5 ways the zero waste / plastic-free conversation is changing in 2021

How we think and feel about and take action with zero waste and plastic-free living has certainly changed over the years, and 2020 was no exception. But despite all the change and uncertainty and distractions of the last 12 months, I do think that the zero waste and plastic-free movements are here to stay – they are just going to look a little different in 2021.

When I started my own ‘less waste’ journey back in 2012, there were very few people talking and writing about reducing plastic or living zero waste, Instagram was barely a platform back then, and #zerowaste was definitely not a hashtag. (In fact, were hashtags even a thing in those days?)

Since then both the plastic-free and in particular the zero waste movements have grown so much. Keeping your annual waste in a jam jar had its moment (although that ‘trend’ has long since passed – and I think that’s a good thing), journalists and magazines began to feature stories about people reducing their waste, blogs and social media channels on the topic exploded, and mainstream TV programmes even began talking about the issues and solutions.

Awareness has exploded – is there anyone who hasn’t seen the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose, or the skeleton of a bird whose stomach was filled with plastic?

But then capitalism caught up. The hashtag #zerowaste became a marketing term to sell things, and businesses lined up to sell plastic-free products and invent reusables that probably didn’t actually need inventing.

At times, it felt less like a movement to reduce waste and more like a movement to own photogenic items and share them on social media.

And then there was Covid-19. Bulk stores closed or were forced to pre-package their items, reusables were discouraged or outright banned, legislation such as bag bans were reversed, and single-use plastic (takeaway packaging, face masks) seemed to be taking off again.

And on top of that, all the chaos and uncertainty and stress made it a lot harder to keep up with sustainable habits and definitely harder to embrace new ones.

If there was a year that was difficult to be zero waste or plastic-free, it was 2020.

Not to mention, there are plenty of other issues facing our society. Waste is like an on-ramp to understanding all of the other things we could be doing. For some people who started out interested in zero waste or plastic-free living, this has meant moving to talking about climate change, challenging corporate culture, pivoting to focus on social and environmental justice, embracing activism or working in other areas.

As our understanding of zero waste and the wider issues broadens, we evolve.

Once we’ve embraced change in our own life, it’s only natural to start looking at what else we can do and where we can invest our energy (if we have any to spare). Sometimes our priorities and focus shifts away from plastic-free and zero waste, but even where they don’t, the conversations around these topics change.

They have to, if we are to continue making progress.

As I said at the start, I don’t think the zero waste or plastic-free movements are going away. But I do think they are changing. Here are my five predictions for 2021.

1. Less talk about zero waste/plastic-free swaps.

Back in 2012, barely anyone had heard of a bamboo toothbrush and plenty of reusables were yet to be invented. Fast-forward to 2021 and businesses are falling over themselves to sell us more ‘sustainable’ stuff, including plenty of things that we never even knew we needed (spoiler alert: most of the time, we don’t).

That’s not to say swaps aren’t a valuable part of living with less waste. They are most definitely useful, and the right ones (what’s ‘right’ of course, if different for everybody, but it generally means things that actually get used, and often) can really help us reduce our waste (and carbon) footprint.

It’s just that there’s so much less need to talk about them now – in part because everybody already has been talking about them for several years. They will always be a part of the conversation, but they’ll no longer be the centre of attention.

In 2021 it’s time for the focus to move away from the things we can buy, and shift to the things we can do.

2. More focus on community and acting local.

We might want to change the world, but in 2021 more than ever, there’s a focus on ‘think global, act local’.

Maybe that’s because most of us can’t travel anywhere. Maybe it’s because being forced to stay at home for the majority of 2020 has made us realise how important it is to have good neighbours, stronger local connections and a resilient community.

Maybe it’s because it’s much easier for us to have a positive impact on our local community through our actions than it is to ‘change the world’.

Whatever our reasons, good community connections are an important (if underrated part) of low waste living. From joining community gardens to neighbourhood network groups to gifting economies like Buy Nothing, and from donating to the local food bank to picking up litter to supporting on-the-ground groups doing good work where we live, there are so many ways we can get involved and make a difference.

We’ll definitely be having a lot more conversations about this in 2021.

