Zero Waste Living: What about Recycling?

Zero Waste Living: What about Recycling?

The idea behind zero waste is creating no waste, and sending nothing to landfill. That does not mean buying everything in recyclable packaging and simply recycling it, however! Recycling is not a perfect solution, and still uses huge amounts of resources and energy.

Many products (including all plastics) are not truly recycled either, but downcycled, meaning they become an inferior product of lesser quality. These are further downcycled, and eventually downcycled products will end up in landfill.

So no, the zero waste movement is not about recycling. Recycling is a last resort.

However, to create zero landfill waste and zero recycling would be a mean feat indeed, and I have not heard of a zero waster who does not recycle at least a little. We all do our best, and aim to recycle as little as possible, but it is extremely hard to produce no waste at all! (And yes, I do see recycling as waste.)

Whilst people living zero waste lifestyles often share pictures of their landfill trash (or lack of it!), sharing recycling is less common. It is, however, something that I (and I’m sure it’s the same for other zero wasters) get asked about a lot.

How much recycling do I produce in a month? Good question. I always say it’s the equivalent of a couple of waste paper baskets, but what does that actually look like – and what type of recycling waste does our household produce?

Well, let there be no doubts or misunderstandings! This is our entire recycling waste produced in one month – from 1st to the 30th April. We didn’t do anything differently; we didn’t set ourselves any challenges – although our observations did change our behaviour slightly, as you’ll see!

How Much Recycling Does a Zero Waste Home Produce in a Month?

As I said, I do not know how this compares to others, and I’m not particularly interested in comparisons. I want to do the best I can, and I’m always trying to improve. I’m definitely not perfect!

Days 1 – 10:

Zero Waste Home Recycling Days 1 to 10 Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Zero Waste Home: Recycling Days 1 – 10

Looking at this you’d think all we consumed was beer, chocolate and toilet paper, wouldn’t you?! I feel I must defend myself. Except there is no defence!

  • Yes, my husband and I did actually eat all 5 of those chocolate bars in 10 days (plus some bulk chocolate too, I’m pretty sure).
  • The beer (which my husband drinks; I don’t like it) is a work in progress. There is a great little shop really close by that sells beer refills, and my husband does go there, but he still has a tendency to buy beer in packaging. Whenever I question him about it, he points out that he didn’t sign up for zero waste living, only the plastic-free part! One of his favourite brands has recently been made available in aluminium cans, which is great from a recycling point-of-view (all glass in WA is crushed into road base rather than being made into new bottles). However, lots of cans are BPA-lined, so the health aspect isn’t great. Although that could be said for drinking beer…
  • No, we didn’t actually use that much loo roll in 10 days! I keep the paper for other uses, but my husband had a clearout of the cupboard. The two cardboard tubes are a more accurate! (I tend to keep these for planting seedlings, not sure why these are here.)
  • The rest is a couple of invoices, a business card (nowadays I hand these straight back so this must be an old one) and a couple of scrappy bits of paper. The gold paper is from one of the chocolate bars (the others had aluminium foil, which I’ll come back to later).

Days 11 – 20:

Zero Waste Home Recycling Days 11 to 20 Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Zero Waste Home Recycling: Days 11 – 20

This period is better! I’ve controlled my chocolate consumption (I was a little shocked at the previous picture).

  • Three rolls of toilet paper and their wrappers. Some zero wasters use “cloth” which means reusable fabric; my husband and I don’t – and there is no way I’d ever be able to persuade him to make the switch! (I’ve talked about this decision on more detail here.)
  • More beer – this time in glass. The glass will get crushed and turned into road base which is a little depressing.
  • One chocolate wrapper, one envelope that came in the mail and a receipt.

Days 21 – 30:

Zero Waste Home Recycling Days 21 to 30 Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Zero Waste Home Recycling: Days 21 – 30

This looks like a lot (and it is).

