your home energy use is the single most effective way to save money and reduce your home’s contribution to climate change.”12 Since more people are spending time at home in 2020-2021, everyone must be smart about their power consumption.

Since specific residential appliances account for a significant fraction of your household’s energy consumption, it’s best to switch those out for more sustainable models.

An image of a washing machine in a laundry room.

Washing and Drying Machines

For example, washing and drying machines often take up a significant portion of home power use. These appliances need lots of energy to heat and clean your clothes, so much that dryers were the fifth biggest energy consumer in American households.

Nationwide, people used about 63 billion kWh of electricity just to dry their clothes in their home drying machines in 2020. This amounted to 6 percent of all electricity used in the US residential sector.13

On the contrary, washing machines only took up 1 percent of this sector’s energy use. Still, this equates to 11 billion kWh of electricity, more than all the electricity consumed in the Dominican Republic in an entire year.14

Dryers haven’t made much progress in efficiency at all, according to the National Resources Defense Council.15 Many are operating on the same old technology with little to no eco-friendly innovation. So, the dryer should be on your radar for household appliance upgrades.

Of course, both washers and dryers have more sustainable alternatives, despite the gap in their performances. For instance, you could switch to an ENERGY STAR model and reduce your energy use on both fronts.

Too big of a commitment? No worries. Even upgrading a single item can dramatically reduce your dryer’s energy use. For example, the US Energy Department states that dryer balls will shrink your footprint by “cutting drying time” and eliminating the need for dryer sheets.16 Add these wool dryer balls to your routine to start erasing your emissions.

An image of the 8 Billion Trees wool balls.

You can also start small and buy a heat-pump dryer instead. A past study demonstrated that these can put a significant dent in your yearly energy use, saving homeowners an average of 312 kWh/year, or 34 percent of their usual electricity consumption.17

(They used the dryer with a high-efficiency washer in the study, so you may want to do the same for better results.)

Household Necessities

Washing and drying machines are sort of a luxury. After all, many people wash their clothes at public laundromats, so they may not have the option to switch to a more sustainable model.

Still, there are some appliances that almost every house would have – some that you can’t (or shouldn’t choose to go without. In these cases, you’ll need to figure out how to make the best of your circumstances by going for the greenest design. Examples of the appliances you should probably update include:

  • Air conditioners and heating units: Your home’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system is a lot more environmentally burdensome than you might realize. This technology is infamous for its association with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a type of “super greenhouse gas” known for having a global warming potential (GWP) 1,000-3,000 times stronger than CO2’s.18
  • Water heaters: This is another appliance that people often forget about in their homes. It works day in and day out. Yet, you don’t interact with it directly each day, leading to a sense of “out of sight, out of mind.” Yet, researchers say that merely switching to tankless water heaters vs tank models could reduce emissions by 175 kg CO2-equivalent (386 lbs CO2-eq) per year. That’s the equivalent of an 18% reduction in emissions, and about 10 gallons less water daily.19
  • Refrigerator: Like HVAC systems, refrigeration is also a leading application of hydrofluorocarbons. Their high GWP has already taken effect in the ozone layer’s destruction. Worse, refrigerators often contain another low-GWP chemical, hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs. When HFOs break down in the atmosphere, they form other compounds that eventually contaminate water and soil.20
  • Lights: Now that so many people have transitioned to home offices, lighting is increasingly essential. This category of energy consumption contributes to ecosystem damage, ocean acidification and toxicity, landfill hazards, and so much more. The most recently developed LEDs are, by far, the best type of light bulb you can get to reduce your emissions.21

A worms eye view of redwood trees on a trail in Sequoia National Park, with 8 Billion Trees watermark.

Products that Reverse Your Carbon Footprint with Trees

So, you’ve gone through the list so far, and you’re not entirely satisfied with your emissions reduction so far. That’s great! It’s always a good thing to be yearning for more planet-saving climate action.

All the products so far have helped reduce your emissions in one way or another. But only a few have really reversed some forms of pollution. Of course, you can’t undo human-caused pollution on your own. Yet, individual action contributes to global progress in slowing and stopping climate change.

With that said, to bump up your climate-positive impact, turn your attention to investing in daily necessities that are not only low- to -no waste, but support carbon offset projects, too.

Offsets exist in many forms, such as the innovation of wood-fueled cookstoves that emit harmful gases. Replacing these with more sustainable units with high-efficiency fuel via offset projects can minimize the community’s exposure to greenhouse gasses (GHGs), and lower these gases’ levels in the atmosphere.

Even better, there are projects devoted entirely to restoring and conserving the world’s forests through programs categorized as forestry carbon offset projects. These consist of planting trees in habitats that have faced significant ecological damage due to human activity, such as logging, forest clearing for agriculture, and disrupting natural wildfire patterns.

