Eco Tips – Zero Waste 

27th January 2022

“One summer we set ourselves a zero waste challenge – we would try and live

for two weeks without producing any waste – i.e. nothing that goes into the dustbin. Whether it be food stuffs we used in the kitchen, cleaning materials around the house or tubes of toothpaste, the aim was to only use things that do not produce any non-recyclable waste. No bought bread unless the bag it came in could be recycled; no pre-packed fruit and vegetables unless all the packaging – including the film around the recyclable plastic box could be recycled – no mouthwash unless all the packaging including the plastic wrapper around the lid could be recycled.

In preparation we had reviewed how things we bought were packaged and what things usually went into our dustbin. Some things that were not waste free we decided we could do without for a couple of weeks. For things we did want we hunted for alternatives. The latter in itself proved an rewarding experience. 

Tea whether bags or loose, often comes with an inner plastic wrapper. Seeking alternatives sources of tea we came across a tea shop, My Cup of Tea, where without blinking an eyelid, they weighed out the tea and tip it into our tea caddy. A number of coffee roasters are similarly happy to pour their beans into our tin. Each time there is an interesting conversation about waste free living. Where we couldn’t find a waste free alternative, we learnt to make our own. Pasta almost invariably comes in plastic or plastic-lined packaging, so had fun we brushing up our pasta making skills.

Week one and our un-recyclable waste was limited to: the plastic seal from under the milk bottle top, a blister packs from medication, a sticking plaster, the plastic film from a pack of pate, several mars bar wrappers, the plastic seal from an jar of instant coffee, a plastic envelope from a greeting card, and a plastic lined bag for coffee beans.

To achieve this level of zero waste we had had to make compromises on other principles. Whilst supermarkets do sell some loose fruit and vegetables, their organic produce is nearly always is pre-packed in plastic. Whole Food sells loose nuts,  dried fruits, grains and pulses but not from fair trade sources. 

The zero waste experiment prompted us to look at the life cycle of daily objects such as toothbrushes which routinely go into landfill. We bought bamboo ones which can be composted. It is made us think about the costs of recyclable waste. Is the single use of a bottle that will then be recycled – taken by lorry to a separating plant and the possibly shipped across to Asia for reprocessing before being made into a new container – really good for the environment? Should we instead look for reusable packaging? A durable bottle filled from the tap instead of a plastic bottle of water from the shop, a washing up liquid bottle that can be refilled, refillable ink cartridges,  a fountain pens…..?”

The above is a reflection of my family’s experiment with zero waste some four years ago. It is interesting to note that some of the things that were going into our refuse bin then, we would now recycle. Blister packs for pills go to the recycling collection point at Superdrug, and the plastic film and wrappers would now go to the soft plastic recycling point at the Coop or Tescos. Only the sticking plaster would still go into the refuse bin. 

 More important has been how the experiment changed the way  shopped. We discovered that with the zero waste experiment, not only did we put less in our refuse bin, but we also put less in our recycling bins too. We had been actively looking for unpackaged goods, and that mindset continues with us today. 

All packaging incurs a cost financially and with respect to the environment, and a further cost when it is either thrown away as refuse or is recycled as new sources of raw material.  Consuming less packaging is almost invariably a good thing!

Tips for swopping to a zero waste lifestyle:-

  • Make a commitment to trying the zero waste approach for a fixed short term period.
  • Plan for the time period in advance: Do a survey of  your refuse bin: what things are you routinely throwing away?
  • What things might you have to do without for your agreed fortnight/ month? 
  • What alternatives could you buy instead?  Check  out local markets and smaller independent shops –  often they are are more flexible in what they expect of customers.
  • Search for local bulk stores – also known as refill stores – where you decant
  • from large dispensers the ingredients you want to buy, filling up your own containers or paper bags etc. The range of items on sale is quite surprising, from powder turmeric to pasta, from olive oil to chick peas, from oats to cocoa nibs, from ground almonds to hair shampoo.
  • Ready made foods often have more packaging to protect them in their finished status: could you buy the raw ingredients with less packaging and make your own? Have a go at making your own biscuits, bread, pastry etc? 
  • Buying in bulk may reduce the proportionate amount of packaging. I bake bread and buy flour in 6kg sacks. A 500ml pot of yogurt has less packaging than 4 individual tubs – or make your own in reusable glass jars.
  • Fruit and vegetable box schemes often use minimal packaging.
  • Change your mind set: if you normally reach for plastic snack bar  to keep you going, get the habit of having a banana or a handful of nuts instead.  If you need a packed lunch, make a sandwich to take or buy a bread roll rather than opting for the plastic-packed ready made sandwich. If you’re going out for an ice-cream look for one that is served fresh in a cornet rather than one that’s pre-packed in plastic. Develop an aversion for crisps and individually packed biscuits. 
  • And if you feel that something you buy is over packaged, send the packaging back to the manufacturer with a query about its necessity. 

These tips focus primarily on food, but the same issues apply to other things too – roles of sticky tape and sticks of glue that come in plastic packaging; paper, cards and note books wrapped in plastic; pants and socks in individual plastic bags etc.

Advocates of zero waste lifestyles are often as keenly focused on following  a plastic free lifestyle too. Friends of the Earth have list of ideas to change to a zero plastic waste lifestyle – https://friendsoftheearth.uk/plastics/living-without-plastic

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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