  • The big stack of papers on the top row in the middle are the result of my going through all of our folders. I do this every 6 months or so to remove all the unnecessary stuff. The pile is about an inch thick and contains old statements, letters, documents, notes, papers from some workshops that I ran, and receipts/invoices.
  • The local newspaper – no idea where this came from but my husband is a fan of the community newspaper, so I guess he picked it up to read.
  • An insurance brochure – uncovered whilst going through our folders.
  • Random bits of cardboard packaging and instructions from when we moved in to our new home, including the packet the keys were in and instructions on how a draining board works. Useful stuff!
  • A very old ibuprofen packet.
  • A “Thank You” card that I didn’t have the heart to give back.
  • A list, a post-it note and a loyalty card for somewhere we haven’t been since forever.
  • Another toilet paper wrapper.
  • The labels from my tent which were still attached to the bag – and I bought this in 2003!
  • A small handful of receipts. I generally decline receipts but sometimes we need them and sometimes they sneak in.
  • Two envelopes from mail that we received.

So that’s it – how much recycling we produced in 30 days. Except that’s not quite it. This is the stuff that was put into our bin for kerbside collection. There’s a little more that wasn’t… yet.

Aluminium Foil:

Zero Waste Home Aluminium Recycling Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Zero Waste Home Aluminium Recycling from February to May

You may have noticed that I do have a small chocolate bar habit, and with each bar comes an aluminum wrapper. Aluminium can be recycled but single wrappers are a bit small for the machinery.

I save mine up until it’s a ball about the size of an Easter egg, and then I place that ball in the recycling. This is all the foil we’ve collected in 3 months (Feb – May). Once the ball is big enough it will go out for recycling.

Steel bottle tops:

Zero Waste Home Steel Bottle Tops for Recycling Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Zero Waste Home Steel Bottle Tops in April

Because my husband is switching to cans we have less of these. They can be recycled, but are so small that a single one will slip through the process. To recycle, collect in a tin can, and once the tin can is half full squish it in the middle to stop the bottle tops falling out. The can can then be put in the recycling and the tops should be recycled.

Soft and noisy plastic:

Zero Waste Home Soft Plastic Recycling Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Soft and noisy plastic recycling Feb – May

Soft and noisy plastics can be recycled (or rather, downcycled into garden furniture) but they are often not recycled by kerbside collection systems. In Australia there are bins inside Coles supermarkets where these can be deposited.

I dislike plastic with a passion and try to avoid buying any, but the odd piece comes my way. I save it all up and then take it to the supermarket – usually a couple of times a year.

This is what I’ve collected since February (so 3 months) – it weighs 54g. It’s more than usual because when we moved in to our new home, the draining board, draining rack and chopping board were all wrapped in plastic.

What I’ve landfilled:

Zero Waste Home Landfill Waste Treading My Own Path Lindsay Miles
Two months of landfill waste

For completeness, I thought I’d add a picture of my landfill waste. I’ve been collecting it since March 1st this year. Previously I was reluctant to as I thought it was really gimmicky – but then I realised that it would be a useful visual prop when I give talks.

So this is two months worth of landfill. It contains: the backing from a sticker, a piece of pink tape (that was used to seal the thank-you card above), an old phone SIM card, an elastic band entwined with nylon fibre, an ibuprofen blister pack, an old credit card, two plastic bottle lids that have broken and some packing plastic binding.

There you have it – my complete recycling waste and landfill waste from my zero waste home for the last 30 days.

I’m not perfect, and I don’t claim to be.

If you can do better that’s great – and I’d love to hear your tips! On the other hand, if you think this looks impossibly inachievable, remember that I began my journey four years ago.

It’s taken me 4 years to reduce my waste to what I’ve shown you here. Personally, I’m pleased with how far I’ve come, and I hope that in the future I can reduce my waste even further.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – what did you think? Do you have any ideas how I could reduce my waste further? Can you spot any glaringly obvious areas for improvement? (Please don’t say “eat less chocolate” – I’ve already figured that one out!) Do you have any ideas where I can recycle the things in my landfill jar – particularly credit cards and sim cards as I suspect I’ll have more in the future? What do you think about the idea of people sharing their waste? Do you find it motivating or disheartening? Do you share your own waste progress (if so, tell me the link so I can have a look and maybe learn something new)? Any other thoughts? I really love hearing your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

37 Responses to Zero Waste Living: What about Recycling?

    • Thanks Aimee! Have you thought about setting up a dog poo compost bin or worm farm? If you have the outside space it’s a great way to reduce landfill : )

      Thanks for sharing that. I saw someone on Instagram had a guitar pick press and I love that idea except I don’t actually knows anyone who plays guitar… I guess I’ll keep it in the jar and hope that a solution presents itself in the future!