Offsets like this give animals their natural habitat back – an effort that’s growing more crucial by the day. Plus, establishing strong forests helps increase the world’s carbon-sequestering capacity, absorbing carbon dioxide into the soil and biomass (the trees’ collective mass).22

As great as it is to reduce your individual footprint, it’s even better to support global efforts in saving the planet with your everyday choices. Look through the items you use the most and make a list of what you can swap out for a greener lifestyle.

Switch to Zero Waste Essentials Today

It’s always surprising to learn just how little effort it takes to reduce your environmental impact significantly. People are often caught off guard when learning about the numerous elements in their lives that contribute to climate change. Yet, it only takes some willpower and a love for the planet to stop these harms in their tracks.

By swapping out items like your soap, toothpaste, and even dryer sheets, you can rapidly minimize your emissions and make the world a healthier, more sustainable place. Review this list of zero waste essentials and get started in greenifying your lifestyle!


References

1Schildgen, B. (2019, January 27). What is the environmental impact of hair dye? Sierra Club. https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/ask-mr-green/what-environmental-impact-hair-dye

2International Labour Organization, & World Health Organization. (2017, April). ICSC 0910 – LEAD(II) acetate (anhydrous). International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/icsc/showcard.display?p_lang=en&p_card_id=0910&p_version=2

3Environmental Working Group. (n.d.). EWG skin deep® | Ratings for all hair color and bleachings. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/browse/category/hair_color_and_bleaching/

4Golsteijn, L., Lessard, L., Campion, J., Capelli, A., D’Enfert, V., King, H., Kremer, J., Krugman, M., Orliac, H., Furnemont, S. R., Schuh, W., Stalmans, M., O’Hanlon, N. W., & Coroama, M. (2018). Developing product environmental footprint category rules (PEFCR) for shampoos: The basis for comparable life cycle assessment. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 14(5), 649-659. https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.4064

5United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, May 26). Particulate matter (PM) basics. https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics

6National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, & Department of Commerce. (n.d.). What is eutrophication? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html

7Ethical Consumer. (2020, October 27). How to reduce the carbon footprint from your haircare. https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/health-beauty/how-reduce-carbon-footprint-your-hair-care

8O’Kelly, E., Arora, A., Pirog, S., Ward, J., & Clarkson, P. J. (2021). Comparing the fit of N95, KN95, surgical, and cloth face masks and assessing the accuracy of fit checking. PLOS One. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.08.17.20176735

9Bluestone, A. (2020, September 16). The sustainability of soap — Sequoyah stem institute. Sequoyah STEM Institute. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://sequoyahsteminstitute.org/blog/2020/9/16/the-sustainability-of-soap-by-audrey-bluestone

10Chirani, M. R., Kowsari, E., Teymourian, T., & Ramakrishna, S. (2021). Environmental impact of increased soap consumption during COVID-19 pandemic: Biodegradable soap production and sustainable packaging. Science of The Total Environment, 796. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.149013

11Kovner, A. (2016, January 21). What’s hiding in your toothpaste? Sierra Club. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2016-1-january-february/green-life/whats-hiding-your-toothpaste

12Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. (n.d.). Home energy use. https://www.c2es.org/content/home-energy-use/

13US Energy Information Administration. (2021, February 3). Frequently asked questions (FAQs). https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=96&t=3

14World Population Review. (n.d.). Electricity consumption by country 2021. Retrieved August 19, 2021, from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/electricity-consumption-by-country

15Denkenberger, D., Mau, S., Calwell, C., & Wanless, E. (2011). Residential clothes dryers: A closer look at energy efficiency test procedures and savings opportunities. Natural Resources Defense Council. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/ene_14060901a.pdf

16Casey, A. (2018, February 14). 16 ways to save money in the laundry room. US Department of Energy: Energy Saver. https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/articles/16-ways-save-money-laundry-room

17Martin, E., Sutherland, K., & Parker, D. (2016). Measured performance of heat pump clothes dryers. ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings. https://www.aceee.org/files/proceedings/2016/data/papers/1_160.pdf

18Environmental Investigation Agency. (2015). What are hydrofluorocarbons? https://eia-global.org/campaigns/Climate/what-are-hydrofluorocarbons

19Lu, A. (2011). Our environment in hot water: Comparing water heaters, a life cycle approach comparing tank and Tankless water heaters in California (LBNL-4602E). Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. https://escholarship.org/content/qt5hg1q1g5/qt5hg1q1g5.pdf

20Dudita, M., & Kauffeld, M. (2021, June 11). Environmental impact of HFO refrigerants & alternatives for the future. Open Access Government. https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/hfo-refrigerants/112698/

21Brodrick, J. (2013, December 9). Study: Environmental benefits of LEDs greater than CFLs. US Department of Energy: Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. https://www.energy.gov/eere/articles/study-environmental-benefits-leds-greater-cfls

22United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Report on the Environment: Carbon storage in forests. https://www.epa.gov/roe/