5 things I’ve learnt about trying to go zero waste

I’ve been reducing the environmental footprint of our house and lifestyle for a while and about 6 months ago I decided to try and go zero waste. I’ve not got to the magic tiny mason jar of landfill waste for a year yet but I have changed several things to reduce my waste. Here’s 5 things I’ve learnt so far:

I thought I knew all my waste, I did not 

I’d spent a couple of weeks tracking what went in my landfill bin, working out other less frequent waste items and making a list. I thought I knew the problem I was facing. I was wrong. As I started to more intentionally reduce my waste and work on the harder things, I noticed so much more that I hadn’t clocked before. I also found that although I set out to get rid of landfill waste, I don’t want to create any waste really, even if it’s recyclable. I now have a longer list of items to get rid of than I had when I started!! But it’s more accurate and I’m a great lover of things being out and in a list. If it’s on a list you know what you have to deal with.

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I also spent a couple of weeks in April tracking my food waste as part of the Project Drawdown annual EcoChallenge. It made me think about whether I could do something different with my vegetable peelings and that I need to do some better planning and eating things up to avoid them going off. One of those weeks I also ate out a lot more than usual and it made me think that we don’t see the waste that’s caused as a result of our meals in restaurants or cafes. I have to confess that I haven’t done anything with this awareness yet (see point 5 below) but it was definitely eye opening.

 

We need options 

This sounds obvious but there tends to be a very small number of options so when things change, it can have a big impact, in both directions. When I started out at the beginning of the year, there was a zero-waste shop where I live and I could get dry goods and bathroom stuff from there so those items were on my “already done” list. I talked to the 2 owners a lot and knew that they were working hard to reduce plastic from their supply chain and bought as locally as possible. Sadly in March they decided to close down as they were not seeing their families enough. I had a couple of weeks of worrying about how to stick with the zero waste plan. Without somewhere to take my containers for bulk buying, I’d got serious problems! There was some light briefly as someone else has taken over the business but their prices are crazy (£20 for 600g cashew nuts!!). I accept paying a bit more than in a supermarket but that’s nuts 🙂 There is another zero waste shop which is a 15 minute drive away. It’s in a town where a friend lives and is en route on various journeys so I’ve been a couple of times when I’m there anyway but I no longer have a reasonably priced zero waste shop in walking distance.

In better news, Waitrose now officially allows you to take your own container to their deli counters so that helps for meat, fish, cheese, olives etc. The train company have an app so I don’t have to buy paper train tickets. Sainsburys lists the packaging for it’s own brand items in the app when you order so you can make sure you’re buying ketchup in a glass bottle not a plastic one.

 

Trade offs 

I find it hard to work out the overall impact of what I’m doing and what the right choices are. Like:

  • the carbon impact of driving 15 minutes to a zero waste shop so that I can buy food without packaging – I always combine it with doing something else
  • buying a pastry for breakfast sometimes and the vegan one is wrapped in plastic but the normal one with dairy I can just take in my hand. I’m not vegan but I am trying to reduce how much dairy I eat because of the treatment of dairy cows and the greenhouse gas emissions. In this situation one, the plastic free option wins
  • is it better to find clothes online from a sustainable company but they come in packing when delivered (and it’s often not clear what that packaging will be like) or to buy something from a local shop where I don’t know its origin or how workers are treated in the supply chain?
  • Is it better to use a vegware compostable paper tea cup in the office or a reusable cup made from plastic? I always use the reusable one because single use of anything seems foolish

There’s a lack of good information about these sorts of things and how to make choices. More consumer information is coming but I need it now please!

 

It’s all about the tribe 

When I first posted about aiming to go zero waste I was apprehensive about posting my list of what I’d done and what I still had to figure out. Would people judge me for some of the things I haven’t done yet? You won’t be surprised to hear that people were great, not judgey and had helpful questions or suggestions. A colleague saw ground coffee on my “hard” list and recommended a place nearby where you can buy beans in your own container and they’ll grind them for you. A friend on Instagram suggested a brand of sun cream that comes in an aluminium container. I also had several people see what I’d already done and ask for recommendations of which brands I use, which was such a pleasing, unexpected effect. And my lovely other half recently gave me birthday presents all in reusable packaging and no awful shiny wrapping paper, which was almost better than the actual presents, although those were a photo of bees and jewellery he’d made me so it’s hard to compete with that! I wasn’t expecting to change anyone else’s behaviour as a result of posting it and I’m thrilled to have had a small impact. I’ve learnt to be brave, put it out there and people are really supportive! No-one’s perfect after all and this isn’t about being perfect, it’s about doing what we each can and that’s a lot easier with your tribe around you.

