How my zero waste habits have changed since Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly changed a lot of things. From the things we are actually not/no longer allowed to do, to those habits we’ve been forced to rethink and then those we’ve decided to change, there seems to be very few aspects of daily life left untouched.

When it comes to zero waste, low waste and plastic-free living, it’s been interesting to me to see all of the changes. Some businesses have stepped up their game to ensure they continue to create less waste, others have had no choice but to soften their approach. The same goes for individuals and their habits.

I wanted to share how my own habits have changed (and stayed the same) since the pandemic arrived. We’ve all got different ways of dealing with things, and differing priorities, and it’s not to say that my way is the best way, nor am I encouraging you to do what I do. Depending where you live, it might not even be possible right now.

Zero waste – or low waste, at least – might not be a priority for everyone now, but it is still a priority for me. I think I’m hardwired to have heart palpitations at the thought of throwing something into landfill! Of course I’ve had to make changes and compromises (I think we all have, right?) but I’m still trying to navigate these choices whilst keeping my values in my heart.

My zero waste habits that haven’t changed

Shopping at bulk stores

Most of the bulk stores here in Perth are still open, and many are still accepting BYO containers. (I heard of one that was ordered to stop by the council Health department, and I know of a few that have closed to customers and are offering a pick-up/collection service only).

I’ve been lucky to be able to head to my usual bulk store and stock up using my own jars. When the infection rate was at its peak I did use a collection service where I pre-ordered and picked up a few things in paper bags, but for the most part I’ve been able to buy my groceries packaging-free.

Getting (or not getting) takeaway

Personally, I see dine-in and takeaway as two different things. I dine-in when I want to take my time, enjoy the food and the company of the people I’m with. I get takeaway when I’m tired, it’s late and there’s nothing in the fridge. Because I refuse to buy takeaway in anything other than cardboard, my options are limited to pizza and (veg) burgers. Which aren’t things I want to eat particularly often.

Before Covid19, I’d maybe get breakfast, or coffee and a cake a couple of times a month, and maybe dinner with friends once or twice a month also. I’d probably eat takeaway pizza once or month or so (usually at the insistence of the person I live with). With the restaurants closed, I can’t dine out – but I don’t see takeaway as an equivalent. In my mind, they are very different things. Replacing dine-in with take-out doesn’t work for me.

Plus, with the fridge more full than it’s ever been, there’s no ‘there’s nothing in the fridge’ excuse. So my takeaway habit hasn’t changed. Pizza, once a month.

The sharing economy

You’ve probably heard me rave about the Buy Nothing project a million times – it’s a network of hyper-local community groups allowing people to swap and share rather than buy new. Many Buy Nothing groups have closed down temporarily due to the pandemic, however ours has remained open for requests and ‘essentials’ (I live in a lower socio-economic area, and sometimes our members need support of food and other items to make ends meet).

Fortunately, although ours is still operating on a limited basis, I’ve been able to connect with so many neighbours in the past that I have a fairly good network to be able to borrow, share and give outside of the group structure.

And so I borrowed a tarp from one neighbour for a soil delivery, got a sourdough starter from another neighbour (to make crumpets), and dropped off some excess spinach plants for a third neighbour.

If there’s one thing I miss most during this lockdown, it’s my community. Normally there is so much swapping, sharing and banter, and I sorely miss it. I’m grateful that our community is still ticking along and connection is still possible, even though this is not a patch on what is was.

My zero waste compromises for Covid19

Buying new stuff

Well, so far I’ve purchased one new thing – but it broke pretty much all-the-rules that I follow. I needed a cable to connect my monitor to my laptop. For the past two years I’ve been using a cable borrowed from a friend, who had always said it was a long-term loan and he might need it back. Well, working from home came around and he needed it back.

I tried Buy Nothing, but no-one had a spare. I couldn’t find a local computer store. I didn’t want to just head to the mall on the off-chance – and I was conscious that office supplies were selling out as so many people were starting to work from home.

So I used click-and-collect – something I never do. I like to support local stores who don’t have these services, avoid big chain stores, and ideally find stuff second hand. This wasn’t an option either, and so I went to the big-chain store to receive my cable – all ready-packaged in a plastic bag.

I did think about kicking up a fuss and returning the plastic bag, but this was when uncertainty around Covd19 was at its peak and I didn’t want to stress the store guy out any more than he probably already was. Plus I assumed they wouldn’t reuse the bag anyway.

So I sucked it up and took my first plastic bag home in about 7 years.

