Posts

Is “Zero Waste” Even Real?

For me, living zero waste means trying to create as little waste (and that includes recycling) as possible. Refusing single-use items, avoiding plastic, reducing what I purchase, and choosing items that are well made and designed to last.

For bigger, one-off purchases I try to find what I want second-hand.

For the regular, consumable things that I purchase week-to-week (think groceries, personal care products, cleaning products), I try to buy unpackaged. This means unpackaged fruit and veg from the grocer, bringing my own containers to the deli and a reusable bag to the bakery, and my own jars or reusable produce bags to the bulk store.

This way I can buy what I need without bringing home any unnecessary packaging. It means I’m not sending anything from my weekly shop to landfill: everything I purchase, I consume.

Zero waste. At least at my end.

Or is it?

What Does Zero Waste Actually Mean?

Zero waste is both a lifestyle choice and an industrial design term. Whilst they both have the same philosophy – elimination of waste to landfill / incineration – what that looks like in practical terms is a little different.

Zero waste needs to be a whole systems approach, looking at production of goods in terms of systems and design. It looks at everything, from the materials selected, how they are sourced, how they are processed, how they are transported, how they are used, and how they are re-used.

For zero waste, products need to be created in a way that allows them to be reused, not disposed of. This is the idea of the circular economy.

The circular economy is the goal, but it is not the reality. Yet.

Zero waste as a lifestyle is all about what we can do as individuals. Typically, we aren’t designing our own products. We are the end users. Our power is in choosing the most ethical, sustainable options that we can when we need to make purchases.

Supporting the companies doing the right thing, and boycotting those that do not.

These options aren’t always perfect. But they are better.

So when I say that my weekly shop is zero waste, I mean that none of the products I purchased came in single-use packaging. There is nothing going to landfill. I didn’t create any packaging waste in the process.

That’s not to say that there was no waste anywhere in the process.

That’s not to say the farmers didn’t use plastic when growing, harvesting or packing their crops.

That’s not to say suppliers didn’t use plastic to transport their goods.

There will likely be waste somewhere (and possibly, in many places) in the production and distribution of these goods.

But reducing waste at the end point – the point where we, as concerned citizens and empowered communities, can vote with our dollars about the kind of world we wish to see – that’s a start.

It’s an important start.

The zero waste movement is about doing what we can. A step in the right direction is better than no steps.

How can we take the second step without taking the first?

Zero Waste Progress Comes Before Zero Waste Perfection

It makes me sad that people sometimes dismiss the zero waste movement because they want to see perfection. They cannot see the value in zero waste progress.

Why does it have to be all-or-nothing?

I purchase my groceries packaging free from The Source Bulk Foods, an Australian bulk store which encourages shoppers to bring their own containers and refuse packaging. I describe this way of shopping as zero waste.

More than once, some cheerful soul has popped up in a comment to inform me that it isn’t zero waste because there will be waste created upstream.

I don’t dispute this statement.

I just think it’s the wrong place to be focusing.

I know that, prior to my 2012 plastic “epiphany”, I would go to the supermarket and buy all my groceries packaged in plastic.

I would buy individual pots of yoghurt, and “fun size” chocolate bars, and single serve drinks, and pre-wrapped cereal bars.

Occasionally I would go to the bulk store for spices, and when I did I would take a fresh plastic bag off the shelf, and buy my two teaspoons of spice using that bag.

{Cringe.}

I don’t shop this way any more, and I haven’t since 2012. Bulk stores are what enabled me (and countless others) to change this. They provided a solution by making package-free groceries accessible. Without them, avoiding single-use packaging would be much harder.

I’d like to tell you that the bulk stores receive all their bulk goods in reusable, returnable containers. I’d like to tell you that they don’t generate any waste. But that’s not the case.

Yet.

I mentioned the circular economy earlier. As I said, we’re not there yet. Bulk stores are enabling us (the grocery shoppers) to purchase without waste. They create waste so we don’t have to (and create far less than if each of us purchased these same products in packaging week after week).

