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How Much Does a Zero Waster Recycle?

The zero waste lifestyle is all about living in a way that creates as little waste as possible. It is often described as “sending nothing to landfill” and most people living the zero waste lifestyle will track their landfill waste. In fact, the jar full of waste has become rather iconic of the zero waste movement.

Last year I collected all my own landfill waste in a jar (I shared the contents of my annual trash jar here). I did it as I thought it would be an interesting experiment, and it was. I learned a lot.

However, I also think there are some downsides to focusing solely on personal landfill waste.

One of those downsides is that zero waste living is not just about reducing landfill. It is about reducing waste overall, and that means reducing our recycling too. The goal is to produce no landfill waste and no recycling either.

Yet that is much more challenging, and much less talked about.

How much recycling zero wasters produce isn’t discussed as often as it should be. Personally, I think we should be talking about it more. This time last year I decided to record my recycling for an entire month, and share it (view April 2016’s recycling tally).

I’ve decided I’m going to make it an annual thing. There’s no particular reason why we chose April last year (I probably thought up the idea in March!). I’m choosing April again this year to keep things consistent.

There are no special rules for the month. We don’t do anything differently. That said, I’m sure it is in the back of my mind and I’m subconsciously more careful. Any waste that we (our household consists of two adults and one greyhound) create goes into our recycling bin as normal. After 30 days have passed, I tally it up.

Here’s our monthly recycling for the 30 days of April 2017:

I did threaten my husband that I would divide the recycling up into separate piles of mine and his, because he creates more waste than me and I don’t want to be tarnished with the same brush! But really, we are one household, and I think most people can relate to one member of the household being more enthused than the others.

What’s in my (Zero Waste) Recycling Bin?

This is a summary of what’s in the bin, from right to left.

Plastic Bag of Dog Food: For the first four years of living zero waste we didn’t have a dog Now we do. He is also a dog with a sensitive stomach! We have tried a number of dog food brands. So far this is the one that works best. We get through one bag every 5-6 weeks. I would love to make my own dog food, and maybe one day I will. Right now it is still a little overwhelming. This bag can be recycled via REDcycle at our local supermarket.

Aluminium Beer Cans (and their Cardboard Packaging): My husband likes beer. A beer shop locally sells packaging-free beer on tap, but my husband prefers to visit the regular store on the way home from work. I don’t know enough about beer to go the bulk store for him! He chooses aluminium rather than glass as cans are recycled, whereas glass is crushed into road base in WA.

Pasta Boxes: My husband also loves pasta. We can get gluten-free pasta (buckwheat spirals and quinoa rice penne) from our local bulk store, and regular vermicelli nests from the small bulk section at our independent grocer. We eat these most of the time. Occasionally my husband will come across Barilla pasta in the cardboard box without the plastic window and will insist on buying it. He’s like some kind of collector! He probably buys one every 3 months or so. We just happened to have two boxes in this month’s recycling.

Tin of Coconut Cream: I made crumble recently as we had friends over for dinner. I didn’t have any cashews to make cashew cream, and there wasn’t enough time. My husband dashed to the shops for me and picked this up (at my request). Crumble just doesn’t work dry!

Ball of Tin Foil (and Corresponding Chocolate wrappers): Oh, I am so guilty of buying packaged chocolate. I have a weakness for Green & Blacks 85%. I have a serious weakness, in fact: in April I managed to eat my way through 8 bars (as demonstrated by the wrappers). We ate a fair amount of chocolate from the bulk store too.

Dolmades Tin: Sometimes I feel like my husband is a packaging fiend! (I realise the packaging he buys is minimal – it’s just a big part of our recycling.) He likes to buy tinned dolmades when we have people round for dinner. It makes me a little bit mad, because I love to cook from scratch and go to all this effort to make home-made food, and then he serves up pre-packaged food. He sees it as a treat!

Champagne Bottles and Metal Tops: Our friends brought a bottle of sparkling wine when they came for dinner. The other bottle has been in our fridge for 18 months (it was a moving gift) and needed using up. It was actually pretty flat. The corks have gone in the compost, and the foil is part of the foil ball.

Nonsense Promotional Material: We received a pamphlet from the RAC telling us most people don’t have enough insurance. What a waste of paper.

Unnecessary Letters in the Post: An enormous water pipe is being installed underneath our road to supply water to the new Perth stadium, and we are sent a weekly letter giving us updates. They’ve been camped out for almost 5 months now, but they are finishing up so we won’t be getting many more notices.

