Zero Waste at Home:
A Quick(ish) Guide to the Basics
Over the last year and a half my family has been trying to move towards a more climate-friendly way of living. This has involved a few different projects. The least expensive project, and one of the most impactful, has been moving towards Zero Waste at Home.
This series on a Zero Waste home will have posts about our efforts, and the efforts of many of the AutLoud team, on trying to reduce our impact on the planet while trying to declutter our lives (and our sensory environments!).
In my house this is very much still a work in progress. We are definitely more a ‘Less Waste at Home’ family now rather than a ‘Zero Waste at Home’ family, but we are working on it.
This in an introductory post. It’s by no means comprehensive.
What this post does do is look at what Zero Waste at Home is and why you should do it. It covers the basics of what (and what not) to do in the beginning, and discusses the impact this project has had on my life. Finally it rounds up with some very quick changes that you can make to start this journey.
What is Zero Waste Anyway?
“We must remember that individual action matters and that change is in our hands.” Bea Johnson
Zero Waste started with the manufacturing industry but has spread and grown since. The point is to reduce the waste in our systems, thus saving money and lessening our impact on this planet. There are lots of facets but it is about producing less waste, or no waste if you can. There are a few different parts to this, from cleaning up production, supply chains and transport, to reducing consumer demand for products/services that create waste, and to how we manage the waste we create.
For me, in this blog series, I am focusing on Zero Waste at Home. Individual Action. It is a way for me to contribute to the fight against climate change, to try to leave a better legacy. It doesn’t need me to cause systemic change, or get governments onside. No corporation, economy driven society, or hedge fund, can stop me doing my part at home. Better still, you can do it in a cost neutral way. You do not need to invest to start. Every step brings us closer to a circular economy. An economy that will reap benefits for our pockets, our heath, and our planet.
Zero Waste purists show mason jars or single bags holding the sum total of their household waste for a year. Undoubtedly that is a laudable goal, but for me it is completely unrealistic. Another book, “Zero Waste Living, the 80/20 Way” uses the Pareto Principle to look at it. It suggests that focusing on the right 20% of the changes can reduce our carbon footprint by 80%. As it happens I didn’t like the book. For me it was a bit too basic, there was nothing in it that you couldn’t pretty easily find online. The book gets a mention for adding that dose of reality to the process. The 80/20 approach is much more realistic for me. Perfect 20% of the time is much more likely than 100% of the time. Not that we are anywhere close to either figure!
That’s the nice part about moving towards a zero waste home though. You do not have to get zero, just keep at it. The efforts to get there all help, they all make a difference; and if enough people do it, it can bring real change. The more people who are trying to do this the better. Why? Because increased interest means more services will pop up to service the circular economy. Because more companies will produce sustainable products. Because more politicians will start to take it on, if only in a bid for votes. This is a situation where less definitely breeds more.
The 5 Steps
The five steps are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot, in that order. Together these steps help to reduce the impact of our race on our planet. They help to reduce consumer demand in most areas. They help build demand for environmentally sustainable products. Each encourages the development of services to support a circular economy such as secondhand markets and repair services. The result of it all is that we send significantly less waste for reprocessing at recycling plants, the waste we do produce is processable, and finally it ensures that nutrients are not lost to landfill but feed back into our environment. Win – Win – Win – Win.
This is a simple one, but probably the most important. Refuse the things you do not need. Stop adding to the demand for unnecessary stuff to be produced, mined , manufactured, and transported. This covers things like junk mail, straws, stirrer sticks, freebies, single use plastics, etc. Just say no, no, no. An example, we added a no junk mail sign to our door, and say things like “we’re trying to go plastic free” to politely refuse plastic cutlery.
Reduce the impact of your choices for things you cannot go without, like food, or clothing, or heating. This means simply using less where you can, but also looking at reducing packaging, looking at ingredients, toxicity, processes etc, and choosing the least bad options where you can’t. For non-consumables, like appliances, buy only what you need, buy the best quality you can afford to get the longest service possible from it. An example, I still need shampoo, and my effort to reduce the impact of this has been to try different shampoo bars. These come packaging free, and are physically smaller, so have much less impact in manufacturing and transport.
