A (Surprisingly Easy) Way to Generate Less Waste

On Sunday morning, my husband and I went on a big cycle ride around the river, and stopped at a cafe we’d never been to before for coffee and a snack. We ordered savoury muffins (I am currently a little obsessed with savoury muffins) and they were brought out to us, all toasted and delicious… with two plastic-packaged portions of butter on the side of the plate.

How I hate those individual butter portions! So fiddly, so unnecessary, and such a waste! Some barely contain more than a teaspoon of butter!

Normally, I send the butter portions straight back. (I figure if I do that, at least they can be re-used. If I leave them untouched on the plate, when everything gets cleared away they will probably end up in the bin.) The issue with this, and I’m sure most people will agree, is that anything toasted tastes far better smothered in buttery goodness.

When I handed the butter back, I did something completely un-groundbreaking.

I asked the waiter if I could have some butter cut from the block in the kitchen rather than the individually-wrapped butter portions.

Here’s the result:

plastic-free butter

Plastic-free breakfast!

It got me thinking. Sometimes there’s no need to get indignant. There’s no need to lament, or to start a petition, or to rally the troops, or organise a boycott. There’s no need to get frustrated, or to wish things were different.

The only thing we need to do is ask the question – can this be done a different way? Surprisingly enough, often it can!

(Of course there are times when asking gets you nowhere, and then all of the above apply! – But the first step should always be to ask the question).

Most people aren’t deliberately trying to create as much waste as they possibly can (even though sometimes it might seem like it). It’s just that they’ve never really thought about it. They’ve never thought about the consequences, the impacts, or the fact that there might be a different (and better) way.

What’s the worst that can happen? Somebody says no. It’s really not that bad!

Simple Questions to Ask to Reduce Your Waste

There’s no need to just accept things are the way they are! Starting the conversation is a great way to tell the world that there is another way. we can make others realise that waste is a problem, but it’s a problem with plenty of solutions.

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

  • Ask your local deli / butcher / takeaway if you can bring your own containers
  • Ask of you can put multiple products in the same container (if appropriate)
  • Ask for no straw
  • Ask for your coffee in a proper cup (even if they say they’re serving takeaway only, they will probably make an exception if you ask)
  • Ask for a glass for water rather than a disposable plastic cup
  • Ask to use your own plate at a takeaway food stand

Just give it a go! There’s no need to cause a fuss, or get angry or grumpy if the answer is no. There’s no need to feel nervous. Remember, the answer could just as easily be yes!

Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever had any great wins just because you asked the question? Have you ever had any dismal failures…and what did you do afterwards?! Do you have any tips for reducing waste when out and about? Any other ideas you’d like to add? Please leave a comment and tell me your experiences below!

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36 replies
  1. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    Yes my butcher will put meat into my own containers but he just rips open trays sealed with cling wrap and also uses a plastic bag to pick up the meat. I’ve tried to explain but the message isn’t getting through. When it’s a roast I usually ask if they’ve got one not yet wrapped out the back. Sometimes that works.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Well, it’s a start! : ) It must be frustrating but hopefully the message will sink in! I think I’d be like you, persevere and hope that eventually he starts to “get” it. At least other customers might see and be inspired. Keep at it Sandra! : )

  2. Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke
    Plastic-Free Tuesday - Annemieke says:

    Last week, my sister and I had mint tea at a cafe. We were asked whether we wanted honey with it. I had been at this cafe before and knew it would be served in plastic (like your butter), so I did not order honey with the tea. My sister did not know, so she said yes to the honey. It indeed came in plastic. We asked the waitress whether they maybe had a big jar of honey in the kitchen so that we could take a spoon of honey. The waitress responded that we could take only a small spoon of honey instead of the whole package… Our message did not arrive (she thought we only wanted a tiny bit of honey). I tried to explain but I think I could/should have been nicer/friendlier/less preachy.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Sometimes it’s hard not to be exasperated that people just don’t understand the plastic problem! Obviously I never try to get frustrated, but it happens! But for every person who just doesn’t get it, I get plenty more who ask why, and are genuinely interested, and say “oh, I hadn’t really thought about that before”. Whilst you don’t win ALL the battles, you win a lot, and it’s this talking and raising awareness that spreads the word.

      I’m sorry about your honey-less mint tea : (

  3. Sheila Scorziello
    Sheila Scorziello says:

    Well, I’m pretty impressed with Italy now! Italians rarely use butter (only in some baking) so no little packets in restaurants! Our local butcher (who only sells homemade sausages, grassfed beef & free-range chicken, just takes it out & cuts off as much as you need. Then wraps it in paper. Never thought about taking my own containers. But I’m sure he’d let me! And the coffee bars always serve espresso, cappuccino, water, juice, etc. in real cups or glasses. The only time they don’t is if you specifically ask for it “to go”. Paper cups & straws? Mostly only at McDonalds. But we very rarely eat there.

