8 Lessons Learned from 4 Years of Zero Waste Living

8 Lessons Learned from 4 Years of Zero Waste Living

If you speak to any zero waste or plastic-free living advocate, and ask them about their experiences and their journey, at some point in the conversation they will say to you: with hindsight, I would have done things differently. Oh, the benefit of hindsight! As someone who has been living plastic-free for almost four years, and working towards zero waste for most of that time, I can tell you that the mistakes I have made and the lessons I have learned have been many!

It’s very easy, four years down the track, to make it sound like the journey has been effortless and the changes have been seamless. That’s not deliberate: there’s plenty of journey behind me for me to pick out the good bits. Plus I like to focus on what has worked for me and the successes I’ve had rather than dwelling on the struggles. I want to inspire others to make changes, not put their heads in their hands and declare it all to be far too hard! (It’s not, and if you keep going you will get closer, I promise.)

Then again, I never want to give the impression that I haven’t had my moments or my challenges along the way. Of course I have! I still make mistakes now. Nobody is perfect. We’re all trying to do the best we can. That’s all we can ever do, after all.

Here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first four years of zero waste living. No doubt there are plenty more lessons to come in the next four years!

1. The first solution is not always the final one

You won’t get it all right first time round. Some things will work perfectly for you, and others, not so much. Different solutions will present themselves, and you will find better ways of doing things that fit with your lifestyle.

When I first stopped buying shampoo and conditioner, I found a health store that sold bulk products where I could refill my jars. The products were bright green, and when I first used them, the smell was so overwhelming that I was convinced I’d accidentally bought toilet cleaner. (I even went back to the shop to double-check I hadn’t bought toilet cleaner.)

Could they have mis-labelled their bulk containers?

Unlikely, but I did not enjoy using those products one little bit. Needless to say, I used them up (probably far more liberally than usual) and never went back there again.

I found another retailer whose refills had a smell I could stomach. Eventually the effort of going back and forth to refill my jars made me revisit this, and I tried using bicarb and vinegar. This worked well for my hair, and was easier than getting the refills.

One more change from bicarb to rye flour, and I’m content with this.

Rye Flour Shampoo Zero Waste Treading My Own Path
Rye flour is now what I use instead of shampoo… but there have been a few changes along the way!

2. You don’t have to do what everyone else is doing (especially if it doesn’t feel right for you).

There are two iconic items of the zero waste and plastic-free movements: the glass mason jar and the bamboo toothbrush. Glass jars, I love. They come in all sorts of sizes, they are easy to store, easy to clean and you can see what’s inside them when you use them as storage.

The bamboo toothbrush, however, I struggled with. It was one of the first switches I made when going plastic-free, but I couldn’t bear the bristles coming loose in my mouth or worse, being washed down the sink. The brushes never seemed to last more than a few weeks.

When it came to disposal, I didn’t want those bristles ending up in my compost, ether. The bristles for many bamboo toothbrushes are currently plastic (despite what the companies might lead you to believe).

I came across another brand, with a conventional plastic handle but with reusable heads that need replacing every 6 months. The heads can currently be recycled by Terracycle, along with the packaging, so I’m not adding anything to landfill. This seemed far less wasteful than the bamboo forests I felt like I was chopping down to clean my teeth (I was constantly buying replacement brushes).

Bamboo toothbrush parts
Gah! More plastic bristles in my mouth and washed down the drain! Plus these bristles are plastic and I don’t want that in my compost.
SilverCare Toothbrushes with Replaceable Heads Treading My Own Path
These toothbrushes have replaceable heads (and it is literally just the head) that need replacing every 6 months. The packaging is minimal. It may not look as trendy as a bamboo toothbrush, but it’s working much better for me. And at least I can recycle these used heads responsibly.

Of course, my bathroom would look much prettier if I used bamboo toothbrushes. Ultimately though, what matters is whether my teeth are clean, and that I can dispose of the product I’m using responsibly. My toothbrush may be plastic but my conscience is clear.

