Zero Waste Week is over for another year but as the initiative is the starting point for new habits or an opportunity to reinvigorate some established ones, it’s worth taking stock and working out where to focus efforts going forward.
The good news
Although there’s far too much waste in our society, the sheer volume means there are many easy wins, and we can have some fun along the way.
- Some waste streams are easier to avoid than others. Food waste is the big one here. In the United Kingdom nearly half of all food waste is down to householders (rather than producers and distributors) (1) but with a bit of planning and some basic cooking skills, food waste can easily be cut to next to nothing.
- Growing at least some food yourself is an enjoyable way to cut waste. Homegrown food, even if grown in pots on the windowsill or a patio, means tasty packaging-free food, picked fresh as and when it’s needed or preserved in reusable containers for the winter months. If space is limited, stick to herbs, salad leaves, a chilli plant… as all are expensive to buy and are invariably sold in plastic.
- Recycling has really taken off in Europe (due to strict landfill taxes and targets) as it has in much of the United States, according to comments made by readers and fellow bloggers. There is therefore increasingly no excuse not to recycle.
- Thinking in terms of resources rather than waste is a creative way to shrink the contents of our rubbish bin. Food is a good place to start but cast the net wider: most paper, textiles, containers… have multiple uses over their lifespan. In some ways we should view our homes more like small businesses, which understand the need to maximise resources and control waste as both affect the bottom line.
- Best of all, there is an amazing community of waste avoiders, whose ideas, encouragement and imagination we can all draw on! Through Zero Waste Week I have connected with some inspiring, highly imaginative and very generous people!
The frustrating bits
Anybody looking to live an ethically and environmentally kinder life is likely to face dilemmas and challenges.
- As today’s production and distribution systems are rooted in wasteful practices, eliminating waste can feel like a relentless project. Buying directly from suppliers or at traditional grocery shops and markets is often the easiest first step. Next we need to get vocal and proactive. Speak and write to retailers asking them to reduce unnecessary packaging or stock certain goods in bulk bins and, of course, support retailers who do so with our custom.
- No matter how diligent we are about avoiding waste, there will always be dilemmas, where we have to weigh up the social or environmental benefits of a product against its waste implications. In my case, my desire to avoid palm oil means certain unpackaged or lightly packaged products are off-limits.
- Recycling is not a panacea. Some recycling processes are highly energy, water or chemical intensive and depending on the material recycled or produced the net benefit may be limited. So whilst it definitely makes sense to recycle items like aluminium (3)*, glass, batteries…, with other materials it makes more sense to avoid the product altogether. Take a look at this excellent post by Lindsay of Treading My Own Path on the recycling of Tetrapaks.
- Meticulously cutting out unnecessary waste is great but we should not lose sight of the overall picture. In terms of reducing our environmental impacts, it makes more sense to address wasted energy first, e.g. by replacing bulbs with LEDs or draught proofing the home, before fretting about a greener alternative to replacement razor blades.
Some awkward truths
Throughout Zero Waste Week I have emphasised resources rather than waste because in efficient systems many waste streams are a useful resource for the system or a nearby one (and I don’t mean the waste incinerator!). That doesn’t mean that initiatives like Zero Waste Week are not useful. Waste is a proxy for consumption and by auditing our waste, we shine a light, often an uncomfortable one, on our consumption habits… which brings me to the more tricky issues.
The best way for many of us to slash our waste going forward is to cut out most of the things we don’t really need. This sounds drastic and is rarely a popular suggestion but it will have a much bigger impact than substituting one unnecessary product with another supposedly greener one. It also frees up time and money for more enjoyable (waste-light) activities, like finally training for that marathon, baking your own tasty bread at the weekend, mastering a new skill, spending time with family and friends,… Moreover, it means that occasional luxuries or frivolities truly feel like treats!
As I advocate reduction rather than substitution, it’s only fair I acknowledge that this is not an ethically neutral position. Less demand for stuff means fewer jobs, at home and abroad. As much as I avoid pointless packaging, wasteful supermarkets and unnecessary products, I recognise that the packaging, manufacturing and food retail sectors mean jobs for a lot of people. Experienced economists and academics are only starting to grapple with how we square the need for a socially beneficial economy with finite resources so I’ll not pretend to have the answers. I shall, however, share what minor steps I take to try to balance competing environmental and human considerations.
- Buying less saves money so when I shop for essentials, I can favour products with organic, local, “living wage”/Fairtrade… credentials, even if they’re a little more expensive.
- Buying less saves time, some of which I use to contact retailers to understand their supply chain and encourage them to make changes.
- I try to invest in local and satisfying jobs for real people. E.g. as I don’t spend a fortune on unnecessary cleaning products, clothes or gadgets, I can afford to take music lessons or go to a yoga class in the church hall, treat myself to the occasional seasonal bouquet from a local florist, support charities that perform essential work not provided by the state…
- When indulging in the occasional luxury or treat, I look to do so in ways that support individuals and their local, independent supply chains. There are many ways to do so these days! E.g. by sourcing carefully produced local ingredients, commissioning a quality product from a skilled artisan, co-financing the publication of a book (e.g. with Unbound), backing a project (e.g. through Kickstarter) that focusses on skills and processes as much as it does on the end product.
I suppose the key, whether we’re looking to avoid waste or support a socially useful economy, is to exercise real choice by selecting exactly which resources we allow to flow through our lives rather than accepting anything and everything like disempowered automata.
(1) Statistics taken from Love Food, Hate Waste.
(2) Image taken from Free Vintage Posters.
(3) Recycling aluminium saves up to 95% of the energy need to produce new aluminium. Such are the cost-benefits of recycling this material that 75% of aluminium ever made is still in use today. (Statistics taken from WRAP).
(4) Image taken from the Energy Saving Trust blog.