She tried to go waste free for a year...here's what happened.
It was Christmas 2018 when I realized I couldn’t carry on the way I was living. My anxiety was through the roof, I couldn’t read the news ― from the microplastics found in our food and water to the fact that there’s predicted to be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2025― without feeling my stomach drop to my feet. I felt ashamed. I was producing too much waste.
On Christmas Day alone my family and I had produced more than seven garbage bags of waste. Unrecyclable wrapping paper, masses of plastic packaging, used Christmas crackers and mountains of leftover food.
I had already been experiencing eco-anxiety as I became more aware of the amount of waste that we are producing globally. In the last 70 years alone, humans have produced over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, a majority of which has ended up in landfills or polluting the natural environment, including the oceans.
But seeing our total waste shocked me. It was the catalyst I needed to make a radical change.
On Jan. 3, 2019, I decided I would try to go zero waste. According to its purest definition, zero waste means reducing your waste to the absolute minimum. Practitioners abide by the “five R’s”: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot and recycle. You refuse plastic products, such as takeaway cups and shopping bags; reuse the items you already have in your home; and reduce your plastic by as much as possible. Those that can should compost their food, and finally, you should always recycle products where possible.
The most successful zero waste advocates, such as Kathryn Kellogg, can fit the waste they produce in a year or more into a Mason jar. I had slightly more modest aims. I was hoping to reduce my waste to about one garbage bag per month, at least at the beginning.
I started my zero waste journey by figuring out the simple changes I could make to battle my own waste.
I found my nearest zero waste stores, many of which were independents and only a short bus ride away. Customers bring their own containers, such as jars and muslin bags, and fill these with products such as pasta, nuts, cereals, pulses and coffee beans. The cost of your shopping is calculated by weight, rather than brand, which can be inexpensive for some products such as pasta and lentils, but more expensive for luxuries such as chocolate and yogurt-covered raisins.
I stopped purchasing plastic convenience items, such as disposable coffee cups, and bought tote bags, reusable water bottles and a reusable coffee cup fairly inexpensively from my local homeware store. I looked up supermarkets and brands that were zero waste friendly and made a note of all of the items I could buy in my usual supermarkets that were zero waste, such as unpackaged fruit and vegetables and refillable cleaning products. Shops such as Planet Organic and Whole Foods were best for biodegradable and package-free products.
To begin with, going zero waste was a lot of fun. I changed so many things in such a short space of time that I began to see a change in my waste production immediately.
My plastic pollution was cut almost to zero. (Pesky chocolate wrappers ― I am a chocolate fiend ― and items I hadn’t even considered were made of plastic, such as my toothbrush and makeup packaging, stopped me from cutting it out completely.) I only produced one garbage bag of waste in January, the majority of which was food waste due to the lack of composting options in my neighborhood.
But starting a zero waste lifestyle isn’t the difficult part; the difficult part is maintaining it.
I soon noticed a drain on my finances as I purchased long-lasting items that were a bigger upfront cost, such as reusable period pants, menstrual cups and reusable food covers. Finding plastic-free versions of everyday toiletries like deodorant and toothpaste was also proving more expensive due to the additional price of biodegradable packaging and organic materials.
As my waste reduced, my spending increased. Then another lifestyle change threw a wrench in the works. I changed jobs.
A change in hours and a longer commute to work scuppered my careful shopping and food planning. I was earning more but I had less time.
I started to slip into old habits for the sake of convenience: buying lunch on the go instead of making it in advance, purchasing non-biodegradable makeup wipes, deodorant and toothpaste, and eventually no longer shopping in zero waste stores altogether.
Zero waste lifestyles mean a huge reduction in the range of products you can buy. You can’t be brand loyal and be zero waste, something I had more trouble with than I thought I would, especially when I had limited time to shop.
When I first started zero waste, many of my weekends were taken up by traveling to various zero waste stores around my city to do my shopping. Nearly all zero waste stores are independents, with a limited amount of space or cash flow, which means they are only able to stock certain items. Some stores only sell certain dry goods, others only sell lifestyle items. Some sell a mix but have a limited supply. With less time on my hands, this became too much.
I realized that as much as going entirely zero waste was admirable, it is not entirely possible for me. While I can try to contain all of my waste for a year in an Instagrammable glass jar, ultimately I am going to need to buy products for convenience or because there are no other alternatives available.
There are some zero waste purchases that I am 100% never going back on, such as my use of period pants over sanitary pads, making my own cleaning supplies from vinegar, water and essential oils, and purchasing all of my fruit and vegetables unpackaged. But due to time constraints and costs, others are not always possible for me, such as preparing lunches in advance to avoid buying food on the go, or making my own toothpaste, or finding alternatives to the single-use plastic we often overlook, such as medication in plastic containers or prescribed skin care in plastic tubes.
Before I attempted going zero waste, I felt anxious and guilty all the time about my contribution to pollution. This spurred my decision to seek out sustainable products over wasteful ones. But trying to maintain a zero waste life also led to an increase of anxiety about sticking to these standards and a heavy sense of guilt when I slipped.
The main lesson I have learned from attempting to go zero waste over the last year is not to beat myself up. Slipping is natural, it takes time to readjust to what you can and can’t do. It’s impossible to be perfect but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to do something.
Until larger stores and brands take notice of the zero waste lifestyle, it is always going to be hard to live completely zero waste. But that shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can and promoting those changes to spur others on and create a movement. It changed my life, and it could change yours.