What is Zero Waste?
by Katherine Hynes
Cleaning up after a celebration at my kids’ school, I watched as my fellow volunteers picked up the corners of the plastic tablecloths, wrapped the used plastic and paper plates, cups and cutlery, the food scraps and other packaging into a tidy parcel, and placed the lot on top of the garbage bins for collection. It was a pivotal moment for me. I knew we had to do better. And it was the beginning of my experiment with the ‘zero waste lifestyle’.
Zero Waste is a philosophy which aims to send as little as possible to landfill. Author Bea Johnson, in her book Zero Waste Home, came up with five actionable principles (the 5 Rs) to be followed in this order: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.
If I followed Bea’s guide, could my family also produce no more than a small jar of waste in one year, like Bea’s family?
The thing is, what I’ve learned along the way is that Zero Waste is an aspiration. It’s not a compulsory ‘end result’ for everyone. Whatever changes you make to reduce waste will make a difference, so find what works best for you.
It’s taken me years to develop and understand the zero waste principles, and I’m still not completely zero waste and probably never will be, but that’s OK. Slowly, slowly is the pace for long term change and benefits.
If you’re new to Zero Waste, please take just one suggestion at a time so you’re not overwhelmed and eventually give up in frustration.
Ok. Let’s dive in.
The most effective way to reduce rubbish is to refuse it in the first place, especially single use plastics.
- At the supermarket, refuse to buy fruit and veggies packaged in plastic. Choose loose instead, and take your own reusable produce bags.
- Shop where you can take your own containers, jars and bags. You can do this at bulk food stores and most farmers’ markets. But also ask your butcher and bakery if you can BYO containers and bags. If they say no, try another.
- Put a ‘No junk mail’ sign on your mailbox, and ‘return to sender’ any mail not addressed to you.
- If a loved one wants to buy you a gift, suggest an experience over a physical item.
- When ordering a drink, say “No straw, thanks”.
- When dining out, politely refuse serviettes and plastic cutlery. If you plan to order takeaway for lunch, bring a reusable container and set of reusable cutlery.
- Avoid buying foods and toiletries in plastic packaging, and look for items packaged in glass and metal that can be recycled indefinitely.
- Politely refuse conference bags, shopping receipts, flyers, brochures, water in single use plastic bottles, and so called ‘freebies’ such as dental hygiene packs from the dentist and little plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner in hotel rooms. If most people refused items like this, companies would stop offering them.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the world is full of too much stuff, and we’re using up resources at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. It’s time to reduce our consumption of everything.
- Look around your home. What items do you have that aren’t regularly being used? Wouldn’t it be better to give them away or sell them so those resources can be used?
- Question whether you’re overusing household products. Could you reduce your use of shampoo and washing powder and still get the job done?
- Before buying anything new, ask yourself do I really need it? Could I perhaps borrow or rent it instead, especially if it’s used infrequently.
- To avoid food waste, plan meals ahead of time and make a shopping list. Use up food in the fridge and pantry first, and only buy what you need.
Reusing what we already have is great for the planet and for the wallet.
- Try to buy everything secondhand. Clothing, furniture and most household goods can be bought at op shops, or online at Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace. Even better, they’re available free of charge on Freecycle or your local Facebook ‘Pay it Forward’ or ‘Buy Nothing’ groups.
- Switch to reusables – reusable coffee cups, drink bottles, bags, hankies, and a reusable straw if you need it. Use beeswax wraps instead of cling wrap, and cut up an old towel to replace paper towels.
- When something breaks, repair it. If you’re not a DIY kind of person, support local businesses. Take clothes to the tailor, shoes to the boot repairer, electricals to an appliance repairer, or hire a handy person to come to you.
- When an item is no longer needed for its intended purpose, consider how else it could be useful, eg old newspaper is a sustainable alternative to dog poo bags. Ask your local cafe if you can have their old copies for free.
Recycling alone won’t ‘save the planet’, but it’s still a very important practice that keeps resources ‘in use’ and hopefully not wasted in landfill. But to keep recycling as a viable commercial option, we must also support and buy items made from recycled materials.
- Google your local council’s recycle program and learn exactly what you can and can’t recycle.
- Find out when your council’s next free e-waste and chemical waste drop-off event is happening to responsibly dispose of electrical items, household chemicals and old paints.
- For items your council doesn’t recycle, google TerraCycle or Planet Ark’s handy Australian recycling directory called ‘Recycle Near You’ to find your local drop off points. If it’s a metal item, call your nearest scrap metal dealer to see if they’ll take it. They may even pay you for the item.
- Soft ‘scrunchable’ plastics such as bread bags, pasta bags and chip packets can be recycled through the REDcycle program. In Australia there are special REDcycle bins at many Coles and Woolworths stores. If your store doesn’t yet have one, ask the manager.
The 5th and final Zero Waste principle is Rot. Did you know that the average household’s garbage bin contains up to 40% biodegradable kitchen scraps? Sending this waste to an airless landfill, locked in with non-biodegradables such as plastic, creates the greenhouse gas methane which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Get a compost bin, worm farm, or Bokashi Bin. Check with your local council in case they give discounts. They may even run ‘how to’ courses.
- If you live in an apartment or don’t have room for a compost bin, check out the free composting app Share Waste to find a neighbour who’ll take your scraps. Many local Community Gardens also offer their compost bins for locals. Be sure to check with your host exactly what they’ll accept (most take fruit and vegetables scraps only, while others may also accept meat, proteins, and bread/cereals leftovers).
- Switch to biodegradable alternatives to everyday plastic packaged products. Bamboo alternatives include toothbrushes, cotton buds, hairbrushes and bandages, while natural coir, grass fibres and cotton are used to make biodegradable pet brushes, string bags and bottle brushes.
So there you have it, the 5 principles of Zero Waste… and surprisingly the benefits are not just environmental. It might sound corny, but just like the Marie Kondo ‘tidying’ phenomena, a little bit of ‘magic’ happens when you intentionally reduce the amount of waste you produce.
In my experience, I’m healthier from eating less processed packaged food, happier from living true to my values, and less stressed from reducing clutter. I have a strengthened sense of community from joining the ‘sharing economy’ and making new friends. I’ve also noticed the ‘ripple effect’ my actions are having on those around me.
Best wishes to you and all the zero waste changes you’re making.
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If you would like to talk more about Zero Waste or have tips to add, join the conversation over on our Facebook Group ‘Zero Waste Australia’.
Katherine Hynes is an Actor, Voiceover Artist and Zero Waste advocate. She is also the co-founder of The Ekologi Store – zero waste essentials for sustainable living.
Photos: Felicity Dunne and Natanya Shearer-Stanton.