Less, but not zero.

Bulk stores now need to work with their suppliers to find ways of receiving goods without single-use packaging.

The good news is, that’s beginning to happen.

As more and more of us support bulk stores, and demand for this kind of shopping grows, there’s more incentive for (and more gentle pressure on) bulk stores to start the conversations and take that next step.

If demand is there, it will begin to happen more and more.

We take the first step, and they take the next step.

Moving towards a more sustainable future with a circular economy and true zero waste.

That’s the future. Maybe the near future, but maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play my part and support these businesses choosing the better option. Yes, I’ll buy my groceries packaging-free, and I’ll say my shopping is zero waste.

Even though I know that bulk stores do create waste. Suppliers create waste. Farmers create waste.

Am I saying that zero waste isn’t real? If we’re talking about it on a technical level on an economic scale, in terms of definitions and what-not, then it would be fair to say that zero waste isn’t real.

But I don’t want to talk about it like that, because I don’t think about it like that. For me, the meaning of zero waste isn’t how it’s characterized in dictionaries or interpreted by textbooks.

For me, zero waste is about values, ideals and beliefs. It’s a guiding principle for the choices I make. Choices that help create a better, fairer, more sustainable future for people and the planet.

Whether or not it technically exists, zero waste is very real.

Let’s not get bogged down in the minutiae. Technical details don’t matter. What matters is that we do our imperfect best, support those companies taking the next step where we can, and champion better solutions where we see them.

Small steps, in the right direction, together.

Whether we believe in zero waste or not, we all have a part to play. Waste is something we all have control over, and can do something about. So let’s do something about it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does zero waste mean to you? Do you use the term yourself, or steer well clear, and why? Has your understanding and perception of zero waste changed over time? In a good way, or a not so good way? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How To Fly Plastic-Free (as Much as Possible)

On Tuesday night I flew from Perth, Australia to London, England to see friends and family and spend some time back in the motherland. It’s a 21 hour flight (divided into two parts – 7 hours from Perth to Hong Kong, and 12 hours from Hong Kong to London). Flying is bad for the environment, we all agree – but I was determined not to add to the huge carbon cost by generating a huge amount of waste too. The question is – is it even possible to fly waste-free?

Despite my best efforts, I still probably produced more waste in those 21 hours than I’ve generated in the entire rest of the year. But there’s definitely things you can do to keep your waste down.

Preparation – What To Think About

With flying, trying to minimise your waste can be managed in two parts. Firstly, there’s all the things that you can do before you get to the airport. Like with all zero-waste and plastic-free habits, success comes with planning. Thinking about things to bring that will reduce reliance on single-use plastic, or avoid any other unnecessary packaging. Anything that you can bring of your own will produce the need to use a plastic-wrapped version on the plane. Think cutlery, cups, water bottles, headphones, blankets, a pillow, thick socks, a toothbrush…if there is something you know you’ll need or want, it’s best to bring it with you.

Secondly, there’s the choices you make once your strapped into your seat. If you’ve had to accept something made of plastic, is it possible to re-use it to get as much life out of it as possible? Can you even make choices that use less plastic, or create less waste?

plastic headphones and blankets

Plastic-wrapped headphones and plastic-wrapped blankets awaiting our arrival on our seats – fortunately we were able to return these as we had brought our own!

What to Wear – Keeping Comfortable (and Warm)

It doesn’t matter how hot it’s going to be at your destination, or how hot it is at your departure point, it is going to be freezing on that plane once the air conditioning is cranked up to maximum. You may be really excited you’re headed to the beach, but that’s no excuse to wear skimpy shorts and flip-flops on the plane. You. Will. Freeze. Once you’re cold, you’ll be reaching for those single-use airline socks, and the plastic-wrapped blanket; your best intentions to keep the unnecessary waste at bay will be long gone.

