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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!