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8 Lessons Learned from 4 Years of Zero Waste Living

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.

Rye Flour Shampoo Zero Waste Treading My Own Path

Rye flour is now what I use instead of shampoo… but there have been a few changes along the way!

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).

Bamboo toothbrush parts

Gah! More plastic bristles in my mouth and washed down the drain! Plus these bristles are plastic and I don’t want that in my compost.

SilverCare Toothbrushes with Replaceable Heads Treading My Own Path

These toothbrushes have replaceable heads (and it is literally just the head) that need replacing every 6 months. The packaging is minimal. It may not look as trendy as a bamboo toothbrush, but it’s working much better for me. And at least I can recycle these used heads responsibly.

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.

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Plastic KeepCup, purchased 2012. Oh, the benefit of hindsight…

Glass KeepCup Treading My Own Path

This is my replacement, purchased 2014. It’s made of glass and has a cork band. It’s far more versatile and easier to clean, and 2 years on it still looks as good as new – unlike the plastic one.

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.

Zero Waste Week Treading My Own Path Reuse 2015

This zero waste kit was built up over a number of years as I realised what my needs were. The water bottle and reusable produce bags came first; other things came later as I realised they would be useful – and well used.

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.

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Possibly not Pinterest-worthy, but a far better use of resources ; )

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.

chocolate

Chocolate bars are my zero waste work-in-progress. I buy chocolate in bulk, of course, but I just can’t quite shake the chocolate bar habit…

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.

After some initial reluctance, my waste now goes in a jar. Can you believe it, the very day after I began I had something to go in it?! Not the best start!

After some initial reluctance, my waste now goes in a jar. Can you believe it, the very day after I began I had something to go in it?! Not the best start!

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!

Every trial we face is an opportunity

Do you ever have those days – or even weeks or months – when you feel like nothing is going your way, it’s all just a bit too hard and your dreams and aspirations for the future just seem to remain distant glimmers on the horizon?

Just over a year ago, I lost my job. I was actually made redundant in the previous October, but management made the decision to keep me on part-time on a casual basis until they no longer needed me… and at the end of January last year, I wasn’t called back.

It wasn’t my dream job by any means, and I was feeling pretty optimistic about getting a new job that I’d enjoy far more. I’d been in Australia just over a year at that point and felt a lot more informed about what was out there, what I wanted to do, and what I needed to do to get that job that I wanted.

Fast-forward six months, and I was still unemployed.

My initial optimism was long gone, and my confidence in myself and my abilities was lowering day by day. I felt like I’d explored countless avenues and each one had led to nothing. I’d dread the Skype chats where my parents would inevitably ask if I had a job yet. I was sick of being asked at events and parties what it was that I did. I’d look at my feet and mumble, or look to someone else to fill in the awkward silence.

At the time, I was beginning to feel like it was all a bit hopeless. And right then, when I just didn’t know where to turn next, I found a job. It wasn’t my absolute dream job, but it fitted with what I believed in and what I wanted to do, working with the community on a sustainability-related project. It was an possible opening to something better. I took it. And you know what? It was far more enjoyable than I expected. The team I got to work with were fantastic, the work was rewarding – and then an opportunity came up at the same place for work that was even more rewarding and even more along the lines of where I wanted to be. Right now, I’m loving what I do.

Reflecting on last year with the feeling of positivity that comes from doing a job I believe in, it’s much easier to look back in a positive light. Back then I felt like I’d wasted six months of my life. Now I can see that I learned some valuable lessons during that time. It may not have felt like much fun then, but now I realise that I learned a lot about myself during those six months, and I feel grateful that I had those experiences.

I wanted to share some of these lessons with you. You may not have the same experiences as me but I think the lessons are the same. Whatever crises we face in our lives, they are always opportunities to learn and grow stronger.

Lessons I’ve Learned

1. Don’t waste time on things you don’t believe in.

I wanted to work in the area of sustainability. I was interested in behaviour change, waste and education, working at a community level. Thing was, there weren’t a lot of those types of jobs around. So I decided to apply to all the low level admin jobs that I saw too, figuring that as I had experience in office management it would do for now.

So I applied for admin job after admin job, and did not get a single interview. Job applications in Australia can be incredibly laborious (no simple CV-sending with a hastily drafted cover letter here) so these took up a lot of my time, and it was very annoying to hear nothing back. I’m sure there were tears and tantrums. And then I caught myself saying “I’m pissed off that I didn’t get a job I didn’t even want.” I don’t need to tell you what is wrong with that sentence! Why was I applying for jobs I didn’t want, only to get upset when I didn’t get them? What a total waste of energy, emotions and effort. So I stopped that right away. It is so much better to focus on the things you do want to do. If your heart’s not in it, people see through you right away.