Pack a thick pair of socks, leggings or long trousers, and a warm jumper. A scarf is useful and can double up as a pillow or second blanket. If you have space, take your own blanket and pillow too.

Headphones

Airline headphones usually have that weird double pin adapter, so you can’t plug your own headphones into the jack. Except, you can. It’s possible to buy these adaptors for just a couple of dollars. When ordering mine, I was concerned that they might arrive wrapped in plastic, so was delighted when they arrived with minimal packaging. I was less delighted when I got on the plane and found I didn’t need it for these flights – the airline had standard headphone jacks!

Airline headphone adaptors zero waste

These 2-pin headphone jacks mean I no longer have to use airline headphones which are packaged in plastic, and have foam earpieces which are thrown away after just a single use.

If you don’t want to buy an adaptor, or leave it behind, don’t hand the headphones you are given back at the end of the flight. Keep them for any other legs, and the return journey, and hand them in when you’re back home. Before I got a headphone adapter I’d do this – it reduced the number of headsets I used from 4 to 1. As each headset is packaged in plastic, that saves three plastic bags, as well as 6 replacement fuzzy ear bits (they are replaced after each use).

Food

Did you know you can take your own food onto the plane? Most flights will let you bring your own food; you just might not get it off the plane and through customs at the other end. What effort you want to go to is up to you, but if you can bring your own snacks it will mean not needing to eat those tiny packets of peanuts, or other plastic-wrapped snacks that will probably make you feel stodgy and unhealthy anyway.

Yes, your flight was probably expensive. But trying to recoup some of the cost by eating 27 packets of peanuts won’t really cut it. Honestly.

As for meals, if you have the choice to not order the meal (if you are on a charter flight), don’t. Anything you bring from home will taste better and be far more nutritious. But commercial flights often don’t give you the option, and you can’t phone up and cancel your meal. If you refuse your meal on the plane, it will go in the bin. I generally do eat the plane meals, particularly anything “fresh” (you know what I mean!), but I hand back the long-life stuff in the hope it will get passed to someone else.

Drinks – Bring Your Own Water Bottle (and a KeepCup!)

You can’t take bottled water through customs, but you can take reusable water bottles through, provided they are empty. What’s more, once you are through customs, many airports offer filtered water for refilling your bottles, so you can get on the plane with a full bottle of water. At the three airports I travelled through (In Perth, Hong Kong and London Heathrow), all had free water bottle refilling stations.

water bottle refill at airport

Water bottle refills are available after security at most airports meaning if you bring your own bottle, there’s no need for single-use plastic cups on the flight!

Once your on the plane, you can hand your empty bottle to a steward and ask them to refill it for you.

If you really want to avoid waste on the plane, just stick to drinking water rather than individual serves of spirits, soft drinks, juice and other alcohol. Bring a KeepCup for tea or coffee.

Toiletries

Current rules for international flights state that if you want to take your toiletries onto the plane, they have to be presented in a clear, resealable plastic bag. The most obvious way to avoid this is to check your toiletries in by placing them in hold luggage. If this isn’t an option for you, and you’re travelling with others, sharing will reduce the number of bags needed. If you do need to take a bag, keep it so you can reuse it when you next fly – just store it with your passport so you don’t forget!

Duty-Free

Duty-free generally means excessive packaging, but if you’re thinking you’ll pick up a couple of (glass) bottles of duty-free alcohol, many airports now insist that this is packaged in sealed plastic bags for security purposes. On top of that, the glass bottles are often packaged with foam nets, which is also made from plastic. If you’ve gone somewhere and want to bring some of the local tipple home, buy it before you fly at a local store and pack it in your hold luggage – you may even find it is cheaper than the inflated airport prices. Just remember to check the customs restrictions for your destination!

Do you have any tips for travelling plastic- and waste-free? Is there anything else you’d add to this list? Or do you find it’s easier to suspend your waste ideals for the holidays? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think!