Whilst Earth Day should be a celebration of our Great Mother – her beauty, abundance, and the truly awe-inspiring diversity that makes up this planet – it's important that we also use this day to acknowledge what we need to do better, to best serve and protect this one home we have.
While reducing our animal consumption remains one of the most important things we can do to truly make an impact on halting or reversing climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, another area that I’m passionate about is trying to live as zero-waste as possible.
What is Zero-waste?
There are lots of definitions of zero-waste out there, but, essentially, the movement focuses on trying to reduce our waste as much as possible – that means things sent to landfill, burned, or dumped in the ocean. While recycling is better than throwing things out, there are still lots of problems with recycling, not least that we don’t really know how much of what we put in the recycling bin is actually recycled (it’s estimated that only 9% of plastic is recycled), so one part of zero-waste living, for many people, includes trying to live as plastic-free as possible. Rather than recycling, the emphasis is therefore on re-using, up-cycling, donating, or not purchasing in the first place, with recycling being a last resort (it’s at least better than landfill).
If you’re inspired to try to reduce your waste, here are my top 10 tips for how to begin. Remember it’s all a journey – you don’t need to change everything at once, or to throw out all your plastic containers (sometimes keeping and repurposing the plastic is better than trying to recycle it, and definitely better than putting it in the bin!). Small steps are often more sustainable in the long-run, so start by making small swaps when you feel ready (or when something needs to be replaced anyway).
#1 Ditch the take-away coffee cups in favour of a ‘keep cup’
This is one of the first things I did on my journey towards zero-waste (I was also living in Sydney at the time where everyone had a keep-cup so I felt left out without one!). You might think, ‘it’s only the lid of takeaway cups that are plastic, so how bad can that be?’ But imagine how many coffees are served each day, and if everyone thought like that... that’s a lot of waste generated (and we can’t be sure how much of it is, in fact, recycled). By using your own cup you’re preventing a huge amount of binned cups and lids each year, not to mention keep cups keep your coffee/tea hotter for longer than a takeaway cup, and most cafes now offer a discount if you bring your own cup (which, if you’re buying a coffee every day, really adds up!).
#2 Keep reusable cutlery in your bag
We can’t always know when we’re going to have to buy lunch or food out, or sometimes we pack our own lunch but forget the cutlery! And, while many shops have switched from plastic takeaway cutlery to wooden ones, these still end up in the bin (plus the texture of wood on my tongue gives me the ‘ick’ - is it just me?!). A great tip is to always keep a set of reusable cutlery in the bag that you use most often (or have one in each bag!). This is also true for straws – if you’re someone who loves to get an iced coffee in summer, or regularly buys protein shakes or smoothies after the gym, then having a reusable straw in your bag is a great way to avoid having to pick up a disposable straw with your drink (while paper ones are better than plastic, they still contribute to landfill, and tend to go super soggy when you’re drinking!).
Having a little cutlery set or straw pouch doesn’t take up much room in your bag, and nowadays there are plenty of affordable options. Personally I go for stainless steel, as I don’t like the feel of bamboo against my teeth, but bamboo is lighter, so doesn’t weigh down your bag as much.
#3 Pack a lunch
Ok, so you brought your own cutlery, but the lunch you had to buy on the way to work, whether it’s a healthy salad, a wrap, or a takeaway sandwich, was still wrapped in plastic. If you can pack your own lunch then not only are you reducing your plastic waste (especially as there might not be plastic recycling bins around town or at your work), but you’re also saving money, AND it’s way healthier for you. Win, win, win! Of course, it takes a bit of planning and organisation, but once you get into the habit of it, it’s a no-brainer. In our house we will often double the recipe that we’re using for dinner, so that we both have lunch for the next day. When I was solo, I used to prep a few days’ lunches on a Sunday, and I would choose a recipe that travels well, so something like a soup, salad, or my chickpea ‘tuna’ (recipe on Instagram!). If you have a microwave at work then I recommend packing your lunch in a glass (microwave-safe) Tupperware rather than plastic (to avoid leaching toxins from the plastic into the food). If you don’t have a microwave at work then choose something cold like a salad, chickpea ‘tuna’, or a wrap with hummus and falafel – yum!
