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Zero-Waste, Minimalism… & Why I Won’t Talk about Money-Saving

I passionately believe that living a zero waste and minimalist lifestyle is something to strive for. It’s rewarding, fun and fulfilling. We live on a beautiful planet and must do what we can to protect it. These lifestyles provide challenges that encourage our creativity and build resilience; they teach us that as individuals, we can make a difference.

They reconnect us with the seasons, the local economy, with real food… and with each other. There are beautiful communities of people all over the world passionate about the idea of living with less. Simplifying and letting go of excess gives us time to spend doing the things that are truly important to us, and increases our happiness.

These are the reasons that I love this lifestyle; they are the reasons that I use to try to inspire others to join in. Money-saving is not among them. Here’s why.

When I stopped buying plastic in 2012 I never realised quite how life-changing it would be. For the first time, I began to question the choices I made unconsciously. I looked at my habits (such as the places I shopped, the stuff I bought and the reasons I bought it) and asked myself if they were in line with my values.

If I cared so much about the planet, why was I buying all this single-use packaging that created an enormous burden for the environment? If I believed in the local economy and the importance of supporting small independent businesses, why did I tend to shop at the supermarkets and department stores?

Somehow these behaviours had sneaked into my routine and become habits… and I was determined to un-learn them and create new ones that were aligned with the changes I want to see in the world.

The benefits that came were enormous. There’s a real satisfaction that comes with supporting businesses whose values align with your own. It feels good to care about something and know the choices you make (and the actions you take) are strengthening that cause, not weakening it.

I reconnected with my local community and met some amazing and inspiring people. I stopped buying junk and processed food; I stopped being such a sucker for marketing and buying the “special offers” or shiny new products with the tempting packaging.

I started buying real food that was nutritious and good for me. More whole foods, more fresh vegetables and lots of actual ingredients; less refined carbohydrates, less sugar and no synthetic preservatives. I cooked more from scratch and found I loved the creative process and journey of discovery: there are lots of things you can make at home quickly and simply.

My health and energy levels improved dramatically.

I also ditched the chemical-laden toiletries and cleaning products with unreadable ingredients, removing a lot of the clutter from my bathroom in the process. I sought out natural alternatives that came without all the packaging, or made my own (deodorant, toothpaste and cleaning products).

I reduced what I used down to a few products that have multiple uses.

Aside from cooking, and making personal care/cleaning products, I’ve learned a lot of other new skills. How to compost, grow veggies, how to sew (okay, I’m still on the very basics with that one). How to see beyond the greenwash and find answers rather than believing without question; how to get involved with local community groups, even how to use social media to share as I learn.

I’ve discovered a love of writing that motivates me every day to share my story and spread the message – you can live a happy, fun and fulfilling life in a way that doesn’t harm the planet.

As part of this journey, I learned to simplify. I figured out what was “enough” and let go of the excess. I found contentment with what I have, rather than chasing the next thing, or thinking “I’ll be happy when / if….”.

I no longer go to the shops when I’m feeling down to buy stuff I don’t need: I go for a walk outside, or chat to a friend, or cook up a storm in the kitchen (well, usually it looks like a storm has passed through when I’m done). That’s what makes me happy.

Rodion Kutsaev Treading My Own Path Zero Waste Minimalism Happiness

What it all comes down to is living a life in line with my values. I value nature and the environment; social justice and equality. I value being able to nurture my creativity, look after my health, and help others. Not only do I value these, but I find happiness and fulfilment in pursuing a life that is in harmony with them.

This is why I find this lifestyle so immensely rewarding.

I want to help others reconnect with their values too: figure out what they care about, and live a life that’s aligned to that. This is why I don’t talk about money-saving. I don’t think it fits. I don’t think it’s the reason that we pursue zero waste or minimalist lifestyles, and I don’t want to use it to try to encourage others.

Money-saving can be about making ends meet, stretching the budget, putting food on the table. It can be a necessity. But if we start to value money-saving beyond our needs, that’s valuing something different: it’s valuing wealth. Valuing wealth is at odds with the values behind zero waste and minimalism. It’s the pursuit of more [wealth] versus the pursuit of less (or enough). I could argue that money, wealth and profit-at-the-expense-of-the-environment are what got us into this mess in the first place…

Talking about money-saving makes me uncomfortable, because wealth is not a value I want to promote. I’ve made decisions in the past based solely on money, and I’m not proud. I know that they weren’t the right choices.

I’ve told myself that ethical is expensive, and allowed myself to put self-centred interest above standing up for and choosing what I believe in. (I’m happy and relieved to say that I don’t shop that way any more. I’m much more aligned with my values.)

