Zero waste is the pinnacle of sustainable living but it's difficult to achieve. As conscious as I am of reducing my waste, picking up other people's trash and trying to live as sustainably as possible, I am definitely not perfect nor would I consider my lifestyle "zero waste" but rather minimal waste.
Over the years I have made no pretenses about the myriad of challenges that I wrestle with on my sustainable lifestyle expedition. These include:
- living on a soon-to-be certified organic farm where inputs often always come packaged in plastic (think organic fertilisers),
- being in a relationship with a meat-eating, cow milk-guzzling man who just isn't as mindful (disposable plastic bags continue to appear in my home),
- running several businesses where office items such as staples, sticky tape, envelopes, folders, bubble wrap and business cards are required (Ben and I disagree on which items constitute a business 'necessity'), and
- being a minimalist in a world built on maximalism.
Luckily I am a member of a community of passionate environmentalists, conservationists and mindful folk who care about the health of our planet. I can draw inspiration from them and learn from their experiences also.
As Eco Warrior Princess embarks on a heavy duty environmental mission in 2017 (spurred on mostly by climate change and the shock election of climate change denier Donald Trump), heavy duty advice was indeed needed.
I decided it was time to call in the zero waste experts: Erin Rhoades AKA The Rogue Ginger, Monica Rosquillas AKA Girl for a Clean World, Jonathon Levy AKA Zero Waste Guy, Lindsay Miles of Treading My Own Path and Dani D'Silvez of Leaf Eco.
Deeply grateful to these remarkable individuals for taking some time - the most non-renewable resource there is! - to answer my questions and impart their zero waste knowledge and wisdom to help the rest of us fast track our zero waste journeys.
So without further ado, here's what they had to say in our Q&A...
What does zero-waste mean to you?
Monica: "I define zero waste as making as little waste as possible in any given situation. I think the term zero waste is very misleading, as it's nearly impossible for anyone to make absolutely no waste. To do that you'd have to grow your own food, make all of your own products, have a compost toilet etc. However, it is possible to drastically reduce your waste, and that's the whole point. Zero Waste living also depends on where you are in the world. Having access to farmers markets, bulk food stores, and thrift shops facilitates the transition to this lifestyle. For me, zero waste means reusing as much as possible, completely refusing disposables, eating home cooked meals, buying only what is necessary, and buying second hand when possible. It's considering the whole life cycle of a product, where it came from, how long it will last, and where it will ultimately end up. Even though I do produce waste, I live a "zero waste" lifestyle because I make daily conscious consumer choices that save natural resources and reduce the amount of waste that's produced. "
Lindsay: "For me, zero waste is about aiming to send nothing to landfill, and recycling as little as possible. Recycling is still very energy intensive, and uses a huge amount of resources, so if I can avoid it, then I do. I think of recycling as a last resort. A great place to start, but a terrible place to stop! For me, zero waste means refusing what I don't need, consuming less, reducing the unnecessary (think packaging, novelties, single-use items), reusing what I have, and repairing what I can. Of course, that means choosing things that are reusable and will be repairable in the first place!"
"I still put things in my recycling bin. I'm not perfect! I don't think the zero waste lifestyle needs to be about perfection. It's about making better choices, and doing what we can. True "zero waste" is something to aspire to, to work towards, but not something to beat ourselves up about when we fall short." - Lindsay
What are the biggest challenges of going zero-waste?
Dani: "[The biggest challenge] is when you first start out on your zero waste journey. There is so much to focus your time on, such as essential reusable items, how to tell your friends and family and where to buy bulk loose foods. The best way to deal with the overwhelm is to write down a goal that you want to achieve. Make sure you give your goal a deadline and refer to it as much as possible. For me, I kept forgetting to compost my kitchen scraps. So I would leave a note next to my vegetable peeler that said, "Add your veggie peelings to your compost and learn this habit within three weeks." The trick is this: when you set your zero waste goal, don't think about anything else. Only focus on your current goal and when you accomplish success, move on to your next milestone."
