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“Zero waste” is a relatively new phrase in our ever eco conscious world but one that has potential to have a big impact on the environment around us. Attributed originally to Daniel Knapp as part of the Total Recycling movement, living under a zero waste ideology has been around a lot longer than we’ve been saying the words, but it has only been in recent times that it has become part of normal living. Let’s face it, we all like to live in a convenient world, but convenience and saving the planet don’t tend to marry well, but it’s definitely time that convenience takes a step back and lets zero waste come into its own!

So, what does “zero waste” actually mean, because it’s a daunting prospect for most of us when you look at how much we throw away just in our every day living. Does it mean that you literally keep every crisp packet and let them clutter up your house? Not at all – we can’t just live with our rubbish, so the idea of zero waste is to recycle, repair, reuse and where possible reduce the number of items we buy in, which in turn reduces the total waste output we produce.

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s turn to how we make the switch from usual practices to living a zero waste lifestyle. Some people choose to address an area at a time – i.e., they may choose to start recycling if they don’t already, or they may look at how much food waste they produce and reduce where possible. Others go the whole hog and aim to reduce waste entirely across all areas, which can be a big undertaking depending on your lifestyle, so really the method in which you choose to work towards a zero waste style of living depends entirely on how passionate you are to reduce your waste output, how practical it will be to try and cut waste all in one go, and which area or areas you intend to address. Even changing one aspect of how you live to reduce waste has a positive impact on the world around us, so please don’t feel daunted by the prospect – as they say, “every little helps!

Moving to a zero waste lifestyle

Food waste

Food waste refers to food you throw away. Not only is it hard on your wallet to buy food you then dispose of, but it also means that the energy that went into producing (and cooking) the food has gone to waste but has still had an impact on the environment regardless.

For example: You may have bought yourself some fruit or veg which then you didn’t eat, and it’s gone mouldy. That fruit and veg has still been produced, it has been picked and transported, it has often been placed into packaging to be sold in a supermarket (and that packaging may or may not be recyclable), and then you may have used your car to bring it home (or it may have been delivered to your door, again by a fuel powered vehicle). All of those steps in the process from original planting to the time it goes into your bin have had an impact on the environment, and it doesn’t stop there. If it goes in the general waste bin, it may or may not be sorted for composting (depends on your local council as to whether they check the waste before it ends up in landfill). If it’s wrapped in plastic like many vegetables in particular are, most likely not, and then the plastic wrapping will prevent it decomposing down to biodegrade. If it does end up being transported to a composting facility, it still then has an impact on the planet in the transport. The same applies to other food items including bread, eggs, meat – we’re all guilty of buying food and then throwing it away, but it is definitely time to be mindful and change this (and there is no better time than now, with the sharp increases in food prices ongoing).

Preventing food waste in a few different ways:

  • Only buy what you need; make a shopping list so you’re sure and then stick to it.
  • Meal plan, so again, you know what you need before you do your shopping.
  • If you do buy something you then realise you won’t eat, either freeze it if you can, or see if friends or family would like it. If it’s unopened and not a fresh food or temperature dependent, you could also donate to a local food bank, but check what they will accept first.
  • You could also batch cook meals for another day using the items that have a short date on them and depending on how long it will be until you eat them, either chill in the fridge or freeze them in storage containers.
  • There is also a wealth of “zero waste” recipes out there that encourage you to use up your leftovers and prevent them from going in the bin.

Clothing waste

This is one of the easiest areas to start making changes in, as most of us don’t shop for clothes on a daily basis. The idea here is to look at any clothing that you have that you would normally throw away once it becomes worn (typically socks, underwear, jeans, baby clothing) and instead of throwing it away, repairing and reusing it.

For example: Instead of throwing away a holey sock, could you darn it so the sock can still be used? Can you patch up a hole in a pair of jeans? Does that baby vest really need to be thrown away because it has a food stain on it? These are the sort of questions you need to ask yourself, because repairing and reusing prevents against then having to buy more clothes to replace the ones you have thrown away. Not only does this save money, but it reduces the carbon footprint of both the new clothing’s manufacture and transport, and that of the old clothing being transported to landfill and then taking years to fully decompose (whilst leeching potential toxins into the environment).

Of course, not everything can be saved, and nobody expects you to walk around in socks with no toes left, so if this is the case then it’s well worth looking into clothing recycling schemes. There are quite a few in operation with collection points in easily accessible locations such as supermarket car parks. You can check what’s available in your area here: https://www.recyclenow.com/what-to-do-with/clothing-textiles-0.

One other area to consider with reducing clothing waste is to think about the quality of what you’re buying. If you do need some new garments, try to make sure you buy items that are good quality and will last the test of time. You can also think about clothing that is multifunctional, so you don’t have to buy different items to do the same job as one item; an example of this would be buying a fleece lined raincoat with a hood, so you aren’t then having to buy a fleece, a raincoat and an umbrella separately.

The secondhand clothing market is also a massive area to look at, because by buying second hand, you are reducing your personal contribution to how many new clothes are manufactured.