  1. I like beer too. To reduce the waste I home brew because the bottles are reused. This still results in some waste. I buy brewing kits and the wort comes in a steel can, the malt in a small plastic bag and yeast in a foil satchel.
    One brew makes 30 large bottles or about 60 stubbies. That would last me about 4 months.

    • I’d love my husband to take up homebrew and I’m always suggesting it to him, but at the moment he’s just too busy. It’s on the list though! I think he’d find it a useful skill ; )

      Out of interest, do you think you drink more beer now you homebrew, or less, or the same?

  2. Great post! I have been thinking about doing something like this too because nobody talks about it. Whenever I say how much landfill I produce I also say how much recycling we produce because I think that is the best way to be transparent and get across the message that we are trying to reduce that too. This is pretty similar to ours but I’d also add all the papers from the kids school and a couple of premade foods that come in a box (so I don’t have to make/cook every single thing we eat!).

    We had quite a few beer bottles too, but out of the blue my husband gave up drinking!! It’s been three months and I’m loving not having to recycle all those bottles. He did it to be healthier but I think my lifestyle changes helped lead him to this point. I don’t know if it’ll last but I’m enjoying it while I can.

    • Thanks Tammy! I agree – nobody talks about it, and I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s because people who live zero waste lifestyles are trying to keep their recycling a secret (maybe a few are, I don’t know). I guess my goal is to inspire others to adopt zero waste practices by showing how I do it – and I’m not perfect but I’ve come a long way. The beer bottles frustrate me (especially now we live so close to the beer place that sells refills) but as my husband points out, he didn’t sign up to zero waste, and he is very supportive generally. That’s his only vice so it could be much worse! I think he will get into the habit of getting refills eventually – we’ve only been here 2 months, and new habits take time.

      I’d love it if you shared your recycling sometime. It’s interesting to see the things others succeed in and are challenged with. PS enjoy your bottle-free situation definitely – my husband would never give up beer!

  3. Nice! I did an April audit of my landfill and recycling as part of the Grexy challenge. I’m making progress, decided to finally give up my bin – Yay! I put most of my non-plastic coated paper thru my compost. Still have lots of stuff slowly getting used up and not replaced or replaced with DIY no / low packaging alternatives. Slow and steady. :-)

    • Slow and steady wins the race ; ) Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mel. I thought about composting all my paper because it felt better than recycling, but I was told by two separate people (who know about these things) that recycling paper is a far better use of resources / embedded energy than composting. They suggested sourcing shredded paper, which is hard to recycle (it contaminates mixed recycling so needs to be recycled separately) and using that for compost, and recycling regular paper. So that’s what I do now. I’m working on making our home more paperless, but I am one who tends to write lists on scraps and I like to physically write rather than type, so I doubt I’ll ever get to 100%. Close enough is good enough for me!

      • Interesting. I thought composting paper would be better based on chemicals, processes, and lack of market for post-recycling paper products. Maybe an idea for a future article? :-)
        I do my lists on my phone, its the only way I can keep track of them.

  4. you can get one more use out of the chocolate foil wraps by using them to wrap potatoes for baking. it might take two of them if you get chocolate in 2 oz lots. I put a little butter or oil on the potatoes, wrap them in the wiped-clean chocolate foils and pop in the oven when I am baking something else. the foils can still be recycled.

    • I’ve just discovered that none of the comments I wrote in reply here have published! (Sometimes my phone seems to eat them – gimme a good old laptop any day!) Thanks for your suggestion Gayla – and yes, we intend to do this once our garden is cranking a little better! (If they were plain I’d on-gift them as loo rolls are popular for crafty types – but these say Who Gives A Cr*p all over them so not so enticing!)

      In fact, you’ll be pleased to hear we have started saving them!

  5. Wow! That’s amazing! I could relate to the number of chocolate bars in your first photo. :-) I need to research our recycling here in Egypt more and find out what happens to the glass.

