Saying no to the plastic bag, or looking for the least packaged items is a good starting point. If you feel a product has too much packaging or has non-recyclable packaging you could post the problematic packaging back to the manufacturer with a letter of explanation – it might nudge them to respond. For a lot of food items you can shop at the increasing number of refill shops where you can take in your own containers or use paper bags or make use of a milk delivery service. Milk and More for example delivers not just dairy milk in refill bottles but also oat milk, laundry and washing liquids, fruit juices etc.
Consuming less can also mean discarding. Do a survey of your dustbin. What are you throwing out? Could any of it be recycled, repaired or reused? Do some of the things that you buy come with too much packaging? Could you shop differently? What would it take to half the amount of rubbish you produce each week? What would it take to reduce it to zero?
You see it in some cafés – for a cool drink, fill a jug with water and add strips of cucumber/ slices of lemon or orange/ sprigs of mint/ slices of root ginger/ even melon rinds. Keep the jug in the fridge – it will stand a few refills before the additions loose their flavour. (No sugar, and no bottles to recycle).
Small plastic packets for crisps and individually wrapped biscuits, sweets and ice creams and many other snacks proliferate and can often be seen as wind blown litter. Why not use the impetus of Plastic Free July to make a break and stop buying these products. Look for chocolate bars wrapped in paper and freshly served ice creams in cones. Prepare snacks in advance putting dried fruits and biscuits into reusable containers. Take a banana – they come with inbuilt packaging!
L is for local: locally produced food, which can include things grown or produced in one’s immediate locality and things where local can mean the UK rather than abroad. For example in East Sheen we can buy honey that comes from Richmond Park. We can buy coffee beans roasted across the river in Chiswick. We can have breakfast in Putney enjoying porridge or eggs Benedict made on the premises. We can choose to buy strawberries from Kent as opposed to imported from Spain. Equally we can eat strawberries grown in our back garden. We buy beans and pulses, seeds and grains such as quinoa, from Hodmedod whose produce is all UK grown.
O is for organic: organic food has a less damaging impact on the planet than non organic food. Indeed it’s effect can be positive, with soils improved with vegetable matter rather than being stripped of its micro-organisms by fertilisers, with pollinators encouraged rather than being killed by pesticides, with livestock well cared for rather than being routinely treated with antibiotic prophylactics. We buy organically grown oats, and flour that comes from farms in Cambridgeshire and which is milled in a windmill!
A is for animal friendly: animals that live as near a natural life as possible (often organically raised). If we buy eggs for my husband we opt for free range, organic ones (although at the moment no eggs are free range owing to restrictions around bird flu). At Christmas the festive bird for my husband is a cockerel that has enjoyed a whole year of life unlike most of chicken meat which comes from birds that live may be 6 – 8 weeks (up to 12 for organically raised birds).
F is for fairly traded: the Fair Trade mark is well known as measure where production has guaranteed a price above the market minimum, where the work force receive fair wages and where provision is made for services such as schooling and health care. We buy fair trade bananas, chocolate and tea which are now widely available. We buy coffee beans that have been ethically sourced from small scale producers who grow top quality beans, appreciating that the higher cost reflects their value.
Secondly we avoid excess and plastic packaging, a habit we learnt through a zero waste experiment. We buy dried fruit and nuts, and dry goods such as rice, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, spices, sugar, cocoa, millet and polenta from local refill stores where goods are dispensed into paper bags – often ones we have brought to reuse. We also buy refills of olive oil, soy sauce, maple syrup, tahini and peanut butter, taking our own jars and bottles to refill. Milk – both oat and dairy – comes in reused glass bottles on the milk round. Since we cook meals from scratch we avoid lots of single use plastic boxes. Likewise making our own cakes and biscuits reduces the amount of waste we generate. Jam jars are reused when we make jam, marmalade and chutneys and when we bottle summer fruits. Deliveries from Hodmedod come in paper or compostable bags, flour and oats come in bulk in paper sacks.
Thirdly we seek to reduce the carbon footprint of what we eat. Most meals are vegan – Paul enjoys cheese in his sandwiches and dairy milk on his cereal. A vegan diet can save in the region 400 and 900 kgCO2 a year. Even with a vegan diet there are ways of being more or less carbon efficient. By choosing locally produced food, food that is in season and cutting back on food waste (other vegetable leaves, tea bags and coffee grounds all go into the compost bin whilst apple cores go to make cider vinegar) we aim to minimise our carbon footprint. We have a weekly fruit and vegetable delivery from OddBox which collects fruit and vegetables from farmers and suppliers that would otherwise go to waste – because supermarket demand has dropped, crops have been larger (or sometimes smaller) than expected), crops have ripened too quickly/ slowly, or items are too small/ big/ misshapen for general sale. OddBox by preventing food from going to waste, saves some 11,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.