2. Make the most of the time you’ve been given.

Let’s face it, most of us spend our work days dreaming of holidays, what we’ll be doing at the weekend and the evenings when we’re not working and generally we feel like we don’t have enough time in our busy lives to do all the things we want.

So why is it, when we don’t have a job, we spend all our time trying to find a job and not taking advantage of the benefits that come with not being chained to a desk all day?

I know it’s not easy. Not having work makes us feel anxious, and the uncertainty of where the money is going to come from means we’re not always inclined to enjoy the free time we suddenly have. But I’m not talking about spending the time lunching or shopping. There’s so much we can do that will ultimately help us find work, through developing skills and gaining experience, volunteering or taking time to train in new areas, and this also gives us focus, a reason to leave the house and meet other people and generally stay sane. I had the chance to volunteer for some great organisations, to meet people doing fantastic things in the fields I am interested in and explore what I really wanted to do. Plus… I started this blog. I figured that if I wanted to educate people about sustainability and I couldn’t do that as a paid job, then I’d do it as a hobby and as a creative outlet.

3. We get new skills from everything we do.

Everything we do, every experience, is a lesson that we learn. Even when things seem pointless and frustrating, we will have gotten something from them. Even if the lesson was that this is something that we will never ever want to experience ever again! Everything we read, everything we hear, everyone we meet, helps to shape us into who will be in the future.

Each job application I sent off meant that the next one was that little bit better. Each rejection was a lesson in perseverance. Each new introduction to an organisation was an insight into the possibilities out there. This blog taught me the wonders of the internet, and connected me with like-minded people both in Perth and across the oceans. It gave me a creative outlet and a routine, and kept me focused.

4. If you need to push too hard, maybe it’s better to let it go.

There was an organisation that I really really wanted to volunteer for. I’d discussed it with them a few times; it was definitely on the agenda but a date was never set. They wouldn’t call, so I’d follow up… only for the same thing to happen again. That last time I called, I remember wondering if I should bother. But I did, and I did end up doing some work for them.

I quickly realised that the disorganisation of arranging the placement reflected a disorganisation that ran through the whole place. The work I did took a lot of my time, but I wondered whether it was actually going to be of any use to the organisation. There was too much chaos and disorder; too many ideas but no real structure. I finished what I’d been working on and chose not to continue with them.

They were grateful of the work I’d done…but I still wonder whether it was just shelved never to be seen again.

I did learn some valuable lessons, though. Including – if you have to push too hard at something, maybe it isn’t the right thing or the right time for you. Things should come naturally. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

5. Rejection means that the right thing hasn’t found you yet.

I find rejection hard. When I apply for a job I invest so much time and emotion into the application, and I really set my heart on it. I imagine what it will be like to have the job. So when I get the rejection letter (or deafening silence that follows the application), I feel disappointed. Initially it was difficult not to take it personally. That was something I had to learn to deal with. Now I’ve found the best way to look at it is to accept that it wasn’t the right thing for me, and a much better thing is right around the corner.

My six months of unemployment took this to extremes. I seemed to be waiting for that corner for an awfully long time. It was hard to keep thinking that something better was going to come along. But you know what? It did.

We can’t dwell on things that don’t happen for us. When I imagine how great it will be when I get all those jobs, those thoughts that I create aren’t real. I have no way of knowing what it would actually be like. Whilst it may seem devastating at the time to be rejected, when we look back with the benefit of time it’s much easier to see that the job wouldn’t have been perfect, that there were things that we didn’t really like about it – and that we wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the benefit of not getting that very job we were dreaming about.

The benefit of hindsight

With the benefit of having a job that I’m loving, I can look back at my experiences of the last year and actually feel grateful for everything that happened. That initial redundancy was the trigger for my involvement with the Less is More Festival, which I have now organised for two successive years. I’ve met so many amazing people through the Festival, I love being able to give something back to my community, and the Festival even won an award as the result of my efforts. I got involved with Living Smart, I started writing this blog and found a whole online community out there that I never knew existed before. I’ve learned things about myself that I never knew, developed countless new skills and feel like I’ve really grown as a person.

My contract for my current position finishes in April, so then I’ll be back to job-hunting. I spent last week updating my CV and I realised that despite that period of unemployment my CV looks stronger than ever, thanks to all the opportunities I was able to take up. If I’d stayed in that old job, it’s unlikely most of this would have happened.

Every trial we face is an opportunity to learn and to grow, and every cloud has a silver lining.