Jonathon: "The hardest thing for me about being zero waste is eating out at restaurants and at friends' and family's homes. Most restaurants automatically give you disposable cups, utensils, straws and containers. It can be hard to avoid those items. I had one bartender take the straw back out of my drink and throw it over her shoulder. She was being playful but totally missed the point. It's silly now because she sees me and she knows better than to give me a straw, but everyone else still gets one! When at a family member's home, they may serve you food at parties on disposable plates and use plastic utensils. It can be very challenging to avoid coming across as picky or disrespectful."
Erin: "The hardest part is simply changing habits. Living zero waste is similar to how our great grandparents lived. They did not have everything conveniently packaged. So in saying that, the tools needed to reduce rubbish have existed for hundreds of years, it's just that we have forgotten to use them. Changing these habits won't happen overnight, they require some work. I would put reminders into my phone the night before I went food shopping, with messages like 'don't forget your bags tomorrow' or if I was going out with friends for a drink, I'd put a reminder in my phone to go off during the evening saying 'avoid the plastic straws.' There were notes on my front door or on my handbag, prompting me to take my reusable water bottle with me. After a month, I started remembering on my own. Within two months taking my own bags when I went food shopping, saying no to straws and taking my water bottle became the new normal."
- Not having enough "browns" or dry materials for my home compost. Most of what I put in there are 'green' wet ingredients from the kitchen that attract larger insects and make my compost pile too wet. I'm sort of avoiding it at the moment but I should add some shredded paper or dried leaves to even it out.
- Living with people who are not zero waste. We [zero wasters] are the minority (as of now) and that can be frustrating at times, especially when you see senseless trash making in your own home. I try to be patient, keep my cool, lead by example, and keep an open mind.
- Living in a society that promotes consumerism is also very challenging and I address this by sharing how consuming less saves money, grants you more experiences like traveling, and promotes a healthier environment."
Lindsay: "My challenge came from seeing the social media feeds of others with their perfect pantries with matching glass jars, or their wooden kitchen utensils, or vintage glass cosmetics bottles, and feeling like my own efforts were somehow lacking. I know that reusing was better, but there are some very photogenic zero waste feeds that make the lifestyle seem very aspirational, and can encourage the buying of stuff. The draw and temptation to buy new stuff is something we all have, and learning to quiet this voice can be a challenge. To be true to zero waste, upcycling and repurposing is a better solution. My pantry is full of mismatched repurposed jars. It won't get featured in a magazine, but I know I've been true to myself. That's what matters to me."
How do you deal with critical friends and family?
Dani: "Luckily my Zero Waste for Beginners business has given my friends and family a good eye-opener for them to understand how important zero waste living is to me. But when I first started out, my friends would mock me. Seriously, I got the whole, "Why do you want to live in the post-war era? All plastic is recycled. You can't change the world." I found the best way to deal with them is to be serious. Never make mistakes in front of them and be over-prepared to show them how simple zero waste is. For example, if [going to] a family member's house for dinner, I always take a glass jar to collect the vegetable peelings, which I then give to my compost worms. Now my family always expect me to take home the veggie scraps. [So] one of the best tips I could give to someone who has to deal with critical and non-understanding family and friends, is to be serious and educate them about the dangers of non-recyclables and how it affects our planet. But also to be really tongue-in-cheek so they can warm up to the idea of zero waste. People don't want to be told that their way of living is incorrect or damaging to the environment. Being slightly comical and mocking yourself breaks the ice, just enough for people to rethink their ways.
Critical friend: "Dani, do you not think you're a bit strange for washing your hair with water only?'
Me: "Maybe I am, come on, I have composting worms in a box in my living room. But the money I save from buying shampoo bottles and my water bill, means I can spend more on pizza. So really who's in a better situation?"
