Redefining Zero Waste

As the campaign for Zero Waste Week kick starts, Sophie Parsons and Jihea Kim, aka @ecolifechoices, discuss the complexities of the movement and how to make it work for you. 

Campaigns encouraging us to make more conscious decisions can do wonders for spreading the word on sustainable living; Plastic-free July participants contribute a total saving of 490 million kg of plastic waste each year, while Veganuary gains significant traction year on year, with 47% of this year’s participants wanting to carry on eating plant-based. And for the first week of September we are offered another chance to establish a more sustainable lifestyle – Zero Waste Week.

‘Zero waste’ is a buzzword that has circulated the sustainability world ever since Lauren Singer (@trashisfortossers) documented the journey she went on to reduce her personal waste and the consequent accumulation of non-recyclable rubbish she stored in a jam jar. Defining zero waste as not sending anything to landfill, and only producing waste that can be reycled and composted, Lauren’s ethos is built on encouraging people to adopt the lifestyle of zero waste, with an emphasis on not ‘tearing people down for trying’.  Understanding that the notion of living completely waste-free is unrealistic for the majority of us can help to remove the pressures that otherwise can come from the label, with Lauren’s jar of unintentional waste documenting this perfectly.

For many of us, zero waste is an aspirational goal that is often faltered by unexpected hunger cravings, busy lifestyles and unforeseen circumstances. Despite all the best intentions, achieving a zero waste lifestyle relies heavily on forward planning and a degree of preparation that even the most organised of us cannot achieve. Time is a luxury that greatly facilitates this way of living: the time to source plastic-free produce, visit bulk stores and farmers markets. More often than not, food shopping must be done quickly and cheaply around an already fragile balance of work and family time. Considering the environment, when plastic filled supermarkets make it so difficult to do so, can often be one thing too many to factor in.

Jihea Kim considers the impact of location on a zero waste lifestyle: it is pretty inaccessible for the average person to live this way. Living in a city like London can offer the opportunity for farmer’s markets, bulk stores and delivery boxes, all making it easier to consider where to source your produce plastic-free. Outside of cities, supermarkets are often the only option for food shopping. This then poses the issue of price. Supermarkets charge almost twice as much for loose produce compared to the packaged alternatives, making the plastic free option inconceivable for the majority of shoppers. “Unfortunately, for the Zero Waste movement to work and have an impact, we need to engage everyone in society and not just those that can afford to.”

Much of the conversation surrounding zero waste focuses on the alternatives you can buy to make your lifestyle more sustainable – metal straws, cotton bags and beeswax wraps. To contradict almost everything that the campaign stands for, you can be left feeling the need to acquire more to start a journey about consuming less. This advertising of what is seemingly needed to be zero waste can quickly become expensive and therefore exclusive. Evaluate your lifestyle to determine what you actually should invest in as opposed to what you feel you ought to; if you can’t resist a takeaway coffee, a reusable cup is a worthy expense, but if your cupboards are already filled with plastic containers that can be reused, a plastic-free alternative is a waste of both money and resources. 

In order for the zero waste movement to become accessible for anyone to adopt, it must go beyond that of the consumer, with more responsibility and focus falling on large scale corporations. Jihea believes “it does appear as if corporations are listening, albeit slowly, with the most noticeable campaign being Waitrose’s Unpacked scheme – the introduction of plastic-free produce and a bulk aisle.” Having read Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff and learning that if everyone in the world consumed to the level of the US and the UK, we would need resources equivalent to eight planets’ worth, Jihea’s focus is on lowering overall consumption. “It’s about the broader system in which we consume products, from the extraction of raw materials to production, consumption and finally disposal…consumers can only do and control so much.”

Reframing zero waste to align with your own lifestyle and setting manageable goals, can help create shift the movement to one that is sustainable for you. A quote by zero-waste chef Anne Marie Bonneau circulated social media a few months ago, perfectly depicting the importance of acceptance: ‘we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly’. It is about removing the subsequent guilt that can come from slip ups of plastic bottles and supermarket bags; it is reducing food waste by trialling home composting or buying reduced price food, even if it is plastic-covered, to prevent it from ending up in landfill. For Jihea, it is about “progress and not perfection”, finding the one thing you want to tackle and starting there. Begin with what will be easiest for you, whether that’s making your own bathroom cleaning products or stocking the kitchen with bulk items, simply buying plastic-free when possible and not berating yourself when not.

Jihea Kim suggests the following simple and easy ways to adopt a lower waste lifestyle:

  • Buy less and only what you need
  • Buy groceries and products plastic-free where possible
  • Buy local and support small businesses that focus on sustainability
  • Buy second-hand where possible
  • Reuse and repurpose before recycling
  • Compost food waste at home or in a local community garden
  • Buy products free of toxins and chemicals when possible

Discover easy zero-waste swaps to make for your family.

Read Max La Manna‘s guides to reducing your food waste and home composting.

Want to focus on plastic? Try one of our simple swaps.