In recent years there has been a growing awareness around the amount of waste that is produced by people and the huge negative impact that this is having on the environment. Single-use plastics such as disposable straws, plastic bags and cups as well as plastic in general have been greatly scrutinised and criticised as these play a large role in environmental damage. As a result of this more and more people have become interested in reducing their waste or moving towards a low or zero waste lifestyle.
Zero waste is a philosophy that encourages people to reduce their avoidable waste and to instead look to reusing and repurposing items whenever possible. When new items are needed these should be reusable and preferably made of sustainable, easily recyclable or biodegradable materials. Some examples of zero waste products include biodegradable/compostable bamboo toothbrushes, cloth shopping bags and unpackaged fruit and vegetables. The ultimate aim of zero waste is that no rubbish is sent to landfills, incinerators or the oceans.
The idea of not producing any waste at all can be incredibly overwhelming to think about; especially once you take a realistic look at the amount of non-recyclable waste you produce as an individual or household. It may seem as if there is no way to replace everyday familiar items as these are seen as the norm or unavoidable. However, the vast majority of items do have a reusable or waste-free alternative. For example, cloth bags can be used in place of plastic. Not only can these be used over and over, they can be repaired when damaged and if made from natural fibres they will also decompose once they become unusable.
One-use paper products such as toilet paper and kitchen towels can be replaced with cloth alternatives and it is relatively simple to make your own baby and cleaning products at home using safer alternatives to chemical cleaners. This option not only reduces waste in the form of packaging as you can refill the same container each time but cuts down on the amount of toxic and otherwise harmful chemicals ending up in the environment.
Unfortunately, there are downsides to working towards a zero-waste lifestyle and it may be unattainable for some people. This can be due to a wide variety of issues such as:
- Few shopping options locally available
- Lack of transport
- Low income
- Relying on online or mail order deliveries
If you are unable to travel far from home you may have to rely on local shops or deliveries for food and other items and this can lead to an increase in waste and a lack of choice in which products you buy. Reducing waste may be made easier by having certain facilities or services nearby such as recycling programmes and bulk shops or possessing skills such as being able to sew. Another factor that can be very prohibitive in reducing waste is living on a tight budget due to the fact that it is often the case that lower priced items come with more packaging and that this is more likely to be plastic than their more expensive counterparts. As an example, loose apples in a large chain English supermarket cost £1.69 per KG but apples packaged in a plastic bag cost £1.18 per KG. While this may not seem a lot of money it can make the difference between affordable and not to someone on a low income, especially when to take into consideration that this is not the only item this will apply too. These small amounts of 20p or 50p soon add up to pounds over a weekly food shop. Cost can also be an issue when buying more environmentally friendly alternatives to everyday items such as sponges, bath products, paper towels and toilet paper.
1. Bring your Own Cutlery
If you often eat on the go one easy swap is to bring your own cutlery instead of using a disposal plastic set. Rather than buying a specific set of costly bamboo or stainless steel cutlery you can simply use what you already have at home. Choose a knife, fork and spoon and place them in your handbag, backpack, school bag, baby bag or even coat pocket. It is a good idea to place the cutlery in a small pouch or wrap it in a cloth. This not only keeps them clean but provides a way to clean them after eating or where they can be stored until you get home without dirtying other things in your bag. A wash flannel or kitchen cloth is perfectly fine or if you can sew, you may like to make a little pouch or cutlery roll. Wash your set once home and then place them back in your bag.
If you don't have any spare cutlery at home to use, charity and thrift shops often have these for sale very cheaply. Discount or homeware shops such as Wilkos, Poundland or Dollar Tree are also good options to try. Reusable plastic cutlery such as those designed for camping or picnics can also be used and can often be bought cheaply or are something you already have at home in a cupboard waiting for summer. Although these are plastic it is better to use something you already have or that can be reused for years to come than to continue using disposable/single-use items. If you do have disposable plastic cutlery this doesn't have to be thrown away after one use. Once washed many are good for several or many more uses. If you don't want to use these other options to avoid throwing them away include giving them to a friend or a homeless person.
