A good friend of mine asked me recently what my top 3 tips would be to reduce ones waste. I couldn’t answer straight away. My first thought was “wow, I’m so happy she’s asking this question”, followed closely by, “shit, I have to choose just 3?!”.
I understand where her question came from – taking one, two or (in this case) three steps at a time is much more achievable than going the whole hog from the outset. Embarking on a low waste lifestyle can be daunting. The questions start spinning in your mind; Where do you start? What actions will create the most immediate positive impact? Which will be the easiest to implement? And before you know it, you’ve talked yourself out of doing anything because you can’t do it all.
But you know what, we don’t have to do it all.
Many people, myself included, get criticised for implementing one environmental habit while not doing something else. “Oh you’re a vegan for the planet BUT you drive a car.” Or, “Oh you live plastic-free BUT some of the products you buy in bulk are imported”, Or “Oh you use public transport to get around BUT you go overseas at least once a year (read: carbon emissions from air miles).” The list is endless.
To the naysayers I ask, “Are my only two options to be a vegan hippie living off the grid or a corporate suit in my gas-guzzling 4WD whose favourite activities are shopping and monthly overseas weekenders?” Of course not!! The Rogue Ginger wrote a great post about this, if you’re interested.
So, on that note, to everyone who wants to implement more eco-friendly habits into their life – welcome (and thank you for visiting) – let’s take a look at the top 3 habits to kickstart your trash detox and live a little more lightly on the planet.
Be a Conscious Consumer
The easiest way to reduce waste in our life is to not let it in in the first place. If it’s not there we don’t have to agonise over how to get rid of it at the end of its life cycle. And while we’re on the subject of life cycles, by not introducing an item into our life we haven’t also inadvertently consumed all the resources that went in to its production. This realisation was in fact my light-bulb moment, and what propelled my minimalism/zero waste journey.
Below are three questions we can ask ourselves when deciding on whether we should purchase an item or not.
Do I really need this?
So much of what we buy today are impulse purchases. We walk in to a shopping centre (that’s a mall for the North Americans reading this) and are bamboozled by the pretty things and the strategic placement and the savvy marketing. That’s done on purpose, guys! There’s a reason companies spend millions or billions of dollars on advertising and marketing – because it works.
Take a step back and wait 24 hours before handing over your hard earned cash. In those 24 hours think about how the item will add value to your life – is it useful or beautiful? How often will you use it? Will it take time out of your one precious life to maintain or store this item? Could I borrow, rent or buy this secondhand instead?
I know, I’ve totally cheated and incorporated about 5 different questions under 1 umbrella question, but if you can’t answer these satisfactorily then you probably shouldn’t be getting it.
What am I supporting by purchasing this item?
That item sitting on the shelf at Target has had a long life before you laid eyes on it. The materials used have been extracted from the ground or synthetically produced, the materials have been shipped to a mutual location to produce the end product you’re deliberating over and then it was freighted again (and again and again) before being placed on that shelf.
How were the materials extracted and what damage (if any) did that cause to the environment and the people involved? For example, did you know that coltan (a mineral used in our MP3s, mobile phones and remote controls, to name just a few items) is predominantly sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo?¹ Our incessant demand for items made from this product fuels rebel armies (and the Congo’s official army) to retrieve the mineral, with innumerable human rights abuses occurring in the process. Or gold? Did you know that “mining enough gold for an average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous waste?”¹ Another resource we rarely think of as being used when making our stuff is water.
Other themes to consider are child labour, fair wages for work completed, where the item was produced and therefore how many shipping miles has it clocked up, is the retailer I’m buying this from a socially responsible enterprise?
It’s so easy for us to forget these issues – out of sight, out of mind – but the planet, our fellow humans and all other living beings need us to stop sweeping this under the rug now.
How will I dispose of this at the end of its life?
If the only option is landfill, take a long hard think about whether it passed the previous two questions with flying colours. Or is there an alternative that could have a lighter impact on our Earth at the end of its life? Is there something that’s compostable, could it be upcycled, or can it be returned to the retailer to reuse its materials, or is it repairable so that its end is many many years away?
If you answer these questions honestly before heading to the checkout, your shopping bag will be much lighter just like your footprints on our planet.
In NSW, the garbage we put in our ‘red lid’ bins (i.e. the stuff that goes direct to landfills) typically consists of about 1/3 food waste.² That’s a decent chunk! Now, the first way to reduce our food waste would be to use the principles of tip 1 – conscious consumption. Shop based on a meal plan, don’t do your groceries when you’re hungry and get creative with your leftovers rather than being tempted by Deliveroo or Foodora. For more ideas on how to be food smart, I recommend visiting Love Food Hate Waste.
Even when we do all of the above it tends to be inevitable that food waste occurs. The most hardcore food waste warriors still generate scraps from their fruit and veggies and how can we dispose of them responsibly? Cue the compost solution. Or a worm farm. ☺️
Many question the difference between sending food waste to landfill and composting it. Now, I’m no scientist, but as I understand it, the main difference is that in landfill our food waste biodegrades anaerobically (without oxygen) and as it breaks down it emits methane. You may still be wondering what’s the big deal; well methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and we all know the damage excess carbon dioxide is causing on our planet. So, composting is the aerobic biodegradation of food scraps and it emits carbon dioxide rather than methane. It also eventually becomes humus, fabulous fertile organic matter that we can use in our gardens. Oh the beauty of the nature’s life cycle.
