My first year of reducing waste to nearly zero has definitely been an adventure.
Some of the year was massively positive, whilst other points have left me becoming frustrated at my mistakes or other people for being wasteful.
Writing this was pretty therapeutic and I’m actually surprised at what I've done in a year, what I've learnt and how I now use those negative thoughts as a catalyst for change.
The hard parts of this year:
Not changing fast enough
Zero waste is sometimes referred to as a movement, passion or group, similar to maybe being a massive fan of a certain band or taking up a new hobby. And with most of these ‘movements’, there's a suggested aesthetic to adhere to. The idea that the other stuff you own is a bit rubbishy, because it doesn’t fit with the new found way to live.
I fell into that trap quite early on, thinking that my dish washing brush wasn’t eco friendly, so needed to be thrown out, or that my shaving razor was not reusable, therefore I should chuck it away as it will be on a landfill eventually. I felt like it was an embarrassment to own some of these things; I knew the harm they had on the environment, so shouldn’t I just get rid of them quickly before anyone noticed I had them?
Looking back, that was a stupid outlook to have, and one that literally goes against everything that a zero waste lifestyle stands for. I’ve lived 23 years without being zero waste. I am going to have products, gadgets and items which don’t fit the zero waste mould.
And that's ok!
Those items need to be used up, given to friends or charity shops. When I’ve finished off the wasteful version of a product, and I still need that ‘thing’ I can look into zero waste alternatives or buy a higher quality version. To go back to that shaving razor I mentioned, once I'd blunted the blade, I purchased a butterfly razor so that each blade could be used for longer and recycled in a sharps box after use.
No one’s journey to zero waste is the same. Some people are naturally minimalists, whilst others hoard their current loot and make it last years. There isn’t a right or wrong way, as long as thought is being put into the impact on the environment.
Those weird looks...
Bringing your own bag, box or beeswax wrap to take something home in is usually met with the reply of ‘wow, you’re organised, thanks for saving us some money!’ – which is awesome.
Every now and then, people still look at you like you’re strange. Why would I turn down this packaging? It’s completely free, it can be recycled, reused or if it needs to be thrown away...
Again, that goes against the idea of zero waste.
It’s not free packaging, I’ve paid for it through the money for the product. And yeah, I could recycle, or reuse the packaging, but I’d prefer to not have it at all for the sake of the environment.
Telling new people about a zero waste lifestyle can sometimes be met with raised eyebrows and I’ve found it easy to overthink people’s opinions of me after I tell them these things.
Those little put-downs, looks or comments can be disheartening, but it’s easy to remember the reason behind the zero waste lifestyle, which makes all of the comments worthwhile. Virtually all of my friends and family have been really supportive by making little adaptions to their routines when I visit them, sending me inspirational videos or simply by reading this blog.
People who just don’t care
Lots of people who I tell about zero waste have never heard of it. Neither had I until the end of 2016 when my brother showed me a video by Lauren Singer and Anna sent me a video by Bea Johnson, and we decided to explore the concept further.
I love it when people haven’t heard about Zero Waste. I love their curiosity, their questions and their realisations – it reminds me of how far I’ve come and that my actions are being noticed. If people are unaware of the impact plastic packaging and other waste has on the environment, I’m always happy to talk to them.
But when people are aware, yet choose to be lazy – that's when I get frustrated. Putting recyclable items into landfill waste, when the two bins are next to each other, opting for single-use items when they have a reusable bag, coffee cup or fork with them or buying excessive amounts of something knowing they will just throw the surplus on the landfill. Those sorts of things really make my heart hurt.
I get it, it’s not easy to do. Believe me, I really used to miss the throwaway lifestyle. It seemed as though it was a much simpler life to think that my waste was not my problem and that it was up to companies or businesses to lower their waste.
Individuals can make a difference though…
Have you ever heard of the story by Loren Eiseley of the young woman on the beach early in the morning, flinging starfish into the ocean? All these starfish were beached; they couldn’t get back into the sea themselves. A man stopped this woman to ask him why she was doing this – there were hundreds of starfish – they couldn’t all be saved. But she made a difference to each starfish she threw, so she kept going.
I remember that story if I ever meet people who just don’t care. It sucks, but I can’t stop what I’m doing because of their comments. I have to just keep going and keep flinging those starfish!