3. More diversity in the voices talking about the issues and sharing of perspectives.

For a long time the zero waste movement was dominated by white women (in terms of media coverage and influence). And this isn’t to say anything negative about those voices in themselves – only that there was a extreme lack of diversity (and therefore a lack of differing perspectives, lived experiences and knowledge) in the movement.

And all good movements need diversity and representation in order to thrive.

This began changing significantly in 2020 after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement when both individuals and businesses started paying attention to this lack of diversity, and doing more to amplify other voices.

(It’s not that non-white or non-female voices didn’t exist, only they weren’t being given the same platforms and opportunities to speak out.)

In 2021 there will be a lot more inclusiveness in the zero waste and plastic-free movements, with different voices being heard and non-white people participating fully in – and leading – the conversations. And they will be much better conversations because of it.

If you notice that the people you’re following and listening to only fit a single demographic, 2021 is the time to diversify and add some new perspectives.

4. More greenwashing.

The downside of more people becoming interested in sustainability, low waste living and climate action is that companies are increasingly keen to be seen to be doing the right thing. (And no, being ‘seen’ to do the right thing is not the same as actually doing the right thing.)

Expect plenty more greenwashing in 2021.

Greenwashing includes companies printing misleading claims on their products, using terms that have no clear and defined meaning (like ‘eco-friendly’ or biodegradable – here’s a guide to what biodegradable and compostable actually mean) or even printing green leaves and recycling symbols all over their packaging so we think they are environmentally responsible.

Greenwashing means companies telling us, the user, that we need to ‘recycle our products responsibly’ when they do not pay for or support infrastructure to make it possible to recycle these materials (theoretically recyclable is not the same as a actually recycled). Companies trying to shift the responsibility to us when it is their design choice to create single-use items and waste is greenwashing at its finest.

Greenwashing also means virtue signalling by companies – the practice of publicly declaring their moral and ethical commitments and concern for people and planet, but they are only surface deep. Scratch further and there is little meaningful action to support these claims.

In short, these businesses are built on unjust and exploitative systems that no amount of tokenism will fix.

An example might be a billionaire-owned clothing company producing billions of fast fashion items every year intended to be worn once or maybe twice, made by people who do not receive a fair wage, and sold in stores by people being paid a minimal wage, with the whole business model built on the idea of shoppers consuming more and more of their products – and then saying that they will help us recycle, which does nothing to stem the flow of clothing into an already saturated market.

(H&M, I’m looking at you. You might not be the only one, but you virtue signal the loudest.)

In 2021 we are going to see a lot more greenwashing, but we are also going to get a lot better at spotting it, and we will see a lot more people calling these practices out.

5. More individual activism, talking about the system failures and trying to hold companies to account.

The more we learn about plastic and waste, the more we realise that our individual swaps and habits will only take us so far. Now I’m the first person to tell you that individual actions matter , but if we want to bring about change we also need to change the systems that cause the problems.

In short, we need both.

It’s not possible for everyone to do both. But there are people that are fossicking through bins and calling out companies and drawing attention to corporations destroying stock or supermarkets binning food rather than donating it, and it is important that we learn these truths and amplify this work.

Big corporations tend to want us as individuals to think that it is solely on our shoulders to reduce our footprints and stop climate change. It’s not. With a simple change in policy these big brands could make a huge difference – but they won’t until the pressure mounts.

In 2021 there will be increasing calls for companies to be held to account for their actions.

So yes, the zero waste and plastic-free movements are changing, and the conversations are shifting.

And (greenwashing aside), this can only be a good thing.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How have you noticed the zero waste and plastic-free movement and conversations shifting over the past twelve months? What are your predictions for 2021? What would you like to see more (and less) of? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

37 ways to use less plastic in 2021

One of the most common New Year’s Resolutions, or goals, that I’m hearing for 2021 is people wanting to use less plastic. It’s such an insidious material, plastic, seeping into every aspect our lives and causing litter, pollution, health issues, harm to wildlife, environmental damage… and using up valuable fossil fuels in the process (99% of plastic is currently made of fossil fuels).

But once its in our lives, getting it back out again can be quite the challenge!

