ZW 101: How to Go Zero Waste in a Pandemic

I gave a zoom presentation for Rising Strong Fill up your cup Community in December of 2020 and thought that turning it into a blog post would be great for those that did not attend. Also, it is making for a great place to start blogging again.

I have tailored this to be a practical intro to zero waste during a pandemic when avoiding plastic packaging is far more difficult than usual.

A caveat in all my presentations is that zero waste needs to be sustainable to you, your budget, and where you live. Many times my presentations are geared towards the middle class. Zero waste is not something that should be brought up in regards to low income or no income, especially people of colour. Full stop.


Hi, I am Marisa Loreno, owner/operator of Refill Market located in Winnipeg, MB. I have been living sustainably since before I had a word for it and only recently, last 4.5 years, have I called myself zero waste.

I deep dived into researching the topic after the first few months of swaps and that left me thinking, “Is that it?” It’s not and I have never looked back.

What is Zero Waste?

I always take the approach that Polly Barks gives, this was adapted from a presentation she shared with me when I first branched out into the teaching/presenting side of my journey. She writes marvellous posts about the big things, not just swaps, wrote a fabulous book called More than just a plastic bag. Please do go support Polly’s work.

How to Go Zero Waste in a Pandemic - Zero Waste Shop Winnipeg

The Myth of Zero Waste

This shit is not new.

Boiled down its place based living, so how did people live where you live before it was settled? Zero waste is just a very old concept of using all of what you have now regurgitated up with a new buzz worthy word.

The Socials will always say that zero waste should look something like this:

How to Go Zero Waste in a Pandemic - Zero Waste Shop Winnipeg

This is 9 months of trash when I first decided to go zero waste and it fit in a pint sized, 500ml, mason jar. We said no to all trash, shopped the grocery store for only things in paper, drove all over town to get things in bulk, and generally had a terrible time of things.

The Reality is that zero waste often looks more like this:

How to Go Zero Waste in a Pandemic - Zero Waste Shop Winnipeg

This is 9 months of trash when I realized zero waste is more than just packaging. This weighs 3lbs 5oz and is less than the average amount of trash produced by a one Canadian in one day. I totally flubbed this up in my presentation too so here is a correction. HAH.

We started shopping at the closest grocery store, or making once a month trips to ones not within walking distance, and continued to get most everything in paper or unpackaged.

There was a need to shift how we feed ourselves to adapt to the new style of grocery shopping, so we started investing in local food and produce. We are able to do this now because we plan to invest in local food.

Two Simple Steps to Start

Moving on to two simple things to start you off that don’t leave you feeling weighed down by guilt and your own garbage.

1. Shop your house*

This looks like focusing on what you already have before buying anything. I suggest you do an audit of every space: think closet, bathroom toiletries, pantry, fridge, etc. before you buy anything new for those spaces.

Before you grocery shop, have you doubled checked what you have in your kitchen already? This seems simple, but to get into the regular habit to eliminate food waste can be a challenge. We have a tendency to grocery shop when our favourites food are gone, not when all the food is gone. You get what I’m saying?

People who have experienced being poor, not just broke, will basically know how to do this because we were doing this just to survive. I learned this pre-zero waste when we were very poor and it saved me what little money we did have.

I still apply those same ideas! Even though we have more income we were able to leverage this privilege into saving to open a shop. This isn’t me saying you have to do the same but its insight into how these “skills” most use as survival are inherently zero waste.

*The caveat here is that you have a house and remember having one is a privilege.

2. The Rs of Zero Waste: Refill & Reuse

If you cannot or do not have the ability to patronize a store that does bulk refills, try instead buying the biggest container you can at the store you already shop.* Think about – for example – hand soap or hand sanitizer. Buy the smaller dispenser size container and then the much larger container you can use to refill.

It is really that simple.

Plastic is going to happen. When you try to go zero waste in a pandemic, it might not be the time to swap everything out for non-plastic options. You could still opt for a locally-made bar soap instead of the plastic container of hand soap. I do not know your budget so maybe the local bar soap is not in the cards and that is OK. Everything needs to be within your budget otherwise this won’t be sustainable.

*the caveat here is that you can afford the bigger containers. Buy the biggest container you can means whatever your budget allows.

How to Go Zero Waste in a Pandemic

These are ideas for how to go zero waste in a pandemic – ideas that that take minimal work and money to start implanting. When it’s time, you can start bulk shopping with reusables, bringing your own to-go kit, etc. I thought it important to not focus on mostly unattainable things, but easy habit shifts that will start your journey.

As you are trying the above, here are some things to think about beyond just minimizing the plastic packaging you bring into your house.

Individual-Focused Actions

Community-Level Actions

If I could Cliff Notes this whole things for you, bring it home. Your money. Your time. Your energy. Your food. Your investments. Your everything – or at least as much as you can in our current systems. Even in a pandemic, we can make change.


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