Envelopes: We still get the odd thing delivered by post. My husband recently had to renew his driving license (they need renewing every 3 years); some insurance documents that they couldn’t send via email; a new bank card as the old one had expired; and some other things.

Till Receipts: Wherever possible we refuse a receipt, but we still pick up a few every month. We recycle them. Some people don’t recycle thermal (BPA- coated) receipts, but I was advised that a few BPA receipts in a container load of paper doesn’t create a problem.

Paper from Workshops: I run sustainable living workshops, and use paper for some activities. Some people learn better by physically writing stuff down. As someone who’s partial to taking notes on the back of an envelope, I can relate. I don’t buy new paper, I use reject printing from workplaces, or mail I don’t need. Then I recycle it.

Recycling versus Composting

Some zero wasters choose to compost all their paper rather than recycling it. That makes the recycling pile much smaller, but in terms of energy, research shows that recycling paper is a better use of the resource than composting. Paper production is enormously energy intensive and recycling paper helps slow down new paper production.

Whilst I live in a city with good recycling infrastructure, I will always choose to recycle my paper over composting it.The only paper I compost is paper that cannot be recycled: anything stained by food or grease, tiny scraps, or shredded paper.

Whilst I’d love to see our recycling drop to zero, it’s heartening to know that we created less than this time less year. Some people say that “near-o waste” is a more accurate term than zero waste, and I’m inclined to agree. However, that doesn’t stop me aiming for zero.

Please tell me what you think! Do you find tracking your waste and recycling a helpful tool? Or is the extra fuss and effort too much hassle? Do you find seeing pictures of others’ waste inspiring, or do you find it demotivating? Is there something else you find more motivating? I’d love to hear what you think so please leave me a comment below!

My Annual Waste Jar, Deconstructed (+ Lessons Learned)

For the last 12 months, I saved all* of my landfill waste in a jar. I talked last week about why I felt like it was a bit gimmicky but did it anyway; the purpose behind keeping our waste in a jar, the reasons I liked doing it, and the reasons I did not like doing it.

*I also talked about why ‘all’ didn’t actually mean all. I shared a picture of the contents of my jar.

But I didn’t actually talk about what was in the jar.

You know me, I love talking about rubbish. Give me any excuse ;) I thought I’d explore what was in my jar with you, and what I learned from the experience of collecting my rubbish. If you have any questions or would like to share any wisdom, I’d love to hear at the end!

Contents of a Zero Waster’s Annual Rubbish Jar:

The entire contents of my jar (plus my passport and that scandalous polystyrene container, which didn’t fit.) I’ve divided up the picture into 4 to talk about each segment separately.

Polystyrene container: After 5 years of plastic-free living, I end up with a polystyrene container! Shortly after we moved we went to a nearby pizza place. I took a container with me for leftovers but the pizzas were bigger than expected, and didn’t fit. The waiter asked if I wanted a box, and as they are usually cardboard, I said yes. Imagine my horror when I was handed a polystyrene box! Needless to say, we will never go back!

A local place recycles polystyrene, but I’m not sure if it is just the expanded stuff. I intend to go there with my container and find out more. (It’s called CLAW Environmental.)

Lesson learned: Never assume, because you are never too experienced to get caught out unawares!

Brown Packing Tape: This could be polypropylene (plastic #5), the same as sellotape/sticky tape, but I’m not sure so I kept it in my jar. If it is, it can be recycled through REDcycle (who collect soft plastic for recycling via supermarkets in Australia). I recycle any sticky tape I get this way.

Lesson Learned: Recycling is complicated, and it isn’t always obvious what material something is made from. Refusing is always the best option, if possible!

Plastic packet: We needed to buy a specialty light bulb for a common-shared outdoor light. We purchased the bulb, so it counts as waste in my eyes.

Lesson Learned: Some plastic just cannot be avoided.

Plastic chip from our soap dish: Our shower has a plastic soap dish attached (it came with the house), and my husband seems to constantly knock it off. Plastic can only be dropped so many times before it shatters! The rest of the dish is intact, it is just missing a corner.

Lesson Learned: Next time, choose a material that lasts and can be recycled or composted at the end of its life.

Cable from our garden hose: We bought a new hose to water our veggie patch. The hose was attached to a cardboard label via this cable. (It is possible that CLAW Environmental also recycle this type of plastic, so I will check.)

Lesson Learned: If you buy new, there is almost always packaging.