When we think about ‘going plastic-free’ or ‘giving up plastic’ it sounds quite overwhelming, but that’s because we haven’t broken it down into smaller, bite-size pieces. Manageable pieces.

‘Going plastic-free’ might sound unattainable, but ‘buying loose carrots rather than pre-packed carrots’ or ‘bringing my water bottle from home’ don’t seem quite so tricky.

So, to help you get started on this journey to using less plastic, I’ve put together a list of 37 things that you can do to reduce your plastic use. Some you might be doing already. Others might still be in the too-hard basket (for now).

But some of them will be within your grasp, and you can edge a little closer towards your goal.

Food shopping

1. Buy groceries unpackaged. This might not be an option for everything, especially if you don’t have access to a bulk store, but even making a few simple swaps, like choosing the loose fruit and vegetables over the plastic-wrapped ones, or finding a loaf of bread that doesn’t come in a plastic bag will bring you one step closer.

2. Avoid plastic produce bags. If you’re buying fruits and vegetables unpackaged, rather than use the plastic produce bags, you can bring your own reusable produce bags, you can use paper mushroom or potato bags (if possible save them to reuse as paper bags have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic bags), or you can add everything loose into your trolley. If your store doesn’t allow reusable bags to be handled by staff, consider bagging up your own groceries at the checkout.

3. Refuse plastic shopping bags. Bring your own bags, use a cardboard box, hold things in your hands – whatever you can do to avoid plastic bags. If you unintentionally end up with plastic bags, save them and make sure you reuse them – ideally for future shopping trips.

4. Choose glass, metal and cardboard packaging over plastic. If you’re trying to cut down on plastic, choose other packaging types. You’ll find oats and pasta in cardboard boxes, oil and condiments in glass bottles and jars, coffee grounds in metal canisters, and so on. Even choosing brands that have metal lids over plastic lids is one less plastic item.

5. If you can’t avoid plastic packaging, choose the least amount. Sometimes plastic is really really hard to avoid. But you can avoid the wildly overpackaged things, like snack packs inside a bigger plastic bag or ‘fun size’ snacks, or tiny little pots of yoghurt.

6. Where there’s no choice to avoid plastic, choose recyclable plastic over non-recyclable plastic. If you have to choose plastic, try to choose plastic that can be easily recycled where you live (check your local council to find out exactly what can and cannot be recycled). Usually that’s plastic numbers 1 and 2 (PET and HDPE): these two plastics have the most value and are the most recycled. At least the plastic you use won’t be destined for landfill or incineration straightaway, and can be reprocessed and kept in use.

Food storage

7. Switch out plastic glad wrap/ cling film. There are heaps of great alternatives to single-use food wrap, from flexible silicone lids to rigid silicone lids to wax wraps to decanting leftovers into lidded containers (larger jam jars work well for this) to simply putting a plate on top of a bowl. (If you want more details, here are 7 plastic-free alternatives to food wrap.)

8. Embrace reusable containers. Great for leftovers, great for decanting any opened plastic packets that you’ve bought (and will do away with the plastic clip seals), great for taking a packed lunch. Here’s a guide for different reusable container options – but start with what you have, and reuse anything you can, even the plastic ‘single-use’ ones you have accumulated.

Food preparation

9. Replace retired kitchen tools with plastic-free or low plastic alternatives. As your plastic cooking utensils, chopping boards, jugs, servingware, small appliances and other kitchen items wear out, start choosing non-plastic materials instead. There’s a great second-hand market for kitchen tools so you may not have to buy new (plus second-hand is kinder on the budget).

10. Swap pre-packaged for homemade. No-one is suggesting that you start making everything from scratch. You’re busy and there’s already enough to do. But if you can identify the worst offender(s) – the things that you buy that are completely overpacked, the things that you buy the most often, or the things whose packaging drives you the most up the wall, consider experimenting with making from scratch. Whether it’s hummus, cookies, crackers, almond milk or something completely different. Carve out an hour of your week, and give it a go.