    So I’m impressed with Italy on this score! On some others? Em, not so much! But I’ll keep hoping & doing my part! Thanks for this great post, Linsday!

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      If Italy is anything like it’s portrayed in the movies, it must be a zero-waster’s dream! All local markets and fresh produce, and no ridiculous health and safety laws driving everyone mad.

      I love how in Italy, coffee drinking is at the bar / table. Seriously, how long does it take to neck a coffee if you’re in that much of a hurry? I do get takeaway occasionally, but usually somewhere like a Farmers’ Market where there’s no cups, and of course I always bring my own cup. In Australia, there’s even drive-through coffee shops so you can get a takeaway coffee on your way to work and drink in the car!

      Thanks so much for your comment Sheila!

      • Sheila Scorziello
        Sheila Scorziello says:

        No Lindsay, Italy is not a zero-waster’s dream! I only wish! These are just some of the good points , which is good, because I get pretty fed up with some of the negatives. Your post reminded me to be thankful for the positives that do exist here! I’m planning a post on it soon. Just have to find the time!

  4. Casey
    Casey says:

    My brother and i were at our favorite taqueria. We ordered a couple of drinks which they offered in the waxy paper cups, while there was a plethora of glass beerstiens at the bar. We asked to use one of those instead. The girl serving us did and even said that she liked the idea and would use it more often!

  5. Emily
    Emily says:

    I LOVE how rustic and gourmet the butter looks (and the fact that there is more butter than muffin- my kinda morning tea!) I am all for promoting this café if they are prepared to serve it like this! Maybe the trend will catch on? Hopefully! :)

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Haha, there was actually a ridiculous amount of butter! I was going to label this post “zero-waste” and then I thought, but I wasted quite a bit of butter : / There must have been 50g there, compared to the 5g in the stupid portions!

      I will be going back to investigate! : )

  6. ahhthesimplelife
    ahhthesimplelife says:

    Hi Lindsay, You are so right! sometime we just need to slow ourselves down and suggest a better solution. Great post! Cheers, Carol

  7. EcoGrrl
    EcoGrrl says:

    In Oregon and a number of states, unfortunately the food regulations at grocers don’t allow them to put anything in your own container if it’s something they are dishing out behind the counter (like meat, deli items, etc.). If it’s self-serve, you just get the tare weight on your own container and can go nuts – so the bulk aisle for dry goods, soaps/shampoos/lotions, oils/vinegars is great, but not the meats etc. :(

    You’ll like this program: https://www.goboxpdx.com/

    My “thing” – When I get bakery items to-go, I ask them to just put it on the napkin as there’s no need for the little paper bag. When I’m out for food, I always try to think: how long will this packaging actually be serving me? If it’s gone almost instantly, I refuse.

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      That must be soooo annoying! There’s always something “health and “safety” related that screws things up! The dry goods aisles sound like a dream – I think I’d have to avoid the deli section : /

      I totally do this too! If I’m buying something that I intend to eat immediately I ask for it just to be handed directly to me (in my actual hands) – I’ve never had anyone say no! Even if it comes in a paper bag, if I’m only going to use it for 2.5 minutes, then it’s a waste. Good to hear I’m not the only one!

      • Dawn Mitchell
        Dawn Mitchell says:

        I was incensed at all the plastic used at my local sports centre so I asked if I can take my own cup and spoon if I take them home and wash for reuse. They agreed with the idea, so that’s great. Unfortunately their snacks all come in plastic wrapping. I take my own spoon, but the yoghurts have tiny plastic spoons taped to the inside of the lids. Only good thing there is that they stopped using plastic disposable cups and now use cardboard or let us bring our own cups. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

  8. farmer Liz
    farmer Liz says:

    yes! today before I read this post even, I ordered a juice (I don’t normally do this) and asked for it to be in a real glass instead of a takeaway container. This was no issue at all, but they just assume you want takeaway if you don’t ask. You’re right, its as simple as asking…

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      They assume and we assume and it all ends in tragedy (or waste, more specifically). Who knew it was as easy as asking the question?! Glad to hear you had success Liz : ) Maybe it will start them thinking…

  9. sustainableandthecity
    sustainableandthecity says:

    makes SO much sense… and yet i really don’t speak up about these things when i should (and instead become silently angry and frustrated!). not good. thanks for reminding me that it can often be as simple as a simple comment or request. i always refuse plastic bags and receipts… bring a drink bottle… try to sit down if i’m getting a coffee instead of getting a take-away… (which is so much nicer to do anyway). nothing groundbreaking though really!

