5 Bad Habits I Shook by Going Zero Waste
Often when we talk about the changes we’ve made since deciding to refuse single-use plastic, reduce our waste and/or live more sustainably, we focus on the products we buy (or no longer buy). There are plenty of articles online about ‘zero waste swaps’ and indeed, I’ve written a few myself.
I thought it might be interesting to change the focus slightly, and rather than talk about products, talk about habits. Now I’ve still got plenty of bad habits to shake (going zero waste does not make you a perfect human, alas), but luckily for me, embracing low waste living has enabled me to shake a few.
Throwing my food scraps in the trash.
That bin went to landfill, and I just thought that the landfill was a great big compost pile. I found out later it is most definitely not. It’s an engineered (and expensive to construct) depression in the ground that entombs waste without air, and creates a lot of methane instead.
Then there’s the fact that food makes for a stinky bin and attracts flies (particularly in hot climates), and needs hauling to the kerb every few days. Did you know that between 20 – 40% of everything the average householder throws away is food scraps?
Not to mention, I was throwing away my food scraps, and then buying plastic-wrapped bags of compost at the garden centre for my plants!
Setting up a worm farm, and then a compost bin, reduced my rubbish bin to almost nothing, solved the ‘how do I line my bin without plastic?’ problem (if there’s nothing stinky and wet going in the bin, it doesn’t need a liner) and gave me free nutrients for the garden.
There are so many solutions to dealing with food scraps. There are options whether you’ve got a garden, a balcony, or no outside space at all. There are options even if you can’t be bothered setting up and managing a system yourself.
Find more info here: How to compost without a compost bin.
Being ‘in love’ with my recycling bin.
Yep, I used to think that recycling was the best thing ever. (And pretty much that I was the best thing ever for filling it to the brim!) I saw that chasing arrow recycling symbol as my ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for packaging. ‘Oh it’s okay. It’s recyclable!’
It simply never occurred to me that I could say no to unnecessary packaging, refuse the excess, reduce what I did use and even rethink some of my choices for less wasteful alternatives.
As I’ve said often, recycling is a great place to start. But when I realised it was not the place to stop, and there was so much more I could be doing, that was when I really began to reduce my waste and my footprint.
Recycling – and learning how to recycle properly rather than chucking everything in and hoping for the best – that’s the first step. But it’s better to have an empty landfill bin and an empty recycling bin than an empty landfill bin and a recycling bin that’s overflowing.
Accepting free samples of everything.
I loved anything that was ‘free’. In fact, if somewhere was offering freebies, I’d quite often take one and then circle back round to take a second one. Because, free!
Whether it was sachets of moisturiser with real gold flakes in them (yes this was a real sample I once accepted), scented foot odour reducing insoles (again, a real thing) or any ‘free’ miniature or travel-sized thing whatsoever from any hotel, I was snaffling these thing up.
The old me thought all this stuff was great. It was duly popped in the cupboard and forgotten about. Yes, most of these freebies I didn’t even use. The new me just shakes her head at the old me.
What about all the resources? The pointlessness? The waste? The perpetuation of the cycle of more samples and free stuff?
Let’s just say, I don’t do that any more. I actually get more satisfaction now from refusing stuff than I ever did from taking it. (The only freebies I get excited about these days are my friends’ excess garden produce and cuttings from their plants which I’d like to grow in my garden.)
Taking ‘eco-friendly’ labels at face value.
Even before I went plastic-free and low waste, I’d buy all of the eco-friendly products. It was pretty easy, because so many products are labelled ‘eco-friendly’!
(Or if not ‘eco-friendly’, the equally eco-friendly sounding ‘green’. Bonus points – in my mind – for having an image of a green leaf on the packaging.)
It was only after I began to reduce my waste that I began to question these labels, and stopped taking them at face value.
There are no independently verified certification scheme for labels like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’. (Or ‘biodegradable’ for that matter, but I won’t go into that now. If you want to read more, you’ll find my post ‘is biodegradable plastic: is it really eco-friendly‘ a helpful read.)
Anyone can write labels like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ on their packaging. And they do!
Rather than let the person who designed the packaging tell me that a product is eco-friendly, I now prefer to do my own research. If a company is truly environmentally responsible, committed to sustainability and equitable in the way they do business, they will be able to back up their claims.
They will be transparent, happy to answer questions, eager to find out answers that they don’t already have, and keen to talk more!
If ever I write to a company claiming to be eco-friendly, and receive responses that are cagey, defensive or hostile, I choose not to support those companies.
That’s not to say I can always find all the answers. But I make an effort and try to be conscious in my choices.
Waiting for ‘somebody else to do something about that.’
Before I decided to reduce my single-use and other plastic, I was the person picking all the overpackaged things off the supermarket shelves and muttering how ridiculous it was, and how somebody should do something about that, whilst piling those same things into my trolley.
I thought it was up to the manufacturers to change their packaging. I thought it was up to the stores not to sell these items. It did not cross my mind that I also had a role to play in this, and a way to influence change – I could just not buy them.