This is the one I have been enjoying most. This step is all about maximising the lifecycle of products and resources before they enter the waste systems. This includes Repairing, so mending damaged items, whether it is adding new buttons to a shirt or getting your washing machine fixed, repair where you can. It involves Repurposing items you no longer use for another function, so using old jars as containers, cutting up old linen for kitchen clothes, etc. When you cannot repair or repurpose, you can Sell or Donate your items, they can almost always be used by somebody else. This is another win-win. Finally it means reusing other peoples items, so try to buy secondhand first. These approaches have lots of benefits, extending the life of products, saving money, creating a demand for people to resell their items, and encourages secondhand shops and menders, and is a step towards a more sustainable, circular, economy.
Recycling should be the last resort, try not to get to the point where a resource needs to be recycled at all. That said you need to have a dedicated recycling system. Separate different types of recycling and make sure it is always clean. You can ruin a whole bale of recycling by including food waste.
By Rot we mean composting, so recycling of biodegradable food waste. Composting returns the nutrients and energy from food waste to the earth and helps to strengthen the soil we depend on for food. Don’t be fooled though, this is still recycling. Much better not to waste food to begin with.
Zero Waste the Wrong Way
It is really important to remember that reducing your impact does not mean consuming more. It does not mean you go out and replace all of your plastic storage boxes, bottles of shampoo and razors, B-rated appliances, etc., with more environmentally friendly items, followed by throwing away what you have. That just feeds into unnecessary demand. Use everything you have for as long as you can, and then use it some more. Only replace your storage boxes when your existing ones care no longer fit for purpose. You already own them, most of their damage has already been done, so make the most of them!
This is key, there is a whole Zero Waste marketplace out there hoping to separate you from your money, by selling you yet more stuff. It’s a rabbit hole, a really expensive, unnecessary and sometimes unethical rabbit hole. It is selling beautiful stainless steel lunch boxes, glass straws and bamboo cutlery and organic cotton everything. The prices are almost always premium and the marketing is effective. I hear them call to me, and likely so will you. But you need to say ‘no’. Try to remember you already have reusable cutlery, you can likely replace plastic straws with not using a straw, etc….
Avoid this rabbit hole! Buying more stuff is rarely consistent with Zero Waste.
Zero Waste Review: A Happier #ActuallyAutistic Home
Parts of the 5 principles of Zero Waste at Home, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot, have been easy to introduce in our home. Other parts have been trickier. Some things we have tried have really failed, for example shampoo bars, I have tried at least 8 with no success. Sometimes you need a product immediately and cannot wait for a secondhand version to come available. Some recommended zero waste changes I cannot entertain at all. For example my electric toothbrush is going nowhere, and cloth diapers are a no no. We have reduced the amount of takeaways but not banned them altogether. That said, many of the easier changes were quick and required no effort, and a lot of the others only needed a little effort.
I expected moving towards Zero Waste would make me happier. It aligns well with my values and has eased my worry about not trying to do what I can. What I wasn’t expecting was an improvement in quality of life beyond that. We have saved money overall, not huge bundles but still. We eat really nice bread. We spend more time outside. Our clothes do not have strong synthetic smells. There is much less clutter in our home (so it is more organised, easier to clean and less triggering). From clothes, to toys, and to furniture, what we bring into our house is of a higher quality. This is true of secondhand or new items. Overall they are much more tactile, less plasticky, and generally much pleasanter to be around than those they have replaced. From a sensory perspective the environment has really improved. My #ActuallyAutistic instincts are loving it.
For me, focusing on slow, sustainable change is always more successful. Our family have focused on making the changes we can make, and ensuring they can be sustained. We are still early in our journey, and hope to keep making changes. The easier wins, all listed in this article, together make a big impact. Would it impress a Zero Waste purist? No, not at all. Does it a make a difference? Yes, absolutely.
Quickest of the Quick Wins
This section is not meant to be long. This is just a quick run through the changes we made that were easiest to do. There are lots more recommendations and options discussed in part 2 of this series. They took almost no time, money, or spoons to implement, and are easy to sustain. I would recommend starting with these and then, when you are ready, going deeper.
Add a “No Junk Mail” sign to your door.
Sign up with your local library and newspapers online, to swap magasines and papers for digital content.
Use cotton shopping bags.
Refuse to take, or buy, single use items (not just plastics) as often as you can.
Try to buy loose Fruit and Vegetables only and other foods where you can.
Invest in an Eco-Egg or similar when you next run out of washing powder.
Swap to safety razors when you next run out.
Add filled bottles of water to your toilet cisterns if not already low flow (glass ideally btw, so as to avoid microplastics where we can).
Add a container for recyclable waste in your bathrooms.
Think second hand first when buying items.
Learn how to use your existing bins properly.
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