2. Save Food Jars
A great way to store foods such as flours, sugar, dried beans, homemade bath or cleaning products and even leftovers is using glass jars. There are many types of jars that can be bought but unless you have a need for a certain feature—for example needing jars that are suitable for canning you may not need to buy jars at all. Instead, jars from bought food items can be washed, saved and reused over and over at no cost at all. This helps reduce waste as the jars are not thrown away and save you money too. If you do not use jarred products you could ask friends, family and even neighbours to save jars for you. Depending on what was originally in the jar they may need to be soaked or washed thoroughly to remove odours. Vinegar and water or vinegar and bicarb can be very helpful in this task.
3. Make Your Own Baby Food
Making food for your baby at home can be highly rewarding and is also generally cheaper than buying ready-made packet or jarred baby food. Making your own baby food can also lead to everyone at home eating healthier as it is easier to make one baby suitable meal than several different ones. Simple food ideas include pureed or mashed fruit or cooked vegetables such as banana, apple or carrot. Another option for weaning babies is known as baby-led weaning and involves giving a baby the same foods as the rest of the family and allowing them to explore and eat in their own time. Some people choose to use a combination of these methods but whichever you choose it is important to follow the appropriate guidelines regarding weaning and foods that should be avoided at each stage.
If you do use jars of bought baby food, save and wash the jars to use in other ways. These tend to be smaller than most jars and can be ideal for small items such as paper clips and notice board pins. You can also use them to store food as you would larger jars.
4. Use Cloth Bags
These are becoming increasingly easy to buy and are sometimes even given away free. If you like to sew many tutorials can be found online for making cloth bags and a very simple bag can be made using an old pillowcase. Even if you cannot sew it is possible to make your own bags from old t-shirts you have at home or perhaps buy one second-hand to use. Cloth bags can be rolled up small and kept in your pocket or bag ready for use whenever needed.
5. Bring Your Own Produce Bags
If you like to separate your fruit and vegetables from other items in your bag small cloth bags can be swapped for the plastic bags offered by supermarkets. Small drawstring bags are ideal for this use or a very simple open-top bag can be sown from two squares or rectangles of material. This can be tied shut using ribbon or cord or the top simply folded over to close. Another option in this area is to reuse the plastic bags supplied by the shops as this is still better than throwing them away each time.
6. Look to Buy Secondhand or Borrow First
Whenever possible look in secondhand shops and websites before buying any items new. Sites such as eBay and Amazon sell a wide range of secondhand items and this is likely to be a cheaper option as well as preventing items from being thrown away and can potentially reduce waste in packaging. Think outside the box—you may already have something that could be reused or repurposed to suit your need. Another option is to ask friends and family as they may have something suitable they are not using or if it is an item that you only need to borrow.
7. Low-Waste Body and Cleaning Products
Cleaning, bath and beauty products tend to have a lot of packaging and contain ingredients that are harmful to the environment and potentially us and our families. In many cases the packaging is not recyclable and so is a good way that you can work on reducing waste. Once the products you currently have are finished you could look to making some safe and natural alternatives at home. Simple recipes can be found online for items such as washing up liquid, baths salts and bombs and shampoo. Castile soap is an often favoured option and can be used for a wide range of applications around the home. Vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice are also effective natural cleaners.
Washable cleaning cloths can also be made using wash flannels or old towels and even some clothes. Unpaper towels are a popular alternative to paper towels and kitchen roll. These can be bought or are quite simple to make if you can sew.
8. Recycle as Much as Possible
Although it's better not to have the waste in the first place, sometimes it can be very hard to avoid. Factors in our individual lives: for example being disabled or living in very small secluded communities can make shopping options limited. The best you can do is try and recycle as much as possible either through local authority run schemes, repurposing or schemes like those run by Terracycle. You can also offer items that you no longer want or need through organisations such as Freecycle or sell them online.