Loyalty and Membership Cards: One is a loyalty scheme we joined by mistake. We thought we wouldn’t get a card, but the sales lady meant you don’t need to show the card to get the discount (they can look our names up). Two key fob ones too, lucky us. The other card is an unnecessary membership card for a bicycle organisation.

Lesson Learned: Loyalty might be rewarded, but the environment is not.

Courgette seed packet: This pack is a combination of paper, foil, and maybe plastic. Some seeds come loose in paper packets, some in plastic zip lock bags (which can be repurposed) and some like this. In the future I plan to save my own seeds, but I needed seeds to start with!

Lesson learned: Sometimes activities create waste in the beginning, but help reduce waste long-term.

Red elastic bandage: Our greyhound went to the vet for an x-ray and we picked him up sporting this bandage. I have no idea what it is made from, but I am almost certain it isn’t recyclable.

Lesson learned: Sometimes plastic is a medical necessity.

Plastic packet: After 5 years of living plastic-free and my promising to label our pantry jars, my husband finally had enough and purchased two grease pencils to label them himself! They came in this pack.

Lesson learned: Everyone has a limit to their patience ;) Sometimes a little waste is worth it to keep the peace.

Passport: My passport expired. I sent it back to the UK Passport Authority. They sent me my new passport but also returned my old one. It arrived on day 364 of my year. Thanks guys – now I have to add it to my waste jar!

Lesson Learned: At least it is only once every 10 years…

Underpants: I prefer plain, sensible underpants. But for some reason in my late twenties I decided I should give fancy underpants a go. Fortunately the phase didn’t last. These aren’t cotton and so won’t compost.

Lesson learned: Choose fabrics that can biodegrade.

Tedx Lanyard: The lanyard strap from my Tedx Perth talk (I composted the cardboard part) which I needed to access the venue. It is a shame that they couldn’t collect them for reuse, as all 1700 people had one! I will separate the metal clip for recycling. (My husband kept his as a souvenir!)

Lesson Learned: Sometimes the system creates waste, and if we really want a zero waste society, we need to work to change the system.

Dental floss: Used for emergencies. I have used more than two pieces but they were gobbled up by the vacuum cleaner. When this (pre-2011) roll runs out I will choose biodegradable floss.

Lesson learned: Think about the end of a product when choosing something new, and stay alert for better options.

Jumper label and hanging ribbons: I used non-biodegradable old clothes to stuff a bed for our greyhound, but this jumper was wool so I composted it. These bits aren’t compostable so they ended up in the jar.

Lesson learned: 100% cotton/wool/silk/hemp doesn’t necessarily mean 100% biodegradable.

Black wristband: from the Tedx post-event wrap-up celebration. I assume it was issued by the venue.

Lesson learned: Plastic can be found in the most unexpected places, but we can write to companies/businesses/venues to share our concerns and suggest alternatives.

Plastic bottle caps: Mostly from medicine bottles; the orange one is from a whisky bottle and the black one from an oil bottle I used to refill.

Lesson learned: plastic lids are not recyclable in Western Australia, so avoiding them is always best or they will end up in landfill.

Blister pack from two coin batteries: The old ones had run out.

Lesson learned: The less batteries we use, the less waste there is.

Sticker backing: The first thing to go in my jar! Possibly recyclable via REDcycle but I wasn’t sure of the material. It was the backing for our “no junk mail sticker”.

Lesson learned: Sometimes we need to create waste now to reduce waste in the future.

Razor blade and packet: I still use a plastic razor with blades I purchased pre-2011 (I talked about why here). With careful looking after, each blade lasted me a year. I am now down to my last.

Lesson learned: With care, we can prolong the life of things deemed “single use” or “disposable”.

Sim card: My phone died in March last year and the replacement needed a nano sim rather than the micro sim that I already had. So I had to replace the whole lot.

Lesson learned: Sometimes planned obsolescence is unavoidable.

pH strips: I thought these were paper, but after putting them in the worm farm discovered they are plastic.

Lesson learned: Looks can be deceiving.

Tiny toothpaste tube: I found this, still sealed, when picking up litter in a park. I figured it was less wasteful to use it. Terracycle recycle toothpaste tubes so I will drop off at one of their collection points.

Bank cards: I have English cards and Australian cards, and they all expired last year! We changed banks when we got our mortgage, so that was an extra set of cards in the jar.

Lesson learned: If I simplify my banking there will be less plastic and waste.