The three most awesome things from this year:
When friends or families make changes
A work friend bought a reusable coffee cup, another friend switched from disposable surface wipes to reusable cloths, another signed up for an allotment, while a friend’s mum has switched from using disposable containers in her freezer to reusable ones.
Maybe they would have made these changes on their own, but I like to think that my actions over the last year had some sort of positive influence over that change. I’ve tried to spend the year not forcing my views on people because I read a quote once stating that ‘telling people to change will not make it happen, but your actions might’. So its really nice when my actions have led someone to think about the waste they produce and make a positive change if they are able to. (I tried to find the author of the quote to give them the credit, but then got stuck in a massive unfruitful quote search. If you know it, please let me know!)
One of my absolute favourite complements over this year was when a work friend mentioned me to her close group of friends and said:
‘Yeah, Charlotte is Zero Waste, but she’s not a d@*k about it’
How great is that? My actions over the last year have had some kind of impact on the people around me. Some were small changes, some were large, but they're all another starfish being flung back into the ocean. Every little action makes a difference.
I LOVE the environment
A year ago, I would've said the same, but this year has made me incredibly appreciative of what we have.
I’ve grown to love animals and natural habitats more than I ever did before. I guess I feel like my actions are trying to support them and preserve where they live. I know it’s not a direct correlation, but for an example, each plastic cotton bud I don’t use is one less that could potentially be washed into the ocean, broken down by the UV rays of the sun and ingested by a fish, only to be eaten by either a larger fish or a human.
Growing my own veg got me really excited at the prospect of saving money and the environment, whilst also having a very therapeutic past time. It sounds twee, but growing my own veg reminded me of how awesome our planet is that we can grow amazing edible things right in our back garden.
It's those sort of realisations that keep me going.
An entire shift in my outlook on life
This year has led me to have a bigger moral conscience. I think about my tiny actions and whether this could have a positive or negative influence on another person, an animal or the environment. I try and alter my actions so that the smallest negative impact is being had. I'm still learning, but I've come a long way in a year.
This is as simple as refusing a fork that is made out of black plastic. Yeah, I could throw it away, and then it’s not my problem anymore. But then it becomes my local council’s problem, or the waste disposal units problem. It goes and sits on a landfill and breaks down into tiny parts which might be eaten by animals or seep into the local environment. The process of breaking down that plastic could take 450 years!
Was that fork really not my problem? Zero wasters live by the ethos that yep, that was our problem. Sure, other people might well use those forks but if I can use my reusable one, and save that piece of waste being someone else’s problem, or getting into the environment, I will!
I also eat better now than previously.
I can control the salt, fat and sugar I consume as I make everything I eat from scratch, or I eat the foods in their raw states. My partner and I have intolerances to certain foods and the substitute foods in supermarkets are often the ones wrapped in excessive packaging, often double in price with heaps more chemicals in! We’ve gone back to more simplistic foods, eating in season and more vegetable-based dishes. So that is better for our health and also saving us money!
Overall, I’ve adopted a slower, yet more organised lifestyle. Breaking away from the consumerism around the food and fashion industry does mean that meals and products take longer to be produced – but I find that relaxing. Now I can’t just grab a meal deal on my way to work, but that means I plan things better and usually that I am buying things of a higher quality, which supports the producer, rather than ripping them off.
I’m more focused on people, not things. I have drastically reduced the number of things I own. I have fewer clothes, books, kitchen items and asked for fewer things at birthday and Christmas time.
I gave these items away to friends or a charity shop. Having less of this stuff means I can think more clearly. I have a home which is easier to clean because of having less in it. And because I am spending less time and money on this stuff, it means I can spend more time with people I actually want to talk to and have experiences with.
Take everything one step at a time – there are different scales to the zero waste lifestyle. We’re all at different points on this journey and that’s ok! Set your own boundaries, take a step back and evaluate how well you're doing if you ever get overwhelmed. It’s not an exact science; Anna and I still have our Zero Waste fails. Learn from them and avoid them next time.
Do it with a friend, join a forum or start a community. I don’t think I could have done this without being a part of a Facebook support group and having Anna, and other awesome friends and colleagues who have helped me problem solve along the way.
Remember that starfish. Everything you reduce, reuse or recycle is one less thing to landfill. It does make a difference.