For a long time I had been thinking about “going zero waste”. It turns out that this is a much bigger job than I realised. We generate a LOT of rubbish in our house. There are two wheelie bins outside the front door – a black bin for non-recyclable rubbish and a green bin for recycling. All glass goes to the bottle bank (our council doesn’t collect it), and I take all textiles to textile recycling. I also make occasional trips to the tip for bigger items.
I thought that generally I was being pretty good because I have always been such a dedicated recycler. However, my eyes were really opened when I did our first “rubbish audit”.
After asking others how to get started (I can recommend Jen’s group on Facebook as an excellent source of info and help), I was advised that a rubbish audit was the best place to start. When you do a rubbish audit you literally record everything you throw away for one week.
So that’s what I did.
1. Know Where You’re Starting From
I started on a Sunday morning and I wrote down everything we put in the bins for seven days. We threw away a huge amount of stuff – in total 421 separate items. Probably about as far away from zero waste as you can get!
157 of those things went in the recycling bin. The other 264 were plain old rubbish.
Our rubbish contained a wide assortment of things: leftover cooked and raw food, hair from hairbrush, teabags, sandwich bags, sweet wrappers, kitchen towel, packaging from new items, selotape, random broken plastic things (like the rubbish toys they put on the front of children’s magazines), tissues, recipes, tape, dried felt tips, foil, hoover filters, wine corks and tumble dryer fluff to name just a few.
The recycling was mostly paper and card, but next highest were plastic food containers and bottles.
All in all it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea that we threw away as much as we did.
2. Check Your Plastic
The worst offender in our rubbish bins is plastic. Whether recyclable or not, the burden it places on our planet is probably beyond anything we have been able to calculate so far. Micro plastic contamination (micro plastics are tiny pieces of plastic that fragment from larger pieces – plastic doesn’t break down, it just shatters into ever smaller pieces) is worldwide and in pretty much every person’s water supply.
If you can reduce even a fraction of your plastic waste, you are making a difference.
I rinsed and saved all our plastic for the week so I could see where the largest amount was coming from. Here’s what I collected:
3. Pick out three or four items you are going to change
Going zero waste isn’t something that you can do overnight. You have to find re-usable substitutes or get into new habits for every item that you were previously throwing away. To make the biggest impact, pick out the biggest collections of items and start with those.
For us, it was clear that we used loads of:
- Plastic milk bottles
- Plastic water bottles
- Sandwich bags (I have three kids and they all have packed lunches)
- Plastic food packaging
4. Find substitutes for them
Milk and water bottles
We have a milkman in our area (who delivers milk in glass bottles), but the last time I had checked he didn’t deliver organic milk. I prefer to only buy organic milk because of the higher traces of chemicals that are found in non-organic milk.*
I went back to the internet and had another look. Our local milkman now not only delivers organic milk, but he also supplies unhomogenised milk too (sadly, not both in the same bottle, but I live in hope!). I set up a weekly order, which took some adjusting over the weeks to get the amount right for me and the three little ones. And just like that the endless plastic milk bottles we were using were gone!
Next up was water bottles. I replaced bottled water with a water filter and I talk extensively about bottled water, tap water and why I chose a filter here.
Just like that, water bottles were gone!
Sandwich bags and food wrappers
I was really only using sandwich bags out of habit as I put the kids lunch items in them. I also used them for keeping cheese in the fridge and occasionally freezing things. This was the kind of habit that required a cold-turkey change. I gave my sandwich bags to a friend who used them (rather than throwing them in the bin – which is what we’re trying to avoid, right?), and that was that. There are Tupperware pots for lunch boxes and glass storage containers for cheese and frozen food. All of these were sitting unused in the cupboard, so it was time to make use of what I had.
Finally was food packaging. Now, this is extensive and almost everything comes in plastic of some sort, but one thing I did do was switch to a weekly fruit order from Riverford. Riverford are totally anti-plastic, and work with local farmers, so I felt good about using them for our produce. This cut out the plastic bags and wrapping from all the fruit I bought each week, and had the added side effects of a) everyone eating more fruit because we had more in the house and b) me not having to even think about fruit when I go to the supermarket.
5. Choose three more things
Once you’re established in your new habits, it’s time to look at your rubbish again. You can do another audit, or just keep notes from your first one. If you tackle your biggest items first, your rubbish will decrease significantly in a very short space of time. Zero waste doesn’t have to mean absolute zero (which is by and large impossible in our current society), but if you can cut right down on the things you throw away you will be making an enormous difference to the future of our planet.
Don’t rush – it is better to solidify changes slowly than to rush in and change everything only to give up because it’s too hard. We have changed four things and are now living with those changes for a bit before we move onto the next items. We are in the middle of a kitchen refit, which means home cooking (which will cut down a lot of the processed food packaging we had in our cupboards) is not on the agenda at the moment. It should be done by Christmas and then I’ll be sharing what we did next to cut down our waste.
Begin your journey to zero waste
Could you do a rubbish audit and makes changes to move you a tiny bit closer to zero waste? Actual zero waste is a standard that very few of us will be able to realistically achieve, but what if you cut your waste in half? Most people can probably make enough changes to reduce what they throw away and if every person did that imaging what a difference it would make to our world.
*traces of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pharmaceuticals and other drugs in a single product are probably not going to hurt. However, there are traces of these chemicals in almost everything we eat and drink. The combined effect of consuming them from multiple sources over multiple years is very difficult for medical science to evaluate. Personally I like to reduce our exposure in as many ways as I can.