Everyday items

The list of everyday items that get thrown away is far too long to even consider writing down, but big culprits include single use items such as plastic straws, single use coffee cups, product packaging, food packaging, nappies, wipes…. the list goes on. Being mindful and avoiding using or buying single use items is one of the biggest and most effective ways to reduce what gets sent to landfill and reduce your waste output but taking this to the next level can be harder as it’s not always easy to find reusable replacements for items that make our lives easier. That said, there are many more options now for single use replacements that are actually effective and work well, such as metal straws, cloth nappies, cloth wipes, travel coffee mugs etc.

If reducing your everyday waste output is an area you are looking into, there are a number of ways in addition to replacing single use items that can be addressed, such as:

  • Reuse packaging – if you get something delivered, can you use the packaging next time you want to send something on? Can you reuse packaging for other reasons, such as storage?
  • Keep takeaway containers – these make great storage pots for loads of different uses including pencil cases, food, small toys, playing cards and dishwasher tablets.
  • Research before buying – if you know that something you are buying comes in single use packaging, is there an alternative you could buy that will do the same job but has more eco-friendly packaging?
  • Reuse food items – an example of this would be teabags – one bag can actually make 2 cups, regardless of whether the company you buy your teabags from wants you to think that or not (they want to sell as many as possible!). This way you get twice the amount of tea and you’re putting less in your bin every day. You can also reuse coffee grounds.
  • Recycling – this is a separate topic in itself but deserves a mention here. If you don’t already recycle everyday items like plastic bottles, tins, glass jars…now is the time to start. Most councils supply recycling bins free of charge (not all unfortunately) and the simple act of recycling has a massive positive impact on the manufacture of new items as opposed to using recycled materials to create new items. If you can’t reuse something, please see if it can be recycled instead, and definitely recycle something you’ve reused to the end of its functional life.
  • Educate yourself – some items can’t be recycled in their entirety, so educate yourself on whether something needs to be taken apart before it goes into the recycling bin. For example, a cardboard box with a plastic see through panel (often used for food packaging of items like donuts or pies) should tick the recycling box as both cardboard and rigid plastic can be recycled, but the truth is that items like this have to be split down into their separate parts first. Given also that not all plastics can be recycled, this reduces the risk of it being separated out fully and taken to landfill, as the cardboard can definitely be recycled even if the plastic part can’t.

Energy & Water waste

These are both massive areas of waste that cost households a lot of money each day, and yet can be reduced quite easily depending on how much of a lifestyle change you’re willing to make.

Looking at energy waste such as leaving the lights on in a room you’re not in seems almost picky but when you think of the draw on power plants and their subsequent greenhouse emissions, you can see why moving to a zero waste style of living factors even small examples of energy waste in. In addition, both humans and animals live by natural light cycles, so leaving lights on can disrupt these, which in turn can impact health, sleep, and specie specific activities – for example, a hamster is nocturnal, but if you keep them in a well lit room all day, they will not sleep as well as if they were left in a darkened area.

Water waste is another area of concern, again for the cost factor but also for the fact that having water piped directly to our homes is a massive convenience but does put a strain on the planet’s resources. If we overuse fresh water in our homes, this can impact the supply for others such as livestock, plants, and freshwater species of fish.

In addition, drinkable water has been filtered and cleaned before it reaches your home. These processes all have a carbon footprint and some stages (such as filtration) use non-renewable fossil fuels. By letting fresh, clean water just trickle down the drain, we are in essence wasting this sacrifice.

To reduce your energy and water waste, there are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Turn the lights off – do you need them all on? Many people also use timers or smart devices to keep lighting on only when its essential.
  • Look at what’s on standby – there are certain appliances that are classed as “vampires” – that’s because they drink energy even when they are on standby. These include TVs, games consoles, phone chargers, microwaves and smart home speakers; all appliances that could be just turned off at the wall when not in use (obviously don’t go turning off your fridge freezer, that’s a step too far!)
  • Look for eco alternatives – solar lights as an example can be quite powerful, especially in the Summer, so why not look at these instead of something like an outdoor electric light.
  • Only use what you need – did you know a kettle is one of the biggest power users in your home, so the longer it’s on, the more energy it uses. The average Brit has around 3-4 cups of tea a day, notwithstanding any other reasons why a kettle may be boiled (baby formula, coffees, hot water bottles, boiling water for cooking etc), so look at the little line and only fill it for what you need. If you do boil too much water, don’t waste it – ideas such as putting the hot water into a thermal flash for your next cuppa or using it for washing up are becoming increasingly popular.
  • The same ideology applies to water waste – do you really need a full bath, could you shower instead or not fill the bath as high? Do you need to use as much water to cook with? Can you wait to wash up until you have a full load instead of a few items.

Whilst it may initially seem daunting to think about living a zero waste lifestyle, there are definitely steps we can all take to reduce our waste, whether that be through buying less, reusing more, or cutting energy bills. In all honesty, a lot of us will never achieve 100% zero waste, purely because of how we live our lives, but if we all make the effort to even change one thing about how much we waste in a day, imagine the impact of those changes. There are around 67.2 million people living in the UK alone – that’s 67.2 million positive changes if we all change just one thing each. Not a figure to be sniffed at, and planet Earth will definitely thank you – as will the generations to come after us. What we all have to remember is that there is no Planet B, and what we do now is for our children, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren beyond.