Are Tiny Home and Zero Waste Lifestyles Compatible?

I moved from an 825 square foot apartment in the city to a tiny home 10 miles from the closest town and the nearest gas station is 4.3 miles away.  That might not seem like much of a distance, but when you’re used to walking to the corner, it’s a bit of a hike.  The landfill is 10.5 miles away.  I don’t have garbage pickup, either.

Apartment in the City

Prior to moving into my tiny house, I’d never heard of the Zero Waste movement.  That’s kind of weird, because it would seem like the two philosophies would go hand-in-hand.  Or, do they?

In my apartment I used glass canning jars to store all of my food.  I wasn’t worried about animals; the food just keeps longer in glass.  I had plenty of storage space; it wasn’t a problem.  Also, my refrigerator and freezer were quite large compared to my current one.

Although I had composted in the past, I didn’t in the apartment because there was no place to put it.  My landlord even regulated what was allowed to be on your patio which didn’t include buckets, garbage cans of any sort, storage tubs or coolers.  We weren’t allowed to feed the birds, except for humming birds or suet hangers.  So, I didn’t compost and food went in the garbage disposal.

I used cloth napkins that I’d made myself, washcloths and towels in the kitchen, reusable bags at the grocery store — I have 15 or more of those — and paper towels only when a rag was inappropriate.  There are times when a paper towel is better than a washcloth.  Don’t lynch me for saying that.

Still, I could go two to three weeks without emptying a 13 gallon can while taking recyclables out every other day.  I can’t boast about being anywhere near zero waste, but I eat healthy, so my waste wasn’t huge.

Tiny House in the Woods

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Food Wrap
Food Wrap

When I got into my tiny house and started learning about Zero Waste, I wanted that for my life.  It’s over 10 miles to the dump.  I saw someone on YouTube claim that recycling isn’t really Zero Waste and neither is burning your paper products.

Mesh Produce Bag
Mesh Produce Bag

I found tutorials for mesh produce bags, Swiffer covers, food wraps, bowl covers, and snack bags.  I’ve even found complaints that the extra handling and washing isn’t really Zero Waste; it’s hidden waste.  You can make your own laundry detergent and hand soap, but you’re still using gas or electricity to heat ingredients.  You’re still turning clean water into gray water to wash napkins, towels, washcloths, etc.

That’s a nice justification, but it’s not completely correct.  Gray water can still be recycled to water plants or for other things in which clean water isn’t really necessary.  And, rainwater can be collected and filtered to use as clean water.  If you have a pump, it’s coming from the earth anyway.

Here’s My Problem

I don’t have running water so washing dishes and laundry is an issue for me.  My kitchen is 5’x7′ or 35 square feet with one long upper cabinet; one lower cabinet and bank of drawers; and a small pantry.  I don’t have room for storage jars or containers.  There is limited room for linens and I only keep two of everything in my dish cupboard–two each of the utensils, two plates, two glasses, two coffee mugs.

But, I also have access to a burn barrel and I’m not afraid to call that Zero Waste, although I know I’ll get flamed for it.  I’m not talking about burning plastic or Styrofoam.  But, paper plates are fair game.  Zipper freezer bags won’t fill up my garbage quickly and they take up very little room in the refrigerator, freezer, or drawers.  In the last four months, I haven’t filled my 50 gallon garbage bin even half way.

I’m actually good with cloth napkins; they don’t take up a lot of room.  But, cloth paper towels can be composted if they’re not filled with grease and burned if they are.  Homemade “paper towels” by contrast are an awful mess when you eat barbecued chicken and take up a fair amount of room on the counter and in the wash.  It’s a bit of extra work to get them back on the roll, too.  No, thank you.

I think I’ll try the food wraps and bowl covers, though.  That seems like a fair way to make bowls and soup mugs do double duty.

The Verdict

My version of green and your version of green might not mesh.  I believe it’s important to try to create a smaller footprint on this Earth.  To that end, you can always make smarter purchases.  If you eat greener, you will have less waste naturally because good foods use less packaging.

Can the two lifestyles get along?  Yes and No.  Yes, absolutely, you can take steps to make sure you’re composting, buying in bulk whenever possible, visiting a butcher if there’s one near you and you can afford it, collecting rainwater, watching power usage, and using real instead of paper products where you can.  Avoid Styrofoam and plastics.  Recycle.

In tiny homes where space is at a premium, I think it’s forgivable to have some waste where you have to sacrifice real washable items for disposable space saving items.  The simple life isn’t always simple.  It’s more work, but costs less.  It’s your life, so balance it where you must.

Or, just save up all of your stuff and build your tiny home on an island.