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What is zero-waste?
Simply put, zero-waste living is about sending as little into landfill or incinerators as possible. In the words of the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA),
Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health. (http://zwia.org/standards/zw-definition/)
One of my intentions for 2018 was to fully commit to a zero-waste lifestyle, which I’ve been moving towards for some time. It has been fun, eye-opening and deeply fulfilling so far. I strive towards zero recycling too but am currently still recycling any items (like old shampoo bottles) bought before the switch that I can’t find a use for. Getting closer and closer to a completely closed-loop system week by week is extremely rewarding, and I’ve learned many things along the way that I can share.
As soon as I heard about the zero-waste movement I knew it was for me. Everything about it is what makes me happy: getting creative, reducing consumption; simplifying life, reducing unnecessary stress; respecting, protecting, and learning from nature. I heard about Lauren Singer‘s mason jar holding 5 years worth of rubbish and was intrigued. How could it be done?
Since I developed a love of upcycling and creative recycling around ten years ago and started making my own bags and home furnishings from old items, I’ve been consciously trying to reduce my waste. Though our landfill waste has been minimal for a few years, at times I’ve slacked and been as guilty of the next person of using single-use plastics, throwing food waste into the black bin, accepting unwanted items, not checking for correct recycling of items like batteries.
I thought if I could recycle it, it wasn’t a problem, I was doing good for the environment. After all, most people I knew never even used their recycling bins or gave it a second thought. I threw all plastics, cardboard and used packaging into the recycling bin without another thought about where the contents would end up. But I stumbled across zero-waste and learned I could do much, much better, and even enjoy it! Little did I know how little of what I was throwing away was actually being recycled and what a broken system this way anyway. I was shocked by the truth.
Why should we reduce the amount of waste we produce?
You might be asking, why go to these (seemingly) crazy lengths to reduce waste? Can’t we just recycle it? Does it even matter anyway? What difference can one person really make? Isn’t it the responsibility of companies, corporations, and governments?
But our disconnection from our responsibility for what we consume and discard is at the core of some of the most damaging effects we’re having on the planet.
The ultimate fact remains, the majority of our waste is not dealt with in a long-term sustainable or environmentally-sound manner. We are choking our planet, covering it in a pile of non-biodegradable garbage. Seeping toxic matter into our soils, burying it underground, burning it, dumping it into our vast oceans and leaving the most vulnerable communities in the globe to sift through it. Enough is enough.
(Charlotte Willis, ‘The Price of a throwaway society’, Vegan Food & Living, April 2017110-112, )
These are just a very small selection of the issues…
- 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s (enough to cover the UK ankle-deep more than 10 times)
- 1 trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide in a year, each one takes around 3012 years to biodegrade
- 79% of all plastic ever produced has ended up in landfill, with only 9% being recycled
- It’s estimated that by 2050 there will be a tonne of plastic for every tonne of fish in the oceans, rivers and seas
- Every piece of plastic that has ever been created still currently exists in one form or another on the planet
- 41 million tonnes of old electrical goods are discarded yearly, polluting the soil, rivers, and people who sort through it with heavy metals and toxic particles
Many of us are outraged and saddened by the videos of our oceans filled with rubbish, but don’t know how to change our day-to-day habits to make a difference. However, when we look closer we can see that our daily choices can be a tremendous force for positive change in this consumerist culture.
What are some benefits of living zero-waste?
- Reduces your individual impact on the environment
- Can enrich your life and allow you to express your creativity
- Can benefit your health by reducing pollutants and incorporating more healthy homemade foods into your diet
- Saves money and can save time by simplifying lifestyle choices
- Empowers consumers as a force for social change
- Stimulates widespread habit change and encourages companies to adopt better policies
- Allows us to take more responsibility for our choices and inspire others to do so too
What can you do to get started?
Many of the switches also have benefits beyond reducing waste, helping us to live healthier, simpler and more fulfilling and nourishing lives.
- Carry a glass water bottle/carafe with you. (+ add an activated charcoal natural filter, which can be used to fertilise your soil after 6 months)
- Carry a reusable bag. (most people have this one down now, but a reminder to keep one on you, beside your door, and a stash in your car never hurt)
- Carry a handkerchief and swap the paper towels when drying your hands in public toilets. (+ any used paper towels, tissues, paper napkins and toilet paper rolls can be composted)
- Get yourself a reusable cup if you enjoy hot drinks to take away and haven’t got one already. You may even get discount on your coffee.