On the go

11. Carry a set of reusables in your bag / bike basket / car. Carry the things you’re most likely to use or need. Common items include a set of cutlery (or you could use a spork), a cloth napkin, a reusable coffee cup, a water bottle, and a reusable straw. (Here’s what I carry round with me.)

12. If you carry just one thing, make it a reusable coffee cup. Even if you don’t drink coffee. They are great as a cup for other beverages, including water, for carrying snacks, for carrying the remains of snacks (like apple cores or banana peels), and for transporting leftovers. If you’re short on space, you can get collapsible ones. If you’re on a budget, a sturdy jam jar does the job.

13. Get in the habit of saying no. Turn down the plastic sachets of sauce, the plastic straws, the plastic stirrers, the little packets of sushi ginger, the pre-wrapped cutlery napkin sets, the extra plastic bags, the hand freshener wipes, or any other unnecessary paraphernalia that comes with a purchase.

14. Choose the options that have less plastic. If you need to buy lunch out and all your options come in packaging, look for the ones that have no plastic and the least amount of packaging. Avoid the plastic clamshells and look for items in paper. Or consider dining in. (If you need to go, you can always order dine-in, then pack the item into your own container.)

Around the house

15. Reuse the plastic you already have. Yes you want to go plastic-free, but tossing all of your useful plastic out to ‘wipe the slate clean’ and ‘start afresh’ just wastes plastic. If you have plastic things, use them. If you no longer want to use plastic for food preparation, repurpose things to other areas of the house where possible (plastic storage containers can hold buttons, or laundry powder, or seeds for the garden).

Dental care

16. Switch out the plastic toothbrush. You could switch to a bamboo toothbrush, a reusable brush with a replaceable head, or even Miswak sticks. Failing that, look out for brushes made of certified compostable plastic.

17. Choose plastic-free floss. There are plenty of companies selling silk (including peace silk) or waxed floss in refillable glass containers. Some are packaged in cardboard.

18. Change from toothpaste to tooth powder, or tooth tablets. Before toothpaste was invented, people used tooth powder, and it is a lot easier to package a powder without plastic than it is a paste. Tooth powder usually comes packaged in tins or glass jars. Tooth tablets go one step further, pressing the powder into convenient tablets. You’ll find fluoride- and fluoride-free versions.

(This post has more ideas for a plastic-free bathroom.)

Skin and hair care

19. Switch from liquids to solid products (bar soap, solid shampoo, moisturiser bars). Liquid products consist mostly of water, which is hard to package without plastic. By choosing solid products over liquids, you’ll be able to find them in minimal plastic-free (and sometimes zero) packaging. Because they tend to be concentrated (you’re adding your own water as you use them) they might seem expensive, but they will last much longer and are more economical than you might think.

20. If you love liquids, choose concentrates that you dilute yourself. If you’re not ready to give up liquid handwash or shower gel, you can find concentrates designed to be mixed with water to make liquid products.

21. Simplify. Do you actually need to replace all of those plastic-free products that you buy, or could you just stop using them? Rather than looking for a plastic-free alternative for everything, see which products you can go without. You’ll save money and declutter your bathroom as well as reducing plastic.

22. Wash your hair with bicarb (or rye flour) and vinegar. Sounds weird, I know. But it works. It really suits my curly hair. If you’re worried about dry hair, use rye flour – it will leave your hair soft. Here’s a step by step guide for washing your hair with bicarb / rye flour and vinegar.

Personal care

23. Switch to reusable menstrual products. If you menstruate, consider using a reusable product rather than the single-use items. There are silicone cups, reusable cloth pads and menstrual underwear to consider. A silicone cup will last up to 10 years; pads will last 3 – 5 years and underwear a similar amount of time, maybe a little less.

Cleaning

24. Switch from laundry liquid to powder. As mentioned above, it’s much easier to package powder without plastic than it is to package liquid. (Bonus tip – liquid detergent used at low temps can gum up the insides of your machine. Especially when you wash at low temps. As told to me by a washing machine technician/plumber after using liquid at low temperatures gummed up the insides of my machine. Powder will make your machine last longer.)

25. Try green cleaning recipes. White vinegar, citric acid and bicarbonate of soda are all you need to clean most things, and a couple of essential oils (clove oil kills mould, tea tree oil is antibacterial). You’ll use way less plastic bottles this way, and your home will be healthier.