#4 Shop in greengrocers/choose plastic-free produce
Although we can (in some areas) recycle plastic, we don’t know how much of this is, in fact, recycled (often, if it’s contaminated with food waste, the whole batch gets sent to landfill). Plus, many types of plastic still can’t be recycled at all. Part of zero-waste is also the idea of reducing our waste in total, including our recycling ‘waste’. This means thinking about our consumption patterns, asking ourselves if we need this thing in the first place, and questioning why we have so much (unnecessary) packaging on certain items. This is especially true of fruit and veg (why do they need to wrap bananas in plastic when Nature gave them their own little protective packaging?!). Wherever possible I try to choose fruit and veg that’s completely loose (I take my own bags and pop them straight in). That’s not always possible in the supermarket, but if you have a greengrocer or – even better – a farmers’ market or fruit and veg market near you – this is a fantastic place to shop for plastic-free produce (plus you’re shopping locally, and you can find out where your food is coming from).
#5 Use refills
If you use shower gel, shampoo, washing up liquid, or any other kind of cleaning products that come in a plastic bottle, a great step towards zero-waste is to see if you can refill them once they’re empty, rather than buying a whole new plastic bottle each time. You might need to be flexible and choose a brand that has refill options, since not all do, but once you’ve found one you like, not only are you reducing your plastic consumption, but also saving money (refills tend to be cheaper). Many health food stores now offer refill options, as well as obviously zero-waste shops!
#6 Swap liquid soap to bar soap
Although refills are definitely better for the planet than consuming more plastic each time, it’s not a perfect solution, as there’s still plastic involved (in the larger container). Better still is to try to just avoid the plastic altogether and go for a bar of soap wherever possible. These days you can even find shampoo and conditioner bars, although I’m yet to find one that works as well as liquid shampoo (if you have recommendations please pop them in the comments!).
#7 Take your own shopping bags
This is probably one of the simplest of all the steps here, and one that received a lot of public attention several years ago (pre-pandemic), yet many people still have to buy a plastic bag at the supermarket because they didn’t bring their own. The trick is to keep at least one shopping bag in every handbag so that you’re never caught out! Some shopping bags can even fold really small so they don’t take up much space at all. We also keep several plastic bags in the car (since we need a car to get to the supermarket) so that we don’t need to remember to pack them each time.
#8 Compostable sponges and scourers
When we think of plastic often we just think of plastic shopping bags, or the plastic bags that our produce is packed in... but plastic is much more insidious than that, and often in things we would never even have thought of, like our dishwashing sponges, or shower loofahs. Luckily there are some great brands out there making fantastic biodegradable versions of these kind of items, so that, when you do have to eventually throw them out, at least you know they will decompose on landfill. Scourers might be made of metals but these too usually get thrown in the regular waste and sent to landfill – a great alternative is a bamboo scourer (or made from other natural fibres) that will decompose in landfill.
#9 Swap to a bamboo toothbrush and compostable floss
If you’ve ever watched a documentary on plastic pollution in the ocean, you will probably have seen things like plastic toothbrushes and razors ending up washed ashore beaches in their thousands. This makes me so sad, especially now that we have great biodegradable, or longer-use, options, such as safety razors (made of wood) and bamboo toothbrushes. Similarly, think of all the metres of dental floss you (hopefully!) get through in a month... Normal dental floss is made of plastic fibres but you can now find biodegradable and compostable floss made from natural fibres such as corn.
#10 Compost your veggies
One of the biggest sources of waste in most industrialised countries is food waste. While there are things we can do to try to reduce our food waste as much as possible (which I’ll cover in a future article!), there are certain items that inevitably end up wasted (such as banana peel). If you don’t have animals in your family to eat some of these kinds of scraps, they can take up a huge proportion of the waste you send to landfill... Unless you can turn it into compost. Many smaller towns provide you food compost bins that get collected, but, if you don’t have such a scheme in your area, you can often find other ways to compost... Like finding out if there are farms just out of town that you could collect your food waste and deliver it to them regularly, or communal veg gardens that might be willing to compost. It takes a little bit of effort to find these things out but with tools like Google we can find new ways of doing things that we might not even have thought about, and it makes such a huge difference to the planet.
Takeaway and Resources
So there you have it, 10 steps you can take today to move closer towards zero-waste. remember, no one is perfect, and not a competition, and it's also not a marathon! You don't have to change everything at once, but maybe choose one area to focus on each month, and just be mindful about your consumption and purchasing choices.
While you can get many of these zero-waste alternatives in health food stores or zero-waste stores, if you don't have access to these, there are some great websites that I have used before for natural and eco-friendly items. My favourites are:
If you have any other recommendations please let us know in the comments!
Happy Earth Day!