    • treadingmyownpath
      treadingmyownpath says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! I guess it’s just a habit that we need to build, like all the other habits. And it’s far more productive than muttering under our breath! It’s something I’m definitely going to start doing more often. I’m a huge believer in leading by example (all those things you’ve listed – refusing plastic, refusing disposables) but there’s also a lot to be said for also starting the conversation : )

  10. Sally Grasso
    Sally Grasso says:

    Thankfully I live somewhere where I have a lot of options of where to buy food. I’m still having trouble finding somewhere that will weigh meat and deli items directly into my containers. I had a really bad experience at Coles where the girl behind the counter gave me a whole lot of attitude. She looked a bit confused by my request so I explained to her how to tare the scales so she could weigh the deli meat without the weight of the container. She just did it her usually way and transferred the meat into my container afterwards. I explained to her that if she weighed it directly into my container she wouldn’t be wasting the plastic bag and her response was “this way is easier”. Urgh. Not going back to their deli section!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      I can relate to that Sally! I remember when I began plastic-free living, going to Coles and for some reason their scales have a really strange tare system, and you have to do things in a certain order otherwise it looks like it’s tared, but when they print the sticker it un-tares and charges the full amount, including the container weight! I found that asking them to weigh the product on the lid helped – yes I paid a little more, but better than the weight of the whole container. Eventually I started going to deli counters where the staff were more receptive and knew how to work their scales. Manna in Fremantle has a great deli section and they are very clued up with Plastic Free July.

      That said, no-one ever refused my containers in Coles. If you’re limited for choice, you could try going to the deli but ensuring you get another staff member. Also, explaining what you’re doing and why before you hand over your container can help. I think some staff think you are using a container to be neat rather than save plastic. I’ve been asked by “helpful” staff if I’d like my container shrink-wrapped after they’ve filled it!

      Good luck – and don’t be disheartened!

  11. Amy
    Amy says:

    hope you can join my Facebook page, Reduce Packaging You would have so many good things to offer. I shared one of your articles there today.

  12. Deneice Oroszvary
    Deneice Oroszvary says:

    When buying some tiny thing and the clerk asks, “Would you like a bag for that?”, while saying no, I mention that if they just change the question to, “You don’t need a bag for that, do you?”, that far fewer people will take the bag. It saves the business money, as well as helping the world.

  13. Darren Pine
    Darren Pine says:

    Zero waste should also include energy and water usage. While we will always use the two, we can cut down on the wastage. Turn off lights when not in a room, turn off appliances when not being used (including chargers, hair dryers, etc.), put a bucket in the shower to collect the water as it heats up. Little things that not only save money, but also are waste-saving.

  14. Lexie Peters
    Lexie Peters says:

    Lindsay I do appreciate your gentle and accepting attitude to your journey and ours. You constantly challenge my thinking. Thank you.

    I had a take away at the beach last week. I asked the store owner if I could have my dinner on a plate with the usual cutlery, and my coffee in a mug. No big deal, but I wanted to eat looking out at the ocean, just a short walk away. She allowed me to take it all out of the shop, and return it when I’d finished. Such a lovely treat, and it was all for the asking. So I got to enjoy my dinner with a great view and a wonderful gentle sea breeze.

  15. Ange
    Ange says:

    My home city Birmingham, UK is opening up it’s first zero waste supermarket following a concept seen across Australia! They provide natural cotton bags and customers are also encouraged to bring their own containers. Info can be found here – https://www.thecleankilo.co.uk/about

    Aside from that, these plastic butter packets (and the plastic sauce/vinegar sachets for that matter) get me very frustrated. We are being lead to believe they are convenient and necessary, purely by the companies who make them because they obviously profit from it…but in all honesty they are not necessary at all. They will continue to provide them if they think the call is there. Customers needs to start voicing more and rejecting them so the cafes and restaurants realise they not good and not wanted. An art cafe I frequent fills up little ceramic bowls with butter from a block and serves out those. When I said to them I found this very acceptable, the owner actually admitted that it was proving more financially viable to serve it this way than buying in multi packs of the plastic pods and usually ending up throwing half of them away…plus the boxes of said plastic pods take up more space to store than a block of butter in a fridge! They serve their food on proper plates and to wash the ceramic butter dishes at the same time to reuse is no hardship and believes this should be common practice in more establishments…they just need to stop and think about it rather than being lead like lemmings by the manufacturers…we customers need to stop and think about it so we can find easier and more environmentally friendly ways.

  16. Dawn Mitchell
    Dawn Mitchell says:

    When we are given plastic cutlery that we are unable to avoid, instead of throwing it away, we can wash it and reuse it. It’s not as good as metal cutlery, but if it’s being used, at least it’s being kept out of landfill.

  17. Amy smile
    Amy smile says:

    I have been looking for waste free period options for a while now. Sadly the alternatives of the diva cup and cloth pads are not possible for me. Are there any other products?


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