A clerk at the bank offers a free pen, the giant sandwich on the street hands you a flier, the fry girl at McDonalds stuffs some extra napkins in the bag. We are swimming through a world of freebies and giveaways, and it's not even stuff we like or need. By taking a pause before you accept anything, you can stop clutter in its tracks, discourage gimmicky marketing practices, and do a little bit to save the planet. It might be hard at first (it's free, it could be useful, maybe I'll need the information), but with a little practice it will become second nature to smile and say, "no thank you".
If you're still having problems with the idea of not taking free things, think of all the time you'll save when you don't have to clean up stacks of paper or throw away broken bits of unidentifiable junk. Isn't it nicer to write with a well-made pen than have to sift through dozens of dried-out plastic ones? Honestly, the only free things I've ever consistently used were perfume samples, so I'll accept them on occasion, but everything else I don't even look at before holding up my hand and politely refusing. It is so nice to not carry around a stack of fliers and a bunch of cheap junk whenever I go to a fair or convention, and even nicer to not have to figure out what to do with it all when I get home.
Things can also sneak in your home as hand-me-downs, dumpster finds, and gifts. As good as the intentions associated with these acquisitions may be, take a moment to think if you will actually follow through with them. Do you really need another sweater, more hobby supplies, or an extra side table? If so, then by all means, take it; getting things secondhand is a great way to save money and benefit the environment, but if you think it might sit in a bag in a closet for a while, better to let it go on its way. Oftentimes gifts, no matter how lovingly given, don't quite fit your lifestyle. Write a gracious thank you note, and let the item go. Someone else will treasure it more, and in the future a few well-chosen words will guide the gift-giver towards something you can use.
Thinking before you accept anything doesn't just apply to free stuff, though it is the stuff that we tend to accept most quickly. Carefully considering purchases can go a long ways towards ensuring that you'll have only things you love and need. I don't even look at clothing sales any more, unless I'm already out shopping for a specific item. I avidly thrift, but only for a short list of things I already know I want (why are immersion blenders so hard to find secondhand?). More often than not, waiting before I buy something shows me that I don't really want or need it. For the few times I do miss the item, I appreciate it that much more (and care for it that much better) when I've had to wait to get it.
Once I got used to thinking before I accepted or acquired any items, I started thinking about the food I eat, the water and electricity I use, and the methods I use to get around town. While I still have a huge weakness for long showers, I have much healthier eating habits, take the bus and walk more often, and am much more aware of my energy usage. I have to be careful not to overwhelm myself, after all, everyone needs to take something to live, but it is nice to see how much less I have to take to survive and be happy than I previously thought.
Thinking before I take has saved me money, time, and space. Honestly, creating less waste is just an extra bonus for me. I still choose to take things and resources, but I do it much more thoughtfully, conservatively, and thankfully.
First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.