When Charlotte asked me to try going zero waste for 10 days, I was immediately up for the challenge.
Over the course of the past year I'd admired her dedication to the cause and had watched in quiet awe as she constantly and continually made ethical choices to produce no waste. It wasn’t just a fad, and it wasn’t something (that even after five Sambucas) she would throw sudden caution to the wind and buy a massive takeaway full of plastic and polystyrene. She was dedicated in an admirable way.
As we'd become friends over the course of the year, I found that being zero waste didn’t appear to hold Charlotte back, and from an outsider’s perspective, it rarely affected her lifestyle. Therefore, I expected the week to be easy (spoiler… it wasn’t).
Prior to starting the challenge, Charlotte had warned me preparation was key and provided me with a metal water bottle, a reusable coffee cup and a tote bag. Charlotte was keen to point out that she really wanted me to just try one element of being zero waste every day, e.g. saying no to straw one day, carrying a reusable coffee cup etc. but I thought I could master it all and go zero waste from the start.
One thing I immediately realised was that I had a cupboard and fridge full of food that was packaged in all kinds of plastics and unrecyclable materials. I therefore thought it was reasonable to use up what I had and to go with the idea that I wouldn’t create any more waste.
I will summarise the way the week went by splitting into three subcategories, what I found difficult, what I found easy and what has changed since that week.
Things that were difficult
Friends and family understanding
When I originally started telling people what I was trying for the week, there were mixed responses with a big majority of older family, in particular, telling me it was simply ridiculous and impossible. How would I eat? How would I manage? Explaining to people that zero waste means zero-landfill-waste and you can still consume items that are recyclable seemed to ease some people’s concerns. It made me think that the zero waste movement should probably be renamed to sound less radical, making it seem more achievable...
One area that I found difficult that I found was wanting to do this and meeting people that weren’t so understanding of the cause. On Tuesday, (day two) an old friend came over to my house and asked for fish and chips. To save money, waste and calories I had thought I could just make my own chips and use some frozen fish fillets I had in the freezer. When she arrived and I proposed this idea she was really unimpressed with this idea and had been looking forward to the takeaway. To someone who has previously never heard or thought about zero waste, trying to explain the concept quickly, whilst your friend is hungry and frustrated, wasn’t easy and it ended in her ordering the takeaway whilst I ate my sad frozen fish fillet. The frustration was that the paper the chips came in did appear to be recyclable and I wondered whether I could have actually eaten the chips guilt free or not… which brings me to the next difficulty of the week.
Ever since recycling bins have been rolled out widely across the country I have always recycled both at home and out in public (when the option is possible). I would say I have a basic understanding of recycling and probably an average knowledge. I know you can recycle a milk bottle, tin can, paper, cardboard etc. but there are lots of situations where materials just aren’t as clear. For instance, my chip paper which was covered in grease? Is that recyclable? Plastics, in particular, seem to prove the most challenging. With all modern day dilemmas the most obvious solution comes from a quick google, but it seems even that isn’t as easy as you’d imagine. Materials are so often mixed or attached to other none-recyclable materials, so if I was serious about this long-term I knew I needed to do some research.
Having to plan
Alongside needing to do some research it also became very apparent that in order to make this work I needed to get better at something I am notoriously bad at: Planning in advance and being organised. In order to avoid buying food throughout the day and lunch, in particular, it required a level of planning. Making food with adequate leftovers getting it all boxed up and actually remembering to take it with me was a challenge. Likewise, taking time to think about the day ahead and whether the food I was planning would be suitable. For example, I run a lot of events out with young people where I'm away from my desk, a fridge and microwave, therefore, I had to make sure I was preparing suitable cold food that could be eaten on the go t avoid the waste generated by a Tesco meal deal.
Things not being instant
In a very similar way to the previous point, I found it challenging to adjust from the luxury of everything being instant. For example, on Wednesday I was having a particularly stressful day in work, I was tired and miserable and really felt in need of a chocolate bar. A trip over to Tesco left me spending five minutes of looking at the rows of sweets of chocolate and finding nothing that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. I challenge you to spend five mins next time you are in the chocolate aisle to find a chocolate bar that is wrapped is recyclable material.