 

Life gets in the way 

On not being perfect….. my main problem is time. I’m working more than full-time, doing a part-time masters and trying to do some fun things too! Making changes and finding new options takes quite a bit of research or adds time into the day and I’m struggling with that. Lunch at work is a particular problem. There’s no canteen in the office so I go to a sandwich shop and that inevitably results in packaging waste. I’ve tried taking left overs in a couple of times, which is ok but then I can’t eat the leftovers for dinner that day! I could make a sandwich in the morning and take it with me but somehow I can’t get myself to fit that into the 40 minute slot from 6am when I’m getting ready and leaving the house. Maybe I just need to focus on that one thing for a couple of weeks and make a proper effort? I also have weeks when I miss the veg order reminder email or the loo paper reminder email and we end up with none or too much and I don’t seem a very good judge of how much milk we drink so that tends to run out and then there’s the conundrum of living without it for a couple of days, the rest of the family drinking oat milk or getting a plastic bottle.

I find clothes shopping hard too. I don’t buy many clothes and always try and buy good quality that will last but I would like to buy second hand only. I do that with books and camping kit and things like that but I have a mental block with clothes. Not because I have a problem with second hand clothes but because I have general problem with clothes shopping – not knowing what I like and what looks good. Trying to cope with that in a second-hand/charity shop where there’s only one of each item and you have to rummage around is just too much for me at the moment. I’m settling with a small number of quality clothes bought from companies with a conscience as a compromise.

 

Having said all that, new ways become habit so now if I’ve forgotten my reusable cup or bottle then I just don’t buy a take away coffee or a plastic bottle of water. I’m so much more aware of the waste I create, in fact I see it everywhere and feel guilty about it often. I love making steps to reduce my environmental impact, learning more about it and continually working to be better. I’ll get to that tiny mason jar, one thing off the list at a time.

 

  1. Hi there, and yet another smart blog!

    I like the idea of having a set of things that are linked together – but pulled together are more than the some of their parts. The first point you make about creating transparency is essential, and I was wondering how to make it easier. There are so many interactions that I have everyday, where I´m uncertain how much waste they generate. And that starts with taking the train to get to clients – but at least I know how the electricity is generated in Switzerland. But there are online tools that allow you to measure your (approx.) footprint. So I send that together with my invoice. Maybe I should be asking them to offset it. The second point about options is also challenging. How much food do I make myself – and how much do I buy prepared at lunchtimes? Ready-to-eat! After all, making sandwiches doesn´t need to be outsourced. Even with my skills, I can do that too. And, thirdly and fourthly, some trade-offs are easier than others. I´ve started asking my clients whether we can meet online rather than (always) face-to-face. Not only is the footprint more acceptable, but the meetings are faster! And clients are really part of my tribe – but if you don´t draw them into the conversation about options, they´re not going to engage with choices. And it´s not just about people who agree with us – it´s about changing behaviour of everyone, one phone call at a time. And, lastly, life does get in the way: How do I justify flying to Boston to the Academy of Management conference to present a paper and talk on a panel about sustainable strategy? Sustainable? When is the AOM going to go virtual? What could I do to convince them that it´s possible? But maybe that´s another question.

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    1. Thanks Andrew. Did I understand right that you send the environmental impact of your journey along with your invoice to clients? That’s a great idea! What kind of reaction do you get?

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  2. I have found that it helps to choose one or two habits to change and concentrate on them until they become habit, otherwise I lose focus and things start to slip. I even had to break other things into more manageable parts and tackling them that way. The term zero waste used to apply to businesses that had zero waste in their supply chain and now it is thrown onto the consumer to fix it. Just do what you can, you will not change things overnight.