Now, when I see wealth values acted out, it makes my heart sink. I’ve seen ugly commentaries regarding charity shops, with outrage at the fact that these shops are selling items for more than a couple of dollars. Where is the perspective? Charity shops don’t exist to provide bargains to thrifty shoppers. They raise funds for the poorest and most marginalised people in our society, relying on the kindness of donations and the manpower of volunteers to raise funds.

Money can bring out the worst in us, and I’d rather focus on things that bring out the best.

By living a zero waste minimalist lifestyle, I do spend less than I used to. It’s not the reason why I live this way: it is simply a by-product of changing my habits. I buy and consume far less. If it cost more, I’d still be living this way, because I’m not doing it for the money-saving benefits.

Telling people that living this way will save them money isn’t the whole story, and it does the movement a disservice. If they come in with the idea that they will save money without changing their habits, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Some parts of zero waste living do save money: stop buying bottled water, drink from the tap and save a fortune.

Others don’t: stainless steel is far more expensive than plastic. Overall, it may balance out… but only if you also change your lifestyle.

There are plenty of benefits to zero waste living and minimalism that are immensely rewarding, that make us better citizens and happier people. That’s where my focus lies.

I don’t want people to choose zero waste living or minimalism because they think they will save money. That’s not what it’s about. I want people to make these choices because they believe in their hearts that it is the right thing to do.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are the benefits that you get out of pursuing a life with less? Were there any that you didn’t expect? What values resonate most strongly with you, and how does the way you live align with that? Have you ever put something ahead of your values, and how did it make you feel? What factors do you consider when you make choices? Do you disagree, and think that talking about money-saving has a valuable part to play, or do you agree that it’s best to stay clear on any mention of wealth and talk about other benefits? Anything else that you’d like to add? I really want to hear your thoughts so please leave me a comment!

Stop Chasing and Start Living

From an early age we are taught that bigger is better, that more is better. Maybe we aren’t taught it directly, but all the advertisements we see show us that the more we have, the happier we’ll be. The more we earn, the more respected (and powerful) we’ll be. The better we dress (and the more we spend on face cream), the more beautiful we’ll be. The more holidays we take, the more relaxed we’ll be. If we work hard, we’ll be able to accumulate all this stuff, we can live happily ever after in a nice house and afford to retire comfortably and live in the countryside.

I used to believe this too. I had no reason not to. It seemed to make sense. A big house must be far better than a small one. Six bedrooms and space for a pony must be better than two bedrooms and just enough space to swing a cat. A job where you earn a heap of money must be far better than a job which pays only an average salary. A hundred pairs of shoes must be better than ten pairs of shoes. Several holidays a year must be better than one. Surely?

Like many, I graduated from university, went travelling, came home and got a full-time job. That’s what you do, right? I was at the bottom of the corporate ladder, but I was determined to climb it, to get that great job with the fat paycheque and buy all that stuff that was going to make me happy.

Climbing the ladder means working hard. I had to jump through hoops and put my hand up for “projects” that increased my workload but reflected well on me, and were noticed by management. I’d work extra hours, and take work home to try to get ahead. Slowly I began to climb. I got a few successive small promotions, with bigger teams, larger budgets, more pressure…and further to fall.

But I wasn’t enjoying my job. My passions in life did not match the work I was doing, and it was getting harder and harder to put extra effort into something that I had no passion for. I was frustrated, and miserable.

I started questioning what I’d been led to believe. Was more really better? I wasn’t earning big bucks, but I was earning the national average, so I could afford to pay my bills, go on holiday and still save a little. It was enough. I doubted I’d ever reach the heady heights of the luxury I saw on the billboards.

It seemed like aspiring to a life like that could only ever bring disappointment. Even if I worked harder and got closer, would relentless pursuit of promotions and payrises really bring extra happiness?

Slowly, another idea began to grow in my mind. What if, rather than working towards having more and then being happy, I learned to be happy with what I already had? What if, rather than trying to earn more money, I found ways to spend less?

If I am happy with myself and my situation, and accepting of who I am, I reasoned, even though I’m not perfect, then I don’t need to chase the external rewards I’ve been told will make me happy. I don’t need them. Who I am now is all I ever have.

That’s not to say I don’t (or I shouldn’t) aspire to change or grow or be more, and chase my dreams.

It just means I shouldn’t depend on this for my happiness.

What makes me happy is spending time with friends and family, being in nature, gardening, cooking and good food. Learning new skills. Seeing new places and experiencing new things. Being connected to my community. Contributing to society, and having a positive impact.