I don’t think it is solely the responsibility of individuals to create change. But we buy things and support (or don’t support) brands and companies, and companies pay attention. We can apply pressure, start conversations, write letters, share the good and try to hold the bad to account.
I don’t have the empirical evidence, but I’m pretty sure that nobody ever successfully influenced change by muttering under their breath. Nor by doing the exact thing they were complaining about.
It feels so much better to be doing something, and trying, however small that ‘something’ might be.
Embracing a life with less waste might not have ironed out all my flaws, but it’s definitely helped me shake some bad habits along the way.
Now I’d love to hear from you! What bad habits (if any) have you kicked through reducing your rubbish and trying to live more sustainably? Any bad habits you’re trying to shake that are still a work-in-progress? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Your article has coincided with where I am at with my thoughts and actions for packaging and composting. I am also very keen on organic produce as we are killing the earth and our waterways.
Hi Linda, that’s great to hear! Yes I feel the same about organic produce. I don’t buy everything organic because it can be expensive and not always an option, but I do get an organic veg box once a fortnight and hope to fill the gaps more and more with homegrown or locally grown produce. The amount of fossil fuels that are used to create chemical fertilisers is phenomenal…
Great article, now we are moving into the next phase of being environmentally aware and not being sold to by the “fake” eco manufacturers.
Ah, great work Lynne! I definitely bought (literally!) into the eco products at the start of all this. Or just before the start. I do think it helped that when I went zero waste there simply weren’t a million ‘zero waste’ products on the market, deliberately targeted at people reducing waste. I built up my resilience before the marketers took hold!
And don’t forget chickens, Lindsay. Great way to get rid of scraps, and you get eggs.
First bad habit that comes to mind is how Iused to buy books; new or secondhand, I was probably a bit of a hoarder. Now I go to the library (yes, even your great book).
I’m actually reading up on chickens at the moment as I’m thinking of getting some, Darren. I’d like the manure for the garden! ;) I’m a huge fan of the library, I tend to only buy a book if I know I’ll want to refer back to it again and again, or if the library doesn’t have it and I can’t get it on inter-library loan – although since writing my book and appreciating the process and the work that goes into them, I think I’ve softened my library stance a little. But only a little ;)
Thank you for sharing this great article! I related so much of it. Some of my one person changes include using reusable bags when grocery shopping, I just picked up a compost bin a nice guy gave me on FB marketplace when I was simply requesting an old trash can to make one myself and really focusing on only cooking what I think will be eaten!!!
Thanks Amarilys! And hurrah for second-hand compost bins! Good luck setting it up and let me know if you need to problem-shoot with it :)
I love declining free samples now too. To start with, the look on the sales person’s face was one of horror, and then they would go on to explain it was free (in case I was confused). I had to explain that I knew it was free, but I did not not need it…more “but it’s FREE”. Now, since I have changed my consumer habits significantly, I rarely go into a shop that offer gift bags for free – and I like that! I also go nuts when I get gifted a cutting or excess produce – there is such a buzz from know others are willing to share what they have with you – and even better we I can do the same.
I loved this, Hayley! When I was a student I used to work in a supermarket, and this guy (who was also an actor on a TV show, so everyone knew who he was) would always buy meat, and often the meat was ‘Buy One Get One Free’ and every single time at the checkout, the cashier would say – ‘you can get another one for free’ and he would say he didn’t want it. We would all talk about how strange it was! But if you aren’t going to eat it and don’t have space to freeze/don’t want to freeze, it’s an excellent habit!
I used to mindlessly chomp on lots of shop-bought cake and biscuits, but since going vegan and reducing my rubbish waste, I usually manage to walk past shop plastic-wrapped biscuits (and vegan cake is difficult to find). (Although somewhere locally collects biscuit wrappers, I think they’re sent a long way abroad for recycling.) As I only occasionally can be bothered to make cake and biscuits, usually now I find healthier snacks, so the end result is I’ve lost weight and it’s probably better for my health, which in the long term is probably good for the planet.
Julia, I had a similar experience with not buying the processed overpackaged stuff, and realising my health was benefiting as a result! I can’t really stomach the overprocessed stuff now either, so if I’m offered it I’ll say no. I don’t even think I’d rescue it if it were going in the bin (well, except to compost). It doesn’t really register as food in my brain any more!
I just returned from a weekend staying in an hotel, and bought the tea bags home: why are they put in a plastic/paper envelope and have a piece of string and paper attached, and there is plastic in the tea bag – it is crazy. I use loose tea at home and only keep these bags for guests! I shall not in future!
Thank you for bringing this to my attention
Hi Helen, the other good thing about not using the teabags and serving loose leaf for guests too is that it is a perfect segue into talking about plastic and waste – unsuspecting guests get a free sustainability lesson with their tea! ;)
It wasn’t until recently that I realised that recycling sent away doesn’t always get recycled! Although as a student, sometimes I have to opt for the recyclable option rather than the single use plastic – it’s a journey I am learning about.