If, like me, you recently started a journey towards living a zero waste lifestyle, you are probably searching for guidance on where to begin. Luckily, there are a number of helpful online resources, and this blog aims to give you some tips to get you on the right track. But before we dive into how we can change our lifestyles for the better, let’s start with why it is paramount that we do so.
A recap: why we need to rethink our waste
The world produces around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and most of it will pollute our lands and oceans, harm wildlife and outlive us all – with some of the most durable plastics, like bottles and disposable nappies, lasting around 450 years (over five times the average life expectancy of a British person). Apparently only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled, and the effectiveness of today’s recycling systems are now under close scrutiny. It’s not just plastic, though, waste comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
The good news – yes, there is something good to take away from this – is that you can do something about it. Governments, regulatory bodies and major corporations have a lot to answer for and a lot to change when it comes to tackling waste, but if us consumers want to clean up our act, we can’t wait for the rules to change. We need to think about the way we live and make the best possible decisions we can, within our means. One way to address the seemingly endless waste problem is to stop generating it. Or, realistically speaking, to generate a lot less of it. There are many ways you can help do this, but here are my top five tips:
1. Find out where your nearest zero waste shops are
If you are fairly new to the zero waste movement, you will probably need guidance on how to adopt this lifestyle in the long-term. While embracing ecocentric principles is a great start, putting it into practice can be tough. Fortunately, there are a number of shops and market stalls popping up all over the UK that can help – often selling a diverse range of zero waste and reusable essentials, from personal hygiene items like soaps and menstrual products, to food and house cleaning tools. Once you have identified a place where you can stock up on your day-to-day needs, be sure to:
- Take reusable bags to carry dried goods, like cereals, spices and pasta
- Take a few glass jars and bottles with sealed lids – these are useful for containing items that are a bit trickier to handle like fish, cheese and liquids
- Buy in bulk, e.g. non-perishable items that you use regularly – this helps with economy of scale and you will be less likely to make interim purchases of less eco-friendly versions of the same products elsewhere
If you can’t find a zero waste shop, then you can still do your part: always take reusable containers, opt for products that are not packaged or that are packaged in cardboard, glass or cans, rather than plastic, and buy fresh from local producers where possible – this will help limit the packaging of individual items, such as fruit and vegetables.
2. Stop buying and start reusing
It’s safe to say that we have become rather complacent about the way we consume and dispose of things. It’s so easy to purchase something without a second’s thought in today’s fast moving consumer goods culture, where you can buy almost anything, at alarmingly low prices. Take the fashion industry, for instance. Fast fashion, where companies strive to speedily deliver new collections inspired by the latest catwalk trends, is a major industry. It is also responsible for a lot of environmental woes, including water pollution, the use of toxic chemicals and mounting textile waste. With access to an endless supply of fancy new attire available for next day delivery, it’s easy to click that ‘buy now’ button. But we should all think of ways to wear our existing garments in exciting new ways, opt for clothes made from recycled materials, or head down to our local charity shops for a pre-loved bargain – personally my favourite way to shop!
Fighting the impulse to buy can be quite challenging for some. The little voice inside your head will urge you to buy it, because it feels good. Some say that shopping can release endorphins and dopamine. But try to remember the bigger picture, and next time you are about to purchase something, stop and think. Do you need it? Do you really want it? Haven’t you got something similar at home? And if you do give in to that impulse buy, try to opt for more sustainable brands.
3. Don’t ditch it, fix it
Heard of planned obsolescence? It’s when a product is deliberately designed to have a specific life span – usually a shortened life span. This might seem silly to you and me, but it’s all part and parcel of a capitalist industry – well, at least where it’s not banned as a crime. Companies’ profit margins often rely on consumers needing to replace their goods – and on a regular basis. Over time, people have become used to disposing of things – it’s just the norm. But this societal behaviour is contributing to our waste problem.
When something breaks, most of us won’t even consider the prospect of repairing it before throwing it in the bin. But DIY repair work isn’t always as difficult as you might think. And for more complex household items, there are a number of community initiatives and workshops that can help. For instance, the Restart Project is a people-powered social enterprise that aims to fix our relationship with electronics. Born in 2013 out of frustration with the throwaway, consumerist model of electronics, and the growing mountain of e-waste that it’s leaving behind, The Restart Project runs regular Restart Parties where people teach each other how to repair their broken and slow devices – from tablets to toasters, and iPhones to headphones.
We don’t just throw away broken things, nothing seems to be safe in today’s throwaway era. Old, worn-looking or seemingly unfashionable items are all on the hit list. But they don’t have to be. If something doesn’t look quite as good as when you first bought it, try up-cycling it to give it a new lease of life. Upcycled World CIC is an Edinburgh-based social enterprise that provides creative upcycling classes, experiences, demos and upcycled products. And if you simply don’t want an item any more, for whatever reason, then give it to someone or an organisation that does. There are lots of charity shops you can donate to, or websites and apps that allow you to swap or sell, like letgo, or even give away your unwanted items for free, like Freecycle. Want an even easier option? I find that if I simply ask my family, friends or colleagues if they want or need something I don’t care for anymore, it usually goes to a good home with zero effort involved in its re-homing.
4. Love your leftovers
Did you know that food waste is a pretty serious issue? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted every year. There are a number of simple ways you can help tackle this problem.
- Firstly, when food shopping, make sure you only buy what you need – especially when it comes to items that perish quickly
- Secondly, don’t bin your leftovers. You can store any remaining food in the fridge until you feel peckish or take it into work with you for lunch in a reusable tupperware box, also saving you money
- Thirdly, be kind to your future self and freeze any leftover food you don’t want or food that is about to expire (check it is suitable for home freezing first) and save it for a day when you haven’t had time to do your usual food shop or prepare a meal
5. Spread the word
Some people fear coming across as preachy, but talking about your values and how you live your life can truly inspire the way others think about their lifestyles and influence their choices. In most cases, people aren’t completely aware of the impact their decisions have on the environment. Education on key environmental matters like waste and the circular economy is vital for a more widespread understanding of today’s challenges and the adoption of sustainable living. So now that you are living a more waste-conscious lifestyle, tell others about it – they might be more receptive to it than you think, and this can create a positive ripple effect.
You can also hold a powerful influence over the companies you buy from or even the restaurants you visit. There’s no need to shy away from the things that concern you. Find out what their stance is on sustainability and waste, and ask what they are doing to limit their impact on the environment and how this is being achieved. And don’t be afraid to say no. If your local bar offers you a plastic straw, you can simply refuse it and, importantly, explain why.
Finally, consider writing to your local MP – it doesn’t take much time to let them know what matters to you and what improvements you would like to see in your local area.
Waste isn’t going anywhere soon. But, thankfully, neither is the discourse surrounding this fretful topic. We can all change our day-to-day habits and make positive steps that will help support a healthier planet and safeguard our future, and that of future generations. It’s time to act, and stay true to what you believe in.