Lindsay: "I'm lucky that my family and friends are supportive, but then again, I began this lifestyle back in 2012 so they've had some time to adjust! I'm sure at the start some of them thought it was a just a crazy fad, but of course, I stuck at it. I believe in the approach 'lead by example' which means doing what I do, and maybe telling others more if they ask, but not lecturing or judging or telling anyone else what to do. As people get more comfortable with the idea, they tend to try to meet you in the middle - at least, that's what I've found! I've definitely noticed my influence and good habits rubbing off on my extended family.
"My husband and I began our journey together, although we don't always see eye-to-eye. We began our journey by going plastic-free back in 2012. I then decided to pursue the zero waste lifestyle, and my husband was happy to come along, but I need to drive it more. Sometimes he'll come back from the shops with a paper mushroom bag because he forgot his reusables and I'll lambast him because it's not zero waste, and he'll say "But it's plastic-free! I never signed up to zero waste!" - Lindsay
Do you think going zero waste is challenging for those with a families?
Erin: "I'm six months pregnant with my first child and already seeing challenges arise. Mainly from other families who don't quite understand the reasoning behind living a life with less waste and the constant bombardment of advertising everywhere. Luckily there is the Zero Waste Families Facebook group, that allows families to share issues and solutions that come with trying to raise zero waste children."
Dani: "100 percent yes! If your family never considered a zero waste lifestyle before, all of a sudden you making changes will be a shock and even a nuisance to them. If you live with a family that hasn't been made aware of the importance of zero waste living, they will still bring plastic bottles into the home, forget to compost kitchen scraps and still buy plastic packaged food."
What's the one piece of advice you can give to those looking to reduce waste?
Jonathon: "The easiest things you can do are to carry these items with you: a reusable water bottle, reusable coffee cups and utensils."
Monica: "Think of the big picture. Zero waste is not about having the coolest and trendiest drawstring bags, water bottles, and coffee cups, and it's definitely not about keeping your trash in a jar. The point of zero waste is making less trash and each individual will find their own way through this journey."
Dani: "Start straight away! As soon as you confirm to yourself you are a zero waster, you activate an 'eco' side of your brain. And it never stops nagging at you. You become fully conscious of plastic packaging when you're out and about, how much food waste restaurants make and how uneducated people are about the subject. When you unlock that eco brain, that's when you should start making a list of your current waste and spend some time researching alternatives."
Erin: "I tell everyone to take their time. It's not a race or competition and no one should compare themselves to anyone else. Pick a room in the house, somewhere like the kitchen is a good place to begin as it is updated each week, and start swapping out food as the packets empty for options not packaged. When I began, I simply took a piece of paper, divided it into two columns and then I would write the item that needed swapping in the left column and the alternatives in the right hand column. For instance, when my packet of pasta or can of chickpeas finished, I wrote them into the right column and in the left I wrote where I could buy a package-free alternative. As you feel happy, move onto the next room."
"Joining a local zero waste group on Facebook is a great place to help figure out where to shop in your area or check out the zero waste bulk locator found on zero waste home." - Erin
Lindsay: "Just start by changing one habit. Don't spend too long reading all the blogs and books, gazing at the social media feeds and watching YouTube. They will all be there later; you can come back to them. At the start, it can all be too overwhelming and push you into inaction rather than action. Just choose one thing to change, and do it. Commit to bringing your own bags, or only getting dine-in coffee, or making your own pesto rather than buying it, or looking for a local bulk store. Whatever it is, find one thing, and start. Then find one more thing, and one more, and just keep going."
"Change is hard, shopping is easy! What we really need to do is practice. Zero waste is no different. There's no need to rush out and buy a whole heap of stainless steel or glass accessories. Zero waste is all about changing habits and taking time to settle into new routines before buying anything new." - Lindsay
Motivated to start your zero waste journey? Make sure to read our post 22 Steps Closer to Zero Waste Living: Disposable Items to Stop Buying Right Now.
Now over to you: What piece of advice has resonated with you the most? What will you do today to reduce your waste? Do you have any other questions for these zero-wasters that you'd like answered? We love hearing from our conscious community, so make sure to leave your thoughts below!