- Say no to plastic straws and cutlery. (again, many people are catching onto this one now). Get yourself reusable bamboo or metal ones.
- Say no more in general. Refuse company freebies, receipts, unwanted gifts, free bags at the market and any unnecessary items. (Learning to say no in other areas can be an incredibly empowering and freeing practice, and is I’m learning to implement in other areas of my life)
- Cook from scratch at home more and avoid unnecessary takeaway packaging. (There are so many benefits to preparing meals at home and it doesn’t need to be time-consuming or complicated. For recipes and ideas go to plantbased food)
- Take your own food in reusable containers. Switch aluminium tin foil and clingfilm to moldable and reusable wraps. Whilst we still have some in the house I’ve been trying to reuse and recycle these as much as possible and committing to not buying any more. (Plenty of brands sell them now or you can make your own)
- Many packaged staples, cosmetics, and cleaning products can be made at home without any of the strange chemicals, additives, preservatives and fillers. Make your own plantbased milks, yoghurt, granola, bread, nut butters and more. (See plantbased food for recipes and tutorials)
- Compost! This is such an important one. Take some inspiration from nature and get yourself a small composting bin (it’s super easy and can be done for free!) or area set up where you live or use local composting facilities. So many things can be composted from food waste to vacuum cleaner dirt (see here for a list of unexpected things you can add to your heap). Composting not only reduces waste needlessly going into landfills but also provides a free, organic boost to your soil. Hang onto foodwaste like orange peels whilst you’re out and about if there’s no composting facility around and take them home.
- Start growing and foraging your own food. It can be done in containers and tubs if you don’t have an outside space. Or you can join a community garden. Again, the benefits of growing your own extend way beyond reducing waste.
- Swap your plastic toothbrush for a compostable bamboo one.
- Switch to paperless billing. (+ compost any shredded old bills, newspapers, and wrapping)
- Buy in bulk and avoid packaged foods, especially those in plastic or unrecyclable materials. Visit your local market rather than going to the supermarket for fresh produce. For items like grains, flour, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit and there are bulk stores popping up all over the world and many other grocery shops and supermarkets offer pay-by-weight sections. Take your own resuable cloth bags or containers and stock up your pantry waste-free! This might sound challenging but once you take a fresh packaging-free look at shops you’ve been in a hundred times you realise you have more options than you thought. I live in rural England, yet my local health food shop has bulk bins for pretty much everything you can imagine, I volunteer in a community garden shop where you can also refill your own containers with eco washing and cleaning products, my local farm shop is a treasure-trove of unpackaged goods and allows you to fill your own bottles with harder to source things like olive oil, and most Holland & Barrett’s now offer pick-and-mix areas for nuts and fruit. (I will be doing more posts on zero-waste local, ethical shopping and my pledge to avoid supermarkets)
- Purchase loose leaf teas, coffee beans (if you drink it), herbs and spices. My local independent health food shop has an incredible range, and I feel like a kid in a sweetshop when I go and stock up. Have a search for one near you. (+compost coffee grinds and tea bags)
- Whenever you use up an old glass jar or container of something – reuse it! Wash it and soak vinegar into the label for 15-30 minutes. Remove your item from the white vinegar or remove the vinegar-soaked cloth and then use a wet sponge to scrub any residual residue from the surface. I love using my glass jars for homemade milks, nut butters, food storage, succulent homes, and all kinds of other things.
- Properly recycle any items that you’ve already purchased and can’t reuse (including light bulbs, batteries, cartridges etc.).
- Sell old electronics, clothes and unwanted items on Ebay, Gumtree or other recycling sites or give to charity. Use your new funds to purchase second-hand items rather than buying new! I always search for used stuff on Ebay whenever I really need something, for example, my second-hand food processor, which I love!
- Visit libraries or buy second hand rather than buying new books and DVDs. Pledge to only buy clothes vintage and second hand. (This can save you money and add character to every purchase)
- Get creative with homemade presents (vegan cookies usually go down a treat), handwritten letters, and upcycled and natural wrapping.
More information, resources, and tips on zero-waste living
These are just a few of the resources that I’ve found helpful on my journey…
Websites and blogs
- Bea Johnson, Simplifying your life by reducing your waste: Zero Waste Home, 2013
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)