Tea bag wrapper: This can be recycled via REDcycle. It is a combination of foil and plastic but I mistakenly thought it was paper. It was from a workshop I attended.

Lesson learned: sometimes we make mistakes. The fact this should actually be in the recycling bin and not the jar is a mistake. I wonder, what did I mistakenly put in the recycling?

Medicine packets: My husband and I both got the flu last year, and took almost all of these in that week. We try to avoid medicine except for emergencies. This was an emergency.

Lesson learned: In medical emergencies, our health is a priority.

Plastic tags: I’ve purchased a few second-hand items from charity shops, and they all come with little plastic tags.

Lesson learned: Second-hand keeps waste to a minimum, but doesn’t eliminate it altogether.

Googly eyes: These are from a toy my in-laws purchased for our greyhound. Mister Duck’s feet got gnawed off too but those went in the bin. I debated whether Hans’ waste (which I have no control over) should go in the jar or not, so I compromised. (Plus the feet were absolutely covered in slobber.)

Lesson learned: it isn’t always possible to avoid all the waste that all our family members create, and sometimes there needs to be a little compassion and compromise.

Green twisty tags: I have no idea where these came from. I have noticed that they have already started to degrade in the jar.

Lesson learned: plastic often isn’t fit for purpose.

Pink tape: Ironically, from a waste reduction behaviour change campaign I worked on. We used pink gaffa tape in the project. At the end we received thank-you cards sealed with this tape.

Lesson learned: Novelty gestures almost always result in waste.

Miscellaneous bits: The clip on a pen lid; an elastic band tangled in some (non-biodegradable) fabric; a plastic toggle from a pair of shorts (the other one is already lost); melted plastic from a Pyrex lid I put too near a hot saucepan; and a paperclip that  isn’t plastic.

Lesson learned: If there is any plastic anywhere in the home, it is likely that at some stage it will end up in landfill. Where there is an alternative, seek it out!

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of collecting my waste in a jar, and I learned a lot. Will I continue this year? I’m not sure. My passion is community, and I’d rather spend my time and energy helping others reduce their waste than fixate over a piece of dental floss or a plastic blister pack.

Personal change is great. But building a movement? That’s much better.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – would you find it helpful if I continued to keep an annual waste jar? Is it something that you’d like to see again next year? Was there anything in my waste jar that surprised you? Was there anything that you expected to see in there that wasn’t there? Do you have any suggestions for how to dispose of any of the items currently in the jar? Do you have any other thoughts about my waste, or waste jars in general? Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

One Year’s Worth of Trash (Except, It Isn’t)

The idea of keeping landfill trash in a jar has become a symbol of the zero waste movement. Bea Johnson from Zero Waste Home started keeping the waste produced by her family of four in a glass jar back in 2010. Now more and more people use this idea to track their progress and show others what is possible with a little bit of determination and effort.

I have to confess, I don’t love the idea. I find it a little gimmicky (I’ll talk about that later). At the beginning of last year, I was interviewed by a journalist and she asked me if I had a jar of waste. I said no, and she suggested I start one. That it might be a good idea because it was a valuable tool to show others.

I hadn’t really thought of it like that.

I also thought, there I was pooh-poohing the idea when I hadn’t actually given it a fair shot. Wouldn’t it be be better to try it out and see, rather than making judgements? I decided to give it a go.

As fate would have it, at the end of January this year, Channel 9 contacted me to film a segment about zero waste for their 6pm news show. When they found out I had a waste jar, they insisted it be part of the story. So my little jar of waste was on the news…

I began our annual jar of waste on 2nd March 2016 – so today it has been exactly a year since I began. So how much landfill waste did our household produce in a year, and what have I learned.

Annual Waste in a Jar – My Rules

The idea is that anything that would end up in the landfill bin is kept in the jar. This means anything that is not recycled, composted, repurposed or repaired.

I didn’t really make any other rules when I started; they formed along the way. The intention was that the jar was for our household waste (my husband’s and mine) but in July we adopted a greyhound, which changed things slightly.

These are the rules we ended up following:

  • Anything purchased or acquired pre- going plastic-free or zero waste in 2012 still counts as waste.
  • Any waste generated by us inside our home goes in the jar.
  • Any waste I produce outside the home goes in the jar (and my husband’s, if he is with me.) My husband’s waste at work and some dog waste (!) does not go in the jar for practical reasons.
  • Any waste that others bring into our home that we do not use does not go in the jar. However, if we use it in some way, then it does.
  • I often find fruit stickers, old clothes elastic and random plastic labels in the compost bin, but 6 households share our composting system and I do not know for sure it is ours – and it is too much effort once it is covered in compost.
  • Anything that is downright gross or dangerous does not go in the jar.