I’m not alone: research shows the three main things that make people happy are close relationships, a pastime they love and helping others.

What helps with this is having time. I don’t want to work more hours, I want to work less. I don’t want to spend more time cleaning a bigger house and shopping for stuff to fill the extra rooms. I don’t want to be too busy working (or too tired after working) to miss living life right now.

I stopped chasing. I stopped thinking about work as a career and started thinking of it as a job; something that paid the bills. I reduced my hours. Colleagues thought I was unusual: after all, I wasn’t semi-retired and I didn’t have children, the two socially acceptable reasons to work part-time hours, but it didn’t matter to me what they thought.

I spent more free time growing my own food, and doing the things that brought me joy. Interestingly, I found that with less time spent at work, I enjoyed my job more. I also felt less inclined to shop and “treat” myself – something I hadn’t consciously noticed I was doing in the past.

I owned (with a mortgage) a flat in the UK, which I sold when we moved to Australia. My husband and I have been renting for the past four years. I laugh when people say that renting is money down the drain, or a waste – actually it’s a great deal because you get somewhere to live in exchange for your money. There are plenty of things that I consider a waste of money, and renting is definitely not one of them.

We’ve been able to live in a suburb we couldn’t afford to buy in and live car-free with excellent access to everything at our doorstep. Now we plan to buy a flat, because we want to move to a new community and the project is something we believe in. We didn’t think about re-sale factors, or whether it was a bargain or over-priced when we bought it because we aren’t buying it to sell. We are buying it to live in. Maybe we’ll never need (or want) to move again.

We don’t need more. We need enough. Learning to accept what we have and being able to find pleasure in the simple things is something we can all do. Chase dreams, but don’t chase more in the pursuit of happiness. You might never get there.

Why Quitting Plastic is an Opportunity

There’s no doubt that plastic harms the environment. From the iconic Chris Jordan pictures of the dead Albatross chicks on Midway Atoll, who died from starvation after mistakenly being fed plastic by their parents, to the countless images of marine life caught in discarded fishing line or other plastic that should never have made it into the ocean in the first place; from the reports of whales dying after ingesting golf balls, plastic bags and DVD cases; there are articles and stories all over the internet regaling tales of how plastic is damaging our marine life.

It’s not restricted to the oceans, with plastic washed up on beaches and littering the landscape, and land animals are also ingesting this plastic. It harms people too – the people who process plastic for recycling by melting it down, the people walking through rubbish tips finding plastic to sell, and the people whose environments and waterways are littered with plastic.

When I first decided to quit plastic, it was because I cared about all these things. I care about the environment, I love being out in nature, and I also believe in social justice – and plastic affects the poorest people in the poorest countries the most.  I cared, but was I doing much about it?

Probably not. I didn’t want to be adding to the problem, but in some ways I was. I certainly wasn’t helping to solve them. Before I really understood that plastic was causing all these problems, maybe I could justify my inaction. But once I knew, how could I not do something to make a difference?

It is a great feeling, beginning to align your behaviour with your values. Rather than thinking, in the future I’ll do this, or when I retire, I’ll change that, making a stand for what you believe in every time you make a decision – and we have these choices every day – and starting RIGHT NOW.

Being done with the excuses – I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, I’m just one person – and accepting what it is that I can do. What we can do. Maybe we’ll never be the CEO of the bottled water company, and we won’t be able to change their policies alone, but we can stop buying their products, and we can start now.

Quitting plastic was the start of a journey that has brought so many benefits, and helped me live a life according to the values and principles that are important to me. Reducing my impact on the environment was a key one, but there were many others:

  • Before I quit plastic, I shopped regularly at supermarkets. Now, I rarely go there at all. I support local businesses that add value to the local economy, rather than big multinational companies that have complex tax structures and often don’t even benefit the countries whose communities they sit in.
  • Before I quit plastic, I’d buy junk food, particularly when it was on ‘Special’ (and isn’t it always on ‘Special’?!). Now I avoid plastic, the only treats I buy are those made with real ingredients, freshly crafted and without preservatives, additives and fillers. Often I bake my own – many things take a matter of minutes to prepare. My diet is a lot better and I have far more energy, and so does the rest of my family.
  • Before I quit plastic, I’d use conventional shampoo, moisturizer and shower gel without realizing they contained irritants and carcinogens, and buy brands that were marketed at me the hardest – meaning big pharmaceutical giants. I’d clean my dishes and my kitchen worktops with products marked “hazardous”. Now I’ve discovered that it’s possible to find natural skin and haircare products with safe ingredients, and I use green cleaning products like bicarb and vinegar to clean my home.
  • Before I quit plastic, I’d buy things I needed from the shops, all wrapped in plastic. Now I’ve discovered the joy of second-hand stores, charity shops and asking friends to borrow items rather than buying my own. I’ve embraced the sharing economy, starting with my local library…and I’ve saved money in the process.