(I photographed the moment for prosperity, and I’ll take the bag to Redcycle for recycling.)

I haven’t needed to buy anything else, although I dearly want a mortar and pestle (I currently try to flatten my coriander seed with a knife, because my food processor is not up to the job)… but I’m holding out.

Buying items in (home) compostable packaging

My personal low-waste rule is to avoid as much packaging as possible. I’m not perfect, but I always try to bring my own jars/bags/containers, and dine-in rather than get takeaway. Or go without.

It’s easy to go without when there are other options, but when these are taken away, your choices are very limited.

I’ve loosened my rules to include completely compostable and biodegradable packaging. Which means I can now buy ice-cream from the local gelateria – they use compostable sugarcane containers, which successfully break down in my compost bin.

I’ve hardly gone nuts – I think I’ve used about 6 in the last two months. I really believe that the zero waste movement is about using less packaging and embracing reusables and returnables, not just switching the material of single use packaging.

As soon as reusables and dining-in is allowed, I’m tightening up my rules. Until then, I will enjoy ice-cream.

Some zero waste wins

Takeaway coffee

I rarely buy takeaway coffee (I prefer to dine in, or make my own at home – I have an excellent manual press and stovetop steamer that makes amazing coffee). Personally, using disposable cups for anything other than a life-threatening emergency is a no for me. I just can’t do it!

I’ve noticed a few people on various zero waste groups about the place saying that they are happy to use disposable cups to support their local cafes. Whilst I like the sentiment, this is somewhere I’m not willing to compromise – and I really don’t think that my buying a $4 coffee once in a blue moon is going to keep a cafe (that’s had to close its entire restaurant down) afloat.

But after settling on my choice, I discovered that cafe closest to me is offering a returnable refillable cup service run by Renome – reusable cups that you pay a deposit for, and return for cleaning once you’re done (if you want a refill, you simply return your cup to the box, and are served with a freshly cleaned one).

Now this is something I can get behind.

The scheme has existed for a while, but until now I had no reason to use it. The great thing is that the cup is ultimately refundable, so I don’t need to ensure I use it 17 times (which is the case with a plastic KeepCup) to offset the carbon footprint. As long as the cup is used that many times, it doesn’t matter by who. And it’s not more ‘stuff’.

(There are a handful of cafes around Perth actually still accepting KeepCups, but none close to me.)

Supporting local

I think all of us feel a real draw towards supporting local businesses in these times. I don’t have the budget to suddenly start ordering takeaway every day (plus the packaging would give me heart palpitations, and I don’t think my arteries would be too pleased either).

I only buy ‘stuff’ that I need, which isn’t much stuff, and I’m not going to suddenly start shopping for ‘things’.

What I have been able to do is to support local food producers. I’ve been ordering extra in my local veg box (which I’m thankful that I already used, as a lot of these schemes have closed to new customers after a surge in demand).

I found an amazing mushroom grower – The Mushroom Guys – that usually supplies to restaurants, but with the lockdown has turned to selling mushroom boxes to customers. And they are things of beauty.

(I have a bit of a weakness for mushrooms and it’s one of my goals to eventually have a setup where I grow my own.)

A friend sells microgreens and I started a weekly order with him.

It’s meant my grocery spend has gone up, but as there is no spend on eating anywhere else, and as it’s a short-term thing, I’m happy to support local growers and have fresh food delivered to my door.

I’m lucky to have the option, and I’m taking it.

Some zero waste misses

Sneaky plastic

Oh, the sneaky plastic! Yep, I’ve been caught out with this a few times. When you shop at the same places and buy the same things you learn how to avoid the sneaky plastic, but when you’re going to unfamiliar places or buying different stuff, it happens.

A local cafe started stocking bread from a bakery and I placed an order only to find it came in a plastic bag. I asked for bulk risotto rice with my veg box (they run a bulk store also) and got a shiny plastic packet of the stuff instead.

It makes me more aware for next time – sometimes I forget that this is how most places do things!

Can you be zero waste during Covid19?

In Australia, so far things have not gotten as bad as they have in other places, and restrictions have not been quite as tight. We’ve been lucky, and hopefully we will remain this way. I’ve been able to shop at the bulk store and use reusables, and loosen my rules a little to allow for a little fun (or ice-cream, as it’s also called).

I know not everyone has been as fortunate. It helps that my day-to-day routines have not been disrupted too much – I regularly work from home, and I don’t have to navigate homeschooling.