So now that you’re sold on the concept of composting, let’s discuss how you can get into it.
You can get a compost for your backyard. If you don’t have a backyard, you can get a worm farm for your balcony. No balcony? No problem. You can get a bokashi bin for your kitchen or you can find the nearest community compost to dispose of your food scraps. In my family we’ve got a combo system – we have a worm farm and can feed our worms about 200g of food scraps daily and the excess waste; or scraps that can’t be fed to worms but can be composted; it gets stored in the freezer and about once a week we head down to our community garden farm and pop it in the compost bins there. If you don’t have a community compost nearby, checkout ShareWaste (it’s worldwide but mostly active in Australia & NZ, but expanding its network in the US as well) – a fantastic initiative where compost owners and people with scraps to discard can connect and share resources.
There is an investment to get started but it’s worth it for the warm fuzzy feeling of doing good for the planet. Trust me.
If you’re Sydney based, some councils offer subsidised compost bins or worm farms. Check out the Compost Revolution website to see if your area’s eligible and for other composting questions you want answered. Google is also your friend if you want to investigate the ins and outs of composting.
3. Ditch Single Use Items
Our convenience lifestyle has generated an almost infinite amount of single-use items; single-use items that are usually made from plastic that will exist in some form on our planet for, most likely, hundreds of years; yet we tend to use them from anywhere between 2 seconds and 5 minutes, and that’s a generous maximum. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s the reality of today’s world. Here’s hoping tomorrow will be one of less rushed, plastic convenience and more thoughtful, reusable common sense.
In the meantime we can refuse these silly items and show retailers that we don’t want them. It takes a little bit of forethought and time to implement this habit, but if you’re anything like me you’ll get shiny glowing bubbles of contentment each time you avoid a disposable item.
If ditching all disposables seems overwhelming, I’d recommend starting with the big 4: plastic bags (always carry a tote bag on you), takeaway coffee cups (dine in or take your own reusable cup or mug), cutlery (eat in or carry your own on you) and water bottles (have your own reusable bottle).
Other disposable undesirables to avoid (and tips on how to this):
- Plastic Straws – when ordering your drink ask the waiter for “no straw, thanks”. If you do like to use a straw you can buy a stainless or glass reusable one. I find that showing this to the waiter when ordering – means there’s a better chance that you’re glass won’t turn up with a straw in it anyway. If you’re really dedicated, don’t order a drink – that way there’s no danger of you getting an unwanted straw.
- Chopsticks – many asian restaurants offer disposable bamboo chopsticks, return these to the waiter as soon as you sit down so they don’t need to worry about contamination or possible use. Ask them for cutlery instead or bring your own reusable ones to eat with.
- Takeaway containers – this is a biggie. I always carry containers on me and they are great to put leftovers in when eating out (you’re also reducing food waste) or if I get takeaway I ask if they can pop it in my container. Most of the time they are accommodating, if they aren’t they usually cry OHS reasons for not doing so – this isn’t a valid reason. You can read all about that here, but in a nutshell it’s not illegal for them to accept your containers. Now, the most difficult part of avoiding takeaway containers is when you’re tempted to order in. I’m lucky, I live a stones throw away from a number of delicious restaurant choices so I don’t have this dilemma. When we’re still feeling super lazy, we order pizza and recycle the boxes (not all councils accept pizza boxes so make sure to check out your council’s verdict on them). I would recommend to treat yourself and eat out when you can, it’s a much nicer experience and if you’re eating with others it tends to be much more sociable as well. If you’ve just got to have your takeaway – don’t just chuck the containers afterwards, wash them and reuse them as often as you can!
- Produce Bags – many people take their grocery bags to the supermarket but then proceed to put the vegetables and fruit they buy into plastic bags. Stop that! There are loads of great reusable produce bags out there, or you can make them out of old clothes or sheets, or shop naked! Does the produce really need a bag anyway? You’ll wash it before eating it regardless.
- Napkins – we’re constantly being offered napkins either when we eat in or get take away but a lot of the time we don’t need it, or we use it once or twice and then it’s thrown in the bin. Many believe that napkins can be recycled – they can’t. The paper fibres are too small to be used again. Carry a cloth napkin with you and refuse napkins or return them to a waiter as soon as you sit down. If you do get caught out, take the napkin home to compost.
- Soy Sauce Fish – Japanese restaurants the world over love to offer their soy sauce in plastic fish that, ironically, can become a real hazard for our real fish in the oceans. Refuse them and ask to use some soy sauce in a bottle before leaving the restaurant.
I think that’s enough to get started! The image for this blog shows the standard kit I carry with me when I head out (plus a container and a KeepCup if I want to get a hot drink). If you want to go even further (yay, you!), then I recommend checking out Wanderlightly’s 5 Easy Steps to Quit Single Use Plastic.
Now I know I have cheated a little here, having condensed several things into each tip, but I hope you’ll forgive me. Good luck with your journey to low(er) waste living and please let me know how you go!