A few months ago, Ana Carneiro – the lovely girl behind Be For Change, asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I’ve spoken about how much I love the bag she sent me over on my YouTube channel before. It’s made from surplus materials (cotton, in my case) and it is such a great size. Someone even stopped and asked me where I got my bag from once as they admired how large it was!
I thought I’d share what I wrote on here too, for those of you who may have missed it. Instead of asking me to write the usual “how-to” guide about going zero waste, she requested a blog post where I share the elements of a zero waste lifestyle that people rarely talk about. The irks and quirks that come along for the ride. So without further ado, here’s my two cents:
By Kate Arnell
A zero waste lifestyle. What does that mean, exactly? It’s a tricky one to explain as the name itself can be quite misleading. I still produce waste. I still buy (some) items in packaging.
Essentially, Zero Waste is the goal – the elusive carrot that dangles just out of reach. It means I take a considered approach to my life. I live in alignment with my values and at the same time, I have dramatically reduced the amount of waste I send to landfill.
Just over three years ago, we (my husband and I) were throwing out two large plastic black bin liners filled with single use disposable packaging. Everything from plastic trays, plastic wrap, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic tubs, plastic toothbrushes, plastic tampon applicators etc. And whilst we thought we were doing all that we could when it came to recycling, we hadn’t even considered that stopping these items from coming into our home in the first place would be a better approach.
Ironically, by choosing organic produce (which I passionately believe in) I was actually producing MORE plastic waste!! For reasons still unknown to me, in most supermarkets, organic produce is more commonly wrapped in plastic.
I still produce waste, despite calling myself a “zero waster”. But not all waste is created equal. The amount we throw out is about about 1/10th of what it was before adopting this lifestyle and the type of waste I’m throwing out has also changed. It’s almost all biodegradable – mostly food scraps that I can’t put in my worm bin.
We actually recycle less these days. Which perhaps goes against what most people are told. “Recycle More!” is the usual request from companies, councils and is even something people brag about. But by simplifying the amount of products/food/clothing etc that we need and purchasing almost everything without packaging, we actually have less to recycle (as well as less to throw out!).
Instead of offering you the usual advice about reducing waste and living more sustainably – of which there are plenty of tips and tricks out there, including on my YouTube channel and blog, I thought I’d share with you some of the lesser known quirks that can come with a Zero Waste Lifestyle.
It can be overwhelming at first
Especially if you try to maintain your current lifestyle. I remember going into a supermarket and asking the butcher’s counter if they could put some chicken straight into my container without plastic. He mumbled something about “health and safety/company policy” and I walked away (without any chicken!) realising I had to make some lifestyle changes. Shopping at supermarkets wasn’t going to work if I wanted to quit plastic packaging. As a result, I now support local, organic shops that sell produce such as meat, cheese, beer, wine, oil and dry goods and they are cool with my bringing my own packaging.
Today, I think nothing of heading out the door to do a weekly grocery shop, which takes less than half an hour, bringing with me some reusable cloth bags, some tins and an empty egg carton. But when I started out, boy did this new lifestyle take up some serious time. Time researching where I could go grocery shopping. Time researching ingredients in beauty products. Time trying to make things from scratch. Time working out which container is best to hold a whole chicken. Time learning, reading, watching everything and anything I could find about how people approached this lifestyle. Part of it was out of genuine curiosity and enthusiasm but the rest was a simple necessity in order for me to move forward with this way of living. Once I’d put in the time initially though, I have found I actually have more time on my hands and dare I say it, I actually ENJOY doing the grocery shopping!
Sense of smell
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. I used to be the sort of person who didn’t get car sick. In fact, I was someone who could happily read in a car! But, quite unexpectedly, as a result of reducing my exposure to toxic synthetic chemicals and hormone disruptors (found in plastic packaging, perfumes, chemical laden cleaning products and almost all beauty products etc) my sense of smell has dramatically improved and the smell of the inside of a car makes me nauseous. Also, the amount of hugs I give people wearing perfume has gone down. I joke that I’m bringing back the “high five” as a way of avoiding people’s perfumes clinging to my clothes and hair after a hug. It gives me a headache and makes my throat feel scratchy. On the plus side, I’ve saved money by not buying perfume!
Plastic is everywhere!
