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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!

Cringe.

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!

How to Compost ‘On The Go’

Having a compost bin (or worm farm) at home is great, and I’d thoroughly recommend it as a place to put all your food scraps, peels, bad bits and other things you might like to compost rather than put in the general waste bin. But we tend to eat food when we’re out and about too, and we all go on day trips and holidays… so what do we do about food waste then?

Whilst it isn’t as easy as stepping outside the back door and opening up a compost bin, there are still things we can do to ensure we’re still composting whilst on the move.

How to Compost on Day Trips

I always carry my reusable coffee cup in my handbag: it is most used not for takeaway coffee but for food waste scraps. Apple cores, pips and peels, the occasional teabag, a dirty napkin or anything else I might be left with when out gets stashed in here until I get home.

I’d recommend a glass, ceramic or metal coffee cup (or other container) for this. Plastic tends to absorb the flavours of whatever it’s holding, and coffee that’s flavoured with yesterday’s banana peel isn’t great. If you do use plastic, wash throroughly and leave overnight filled with water and a spoonful of sodium bicarbonate to try to lift any stufbborn smells.

If I ever wrote a ‘ten things I use my KeepCup for’ post, carrying around bits of compost would be number 1 (leftovers would be number 2, and actually, takeaway coffee would probably be number 10).

If I take snacks from home, I’m always conscious of any ‘waste’ they might create. Take a banana, I’ll be left with the peel; take an apple and there will be a (smaller) core; take grapes and I’ll be left with a couple of pips. I think about where I’m going and if I want to be carrying around these things before choosing.

If I go on a picnic, It’s pretty easy because I take my food in reusable containers, so I can simply use my containers for scraps.

How to Compost on Longer Trips and Holidays

If I’m going somewhere far from home, the absolute first thing I do is check ShareWaste, the free compost networking service. It’s one of my favourite resources. I see if anyone has a compost bin in the areas I’m travelling to.

I’ll also do an online search for local community gardens, as these often have compost bins.

Sometimes it’s a yes, but often it’s a no. In which case, these are my options.

In an ideal world, I’ll take my food scraps home with me. If I’m away for several days they will start to get a bit stinky, so I either store in the freezer (if there is a freezer) or fridge, which helps slow down any decomposition.

Ideally I’d have a cool box (Esky) for the trip home. Failing that, any container that can seal tightly will work. You won’t want to be spending time in a car with decomposing food waste smells, promise.

If you don’t have the luxury of a car, you’re camping or for other reasons can’t refrigerate or transport food scraps home, your options are more limited.

Does the local council have a food scraps collection service?

Councils are increasingly offering doorstop food waste collection services, and compost those scraps. It’s worth checking if this service is offered where you’re staying.

Could you bury the food scraps?

Ideally, food scraps need to be buried 25cm (10 inches) deep and covered with soil to deter pests. Burying is more practical in the countryside or bush than in the city. If there are signs specifically telling you not to do it, then don’t do it.

What about local parks?

Parks are not there to accommodate our personal food waste, although burying a single apple core deep in a planter box is a little different to dumping a week’s worth of trash on the lawn in Central Park. It’s not ideal, and it’s not really recommended.

As tempting as it is to take food waste to public places, remember that if everyone did this, it would turn into a garbage heap pretty quickly. Food will attract wildlife, and even if you bury it, you might be inadvertently adding pests or invasive species to the area (those fruit pips might sprout trees that are not welcome).

When you’re out of options…

Try to reduce food waste wherever we can. I try to make choices to reduce food scraps. If I need to cook, I’ll often choose vegetables like broccoli and mushrooms, where the whole thing can be eaten, and be less likely to choose foods like mango and pineapple that have huge amounts of skin and or a big stone to deal with, just to keep my waste to a minimum.

I don’t want to put my food scraps in the general waste bin, but if I really don’t have any other options, that’s what I do. I remind myself that it’s not my fault: governments, councils and businesses need to recognise food scraps both for the resource they are (nutrients) and the burden they are if not composted properly (methane emissions).

They need to make it easier for people to do the right thing.

When I say easier, I’m not meaning that we should appease people’s ‘apparent laziness’. I mean this: when I visited Exmouth in 2017, some of my food scraps travelled 1,248km home with me because there was no composting anywhere on the route. Sharewaste now has a few additions on their map, and it’s currently a ‘mere’ 835km from Exmouth to the closest compost bin.

Most people aren’t going to do this.

So whilst I encourage you to set up a compost bin at home, try to plan ahead, bring a container, think about the waste you might create it and attempt to avoid it, and look for local services that might be able to help, I also want to remind you that sometimes, trying to do what’s right feels like (or is) an uphill battle.

It isn’t always accessible or practical. That’s not our fault. Do what you can, celebrate your successes, don’t feel bad if you can’t make it work, and resolve to keep on trying.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you reduce food waste? Any tips to add? Any situations you particularly struggle with? Any questions about composting? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Community Composting (+ Tips For Better Compost)

One of my favourite things about living with less waste is that there is never a single solution. There are always lots of solutions. Different options work better for different people and different situations, but there will always be a way.

In Australia, 40% of our landfill bins consist of food waste. Trimmed off bits, peels, skins, seeds, cores, outer leaves, shells, things we left in the fridge a little too long, bad bits, leftovers.

We toss this stuff in the general waste bin, and off it heads to landfill. Which, contrary to what many people believe, isn’t a giant compost heap. It’s a tomb of waste, sealed by layers of rocks (or sometimes layers of plastic) in between the layers of rubbish, and slowly releasing methane into the environment.

At the same time as we throw our food scraps in the bin, we head to the garden centre to buy plastic bags of compost to help our plants grow better.

We’ve got it all wrong!

So what can we do with our food scraps instead?