3. You will make mistakes (and that’s okay, it’s all part of change)

One of the first things I bought in 2012 (the year I went plastic-free) was a reusable KeepCup – made of plastic. I didn’t think about the fact that plastic doesn’t really last, whether it’s labelled as reusable or not; nor did it occur to me that it isn’t healthy to use plastic with hot liquids like coffee.

I also learned through using it that over time, the plastic becomes tainted with whatever you put inside in a way that glass and stainless steel never do.

I bought a glass KeepCup in 2014. I wish I’d gone straight for glass and never bought the plastic one, and now I wonder how I ever came to that decision, but that’s all part of the journey.

keepcupjpg
Plastic KeepCup, purchased 2012. Oh, the benefit of hindsight…
Glass KeepCup Treading My Own Path
This is my replacement, purchased 2014. It’s made of glass and has a cork band. It’s far more versatile and easier to clean, and 2 years on it still looks as good as new – unlike the plastic one.

4. You don’t need to buy a brand new toolkit on the first day

To go completely zero waste, there are a few things you need. A water bottle, some reusable produce bags, reusable shopping bags, some kind of lunchbox, maybe some sandwich wraps, a reusable coffee cup – this all depends on your situation and your lifestyle.

The most common mistake that people make when embarking on the zero waste lifestyle is buying all of this stuff brand new on the first day, without thinking first whether they already own something appropriate, whether they really need it at all, and whether these products are built to last – and if they’re not, how they will be disposed of.

Zero Waste Week Treading My Own Path Reuse 2015
This zero waste kit was built up over a number of years as I realised what my needs were. The water bottle and reusable produce bags came first; other things came later as I realised they would be useful – and well used.

It’s an easy mistake to make – after all, we’re excited about making changes to our lives, and there’s not much we can do on day one except buy stuff. Changing habits needs time and shopping doesn’t; buying stuff feels like we are taking steps towards our goal.

If you can, hold back from buying anything new. Get a feel for what you might need, and make do with what you have. Give it time. That way, when you come to buy the things you do need, you will make better choices.

5. Do not get rid of perfectly good things for “better” things

Zero waste is all about not wasting stuff, right? So replacing stuff that you already have with stuff that’s a little bit “more” zero waste really doesn’t make any sense. I’m talking about replacing old jars that you already have in the cupboard (the ones with the store labels still attached) with brand new jars with metal lids; replacing plastic laundry pegs with wooden ones; that kind of thing.

If there’s a safety issue (and I personally do not use plastic for food preparation or storage for health reasons) or it’s broken and can’t be fixed, then it’s completely reasonable to get a replacement. Otherwise, can you really justify the waste you’re creating?

If your passionate about zero waste, then your goal should not be to have your home looking like a magazine cover, your goal should be to reuse what you have, repurpose what you can and to buy as little as you can – and second hand, if possible. Don’t get swept up in the beautiful “zero waste” things for sale on the eco websites.

IMG_0360
Possibly not Pinterest-worthy, but a far better use of resources ; )

6. You get to set your own rules

The great thing about your life is that you get to make the rules. How you live your plastic-free or zero waste life is unique to you, and the rules you decide to live by are up to you too. There’s no specific rules that are set in stone that you have to follow; there’s no membership or entry rules. Entry to this way of living is free!

The only thing you need is the desire and passion to do what you can to make a difference.

For me, zero waste is about sending nothing to landfill. I buy everything I can without packaging – food and toiletries in bulk, other items second hand. I would love to create no recycling either, but at this stage in my life, it isn’t possible.  I try to keep my recycling to a minimum: my husband and I fill a bin about the size of a wastepaper basket (well actually it is an old wastepaper basket) with recycling about once a fortnight. Mostly that’s paper and card, with the occasional beer or wine bottle.

Of course I could compost my paper and card, but it’s a better use of resources to recycle it. I don’t burn any of my waste.

That works for me, and also my husband, who always tells me that whilst he was happy to sign up for plastic-free living, he’s fully on-board with and enjoys living plastic-free, he doesn’t remember agreeing to the zero waste “thing”… Those few extra recyclables are our compromise.