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  3. So many things to say about this. First, its amazing how much you have accomplished and learned in such a short period of time. Let’s take a moment and appreciate that fact. Secondly, you are on the leading edge of a movement that is growing and may be very unique to the UK. It takes a tribe and the tribe needs to have some meet ups. What I mean is that I was pleased to see a zero waste shop in a town I visited in Wales last month but then happily surprised to see another a few towns away…and then almost unsettled to see another and another. This is really taking hold. I got on the internet and looked for something similar in my sprawling city of Washington DC and google was perplexed by the mere question instead suggesting I go to Whole Foods (our Amazon owned Waitrose equivalent) to buy in bulk…yeah ok. However, my point is the next step is build community because there seems to be so many (in the UK) actively working on this and reinforcement would be a “force multiplier”. Third and last, this is always timely but no more timely than now that China has exited the picture. As you note recycling doesn’t mean zero waste. My county government is literally hiding the fact that the are collecting our recyclables and sending them to the incinerator now. They are desperate to find a solution but the real solution is total waste reduction now. Thank you for post!

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    1. Thank you! The plastic waste thing has really taken off in the past couple of years here but the idea of “zero waste home” was actually started by a lady in California so we can’t take the credit for that! My impression was that bulk buy in supermarkets was quite common in the US but sounds like that’s not everywhere

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  4. Lovely blog site and I have enjoyed reading your update so much! You have made fantastic progress and it goes to show how much can be achieved and also the difficulties even for the best-of-intentioned individuals like yourself. Well done you! Such a shame to read that your local zero waste shop has closed down. Do you know whether there is a website which collates the addresses so you can ‘find your nearest’? I’d love to join in, but being in the countryside I am not aware of any outside of London or Cornwall, where I holidayed recently and spotted quite a few. However, as you point out – I would imagine that in my case, the diesel journey would offset any environmental good I would be doing with my switch. Your comments on clothing are interesting as I often buy online but end up sending much of it back for poor fitting and hadn’t considered the carbon impact of this too much. I will now! Perhaps you could set up a local swishing event somewhere with changing rooms if you’re town/city based and invite local charity shops to have a stall too? Better yet, I have been tempted to see if I can go 1 month ‘purchase’ free. I.e. to use up what is in my freezer and cupboards and not buy anything beyond the essential work travel etc., I think it is harder than it sounds. Perhaps we could start a campaign movement for the next academic term and get people signed up?! Final note from me – as an ex-lobbyist representing packaging industries, we need to be careful in considering the value some packaging plays in preventing food waste. The example is a cucumber – which lasts 5 days longer when shrink-wrapped. I am not advocating shrink-wrapped cucumbers at all, but we should all be mindful of food waste and it’s a complex trade-off between the two objectives! I think you’re doing fab – keep it up, and keep inspiring us!

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  5. Hi, many things to talk about. Echoing Marc’s and Steph’s earlier comments it is amazing how much you have achieved and personally accomplished! Well done to you !! Proving that even in this 100 miles an hour life style it is possible to make a difference!!! The most interesting points I found in your writing was the sad demise of the zero waste shop and then the problem of trying to sort replacements. Even with support the shop owners had to close and the cost of replacements extremely high. Going back to our group project I seem to remember that the cost of going ‘green’ as many put it was so high and difficult to source that any enthusiasm soon waned. Great that Waitrose are trying to help – tbh I have not noticed that in our Waitrose store or online either. Hopefully it is just me being unobservant! Love the comments on second hand clothes – I buy very few clothes (yep obvious really I know ) but I do make a very big effort to buy any books second hand. I appreciate that I could put them on a Kindle which would be much better but I feel that buying second hand is a small positive step. At this point I went back to my Amazon account and checked my account. Interestingly 90% of all my latest books were second hand but here are the really key points – the postage was often more than the book itself and at a really rough estimate I saved over £200! I think for a great many people going ‘green’ reducing waste etc. is percieved as costing a great deal of money and time and yet here I am doing something very simple and easy to do – if I can do it anybody can – and saving money !!!
    Great blog and very interesting keep going !!!

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  6. Hi Meryl, you may remember me from the amazing work you did with Pilotlight at Rights of Women. Randomly I happened across your blog via Linked In and I love it. Having lived literally on the ocean for the past three years we have been so conscious about our waste and are constantly working at what we can do better. Looking forward to reading more of your brilliant blog – really inspiring to read about your journey. Thank you! Emma

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    1. Hi! Of course I remember you, lovely to hear from you. I still donate monthly to RoW because of how inspiring you were! 3 years living on the ocean must be an amazing experience, I will have to read your blog x

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