Before I moved to Australia, I lived in Bristol (in the UK), and I was fortunate enough to have my organic waste collected by the council every week and taken to an industrial composter. This isn’t an option where I live now (although some councils are currently trialing it).

Even if it was, I wouldn’t use that service now. I would rather keep my food waste (it is a valuable resource!) and turn it into something I can use – or donate it to someone else who can use it instead.

I’ve talked about some different ways of dealing with food waste before: DIY worm farms, done-for-you worm farms and bokashi bins. If you’re just starting out on the living-with-less-waste journey, setting up systems at home can take a bit of time.

As always, there’s a solution. Community composting!

For anyone wanting an easy beginner’s solution, or for anyone without the time or space to set up their own systems, community composting banks are perfect.

What Is A Community Composting Bank?

A community composting bank is simply a location where members of the community can go to deposit their food scraps.

(They are not necessarily called “banks”. I was thinking about this word, and whether it was better to use the word “hub”, “centre” or “facility”. A phrase popped into my head that I’ve heard many times before: “growing your own food is like printing your own money”. If compost is what helps us to grow food, then I think bank is the best word after all.)

The best composting banks are those with capacity to handle the scraps they receive; those with unrestricted access; and those that are managed/overseen by someone to check they are working properly, not contaminated or full of pests.

By “best”, I really mean “easiest to use”. That’s not to say others don’t work well too. Given the choice, I’d prefer to turn out to a facility that is open/accessible, has space to take my scraps, and isn’t infected with cockroaches.

I’d still come back if I turned up to find the place was locked, or the bins were full, but not everyone will. To reach the maximum number of people, things need to be as easy as possible.

The other important consideration is location. A 24 hour access composting hub on the other side of town is less practical than the restricted access compost bins just down the road.

As with most community initiatives, the more local, the more useful and likely to be used.

How We Set Up Our Community Composting Bank

I run a community composting hub together with my friend and neighbour. Originally, both of us listed our home compost bins on the awesome website sharewaste.com, a free-to-use service connecting people with food scraps with people with compost bins.

Around the same time, we started a Food Tree project on the land next to my house, planting 34 food trees for our community. We realised that these trees are going to need a fair bit of compost.

We had space for compost bins and we knew plenty of people in our community would be eager to donate their food scraps to our bins.

We started with two bins, and have now increased to five (all donated or sourced second-hand).

As people contact us via Sharewaste, we ask them to bring their food scraps here, and started making compost.

Managing A Community Composting Hub

As with everything, the more people who get involved with something, the more likely it is that things will go awry. With about 20 families currently emptying their food scraps into our bins, we started noticing more and more that things weren’t quite as they should be.

I should add that this is not the fault of the people donating their scraps. As the managers, it is our responsibility to make sure it is all working.

If people haven’t had compost bins before, there is no reason why they would know what is good and what is not.

There were a few problems that we had in particular.

Fresh food scraps going in whichever bin.

This meant all five bins would have fresh food scraps mixed into varying degrees of compost – frustrating when we wanted to dig out the ready compost and there’s a bunch of veggies in there too.

We realised that whilst it might be totally obvious to us which bin was the one for new food scraps, it certainly wasn’t clear to everyone!

Too many veggies scraps (too much nitrogen).

Compost bins need a balance of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen-rich scraps are anything green and fresh; carbon scraps are anything brown or dead. Veggie scraps are high in nitrogen. If the only thing being added is fresh green nitrogen-rich scraps, the bin will get stinky and attract flies and other pests pretty quickly.

For all of the green scraps added, some browns (carbon) need to be added too.

Food scraps not being mixed in.

A big mound of fresh veggies sitting on top of the compost pile will not break down nearly as well as those food scraps stirred in, because that is where the microbes are – inside, not on top! Not to mention that food on top will attract pests.

Too much carbon.

Less of an issue as most people are donating food scraps (nitrogen), but we did find one compost bin completely filled with shredded paper – and nothing else. Without anything else, that would have sat there probably for years, breaking down ever so slowly. In the same way as there can’t be too much green, there definitely can’t be too much brown.

Setting Up a Composting System That Works

My neighbour and I talked about all the issues, and how to reduce them in future. Community things need to be easy, and we felt a big list of rules would be overwhelming and put people off – which is the last thing we want!

We worked through the issues one by one, and have implemented a system.

Firstly, we decided that it was too difficult to expect people to figure out which bin was the one to add their scraps to simply by looking.

We decided instead to implement a linear system, where the scraps always go into one designated bin, and then we will move into other bins along the line manually.

(This means we can also check there’s nothing strange being added.)

We also decided that to make it easy for people to add carbon to their food scraps, we’d set up a bin solely with carbon so they could simply scoop some in afterwards.

Then, we added some signage and labels.

We wrote up the basics on a sign, weatherproofed it and secured it to a post.

We wrote a document with more tips and tricks (the stuff that we’d like people to know) and added a QR code to the sign, so if they have a question, they can check.

We’ve also secured the aerator/composting fork to the signpost (and explained in the sign what it is for) so that it is easy for people to mix their food scraps into the existing compost.

We painted labels on the two bins that people need to use. When in doubt, always label.

In short, we’ve tried to predict in advance what could go wrong, and then solve it before it happens. So far, it seems to be working well.

Looking for a Community Composting Hub?

If you’re feeling inspired to hook into an existing hub or maybe start your own, my first suggestion would be see who else is in your area via sharewaste.com. My second suggestion would be to contact your nearest community garden.

If both of these fail, consider whether you could set up a mini hub at your place. Even if you only have capacity to take a couple of household’s food scraps, it all helps!

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you currently deal with your food scraps? Do you like your current system or would you prefer something different? Have you any experiences with community composting hubs – both good and not-so good? Anything other questions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!