None of these things happened overnight, but over time they did happen. It started 3 years ago when I made that one simple decision to have less plastic in my life. That’s a decision that you can make too.

Now it’s your turn – I’d love to hear from you! Have you quit plastic, or started to reduce the plastic in your life? What benefits have you found, and how many were unexpected? What’s your favourite thing about living plastic-free? Maybe you’re just starting out – in which case, what appeals to you most about plastic-free living? We’re all in this together and I’d love it if you shared your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!

Can this Empty Tin of Tuna Save the World?

The people at my workplace aren’t the best at recycling. Plastic-free living and zero waste just aren’t on their radar. We’ve slowly introduced paper recycling, and I’m working on moving everyone away from those ridiculous pod coffees to a shared pot of French press coffee under the guise of being more sociable and team-oriented and  community-minded within the office (don’t laugh, because it’s actually working!).

But there’s still a fair way to go.

Last week I fished (excuse the pun) an empty tin of tuna out of the bin, gave it a rinse and left it on the side in order to take it home and save it from landfill. Someone went to throw it away and I jumped out of my chair, flailing my arms and saying “no no no no no, I’m going to take that home and recycle it.

Cue raised eyebrows. I’m used to people thinking my ideas and slightly strange, so that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The people in my office are slowly getting used to my strange ways, but last week we had a guy working with us who usually works at a different site, and he probably has no idea that I’m a “bit of a greenie”, as they like to say.

“I could tell you something something about recycling, but I won’t”, he said.

“Go on, tell me!”

“No no no. I don’t want to upset you.”

“Go on. You won’t upset me”.

Cue me persuading him to reveal his secrets. Eventually he relented. “Well, you know, I have a friend who knows a lot about these things. Of course, I recycle what I can, I do my bit, but he’s told me that recycling isn’t as good as people think.”

No kidding! Of course, I know a fair bit about waste myself, and having been to a number of waste recovery facility sites on tours and visits, I’m well aware that recycling isn’t the green solution that people think it is.

We compare notes, and bounce facts off of one another.

“In WA, only about a third of all waste generated is recycled at all.”

“A lot of the resources that are sent to recycling facilities aren’t actually recycled at all – their sent to landfill.”

“Anything that’s sent for recycling in a plastic bag is automatically sent to landfill – it’s too risky and time-consuming to unpack.”

“Any bottles, jars or containers that still contain liquid are not recycled but sent to landfill.”

“When people throw pillows, duvets, terracotta plant pots, light bulbs and even shredded paper into recycling streams it contaminates the waste and the whole shipment may get sent to landfill.”

“Glass is not recycled in our state – it’s either trucked to the next state or landfilled.”

“Most plastic and paper products collected at recycling facilities are shipped offshore to Asia for processing.”

I know that all of these facts are true. I’ve read enough reports, been to enough talks and seen enough with my own eyes not to doubt any of them for a second. It makes taking that small empty tin home seem like such a tiny drop in the ocean; such a small thing to do against the insurmountable problem of waste.

Yet I took that tin home anyway and recycled it.

Recycling bin

I’m not trying to kid myself. I know that waste disposal is a huge problem, and my recycling a single can of tuna isn’t going to save the world or make everything better. But what’s the alternative? Give up? I care about the planet, the environment and the people who live on it, and I’m going to take some responsibility for it. I believe that it’s the right thing to do. I might not be able to do everything, but I can do something, and focusing on what I can do is the best place to start.

There’s something else. I have hope. I honestly believe that most people simply don’t realise that we’re living in a system in crisis. They are so busy with their lives, doing the things that they’ve always done, that they just don’t know that there’s a problem. After all, there was a time when I thought recycling was enough. I thought I was being a responsible citizen, buying things in single-use disposable packages and then disposing of them appropriately in the correct recycling bin.

I believe that if I keep doing what I’m doing, and others join in and do their bit, then eventually the tide will turn. I’m not just talking about recycling. We’re never going to recycle our way to sustainable living. But it starts with our personal actions. It starts with the choices we make, and it grows from there. To the conversations we have, to the alternatives that we share, to the ideas that we spread.

I’m not saying it will be fast, or simple, or easy, but together we can make it happen.