26. Switch plastic brushes and cloths to plastic-free alternatives. There are lots of plastic-free options to consider when your current items wear out: wooden dish brushes with replaceable heads, or those made from coconut fibres; reusable wood pulp and cotton wipes; coconut coir scourers; unpaper towel; knitted or crocheted dishcloths; dusters made with feathers; brooms made with palm branches.

Clothing

27. Look for plastic-free fibres. Most clothes are made of polyester, which is plastic. (So is nylon, rayon, organza, faux leather, spandex and polyamide.) When you need to replace items of clothing, look for plastic-free alternatives, or even blends (which is less plastic overall). Cotton, Tencel and hemp are options for vegans; silk and wool are additional options for non-vegans.

28. Buy second-hand clothing. Buying clothing second-hand is a great way to stop new plastic being made. You’ll find plenty of lightly used and even ‘brand new without tags’ items. If you have particular brands you like, seek these out on second-hand selling platforms.

29. Wash your clothes less. Yep, you can reduce your plastic by washing your clothes less. Washing your clothes wears the fabric and eventually causes pilling, fading and creates misshapen clothes. Try airing outside if it just needs a refresh, spot cleaning, or if something isn’t too dirty, a quick rinse on a cold cycle will be fine.

30. Line-dry rather than tumble-dry. Using a tumble drier decreases the lifespan of your clothing. The abrasion and hot temperatures wears the fabric out much more quickly than line drying, meaning you’ll be replacing them much faster (and new clothes tend to mean more plastic.)

31. Use a Guppyfriend laundry bag. Plastic clothing releases plastic microfibres into our waterways. Some fabrics are worse than others (fleece made out of recycled plastic releases the highest amount of fibres). If you have a lot of polyester clothing you can use a Guppyfriend laundry bag when washing your clothes to capture the fibres before they go down the drain.

Stuff

32. Second-hand first. The less stuff we buy new, the less packaging we end up with. Plus we keep useful items in circulation. There is second-hand everything out there: from furniture to homewares to electronics to kids toys to kitchen appliances to kitchen tools to gardening stuff and everything in between. Get in the habit of checking Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, Craigslist or local charity shops before you decide to buy it new.

33. If you need something new, buy from a physical store rather than online. Not always possible for everything, especially in the time of Covid. But if you don’t want to receive the oversized box filled with plastic packing peanuts, bubble wrap and other plastic, buy from a store. Even ‘click and collect’ services will probably have less plastic than a mailed item.

(You’ll also be sure that what you buy is what you need, so no need to receive the wrong thing and have to return it.)

The sharing economy

34. Borrow before buying. There are so many formal and informal ways to borrow stuff. Libraries have books, DVDs, CDs, board games and magazines. And then there are toy libraries, tool libraries, and libraries of things. You can join your local Buy Nothing group and informally borrow items through there, or ask neighbours and friends.

Mindset

35. Embrace the old. The more we lose the habit of ‘updating’ and ‘upgrading’, the less stuff we buy and the less resources we use. If something still works, hang onto it. The more times you wear the same outfits and accessories, the better.

36. Fix stuff. When something breaks, investigate whether its fixable before you throw it away. Maybe the company sells spare parts, maybe iFixit has a repair manual online, maybe you can take to a local repair cafe for their opinion. If you can’t fix it, see if you can give the item away for parts.

37. Don’t let one plastic purchase derail your efforts. Couldn’t find a plastic-free alternative? Thought it was plastic-free until you got it home? Ended up with unexpected plastic? We all end up with plastic in our homes at some stage. It’s no-one’s fault, the system we live in really isn’t set up for plastic-free living. The worst thing you can do is let it get you down, or derail your efforts. There will always be exceptions, accidents, mishaps.

Rather than worry about these, focus on the hundred and one – or maybe just thirty-six – other things you can do.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What tips would you add to this list? Are there any plastic-free swaps you’re working towards in 2021? Are you trying to improve and start new habits this year, or refocusing on those you’ve let lapse? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share in the comments below!