Going Zero Waste

By Bronwyn Slater

I’ve had an interest in self-sufficiency and off-grid living now for many years, so recently I decided to go zero waste.  While I’m delighted to see so many new vegan products appearing on the supermarket shelves, I’ve grown weary of the plastic packaging they come in.  Images of oceans full of plastic waste on TV and social media were enough to put me off plastic for a life time. 

For me, zero waste means I avoid buying anything in plastic, even if it’s a type of plastic that can be recycled.  I try to buy as many food and other products without any packaging at all, if possible.  If I can’t get something without packaging then I choose paper/cardboard, glass or metal over plastic.  Paper and cardboard can be composted at home, and glass and metal can be recycled infinitely.

Why Zero Waste

The issue of plastic waste has recently hit the headlines with news channels and social media exposing the problem of trash in our oceans.  Plastic enters the ocean via rivers, beaches and flooding events.  The Ocean Cleanup project is currently attempting to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch – an area of nearly 8 million square kilometres in the ocean between Japan and the American West Coast where 80,000 tonnes of plastic debris and discarded fishing nets are circulating.

In warm ocean water plastic can degrade in as little as a year, but it degrades into smaller and smaller bits of plastic which are toxic.  These end up in the guts of animals or wash up on shorelines.   

Plastic is the most problematic type of packaging because it can take hundreds of years to decompose in landfill.  Waste disposal companies will only recycle certain types of plastic (such as PET).  Plastic is not really recycled.  It is downcycled into other forms of plastic which are used, largely, by the building and construction industry.

Paper or cardboard are better alternatives because they can be composted.  Glass can be recycled indefinitely, as can metals.  Aluminium tins and cans are seen as a precious commodity by the recycling industry.

Recycling is not the solution

Most developed countries have recycling and waste disposal programmes in place.  Non-recyclable waste is either incinerated or dumped in landfill – both of which create pollution in the form of methane or toxic gases.  Recyclables (ie. plastics, paper, glass and metal) are sold by companies on the open market and may change hands many times between various providers.  There have been reports of waste ending up being dumped illegally or burned on open bonfires in Malaysia where laws and regulations are lax.

In reaction to this there has been a big rise in the number of people trying to live a zero waste lifestyle.  There has been an explosion in the number of zero waste groups on social media.  Many companies are starting to provide products without packaging.  A wave of new refill and zero waste stores have opened up.  These shops buy food and other products in bulk and sell them by weight.  The customer brings their own containers to the shop, thereby avoiding the need for discarded packaging.

Going Zero Waste

You can find almost every zero waste product you need online – from shampoo and conditioner bars to wooden kitchen utensils.  Some people can become quite fanatical about zero waste, even to the extent of buying things like washable toilet paper or installing bidets.  Zero waste empowers people.  You are no longer an unwilling victim of the plastics industry. You, the customer, are in charge. You’ll be cutting down on the number of purchases you make, you’ll be making things from scratch, cooking more often, and cutting down on both your recyclable and non-recyclable waste.

Toiletries and cleaning products

Online shops are your best bet for finding products which have no packaging at all.  Lush do a great range of shampoo and conditioner bars, soaps, makeup, hair dye, and other cosmetic and personal care products.  Refill shops (most of which are online and do deliveries) are great for things like toothpaste tabs, dishwashing soap, laundry soap, etc.  These shops are conscious of the fact that people want zero waste, so their deliveries are usually in cardboard and compostable packaging.

I have found the shampoo and conditioner bars really excellent and will continue buying these.  I buy soap loose or in cardboard boxes.  I use solid moisturiser and cleansing bars – these work by warming between your hands or simply rubbing on your skin.  In the kitchen I’ve replaced paper towels with washable cloths.  I make my own liquid soap by mixing some grated bar soap with boiling water. I use Bio-D washing powder which comes in a paper bag, and I occasionally use soap nuts.

So on the bathroom and kitchen front, going zero waste has been extremely easy for me.

Zero waste food

Zero waste food is a bit more of a challenge.  There will be some products that you cannot buy without plastic that will be difficult to make yourself.  The most difficult challenge is vegan butter, which comes either in a plastic tub or in waxed paper which cannot be recycled.  Apart from that you can probably manage to buy most other foods either loose or in non-plastic packaging.  Here are a few tips:

  • Buy fruit and vegetables loose by shopping at a greengrocer or at local markets.
  • Buy food from refill stores if there is one near you, or order online.  These shops sell food such as lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, flours, rice, grains, dried fruit, cleaning products and much more.
  • Buy bread from bakeries and bring your own bag.  You can also make your own bread from scratch or invest in a bread maker.
  • You can make your own oat or nut milk quite easily using a food processor and a nut milk bag.  The process is very easy and only takes a few minutes.
  • You can make your own fruit juice if you have juicer, or buy it in a glass bottle.
  • Seitan is very easy to make and you can buy vital wheat gluten flour online quite cheaply. The Suma brand of flour comes in a paper pack.
  • Instead of buying frozen vegetables, you can partially cook your veg then freeze it.
  • You can try making your own nut cheese – you’ll find many simple recipes online. 
  • Avoid buying food in tetrapaks.  These cartons are made from composite materials.  The packaging is ground up into small particles which are separated.  Some are used to make other products and some go to landfill.  So this is not really ‘recycling’ in the true sense.  The process also requires a lot of energy.
  • If there are particular foods that you simply cannot do without then you could have a look at Terracycle.  They recycle things like crisp packets, biscuit wrappers and many other types of packaging that is normally not taken up by the main recycling companies.

Freecycle

Apart from food and personal care items, you’ll have lots of other items around the house that you’ll want to get rid of from time to time.  Many people give things like old clothing, books and bric-a-brac to charity.  But you may have many items that the charities don’t accept.  Rather than throwing them away, here are a few tips:

  • Electronics and CD’s can be sold or given away and you’ll find groups and websites for this purpose if you do an online search. 
  • Clothing and shoes can also be sold online or given away.  Depop is just one website where you can sell clothing.  High street shoe chain Schuh will take back old shoes.
  • IKEA will take back any used furniture that was bought from its stores.  You’ll also find online groups or websites where you can sell or give away furniture.
  • Join a Freecycle group in your area if you have anything you want to give away, or join your local Zero Waste group on Facebook where you can ask for advice.

Repair Shops

Don’t forget that many items can be repaired.  Look for a repair shop near you before you consider buying something new.

Circular economy

There are tentative signs that we could be moving towards a circular economy.  This is a closed loop system where packaging is reused.  Terracyle has launched a project called ‘Loop’ which aims to revolutionise the way products are bought and sold.  Packaging is owned by the seller and is collected after use.  Some of the large supermarket chains such as Tesco have signed up to trial the new system.

Some final comments..

Going zero waste does take a bit of work, especially when it comes to food, so it is important not to aim for perfection, especially in the initial stages.  Solutions will come to you as you go along.  Join a zero waste group on Facebook for support and advice on any questions you have.  Don’t get demoralised every time you walk into a supermarket.  Remember that you don’t need most of those items anyway, and in the past people lived very comfortably with a lot less choice.  You’ll be healthier too, as you will be less inclined to buy processed foods which invariably come packaged in plastic, so you’ll be making a lot of your own food from scratch.

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