This isn’t a competition. I just wanted to share how I’ve been navigating the choices, and what my experience has been. I’m sure yours has been very different. The thing I’m most sure about, is that whatever your current situation is, whatever you’re having to do to get by, it doesn’t not mean the end for zero waste.

We’ll get through this, and I think our resolve will be stronger for it. Right now, staying safe is the most important thing of all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How has the pandemic changed your low waste habits? What has stayed the same for you? What things have you been forced to change, and what things have you chosen to change? Have your priorities shifted, and how? There’s no wrong answers and I’d love to hear about your experiences and get your perspective on this, so please share in the comments below!

How my zero waste habits have changed since Covid-19
18 replies
  1. Shark
    Shark says:

    Should have told me, we have plenty of cables at work! ;)
    Btw. I make ‘the person I live with’ bake homemade pizza. He insist on buying stupid wraps in plastic so might as well use it as pizza bases. :)

      • SUSAN
        SUSAN says:

        Pizza from scratch is one of my favourite ‘cook with the grandkids’ activities. Dough is easily made in the food processor, get out a bunch of ingredients, grate a truck load of cheese and let them have at it. Great fun.

  2. Libby Lee-Hammond
    Libby Lee-Hammond says:

    Hi Lindsay, I finally bought your book last week at my local post office. Love the practical down to earthness of it and I have been challenged by your approach to change things in my life and my home. I noticed in your blog that you don’t have a mortar and pestle. I have two. Would you like one of them? I would love to gift it to you and am happy to drop it to you or to a location you prefer in Perth.

  3. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Hi I have to say the Last 5 weeks I’ve been at home have been amazing I am sympathetic to all the suffering that is going on in this crazy time but I have been in an abundant isolation bubble .I have had extra time to focus on my online holistic wellness lil biz and entice my community into their own backyards . I set up a group where we all commit to growing 1 veg in our gardens to share with the whole group.From the beginning we had dramas as all the seedlings were sold out so I sourced heirloom seeds locally and we got to work . We are now exchanging seedlings thinning out and planting . I have excess worm wee to share and my carport has turned into a no contact hub of goodie exchange .
    We are all growing mushrooms from spent coffee grounds and recycling and reusing everything.
    I’m very grateful to have a full time job to return to on Wednesday but Gee home is where my heart is and I’m so grateful for my community.
    I’ve just perfected a gf sourdough so that will be the next project to share.
    Stay safe and happy Mother Earth is smiling ❤️
    Sarah x

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

      Hi Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It is lovely to hear of people who have been able to embrace the situation and make it positive. Your gardening project sounds wonderful in so many ways – I love it. I’d love to know more. How many in the group? What seeds did you plant? Ooooh, I’m so envious of this! ;) I really want to get back out into my community, I can’t wait!

  4. nofixedstars
    nofixedstars says:

    it’s become very hard where i live to be zero or even minimal waste suddenly… i am still holding the line as much as possible, with one exception i’ll detail below.

    even before restaurants etc had to shut down dine-in, the coffee places all ceased accepting reusable cups. :(

    none of our restaurants are allowed even under normal circumstances to use customer-provided containers for takeaways; now, of course, that wouldn’t be allowed anyway. i had been part of a regular weekly lunch group at our local indian restaurant, and the owners are personal friends; so i have been ordering a meal once per week and collecting it. now i’ve a pile of washed (non-recyclable) plastic pots which i can’t bear to throw out, and have no good plan for…perhaps i can pot up some seedlings in them, or *something*…

    the farmers market reopened on schedule (hallelujah!) but has to operate as a drive-through; they are not permitted now to accept reusable bags, so we are getting a mix of loose produce and zip-lock bags or plastic shopping bags. they will be re-used, but…sigh…

    scarcity and buy-outs of certain food and other items means my husband has to go to multiple shops just to get most things on a list…which means multiple times getting in and out of his car, and much more driving about than normal. it also means he is sometimes getting brands or types of things i wouldn’t normally choose myself, but i can’t fault him for it.

    i had hoped to start some veggie seeds, but they are very difficult to find! even online, most places are sold out. i have begun saving celery and green onion ends for regrowing, and will be collecting the seeds from any produce i get. planning to accept thinned seedlings from a friend and going halves with her on some seeds she had already, too. :)

    best wishes to you and yours!

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

      Oh wow, thanks so much for sharing. Such a lot of changes! Good news that the Farmers Market is reopening though – drive through farmers Market, I bet that is a first!

      It is definitely a challenging time (and not just on the waste front!). If I’m feeling frustrated about the extra waste, I remember all the planes not flying currently, and all those individual meals and coffee cups and bottles of water not being used. Which makes me feel a little better.