7. There may be exceptions to your rules

When I say I buy everything I can in bulk, I must confess that there is a food item that I choose to buy in packaging. Chocolate. I do buy bulk chocolate sometimes, but it is simply not as good as the bars of deliciousness that come pre-packaged. I’ve tried to give it up, but I can’t.

I can recycle the foil and the paper/card (I’d never buy chocolate wrapped in plastic) but it isn’t quite zero waste living. This is my work in progress.

chocolate
Chocolate bars are my zero waste work-in-progress. I buy chocolate in bulk, of course, but I just can’t quite shake the chocolate bar habit…

8. You don’t have to keep your waste in a mason jar

There’s no rule for keeping your waste in a mason jar. I resisted this for ages, because I felt like it was gimmicky and unnecessary. I’m meant to be a minimalist! Storing a jar of rubbish is definitely not a minimalist thing to do.

In the end, I changed my mind. It was a conversation with a journalist that made me look at it from a different perspective. She was asking about how much waste I produced, as I don’t have a bin, and I realised that it is a hard thing to explain. Saying “nothing” isn’t quite the same as being able to see what “nothing” is!

She suggested that having a jar is a really good way for people to visualize what zero waste is. As I do run workshops and give talks, this is a valid point, and the jar collecting began.

If you want to collect your waste, if it works for you, if you enjoy looking at it and seeing your progress, of course collect your waste. If you just think it’s another chore, and you really can’t be bothered, then there’s no need.

After some initial reluctance, my waste now goes in a jar. Can you believe it, the very day after I began I had something to go in it?! Not the best start!
After some initial reluctance, my waste now goes in a jar. Can you believe it, the very day after I began I had something to go in it?! Not the best start!

Now I’d love to hear from you! What lessons have you learned on your zero waste or plastic-free journey that you want to share? Do you have some new ones to add to the list? Do you disagree with any of these, and if so why? Are there any favourites that stand out for you? Do you have any exceptions to your rules, as if so, what? (Please don’t tell me I’m the only one…) I really want to hear your thoughts so please leave me a comment below!

36 Responses to 8 Lessons Learned from 4 Years of Zero Waste Living

  1. Great list of tips. I particularly like the part of making your own rules – going with what you are comfortable with and reevaluating that regularly. Every bit counts. Also like the bit about using what you have instead of or before buying anything. You decide what will meet your needs, not someone in marketing. I struggled a ton with my first plastic free July, just trying for the big 4. Getting started was the hardest part. Over time, I have created a ‘green list’ with very specific items from blogs, newsletters, talks…. I break things down to small steps, pick 2-3 to focus on at a time. Once they move from a challenge to a habit, they are moved to the bottom of the list with an ‘X’. So, I can see and be inspired by my progress. It also helps me in talking about my journey to friends who say its all too hard.

    • Thank you very much Mel! I love how you describe your journey and your progress. I think it’s so easy to forget (as we get further into our journey) that in the beginning it can all be quite overwhelming and even little things are a really big deal! That said, it makes all the wins so much more momentous! Small steps is the only way to make new habits and changes in our lives, and make them stick. It definitely takes energy and time.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story – I think there is some great advice in there!

  2. Once again, happy to say I learned something new. I haven’t looked at TerraCycle in years as I assumed they still only recycled candy wrappers and the like, which I don’t eat. So to find out I can recycle the toothbrush heads through Colgate is pretty awesome, as we use the Terra toothbrush head replacements and I had always wished I didn’t have to trash them. And along with that, the Garnier program to recycle my sunscreen & moisturizer tubes is pretty awesome as well. Fortunately for anything hard plastic, we have a recycling facility that takes everything rigid #1-7, from plastic lawn chairs to clamshells, but my goal has always been to not go there if I don’t need to.