“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.
Zero Waste is the idea that nothing should end up as land fill, in an incinerator or being washed out to sea/ caught in a tree/ blown onto a mountain top as rubbish. Whatever is left after we have consumed something should be recyclable so that nothing is wasted. Zero waste means not buying/ consuming more than you need. Zero waste means cradle-to-cradle or closed loop design of all we consume.
Why is waste an issue?
Waste that we throw away has to be disposed of. Historically waste was buried in midden heaps or burnt on the household fire or thrown onto the street or into a nearby river. The amount of waste was generally small enough that this was not impractical. As towns grew and as the amount of things people could acquire and casually discard grew, so waste became a problem. As long as amongst the waste there were things that could be recycled for financial gain, there were people who would take on the waste problem. In the 18th century urban areas had business known as ‘dust yards’ where rubbish was collected and sorted to,extract what could be resold – bones for knife handles and glue, coal ash for bricks etc. When waste became a potential health hazard, the authorities intervened. In 1846 the Nuisance Removal and Disease Prevention Act set up the first regulatory waste management system operate by municipal boards. The Public Health Act of 1875 required all householders to put their rubbish in bins for weekly collection.
Having a system for taking waste away doesn’t reduce the amount of waste produced. The amount of waste we produced has grown exponentially. Globally (circa2016) we produce 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal waste a year (ie waste from households, shops and small businesses collected by local authorities – as opposed to waste generated on an industrial scale such as in mining, farming , manufacturing). The average of 0.74 kg per per person per day masks a range from 0.11kg to 4.55kg. Typically it is the less developed countries that generate least waste whilst it is nations such as Denmark, the USA, New Zealand, the most. Here in the UK we averaged 392kg (2017) down from 425kg in 2010. As more countries become increasingly developed/ westernised, the World Bank estimates that average per capita waste will increase to 3.4kg per day by 2050 – a projected annual total of 3.4 billion tonnes.
Waste and its disposal can cause various pollution and health concerns. Uncollected waste can be a source of infection. It can attract vermin and scavengers that may further transmit infections. It can block drains and water ways causing flooding. It can produce chemicals that pollute water supplies. It can create unpleasant odours as well dangerous gases that irritate and damage lungs or that can enter the blood steam and cause further forms of ill health. It can be blown across land, lodging in trees and branches where it may injure wildlife as well domesticated animals (n Richmond Park deer die each year from eating rubbish). It can end up in the middle of oceans or on remote mountain tops. It may end up as waste polluting the seas – this is especially true of discarded marine nets.
Most waste is collected but that doesn’t eradicate the health and pollution risks. Most will either be incinerated producing noxious fumes and health debilitating small particulates as well as CO2, or goes into some form of landfill which depending upon the level of safeguards in place, will still be a cause of much pollution. Buried waste in landfill also produces methane. Globally only 13.5% of municipal waste is recycled (https://datatopics.worldbank.org/what-a-waste/trends_in_solid_waste_management.html).
The world’s stock of resources – in particular raw materials such as minerals, but also things such as water, timber, peat, helium gas – is finite. We cannot carry on manufacturing and consuming at current levels. In 2021 Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have consumed as many resources as the world can annually regenerate – fell on 29th July (https://www.overshootday.org/). On the one hand we need to find ways of consuming less, and in the other – or at the same time – we need to ensure we extract and recycle as much as we can from what we throw away. This imperative to use less and recycle more applies as much to industry as it does to individual consumers. And much of the burden must lie within the industries, for it is here that designs can be adapted so as a) to use less resources and b) to ensure ease of recycling when the product reaches its end of life.
What is needed is cradle-to-cradle or closed-loop design, production and recycling. Whilst the onus for this lies with the industries, consumers do have a role to play. We can do our research and only buy, where possible, items that come from closed-loop system. This could be milk in glass bottles that are collected and reused by the milk company. It could be clothes that the maker takes back when they expire and use to create new clothes. It could be paper or cardboard that are collected and processed into new paper and cardboard. We can be conscientious about collecting, sorting and recycling everything we use. And on the way, we can extend the life of the things we use by reusing and repairing them. We can aim for a 100% zero waste lifestyle.