      I didn’t try to buy seeds, but I have heard the same. I have a big tin of seeds and most have reached their ‘best before’ but I’ve planted some out – with mixed success. Radishes and mizuna lettuce have done well, broad beans never let me down, but most of my kale seeds (red, curly, and another type I forget) haven’t sprouted. Plus my beetroots have refused, despite 3 separate plantings! I’ll have another go at the weekend. Might as well try to use what I have!

      Yes, if you can share and swap with friends, that is the best way to get seeds and seedlings!

  5. Jane
    Jane says:

    I am in Ontario, Canada and it is so hard right now to be zero waste. Our stores are not accepting your own containers, coffee shops are all basically closed and the ones that are open are not allowing BYO mugs. I am doing my best by ordering through our local coop grocery store but they are struggling to have zero waste options (ie they used to have loose carrots, now they come in plastic bags). I am happy though that they are still providing lots of local produce. We are also a family of 5 and so I am having to make some concessions due to financial reasons. I would love to buy everything at the small independent places but we go through so much food!!
    I am definitely jealous of everyone who is into growing season already. We are unseasonably cold for end of April and it’s been snowing off and on all week. Needless to say my kids are very sick of apples and pears from local cold storage and root vegetables. Haha.

  6. Molly H
    Molly H says:

    I had to move back home from university, so I’m not completely in control of what enters my household. I am actually the only one willing to compost so I always start it back up when I’m home. We have just started ordering ordering local produce boxes from my favorite restaurant every week and my sister and I get food to-go (which is vegan/gf and comes in a compostable bowl that I can stick in my soil or use to grow lettuce out of for a while).

    I haven’t gotten any takeaway coffee because it comes in plastic, but my sister has. We bought coffee beans from our favorite local coffee shop which comes in a plastic / mixed materials bag, but otherwise the coffee is sustainable and the cafe is usually good about loose leaf tea, composting, etc.

    It’s hard to balance things, especially when I want things but will have to wait until thrift stores open again for the nonessential items (and I’m sure the thrift stores will be packed since everyone is decluttering with this extra time and spring cleaning here in North America).

    With the extra time I have, especially since my classes are ending soon, I have been able to learn more about foraging (who knew so many “weeds” in my garden are edible?!), experimenting with recipes such as making dandelion jam, and doing some clothing repairs and upcycles.

    I have been realizing how many past fails i had in terms of buying makeup and opting in to subscriptions, but I’m trying to use up items in plastic and then just not replace them.

    Thanks for taking the time to reflect on this; it’s helping me be able to see the fails and successes in my life. We can never be perfect, but we can always strive to do better!

  7. Lindsay McWhirter
    Lindsay McWhirter says:

    Here in Edmonton we have an organic store that used to sell as much as they could in bulk. Unfortunately the Board of Health shut down all bulk sales unless the staff go around with the customers & fill the orders (into plastic bags – which the chain store Bulk Barn does) but this store is too small so the owner & staff have been filling bags from the bins & placing them in the bins for customers to pick up. He’s had to get all the liquid bulk items in containers (the vast majority of them are recyclable in our city). They also have washing stations (I didn’t know they existed) that customers have to use when they enter, the staff have to wear masks & gloves, & there is a barrier at the till. If you pick something up from a shelf you have to buy it – they try to put items with the ingredient list visible, which is very nice. If they aren’t too busy they will package up an item while you wait, if it isn’t already packaged. Unfortunately there are a lot of loyal customers who want to support this local businessman/vegan/social justice advocate/philanthropist so last time I was there I was 12th in line outside the store because they could only let in a few people at a time to maintain physical distancing. As for our plastic use, we had to get our hand sanitizer (for using when we are out) in a plastic bottle from a local distiller who is making a killing making hand sanitizer instead of booze, the disinfectant spray & our masks & gloves are in plastic. Unfortunately the plastic that the masks & gloves are in aren’t even recyclable. It has occurred to me that actions that I take to reduce my plastic use are considered too much work by many but to me are a privilege that has been taken away in this Covid 19 era. I will certainly appreciate it more when the rules are lifted.

  8. Anita Bolton
    Anita Bolton says:

    Here in West Wales our local bulk store is closed except for deliveries / collections. As I am very new to this less waste idea, I don’t know what I want unless I can chat and look so that is out for the time being.