    As far as chocolate goes, we rarely buy it but if I do, I buy Scharffenberger or Valrhona dark chocolate for baking in bulk because I use it to make truffles a couple of times a year and to flake it off into dessert recipes – it comes in huge chunks wrapped in plastic wrap, which is the best material unfortunately to keep water off of it which will cause the solids to separate. :(

    And to reference your earlier blog post…I just bought some rye flour in the bulk aisle and will be trying that on my hair once my existing shampoo (that I buy in the bulk aisle in my reusable container of course!) runs out. We shall see! :)

    • The Terracycle discovery about toothbrush heads is fairly new to me too! Definitely the last heads went to landfill : ( We don’t have the Garnier program here. We have Colgate and cleaning bottle heads can also be recycled, plus coffee pods… and a few things that companies can pay to recycle like pens and stationary. Apparently there was a cigarette butt program but that finished at Christmas (a huge shame – I could collect thousands when I walk along the river and send them all back!).

      All this talk of chocolate! I will have to venture to the bulk store to top up!

      Oooh, good luck with the rye flour. I’m so excited to hear how you go! : )

      • Ahh but don’t the fact that coffee pods even exist make you crazy? :) We have a little stovetop Bialetti for my husband’s morning coffee, takes 5 minutes – can’t believe the Nespresso marketing!

        • I can’t believe you have to ask?! Of course they do! Not a day goes by when I don’t get into an animated conversation with somebody about it! Don’t get me started…! II was about to list all the things that wind me up about them, but then we will both get cross! I won’t spoil your friday!)

  3. I’ve been zero waste for 8 months and love love love your perspective. Especially the part about not replacing things you already have that are perfectly find. So true!

    • Which is one reason I keep using the same two regular plastic toothbrushes I’ve had for over 10 years. The bristles are in fine shape, not bent at all. They are shaped differently so when I feel like I want a change, I switch to the other one. Every so often I soak the head in peroxide overnight to clean it. No need to buy a new one!

  4. Great post Lindsay! And recognizable! My cup board looks like a jungle of assorted pots haha. They look nice individually and in small groups, but together, they’re a mess. :-)

    I also didn’t end up buying many new things for “the kit”. I got some bulk bags at the beginning, because they looked nice and useful, but the best are those I made myself from upcycled lace fabric later on.

    Tooth brush: also still problematic for me. I find I can do fairly long with a plastic one and read that bamboo is tricky indeed. Your suggestion sounds good! Will look into it!

    And the jar.. haha yes.. I think (hope) this is why most people do it. I did it once (in an old soup jar haha, which – in that dreaded hindsight – I regretted for diminishing the ‘visual’ picture a little) at end of last year. It fitted two months of plastic trash. I decided to do it again in a couple of months, as stock taking. It is quite nice to yourself how you’re doing too I think.

    Good luck with yours and great tips!!
    Marlies
    (Plastic-Free Tuesday)

    • Hi Marlies, thanks for your comment – and glad you can relate to my pantry! Not Pinterest-worthy but functional nevertheless! ; )

      Most of the things I have were gifts. I did buy a water bottle because I had a plastic Nalgene one (the older ones have BPA in them) but otherwise they were given to me. I’ve re-gifted the useful things that I didn’t need or use.

      The “jar thing”…sigh. I think it is a useful tool. It makes me think about whether something really needs to go into the jar, or whether I can recycle it – so I really question exactly what everything is made of. In that way, it’s good.

  5. Hey I have a random question… that you might be able to help with :-) I’m living in the UK and want to get a safety razor. Is there any ones you would recommended? Thanks!!

  6. Thanks again for a good read! This year has been the start of waste-less living goal for me and it’s going pretty well. I made a heap of produce bags out of funky fabric and get asked about them EVERY week I shop.

    I was also so thrilled last week when the bulk food shop I use told me that I have started a trend and that more people have been coming in with reusable containers. They didn’t get many customers bringing in containers. I introduced them to the ‘Loose Produce’ method of weighing my containers first and deducting the weight at the scales rather than taring each one and taking up a whole shopping till!

    Last year I began using a bamboo toothbrush and bicarb and coconut oil for toothpaste. As I read on your blog, I was constantly waiting for the bristles to fall out… but six months in the brush still wouldn’t release them! I felt awful getting rid of what seemed to be a perfectly functioning brush but felt that the gross factor was too high and replaced it with another one from the pack. I love my bamboo brush :)

    • Thanks Emily, glad you enjoyed it. Produce bags are such a great talking point, and the nicer they are the more interest they get. I get asked about mine often (although they aren’t anything special!), and it’s the best way to start the waste free living conversation I find!