    • Thanks Bernadette – and yes, chocolate is my addiction : ( Glad you can relate! Perth is very isolated, which is most of the problem when it comes to recycling stuff. Most of our recycling is shipped to China, some soft plastic is taken to the East Coast. We have virtually no processing facilities here at all. I would expect that Egypt has a better system – let me know what you discover! : )

  6. My Easter egg foil made a foil Easter egg! I eat Lindt chocolate SO slowly, a square a night but not every night. So your haul made me feel awesome (let’s not speak of the other sweets I sneak at work!). I’m glad you use the paper wrapped TP – we don’t, but I buy the biggest bulk in Coles, and then the plastic goes back for their recycling.

    My mail question – I trash receipts as I thought they were BPA lined at times?

    • Haha, my foil has done that too! How can you eat it that slowly? I eat more like a bar a night, and every night! (I think I have a chocolate problem.)

      Have you thought about ordering the WGAC toilet paper? It’s Australian : )

      Most of those receipts are the non-thermal ones (I try to refuse those as I don’t want to be handling the BPA). Occasionally we get one or two – I alternate between the compost and the recycling. My waste education friend always says “dilution is the solution to pollution” and one or two BPA receipts in the recycling won’t hurt. It’s still recyclable – it just means the recycled paper will contain BPA. It’s not like we are going to eat the recycled paper, though – and the BPA is going to end up somewhere whatever we do. I hate sending stuff to landfill so this suits me.

  7. Oh boy I know you’re not into comparisons but your doing well better than us! My hubby didn’t sign up to zero plastic or zero waste but we’ve found a balance and he’s changed a lot of habits for my benefit. I think as a result I tend to blame a lot of our waste on him and I’m not as aware of where I’m contributing to it. I tracked it for plastic -free July last year, I’ll do that again this year

    • Oooh the blame game, I know that one! ; ) Although it works both ways – my husband blames me for being too extreme! (Can you believe – he brought home a SINGLE USE paper mushroom bag the other day?! Although now we have it, it has been reused. I don’t think I’m extreme, just dedicated! ; )

      Really, it’s all about balance. And my husband is very good and amazingly supportive – I’ve met so many people whose husbands just don’t get it at all, or are very unsupportive. What’s one mushroom bag to keep the peace?

  8. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been wondering about how much recycling other zero wasters make. I’m just starting on my zero waste journey so I still make a ton of recycling but it’s better than it going in the landfill and I’ve learned a lot about what can and can’t be recycled in my area and how to recycle different things.

    • Pleasure Stephanie! Yes, it’s not talked about much, is it?! I think paper would be the hardest one to avoid – its everywhere! Aside from the beer and chocolate foil, that’s our main one. I’ve come across some zero wasters who burn all their trash but personally, I don’t think that’s a solution – if we all did it, that’s a lot of fumes, plus some of that stuff is gonna burn and release nasties. I think transparency with what we do produce and giving resources the best chance of re-use (burning seems a bit like cheating – unless you live in the wilderness!) is better. That’s my take on it all : )

      Sounds like you’re going great – so much can actually be recycled if we just take the time to find out where (and how)! : )

  9. I have read all the comments and am even more inspired. I have been on my journey for about 1 yr and am changing things slowly as alternate products can be expensive. I started cleaning out plastic in my kitchen first and changed to bamboo for my chopping boards and dish washing brush etc, also bought a lot more glass containers. This morning after seeing your herb/spice cabinet I have been putting all my nuts and seeds in glass jars. I think near by to me there is a shop who sells loose stuff so can refill my glass jars. My husband came up with saving paddle pop sticks for seedling markers in the garden. He also saves the beer bottle tops as some charities will except them, if you donate a certain amount it buys a wheelchair for someone.

    • Thank you Marjoleine, glad you found it useful! I agree, good quality products can be expensive, and there is no need to rush out and buy a bunch of things on day 1. Better to work out what you really need and want, and make slow conscious purchases. It made me really appreciate the things I chose to buy as they were all very considered.

      I worked on a washing up station where there were ice lolly sticks, so I washed them up and brought them home to use as garden labels! That’s very cool about the beer bottle tops, we can’t do that here and I suspect most go to landfill :(

      Great work and keep on doing what you’re doing! :)

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