    Yesterday I started sorting through my ‘stuff’ and realised how much of it I haven’t actually used since I moved here 10 years ago. I am making piles to take to the charity shops once they open again. I’ve also planted some tomato seeds from a lunchtime tomato. To my amazement they are growing and looking good. All I have to do is remember to water them as we seem to be in a dry spell at the moment.

    Thanks to you Lindsay and everyone who comments here for your thought provoking comments which are helping me see things in a very different light. It will be a while before I get a real grip on things but I’m starting with baby steps and will continue to read and act on ideas that I can implement during this unsettling time.

  9. Chloe Lines
    Chloe Lines says:

    Hi Lindsay, great to read about your challenges during this time. I LOVE that someone has offered you a mortar and pestle! I’ve learnt that when I need something it’s best to wait (if I can make do) as often the universe provides. I needed a dog bowl for outside and wanted to avoid purchasing. I hadn’t got around to asking on our local buy nothing group and then my aunt moved to Denmark and left her doggie stuff with us. New bowl for me and a dog bed for our buy nothing group! So, like you and others I’ve had to make concessions to my usual zero waste efforts and where I usually work hard to buy everything local there have been more packages arriving at our door. With the library closed my local bookstore has been getting more love from me. I haven’t been able to purchase a coffee in a disposable cup…I’ve had the thought that a) I’d die for a real coffee at this point – think it’s been six weeks b) I want to support local, but for me it’s not an essential and I feel like I’d be letting myself down. I’m also aware of ‘never, say never’… We’ve ordered pizza twice from our local, and they have a parma my husband loves – this comes in a foil tray which i keep to reusue, but the cardboard insert has a plastic lining. I haven’t made it to our local bulk store as limiting our exposure because my kids have asthma, so have bought my nuts, etc from the supermarket however I’m using/eating less in an effort to offset this. I too think about all the planes that are not flying and cars that are not driving during this period. And this time has also made me see how creative we can be with what we have. Watching my kids with their existing toys and Lego has been fascinating – so many new games and creations. I finally finished my first knitting project – s scarf five years in the works. I’m hoping lots of us have seen this in our lives and perhaps this will change future consumption patterns. Pretty please! PLUS I am super happy with our panic bought rocket. We planted it in our front yard between the rose and it is so happy and delicous. As always love reading about your experiences. Thank you.

  10. Everything Bags Inc.
    Everything Bags Inc. says:

    Great post, Lindsay. It’s really hard to follow zero waste lifestyle during these tough times.
    I have tried my hands in vegetable gardening and it feels almost therapeutic. Growing something on your own feels so good and positive.

  11. Sheena Mays (@SheenaM1812)
    Sheena Mays (@SheenaM1812) says:

    Here in the UK a lot of my usual shops are shut so I have had to go to the supermarket closest to me a couple of times. However several small businesses on our local market have joined forces with the green grocer that supplies my veg box meaning I can now get most of my supplies delivered plastic free once a week.
    Sadly the bulk store is closed but the eco shop selling loo roll, soap, solid shampoo etc has offered an online service too.
    Some things have changed as I can’t get refills on pasta, rice, herbs, dried fruit etc so I am trying to make what we have last and bought the biggest bag of pasta to try to minimise the plastic coming through the door.
    Seeds planted are coming up and the salad leaves and rocket are ready to pick and enjoy.
    Thanks for a great post to remind me that it’s not possible to be perfect but if I am doing my best than that is good enough for now.

  12. Daniel Ashford
    Daniel Ashford says:

    A great and entertaining, Lindsay. The increase in trash due to masks and gloves annoys me also, ESPECIALLY MEDICAL SCIENCE has proven that most people in Australia do need masks, nor disposable gloves during this pandemic.

    I’m still shopping at bulk food store, local craft beer via microbrew takeaway on cans, I
    Bought wine through the mail and spirits at bottle , supporting local businesses as I can afford to, and as in an essential supermarket worker, still have plenty work.

    Main problem for me is motivator to work out while gym closed, work physical labour anyhow, so I’ve actually load weight during lock down with less exercise, due to extra work.

  13. Kate
    Kate says:

    We moved from Australia to Canada at the start of the year, just before everything went pear-shaped. We’ve been putting our energy into supporting stores and suppliers that would normally allow BYO containers or low-waste packaging, even if they currently don’t do so. Yes, we have been bringing home a lot of plastic (which we can recycle, but still …), but often these are smaller, local stores and we want them to still be around when the situation improves! The restrictions here are still pretty tight, although my local green grocers just started letting people use their own produce bags this week, so hopefully things are starting to change.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Share your thoughts!