And once I was aware of it, I couldn’t “un-unsee” it. Everyday items such as tea bags, tin cans, coffee cups, beer caps and tampons all come with plastic. A walk down my street in central London is accompanied by plastic water bottles rattling along the curbside, plastic bags dancing in the tree like a pair of witch’s knickers, and carefully placed coffee cups stacked on someone’s wall.
I’m actually on a flight whilst typing these words. It’s a short flight, no more than an 1hr 40min but the amount of single use disposable plastic being handed out left, right and centre is overwhelming. Rest assured, I am fully aware of my carbon impact when flying overseas. But add to that the amount of oil, water, carbon and waste in the form of single-use plastic freebies, consumables and disposables….AM I THE ONLY ONE SEEING THIS?
A trolley heaving with a leaning tower of throw-away plastic cups, plastic water bottles, plastic lined coffee cups with plastic lids, plastic stirrers, plastic wrapped sandwiches, plastic covered chocolate bars and snacks rolls past me and moments later is followed by two large plastic bags ready to collect all the items that were so carefully stacked on the cart only minutes ago. The time taken from purchase to disposal? Less than three minutes. I counted.
So yeah, seeing plastic everywhere can be frustrating. I would love to stand up and say “Hey! Guys! Do you realise how much trash we’ve just sent to landfill? I think we’ve just broken a record here!”
Instead, I quietly sip water from my reusable stainless steel bottle. I have a reusable coffee cup in my bag if I really need a hot drink. I do however notice that the inflight magazine has a lot of eco-focussed stories inside and I even see an article on zero waste! As a result, I take a photograph of the email address for the airline’s CEO, who features in the intro to the magazine and I vow to write her an email highlighting the amount of plastic trash they have created.
There will always be a handful of people who question what I or any zero waster is doing. Will it really make a difference? Some people love to point out that even if we buy the product without packaging, it will have arrived in store with packaging. I hate to say this, but some of the vegan community have been especially aggressive, because I eat organic, locally produced, seasonal meat. My zero waste efforts are apparently pointless (I have written about this in the My Food-losophy tab on my blog). The thing is, I was vegetarian for 13 years and I never once felt as empowered about having a positive impact on the environment as I do living a zero waste lifestyle. I used to take any negativity personally, and spent hours working out the perfect response. Now, I don’t bother. Either you get it or you don’t. All I know is, I’m exceptionally fulfilled living this way… even if I do have to deal with a little added negativity.
Learning to bite my tongue
As my priorities have changed (wellness, reducing waste, living more consciously being closer to the top!), I find conversations with family members and friends to be a little tricky to navigate sometimes. Finding the balance of being interested in your girlfriend’s new top or shoes, whilst your internal monologue goes something like: “your top is made from polyester, a plastic, which not only won’t biodegrade but has also forced the underpaid maker of that garment and material to be exposed to harmful, toxic chemicals which will not only be detrimental to their health but also pollute their local waterways and environment”. I’m sure my eyebrows do a little dance without me realising whilst internalising my thoughts.
But instead of having an outburst, I try my best to ask a few leading questions, such as: “oh, what’s it made from?” to see if a conversation around it could be started. By wearing sustainable and organic brands or second hand items myself, it’s often easier to raise awareness when someone says “I love your top, where’s it from?”. This is one of the trickiest things for me and I’m sure my mother often regrets calling me once I start ranting!
When starting out on a zero waste journey, it can be all too easy to slip onto a path of perfectionism, which leads to serious frustration, and that can lead to the dark side….which we all know is best avoided! Focussing only on the things I haven’t achieved instead of the things I have is a downward slope. Let’s say I’ve replaced 4 out of 5 products with unpackaged versions, I find it too easy to get wound up by the one remaining packaged item. I’m not perfect! No one is! Realising that is the first challenge.
Accepting what works for one person, will not work for another was the best way for me to approach this. City dwellers may finds some things easier. Country folk will certainly excel at others. Those with kids may have different priorities to those without. It’s a journey but one worth taking, because when I do find the solution, I’m over the moon!
Social media can be a great way of inspiring change and finding new ways of doing things, but simultaneously, it can create a false sense of perfection. To live a zero waste lifestyle, you don’t have to live a certain way, or be a neat freak. Just live your way and adopt it to suit your lifestyle. It shouldn’t be about compromise, it should be about finding a better way of doing things and freeing up time to enjoy life!