Different people have different rules. These are ours. Our waste shows us where we personally can improve, and let us share what we have learned. It is not a competition.

How Much Landfill Waste Did We Produce?

This is our waste from 1st March 2016 until 1st March 2017.

What Didn’t End Up in the Jar?

Not all of the waste we produced over the last year has ended up in the jar. Here’s what was missed:

  • We broke two glass jars and a glass light bulb in the past few weeks, and I am sure that over the year there were more.
  • We put all weeds in the compost bin except couch grass which is super invasive. We put this in our landfill bin. (It goes through a commercial hot composting machine at the tip, but I’d rather deal with it at home.)
  • I still have an old tub of dental floss I keep for emergencies. Mostly after eating corn-on-the-cob. That tends to get sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.
  • Condoms. For obvious reasons.
  • When I mentioned earlier that our greyhound complicated things, there were a few “issues”.
    • I refuse things, and I refuse things on behalf of my husband ;) but my husband has decided, I cannot refuse things on behalf of our greyhound. If somebody buys him a gift, it is not for me to decide to donate it straightaway simply because it will end up in landfill.
    • Our greyhound has received a few toys as gifts. People tell me they were careful to avoid plastic, as we receive yet another toy made of polyester. (Which is plastic.) They are also cheaply made and do not last. One was torn to shreds and covered in slobber and ended up in the bin. Fortunately Hans is settling down and less prone to destruction these days.
    • Hans is also very particular about his bathroom habits, and categorically refuses to go to the toilet in our yard. Not even for number 1s. His preferred toilet stop is the dog park 10 minutes away. We have a dog poo worm farm at home, but carrying his mess home twice a day with newspaper is a trial. I do it as often as I can, but sometimes it isn’t practical. When it’s raining, the newspaper gets wet before we make it home. When the dog park is full of other dogs we don’t hold onto it – the other dogs are too interested :/ So sometimes dog poo goes in the bin.

Is the ‘Waste-in-a-Jar’ Thing Gimmicky?

That’s a personal choice. For me, I still feel like it is. I have never taken my waste jar to a talk or workshop I’ve presented. In fact, it has never left the house.

I’m not a limelight-lover, and I feel that the jar invites a “look-at-me!” approach that I am just not comfortable with.

I also feel that extremes can put people off making changes, and waste jars might be seen as extreme. I’d prefer to encourage lots of people to change one thing than encourage one person to change everything. My priority in inspiring others, not seeking perfection myself.

That’s not to say it can’t (and doesn’t) work for others. For every cynic in the room, there is someone else who is inspired. For those who love and relish the limelight, it is an awesome opportunity to share and motivate others.

It just does not work for me.

Gimmicks aside, there are things I love as well as things I don’t.

Things I love about keeping my waste in a jar:

  • I like being able to track my progress and visually see where I could make improvements.
  • I like being able to see which companies are responsible for the non-recyclable waste, so I can contact them and suggest that they make changes.
  • I like that it pushes me to look for solutions with the items I end up with.

Things I don’t love about keeping my waste in a jar:

  • I don’t like that it doesn’t account for human error. I put many things in my recycling bin, believing that they will be recycled. But I don’t know for sure that they are. The decision is based on my knowledge, which may be flawed. I could be wrong, and it could end up in landfill.
  • I’m a person who likes details. My goal is always to be transparent and honest. The jar is a simplified view, and I have this constant nagging feeling I need to justify and explain everything. It makes me a little stressed.
  • I don’t like the way it invites comparisons, even though every person takes a different approach.
  • I think it focuses too much on the personal. At the beginning I think a journey of change is always personal. For me, there comes a point when it is time to move onto the local, national and beyond. Worrying about a piece of dental floss or an accidental foil-wrapped teabag isn’t important. I want to encourage change on a bigger level. For me, my jar distracts from that.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – do you think the waste jar idea is a great idea, or a gimmick? Do you love it or loathe it? Do you keep a waste jar, and what lessons have you learned? Have you tried in the past but given up? Have you thought about it but not committed yet? Have you just started your own, and what are your thoughts so far? What is your favourite thing about them? What is your least favourite thing? Anything else that you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!