Our Zero Waste Journey
By Ally Hawkes
I looked in amazement at my neighbor’s overflowing trash bins waiting to be picked up by the rubbish truck. I was smug in my thoughts, ‘oh gosh, ours is nothing like that,’ and then my neighbor joked with me that our bins looked similar – overflowing with trash almost spilling out…
It was one of those moments of both horror and realization that I no longer ‘walked the talk.’ I do regular park and beach clean-ups, picking up plastics and litter off the beach, but did I care about what I was putting into a landfill? No.
A landfill has many issues. I used to think what I put into my landfill trash bin would nicely rot away in the landfill making wonderful compost that would help to make a good thing out of my trash. How wrong I was. A landfill is a huge problem right across the globe. To make a landfill tip, the ground is sealed with a liner, and the trash piled in to decompose slowly, creating liquid (leachate) and gases (methane) as it breaks down. Some materials in a landfill never completely breakdown, they break up into micro particles never to go away or leave our planet. Did you know that every plastic toothbrush or disposable razor you’ve ever used in your life is still somewhere on the planet either in a landfill, in the ocean or the ground somewhere?
That’s where our journey started. I’m part of a family of four adults, a dog, and a cat. We live in a 3 bedroom house in an urban neighborhood. I began to research how we could reduce our household waste and I had to get my family on board. We decided that we would have a goal of reducing both our landfill waste and our recycling to half of what it was. (If you want a shock, check how much your city actually recycles. In my city, only 25% of what we put into our recycling bin gets recycled, it’s not a case of less landfill waste and more recycling. Recycling isn’t the answer) We did a bin audit as gross as it sounds, we emptied the contents of our kitchen trash bin and sorted through it. The main thing we realized was that we were putting a lot of kitchen waste into a landfill that could be composted… but we didn’t have a home compost system.
We set up two worm farms. These are amazing! Not only do these hardworking little worms munch through the waste, but they produce the best compost and juice called “worm tea” which makes great garden fertilizer. They don’t smell and don’t take up much room but they are fussy eaters. We bought two Bokashi composting systems to take the waste that the worms don’t like. The bins sit out on our back deck. When the waste has fermented then it gets dug into the ground and the compost that comes out of it is just beautiful. It goes on to our small vegetable garden, where we grow some of our own vegetables.
The next area we tackled was packaging. It’s crazy how much plastic, boxes, trays, and foil bags our food comes in. We started shopping at a Farmers Market on the weekend. We take our own fabric bags and containers and fill them with what we choose to buy that week. We also found a trader who fills glass bottles with fresh fruit juice. We wash the bottles and get them refilled the next week and get a discount on the refills. There is another trader who sells Indian street food. I take my own containers and get samosa, dosa mix, bhajis, and dahl, then at home I sort them into smaller containers for the fridge and freezer and that’s my work lunches sorted. Easy.
I also discovered a bulk store in my neighborhood. I take my own containers and get them filled with all the pantry staples my family uses – pasta, rice, lentils, oils, vinegars, maple syrup, cereals and they even sell treats! This helped considerably with reducing our packaging waste.
The second area we worked on reducing was bathroom products. We found a store that sells bulk sizes of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and package-free soap.
There are times when I wonder if I’m doing enough. Probably not, but I am doing something. I have those moments when I’ve looked in my bag and found that despite using my own bag and container for take-out sushi, the server has put a paper napkin and disposable chopsticks in my bag. The aim is not perfection, but to do something positive towards waste reduction.
Sometimes a Zero Waste or Low Waste lifestyle can be touted as a lifestyle of privilege or expensive. My experience is the opposite. We save money living this way. Sometimes some items may cost a little more, but I’m buying in the quantities I need so I’m not wasting what I don’t need to buy. I think the way we used to live was so wasteful both with the food we were throwing away and the packaging we were throwing away.
Our economy is set up to be linear, not circular, so at first, it may seem a bit strange or odd to ask at the deli counter to put olives in your own jar, or a loaf of bread into your own bag. It gets easier the more you do it. Remember that we are trailblazers here, the more people that do it, the more it will become mainstream. Be brave!
Anyone can do this. It doesn’t take any special skills, need special equipment or expensive ‘Zero Waste Kits’ just use what you have. You don’t have to shop at a special store, many supermarkets have bulk sections so you can use your own jars or containers, use your own bags when buying produce, choose items with the least amount of packing and replace single-use items with reusable. Set yourself easy goals and it does make a difference.
Here are some of our easy changes and swaps:
- Bamboo toilet paper (wood pulp is a long process requiring chemicals to make paper products) we buy 48 rolls in a box (no plastic wrap)
- Taking our own containers to the supermarket and refill store
- Refusing any single-use items – coffee cups, water bottles, straws, chopsticks, napkins and replacing them with reusable items
- Using fabric cloths instead of paper towels
- Using our own containers for takeout
- Growing our own food in a small home garden
- Eating plant-based, meat production is very resource-intensive
- Using cloth bags instead of plastic bags for most things
- Using wax wraps instead of plastic wrap and foil
- Buying in the biggest size we can if we can’t get something without packaging
- Buying local, shopping local
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About the author, Ally Hawkes:
Ally lives in Auckland, New Zealand with her husband, two adult sons, dog Roux and cat Coco. She strongly believes one person can make a difference in the world, and challenges everyone to be the person to make a difference.