      That’s great news! Some stores do seem to struggle with the practicalities of taring scales. I used to find myself instructing the people behind the counter on how to do it! Now I shop at the independent stores the staff are much more clued up on how there scales work.

      What brand did you use? I was using the environmental toothbrush, and some unlabelled ones my parents bought for me. Glad to hear it works for you though! I wish they worked for me, but they don’t.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  7. Thanks for such a refreshing post. I tell myself that ‘making mistakes’ is all part of the process, but sometimes I struggle with that part, mostly in regard to how I communicate what Zero Waste is to people who are new to it. I have to remind myself to approach these conversations in a way that doesn’t make it sound like an extreme way of living (note to self: when someone asks about zero waste, do not launch into a speech about the wonders of menstrual cups and reusable toilet cloth).

    • Haha, I can relate to this Kristy! Learning how to communicate (and when NOT to say anything) is an art in itself, I find… and it’s definitely teaches us patience and tolerance!

      I think the further along your journey you are, the more you have to think back to when you just began or you’ll lose sight of it – and it’s an important time to remember if you want to inspire others. Once all the new habits are ingrained it’s hard to remember the trials and stresses of the beginning!

  8. So true. Love the replaceable toothbrush heads – will have to look out for those. I did exactly the same buying a plastic coffee mug I thought would be easiest to carry and wash but now looks like it won’t last long but I think I’d worry about breaking a glass one.

    • I was worried about breaking the glass one, but they’re very tough. You’d have to drop it from a height for it to smash. And as someone pointed out to me, we don’t worry about breaking ceramic cups or drinking glasses the rest of the time! ; )

  9. I have experienced so many of these!
    One typically zero waste thing I don’t get is having a drink in a mason jar when at home – why not just a glass tumbler?! Or are they not as popular/common outside the UK?
    Also, I use a toothbrush from Save Some Green, which has the option of nylon (soft), bamboo or charcoal bristles (medium). I have bamboo, and have never seen any loose bristles. These go with my Lush toothpaste tabs – my first two zero waste swaps and I’ve never looked back!
    Lovely list, and one I will check back on often for inspiration and reassurance!

    • Hi Alex, welcome to the club ; ) Haha, yes mason jars are very trendy on Instagram aren’t they?! Maybe it’s an American thing as you don’t see them much round here either.

      Haven’t heard of “Save Some Green”, I’ll look them up!

      Thanks Alex, and be sure to pop back any time you have questions and want answers / tips! Happy to help! : )

  10. Great post, thanks for this. I think I needed to hear it so I’d feel a bit less like a failure.

    When I started with zero-waste I was already not using plastic bags and packaging, only cooking with stainless steel, bamboo, glass and ceramics, and only purchasing eco-friendly products. I wasn’t a big user of beauty products, I had my tiny number of staples I had narrowed-down to after much experimentation through the years and was happy with them. Then I decided to go zero-waste. Some things went well and easily, but when it comes to cosmetics and cleaning products I jumped into the whole thing way quickly. Trustingly tried all those tips and recipes from famous blogs (baking soda, vinegar, bar soap etc). It worked for everyone else didn’t it so it must work for me too right? Right?

    Well, total disaster. Here’s why:

    – Baking soda is way to alkaline to use on any part of the body. This trend is crazy.
    – Same with bar soap, the pH level is off the roof. Even goat milk soap which is supposed to have a pH level close to the human skin (pH 4-5.5) is actually super alkaline (trust me, I spent an entire morning testing all the goat milk soaps available in the UK market with pH strips). Not good. Don’t get me started on Aleppo soap. I had such hopes for that soap.
    – Bar soap for washing dishes? Sure, if you don’t mind leaving an unrinsable film of soap on all your bowls and glasses which you eventually end up in your food (another note about bar soaps: it should go without saying but if it’s strong enough to clean your floor/dishes/clothes, it’s too strong for your skin and vice versa – *and* for the water they end up in after use btw). I came to my senses and figured I probably shouldn’t use it as a laundry detergent either given how it’d stick to my clothes and attack my skin.
    – Bamboo toothbrushes: germs germs germs.
    – Washing your face with oil: worst eczema flare up I’ve had in 15 years.
    – Green clay to brush your teeth with: grains are way too abrasive, even the ultraventilated type.
    – Chew sticks: impossible to use without making a mess, lots of small bits of woods blocking my drain, horrible overpowering smell and bad breath. Miswak smells the worst, licorice tastes ok but everything you eat that day will end up tasting like licorice, and neem affects the hormone balance so badly that it’s not recommended to use during pregnancy or trying to conceive as it can cause miscarriages!
    – Coconut milk as make-up remover: works great for lipsticks, but clogs the pores and hurts my eyes. As deodorant or moisturiser: too greasy.
    – Mason/ball jars: great at home, impossible when travelling/commuting.
    – Haven’t tried DIY make-up yet but given how badly the rest of the DIY cosmetics and cleaning products experiment has gone, I don’t have much hope for this tbh. None of the new things I tried worked for me.

    The things that did stick giving up on were disposable things such as razors, synthetic cleaning sponges, cotton pads, cotton tips, paper towels, menstrual pads, and the likes. I’m now using a safety razor, compostable natural fibres sponges and dish brushes, washable fabric cotton pads (organic and unbleached), fabric cleaning wipes, a menstrual cup with washable menstrual pads as backup, and a bamboo earpick.

    There’s no bulk bin shops around here so dry food is bought in actual bulk and share among friends. I continue avoiding plastic packaging and I compost and recycle, but my local waste centre doesn’t accept plastic lids for some weird reason. General waste apparently gets burned for energy they told me, not much landfill around my neck of the woods. I’ve also started bringing a fabric napkin with me to cafés and in my lunch box to avoid using paper napkins. Plus a stainless steel spork. Baking soda + vinegar does work really well for removing burnt food from pans (should be a red flag in terms of using it to clean your hair…) but I already knew that.

    For cosmetics and cleaning products, I’m sticking with my trusted Dr Hauschka, Weleda, Faith in Nature and Ecover products. They work, they’re kind to me, they’re natural and they’re far from the worst offenders in terms of environmental impact – both during production and once rinsed down the drain. All their packaging are either refillable or recyclable so it’s a fair compromise I reckon. Still don’t know what to do about toothbrushing though.

  11. Woah LG, you’ve had some serious setbacks! Thanks so much for sharing them all, because it’s really helpful to see this kind of feedback as you are so right – what works perfectly for one person is a miserable fail for somebody else.

    I personally find baking soda okay for my skin, and occasionally use it for hairwashing, and always for deodorant as it the most effective DIY version I’ve found. My husband and mother-in-law cannot use it as they have very sensitive skin so as you say, it definitely doesn’t work for everyone!

    Natural soaps are usually alkaline, with a pH of 8-10. I haven’t heard that goat milk soap is pH 4.5-5, but most handmade soaps are alkaline so it does seem unlikely (as your tests showed!) My husband uses a soap to wash his hair that is 7.5. We find this soap fine as it’s washed off and the skin will naturally restore pH to an acidic level, but if you suffer from eczema or dermatitis, or even very sensitive skin it may not be an option for you.

    I’ve never tried bar soap for washing dishes, but I can’t imagine it would be great! We buy a liquid laundry detergent from the bulk store.

    Washing your face with oil and eczema – interesting you say this, as I’ve been using oil to cleanse and moisturize for years with no issues, and this winter I’ve starting noticing dermatitis on my face. I tried extra oil and it made no difference at all, so I’ve just made a moisturizer using glycerine, oil and beeswax and it seems to be making the world of difference!

    Good to know about the Miswak sticks – I was hoping to try them!

    It sounds like you’ve still made heaps of amazing changes (despite of some clear obstacles and challenges) which is awesome! That’s the important thing – to change what we can rather than worrying about what we can’t. Or worse, putting up with something that makes us miserable! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! I really appreciated your input : )

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