a very belated summary of my zero-waste month

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During April, I decided to get involved with Give A Fork! month, hosted by Sustainable Table, where daily emails (as well as restaurants and sustainable companies getting involved) supported you through attempting to fit a month’s worth of waste into a jar of your choosing. It was quite a crazy decision, being the month in the lead-up to my big 7 month trip through the Americas, but I’m so glad I did.

A couple of days before I left, during the last week of the month, I had to put my beyond beloved pet rabbit down – something that absolutely devastated me, caused be to pretty much give up on the last couple of days of going zero-waste, and even stopped me from getting as excited as I should have been about my trip. It also meant I didn’t get to reflect upon and share what I was involved in. So now, still heartbroken but finally ready to talk about my experiences, here it is: my reflection on my zero waste month, and what steps I’ve made in the eight months since.

Firstly, attempting to go zero-waste was hard. I also do feel that it does take a certain amount of privilege to be able to attempt something like this; sometimes it can be expensive, both with money and time. And I didn’t do perfectly either. But I think transforming “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” to “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (as in composting)” just completely changed my perspective. Suddenly, what we’re taught to do to handle our rubbish/trash/recycling/waste simply wasn’t enough. I started to really think about what matters to me, what I need to be happy and how important a healthier planet is to me.

While I was overseas, seeing the effect plastic had on impoverished communities really hit me. I could see the inability to dispose of it, the consequential litter everywhere, the convenience of packaged food outweighing the desire to go to the beautiful markets overflowing with fresh food. In some ways, I couldn’t wait to get home to start making my own changes. I’m not attempting to go extreme zero-waste at the moment, but I’m attempting to slowly make my way there.

So here’s the ten things I’ve been doing since that first zero-waste month:

1. I’ve started carrying a mason jar with a handle with me in my handbag. I’ve used it to take home leftovers from restaurants, carry snacks in it, drunk water from it when I’ve forgotten my drink bottle, and when it gets colder and I’m back at uni, I plan on getting takeaway tea or hot chocolate in it. It’s not exactly the lightest thing but I normally carry so much crap in my handbag anyway, I don’t even notice the difference…

2. When shopping at the supermarket, I now use mesh bags instead of the plastic bags to collect fruit and veg. They also come in handy when I can buy bulk beans and nuts, but don’t want to carry around mason jars around. I have also started buying my grains, legumes, nuts and seeds in bulk by bringing my mason jars.

3. I’m still composting, I think perhaps the most important change anyone can make in attempting to reduce their waste. Not only am I reducing food waste, I’m also choosing foods with as little environmental impact as I can, including dramatically reducing my meat intake. 

4. I’ve started collecting soft plastics I can’t avoid to send them to REDcycle once I have enough. 

5. I’ve pretty much refused to buy bottled water. I now try and carry my drink bottle (a stainless steel one) with me everywhere. Even while travelling, I tried to buy as little water as possible, carrying it in plastic bottles I’d get for free in hotels etc. and continually reusing them, and filling my hydration bladder where I could. Unfortunately, South America was the exception – it was pretty much essential there. I even tried to use a water filter to use a hostel’s water, but I got violently ill the next day, and honestly wasn’t willing to risk it again. Some countries there, notably Bolivia, don’t even recycle bottles (or only will a certain size). I honestly struggled so much to cope with all the waste I was seeing – water bottles are strewn everywhere in Bolivia – and really inspired me to make sure I avoid such a pointless use of plastic from now on.

Today I’m off! It’s been so awesome to work with another incredible project. The foundation has not only used inspiring upcycling ideas to fight the waste problem here (like with this greenhouse made from plastic bottles that just aren’t recycled here), they’ve also completely transformed a landslide area that was making the neighbourhood unsafe into a thriving place where 40 families are able to grow their own food, as well as taking advantage of small unused areas (like between flights of stairs) to turn into public food gardens, addressing the food security issues in the city. I’m leaving inspired yet again, wowed by cool people leading cool projects. Only two weeks left until my flight home, and feeling like this was exactly what I needed to be psyched to get home and make a difference ✌️ #urbanagriculture #foodsecurity #lapaz

A photo posted by Tess Gardiner (@tigardiner) on

6. I carry hankies with me. I still use tissues every now and then (it’s a really hard habit to break!), but I much prefer knowing I always have a back-up in my handbag. Where possible, they also replace paper napkins (though it’s really hard to refuse napkins as they often come with cutlery dining out – I take them home and compost them instead). They can also be used to wrap things in, like taking away biscuits or muffins from a bakery – saving a paper bag or worse.

7. I also made “unpaper towels” from old pyjamas that were falling apart. Their purpose is to replace paper towels, another disposable item we’ve become so accustomed to.

8. I brought out my old camping spork and it also comes along with me in my bag. I really hate plastic disposable cutlery, and having this on hand means I can refuse to use them. I’m also working on getting stainless steel straws to carry with me too but, ironically, I’ve only found them heavily packaged in plastic. Note: I did win a glass straw last year that I use at home, but I’m not a big straw user to begin with.

9. When I needed to throw out my last toothbrush, I decided to buy one made of bamboo; it’s compostable except for the bristles. Considering we should be going through at least two toothbrushes a year, just swapping to a decomposable option can make a huge difference over a lifetime.

10. I’ve started thinking about literally every purchase I make. Do I really need a new pair of shoes? Can I find that secondhand instead of new? Will this last me a very long time? I’ve seriously over having things I don’t need or like. Living out of a backpack for seven months, only having 5 tops and 3 pairs of pants to choose from, was refreshing and reaffirmed this idea to me. I’m so on the quality-not-quantity wagon.

So these are the main things I’ve been doing. I love hearing from others saying that, due to the world we now live in, the journey to zero waste is like an exponential equation: always approaching zero but never quite reaching it. And that’s okay. You vote with every dollar you spend, and some day those votes may just add up.

I think moving forward, I’m going to have three main challenges:

1. Habit. We’ve become so accustomed to a convenient, plastic-charged world, and some things take completely rewiring

2. Growing some balls. In general, I care very little what others think of me, but I also hate being an inconvenience to other people. I hate making other people feel uncomfortable. I’d love to get some more balls to actually refuse more things and ask more questions. Most people are actually happy to help, it’s just about getting past that mental block.

3. That good ol’ 80/20 principle. Making small changes (the 20%) like the ones I’m making can have a huge (80%) impact. However, it’s to get that last 20% of potential impact that takes the most effort, but gains the least rewards. It’s during that period where you will wonder whether it’s worth it, and also where you get the most disparaging comments from others, telling you you’re not making a difference. But it all does make a difference, and I think it’s worth it.

And you know what? I know this is probably nothing, and there’s still so much that I need to and want to do to make a substantial impact. But it’s something. It starts with me. And I’m dang happy with that.

If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste, I’d recommend the following blogs to get an idea: one of the real originators of zero waste Zero Waste Home, Going Zero Waste and (a local to me) The Rogue Ginger.

If you’re ready and rearing to go, I loved joining this Facebook group: Journey to Zero Waste. It can get a bit dramatic and extreme, but it’s amazing to see how many people are making steps toward zero waste at all ends of the spectrum. It’s really food for thought. (I also quite enjoy being part of Zero Waste Vegans, although I’m not a vegan myself, for a whole new world of ideas, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.)

I’m also happy to answer any questions you have.

Here’s to a 2017 filled with sustainable changes!

Tess x

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