Terracycle offers free collection points for many not normally recyclable materials such as crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, Pringles tubes, pens and body product packaging. They also have paid for options that include dropping off a collection box at you house which is then collected once full. These can be quite an expensive option but may be worth considering if a box would last you sometime or you opt for the zero waste box that will take away everything in one go, rather than having lots of separate boxes. Saving a little a week towards the cost could help make this a more manageable option but don't feel bad if this is not an option for you. The boxes can also be sent to places such as schools and offices and they are often looking for people willing to organise new (free scheme) collection points.
9. Only Shop for Items You Really Need
This option seems simple but next time you feel like you need to buy something think carefully about why you feel this. Often we buy things just because we like them or because we have seen them on offer or cheap and this can lead to increased waste of resources and money. Before buying consider if it really is a need or just a want and if so why you feel that way. If you stop and think for a moment you may also realise that you already have something at home you could use instead.
10. Use Up What You Already Have
It is not uncommon for people to buy items just because they want them or because they are cheap, even when they already have several at home. This can apply to many items including candles, pens, notebooks and stationary, clothes and toys. Thinking about and using what you already have saves on bring additional waste home in the form of packaging and also saves money. An unfortunate result of buying excessively can also be that perfectly good items end up being thrown away when the person decides they have much stuff and have a clear out or no longer want to use or have an interest in the items due to changing tastes, hobbies or interests.
The money saved could perhaps be saved towards something you do genuinely need, paying off debt, some low waste supplies (for example unpaper towels or cloth/reusable sanitary protection) or something you would consider a treat or luxury such as an evening out or holiday. It can be surprising how much you can save by not making these unnecessary purchases. An idea that often coincides with low/zero waste is to take a no-spend challenge and buy nothing for a period of time unless it is genuinely needed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Claire
Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on March 15, 2019:
We are quite close to the sea but living so close must be lovely :D
It is such a shame and waste that even when people try to recycle it doesn't actually happening. Very disheartening and I'm sure makes people not feel like bothering.
I see bulk stores in America in many YouTube videos and wish we had more of those here in England. They are hard to find but if there was one nearby I would definitely go there. Manufactures should be held responsible for reducing packaging too as so many items come with unnecessary or excessive packaging that we then have to deal with.
Tessa Schlesinger on March 15, 2019:
I live in a guest house in a cemented part in the city. I do love it and am very fortunate that I can live there because it is only 2 blocks from the sea. It is high density, though.
As you point out, the city has to be involved. That said, only about 15% of things people are recycling are actually recycled. The city doesn't know what ot do with them, so they go to the landfills anyway.
I get very frustrated that we aren't able to bulk buy here i.e. bring our own containers and fill them up. I wish that would become normalized.
Claire (author) from Lincolnshire, UK on March 14, 2019:
I know how you feel. Food packaging is a big problem we have though we are luck that our local council do collect plastic, glass, paper and cans for recycling every fortnight. We have about the same amount of trash but it is much better than we used to have. So from that point of view I feel that it is better we are trying and do what we can, rather than stressing ourselves with worry about reaching the ideal of zero waste. I think that for some people it isn't possible as it can be very hard to do it all. yourself.
I have added changes a little at a time which has helped but as you say there are still only so many hours in the day. Could you set up a small compost pile or bin for banana peels and other food waste? Our latest switch was to replace paper towels and toilet paper with cloth versions. It has been going okay.
Tessa Schlesinger on March 13, 2019:
I am trying so hard to get to Zero waste, but I still have about half a grocery bag of trash everyday. It's the result of banana peels, containes that fruit arrives in, etc. My diet has become very simple, and it has lost me weight and returned me to health. But still there are wrappers and bottles for dishwashing liquid, etc. I do know that one can make these things oneself, but I am autistic, 67 years old, and limited in how much work I can do in a day.