Going zero waste: the why and the how

My introduction to zero-waste living came several years ago when a young woman, roughly my age, appeared on Channel 10’s the Project, toting a small jar that she said held one year’s worth of her household waste. I was gobsmacked. How was I hauling out a wheelie bin full of trash each week, when someone just like me could part with a few odds and ends across the entire year??

Interest firmly piqued, I began researching ways to reduce my household waste and why this was important. Some 67 million tonnes of garbage each year makes its way to hundreds of landfill sites – that’s 2.7 tonnes per person, per year!  The average domestic bin contains a whopping 60 percent organic matter, comprising food and garden waste that could have been composted. When organics decompose in landfill, methane is produced – a greenhouse gas implicated in global warming.

Waste management is too easy for us. We roll our bins out to the curb once a week and ‘poof!’, like magic, the rubbish disappears. But our trash is never really gone; it sits in an underground chemical wasteland – mounds of waste packed under rubber and clay, to seal in the offensive smell. Clay and flexible plastic line the earth underneath, protecting groundwater from a substance called leachate, the contaminated juices which trickle down from each gargantuan rubbish pile. Landfills require intensive long-term management to minimise environmental pollution, but they can only ever minimise it – Australia’s waste emissions still reached 12.1 megatonnes in the year to March 2019.

And before you look to products in glass, metal and cardboard packaging, recycling isn’t a perfect solution. Up until 2017, China was the main destination for much of Australia’s recyclables, but their National Sword Policy saw the country ban importation of 24 types of solid waste. More countries are cracking down on the quality and types of recyclables they will accept, largely, due to poor household recycling practices, which contaminate them. When Aussie householders incorrectly dispose of items in their yellow bin and fail to rinse recyclables, they can sentence perfectly reusable materials to a life in landfill.

Recyclables can sit warehoused for extended periods before finding a buyer, removing income and impetus for Aussie recycling facilities to process and house them. Just last year, major Victorian plant, SKM Recycling, became insolvent, dooming roughly 780 rubbish trucks full of recyclables to landfill in just one week.

A misguided emphasis on recycling misses the point that we need to be consuming less overall, refusing packaged items, reusing items already in existence and choosing products made from recycled materials, to ensure a continuing market for recyclables. Suss out the best thrift shops and bulk food stores in your area, buy takeout foods and drinks less often and dine in at your favourite restaurants and cafes instead, source personal care items with minimal packaging and/or refill capability, scope out clothing brands who responsibly source textiles and choose reusable containers, bottles and cups made from recycled materials.

Putting the right tools in place will make waste-free a cinch and give you every opportunity to do right by Mother Earth. Below is a list of handy items to have on hand as you commence your zero-waste journey. Some of these items can be sourced second hand, in new condition, via eBay, Gumtree or vintage and charity outlets:

  • Mason jars in various sizes to store bulk foods and personal care products;
  • 2 x reusable drink bottles (keep one in your car and one at home, so you’re never without);
  • A reusable coffee cup – we love the rCup because it’s made from used disposable coffee cups;
  • Glass or stainless-steel food containers, like these handy bento boxes and nesting containers from Ever Eco;
  • Compostable bin liners or newspaper for storing food scraps before they go into your compost or green bin;
  • Glass or stainless-steel storage containers, like these handy bento boxes for taking to your butcher;
  • Soap nuts and stainless-steel pegs for laundry;
  • A multitasking shampoo/conditioner/soap bar like this one from Shampoo with a Purpose, package-free skincare like Lush’s Naked range, or refillable beauty products like OmMade’s collection in Adelaide and Byron Bay Minerals’ makeup collection;
  • Reusable kitchen wipes, makeup wipes and baby wipes;
  • Reusable shopping and produce bags – keep some spares in your car or handbag so that you don’t leave home without them. Bonus points if they’re made from recycled materials like these ones from Onya.

Going waste-free requires a shakeup of the way we’ve been conditioned to think: most fresh fruit and vegetables don’t require separate bagging and can go straight into your supermarket trolley; meat can be bought in bulk, portioned out by you and frozen, rather than buying single portions on Styrofoam trays; why not bring your own reusable food container to a takeaway restaurant? And do you really need a straw in your drink when you have a perfectly functional mouth?

It’s worthwhile to remember that transitioning to zero waste is just that – a transition. It doesn’t happen instantly, but with one small, consistent step after another. Just like healthy eating or learning a new skill, you might slip up from time to time and that’s okay. Doing zero waste imperfectly is better than not doing it at all.

Since starting my low-waste journey, I’ve had two children, started a business, finished one degree and commenced another. A combination of late nights and perpetual exhaustion has led to the forgetting of reusable bags and drink bottles and sometimes resorting to the laziest available option, but I resolve to start fresh the next day and forge right ahead with my goal. It doesn’t matter if you trip up, what’s important is that you start.

Have you taken steps towards a zero-waste life? We’d love to hear about your journey and any tips that you may have to make the transition easier for others just starting out.

Leave a comment