Unpackaged things can actually cost more
Not always, but often. Whilst we know that packaging is often an extra cost for a product, I find that most packaged foods are highly processed and full of cheap ingredients. Compare that to buying real food, of course it’s going to be more expensive! It’s REAL FOOD! But here’s how I work it. Buying organic, nutritious food that is seasonal and local (AND UNPACKAGED!) is my priority. If it costs more, I’m ok with that. I think food should bare the true cost and I believe that it is money well spent. We’ve certainly noticed the health benefits!
But, overall, we’re probably spending less. I’ve quit buying disposable items (I mean, you’re literally throwing your money away!) such as kitchen roll, tin foil, cling film, paper napkins, disposable razors and multiple chemical laden cleaning products. I no longer go clothes shopping as a hobby on the weekends. By choosing second hand items over new, I spend less on the items we need. These savings mean I am more than happy to spend a little more on groceries. After all, the average household used to spend around half of their disposable income on grocery shopping. Today, it’s around 10%. I can’t help but wonder if we as a society have our priorities a bit jumbled up.
Made me a bit of a tricky customer
Most people know me as an optimistic, go-with-the-flow kind of person. And I’d say that’s mostly true…I also hate any kind of confrontation. But I’ve certainly become more of a question asker in recent years, and perhaps a bit of a trickier customer. As a recent example, during our trip to Milan we decided to stop for lunch. BUT all eateries except one were closing at 3pm. It was 2.57 pm. So we had to eat at the only option available to us, and guess what, it was the one that served everything with disposable plastic cutlery, plates, straws… the lot! Old me would have just said, fine, whatever. BUT, I did my best not to shy away from the situation and asked if the guy serving us could get any real plates and forks. In simple english (as I sadly don’t know any Italian!), I explained “I hate plastic”. He got it. And offered to run over to the other closing restaurants to pick up some reusable forks for us. (sadly no plates but I settled with the cardboard containers over the plastic ones!). I hate having to be “high-maintenance” or make extra requests, but 9 times out of 10, it leads to a positive conversation with comments like “I like the way you shop” or “ it’s inspiring to see how you do things”.
Receiving unexpected gifts can be #awks
When I first decided to adopt a zero waste lifestyle, I sent an email to all of my friends and family in the lead up to my birthday requesting that I would prefer not to receive any unrequested gifts or cards. Video messages, e-cards would be more than welcome. But we still get sent things. Let’s just say our local charity shop gets a some decent donations whenever this happens.
Also, as a blogger, I get sent things to try and even if I request no plastic packaging, it can sometimes turn up with some. When this happens, I do my best to send it back with a note to the company suggesting that they could improve their packaging choice.
Question myself? Who, me?
My zero waste lifestyle now seems completely normal to me. Which is great in that it hasn’t become a chore or an inconvenience. It’s not until someone visits and points out the way I make a cup of tea is “mind-blowing” (actual words that came from a fellow YouTuber when we filmed a video at my house), or that they wouldn’t know where to start after looking inside my kitchen cupboards or fridge (a genuine comment from a friend who recently stayed the night on our sofa) that I realise I’ve come a long way. I sometimes feel like a fake calling myself a zero waster and in low moments I question whether I am actually living any differently. Usually my husband is pretty good at reminding me of all the amazing changes we’ve made, and that it’s about sharing the struggles as much as the successes.
Like anything in life, it’s good to voice our frustrations. Not only is it a therapy of sorts, it also highlights things that are desperately in need of change. Without highlighting that we can’t buy anything without packaging in supermarkets, they would never know that customers want a choice! And despite my list of complaints above, they are minimal when compared to the benefits a zero waste lifestyle has brought me. I eat well, have enjoyed thinking creatively and outside the box. I’ve learned new skills, gained confidence and feel good about living in alignment with my values.
I’ve enjoyed using my sense of humour to navigate the world of zero waste and I’ve noticed friends using reusable coffee cups, asking questions and feeling inspired. The zero waste lifestyle has a lot to offer… as long as you’re prepared. Speaking of which, I never leave the house without my reusable cotton bag!