After a text to Charlotte and 10 mins of frustrated hunting, I found I could have a Cadbury crème egg (wrapped in foil) or a bar of green and black (paper and foil). Neither were what I wanted and I felt so angry there were such limited choices when you are trying to ethically and ecologically the right choice.
I found in general throughout the week this feeling of being frustrated at the bigger picture preserved, but I'll touch on this later.
Things that were surprisingly easy
Keeping a water bottle/coffee cup
I found that keeping a water bottle and reusable coffee cup with me was ridiculously easy and it made me wonder why this wasn’t something I had always done. I feel a top tip is to wash them out thoroughly after each time you finish your drink. Previously I had carried bottles or cups and hadn’t bothered to wash them after use… leaving them to grow a small village of mould in the bottom of your bag, this means you can struggle to get out the smell and psychologically they are somehow ‘dirty’ long after they’ve been given a good scrub. By using them daily and keeping them funky fresh makes them more appealing. Also a top tip: invest in a quality (none leaky) bottle and coffee cup that you love. Spending more in the short term will save you a massive amount in the long run and you are much more likely to take better care of water bottles and coffee cups you love.
Saying no to things you don’t need
A bad habit which I acquired as a student and have struggled to shake is my love for a freebie. When people hand things out on the street I'm a magpie for any sort of gimmick. This week made me think about where that needless stuff I readily accept goes… ultimately into the black hole of the bottom of my bag until I throw it away a few weeks later. By saying yes to all this plastic crap I'm inadvertently making marketing and advertising companies create more, whereas by saying no I'm showing that there is no demand for them.
Saying no to a straw
In a similar way, saying no to a straw is literally the easiest thing in the world. Any fully capable adult has been able to drink from a glass since they were roughly three years old, making the need for straws redundant. Just say no at a bar in the same way you might say no to ice, no one will think you’re a weirdo and you just saved a turtle’s nose.
Keeping the momentum
As the week went on I found that the momentum of changing your mindset does get easier. While at the start I felt like I was on a strange kind of diet where instead of thinking what I was putting in my mouth, I was thinking about what I was putting in the bin, as the week went on it became easier.
Things that have changed since
I would be lying and it would be unfair to preach and say that since that week I was a new woman and hadn’t sent anything to landfill ever since, because sadly my willpower and lifestyle just hasn’t let that happen yet. What has changed though are a selection of attitudes and behaviours which have dramatically reduced my amount of waste. The most dramatic change is my mind-set and my ability to speak to others about the issue of plastic and unrecyclable waste. I've started to change the way I think of putting things in the bin and I've found a good way to mentally help with this is thinking about this analogy.
Recently, I've bought my first house with a garden that I love. It's filled with fun plants and bushes and trees that I love but currently have no idea what they are or what to do with them. This is a place I actively love and care about the moment. I use the mental analogy of whenever I think about throwing something in the bin I imagine just throwing it onto the lawn in the middle of the garden, and leaving it there. I know that it won’t decompose or disappear for potentially 200 years. Therefore my great great great grandchild could pop out into the garden and see my KitKat wrapper and think ‘aww I wish grandma Chloe hadn’t done this’. I think to myself if I wouldn’t want to leave that pile of plastic and waste in my new garden, then why am I so naive to imagine that when I put it into a bin it isn’t going to just end up sitting in another area of the world, or a beautiful section of the ocean? If I don’t want it sitting in my garden, why am I okay to let it rot out of site but in just the same way?
Okay, that’s an extreme example and I’m not suggesting you start throwing all your rubbish on your lawn, but I think by mentally thinking about your waste as something which doesn’t disappear may help you make more informed choices about the amount of waste you create.
Equally I think this isn’t and shouldn’t just be all on us… I'm angry that making minimal waste choices is so difficult. I’m angry that I can’t eat the things I love without leaving plastic behind, I'm angry fruit and veg comes in pointless bags and I think it’s time big companies and businesses meet us half way. I don’t think you should have to change your whole life to accommodate waste someone else is creating. Big businesses need to start making changes and slowly but surely we seem to be on the edge of that movement.
Conversations and week-long challenges like this are a good way of making people aware of the changes that need to happen and certainly help put the pressure on those decision makers higher up.