I’m not sure this is a great idea.
Not because I don’t believe in dramatically changing how we live to try to save where we live, but because my family and I have already done so.
We have been a zero waste household since 2018. Our ultimate aim is to produce no waste in our everyday life, whether we’re at home, at work or school, socialising, on holiday or getting from A to B.
From food packaging to clothes, cleaning products to kids’ toys, we try our damnedest not to produce any waste that wouldn’t compost. That means we don’t use single-use plastic, for example. We try not to buy any new plastic at all in fact, including synthetic material. There isn’t a single bin in our house.
At first, with two very young children and both of us working full time, the shift felt extreme. Sometimes it still does.
We don’t bother with supermarkets, corner shops or service stations anymore because everything is wrapped in plastic. We buy our food in jars, metal containers and bags we take with us to shops where we weigh out what we need. Overnight we stopped buying any pre-prepared food and most takeaways, everything is cooked from absolute scratch.
In the bathroom, we switched to soap from shower gels and bottled shampoo, our toothbrushes are bamboo, my son wears reusable nappies (a revelation as it turned out) and we make our own cleaning products (easier and more effective than I expected).
If we buy things for our home, they are secondhand and made from natural materials if at all possible, including clothes, furniture, electrical appliances if we can’t fix what we have or borrow something, DIY materials like paint, you name it.
Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Show all 20 1 /20 Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures California In this decade, humans have become ever more aware of climate change. Calls for leaders to act echo around the globe as the signs of a changing climate become ever more difficult to ignore Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Athens, Greece Fierce wildfires have flared up in numerous countries. The damage being caused is unprecedented: 103 people were killed in wildfires last year in California, one of the places best prepared, best equipped to fight such blazes in the world AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Redding, California Entire towns have been razed. The towns of Redding and Paradise in California were all but eliminated in the 2018 season AP Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Athens, Greece While wildfires in Greece (pictured), Australia, Indonesia and many other countries have wrought chaos to infrastructure, economies and cost lives AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Carlisle, England In Britain, flooding has become commonplace. Extreme downpours in Carlisle in the winter of 2015 saw the previous record flood level being eclipsed by two feet AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Hebden Bridge, England Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has flooded repeatedly in the past decade, with the worst coming on Christmas Day 2015. Toby Smith of Climate Visuals, an organisation focused on improving how climate change is depicted in the media, says: “Extreme weather and flooding, has and will become more frequent due to climate change. An increase in the severity and distribution of press images, reports and media coverage across the nation has localised the issue. It has raised our emotions, perception and personalised the effects and hazards of climate change.” Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Somerset, England Out west in Somerset, floods in 2013 led to entire villages being cut off and isolated for weeks Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Dumfries, Scotland “In summer 2012, intense rain flooded over 8000 properties. In 2013, storms and coastal surges combined catastrophically with elevated sea levels whilst December 2015, was the wettest month ever recorded. Major flooding events continued through the decade with the UK government declaring flooding as one of the nation’s major threats in 2017,” says Mr Smith of Climate Visuals Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures London, England Weather has been more extreme in Britain in recent years. The ‘Beast from the East’ which arrived in February 2018 brought extraordinarily cold temperatures and high snowfall. Central London (pictured), where the city bustle tends to mean that snow doesn’t even settle, was covered in inches of snow for day PA Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures London, England Months after the cold snap, a heatwave struck Britain, rendering the normally plush green of England’s parks in Summer a parched brown for weeks AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures New South Wales, Australia Worsening droughts in many countries have been disastrous for crop yields and have threatened livestock. In Australia, where a brutal drought persisted for months last year, farmers have suffered from mental health problems because of the threat to their livelihood Reuters Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Tonle Sap, Cambodia Even dedicated climate skeptic Jeremy Clarkson has come to recognise the threat of climate change after visiting the Tonle Sap lake system in Cambodia. Over a million people rely on the water of Tonle Sap for work and sustinence but, as Mr Clarkson witnessed, a drought has severley depleted the water level Carlo Frem/Amazon Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Addis Ababa, Ethiopia In reaction to these harbingers of climate obliteration, some humans have taken measures to counter the impending disaster. Ethiopia recently planted a reported 350 million trees in a single day AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Morocco Morocco has undertaken the most ambitious solar power scheme in the world, recently completing a solar plant the size of San Francisco AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures London, England Electric cars are taking off as a viable alternative to fossil fuel burning vehicles and major cities across the world are adding charging points to accomodate AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Purmerend, The Netherlands Cities around the world are embracing cycling too, as a clean (and healthy) mode of transport. The Netherlands continues to lead the way with bikes far outnumbering people Jeroen Much/Andras Schuh Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Xiamen, China Cycling infrastructure is taking over cities the world over, in the hope of reducing society’s dependency on polluting vehicles Ma Weiwei Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Chennai, India Despite positive steps being taken, humans continue to have a wildly adverse effect on the climate. There have been numerous major oil spills this decade, the most notable being the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures Amazon rainforest, Brazil More recently, large swathes of the Amazon rainforest were set alight by people to clear land for agriculture AFP/Getty Climate change: Decade’s defining issue in pictures California This decade may have seen horrors but it has led to an understanding that the next decade must see change if human life is to continue Getty
It took about three months to retrain our brains away from the automatic purchases we’d made for decades to consuming almost everything differently. We now do it a better way, I believe, for my family’s health, my children’s future and the local, national and global environment they will still be calling home long after I’m food for worms.
Taking matters into our own hands has been empowering to the point of intoxicating. It has helped curb a fair bit of eco-anxiety, we’ve lost a few pounds and, contrary to popular belief, it has already saved us a small fortune.
Upping the ante on our waste has also refocused our minds on other damaging aspects of our modern life, so we don’t fly anymore, our diet is increasingly plant-based and our car is electric. We’re trying to reduce the amount of water we use and take care of what we put down the drain, that kind of thing.
We’re now two years into this lifestyle. It’s normal, and it’s a lot easier than it used to be because it’s normal. We’ve got over the hurdles of our first zero waste Christmas, holiday, birthday party. This is how it is going to be, how we believe it needs to be for the rest of our lives.
Our families and friends, work colleagues and schoolmates have stopped assuming this is a phase, or just ignoring our wishes, and have started asking for support as they cut down waste themselves.
And yet at the back of my head I’ve got doubts. I can’t shake the idea that I’m kidding myself over what we’re really achieving with all this.
It’s not that we’re too insignificant to make a difference. We get that thrown at us a lot, mostly from people who somehow think our lifestyle decisions are all about judging them and get defensive.
I obviously don’t agree anyway. I have two tiny children and I refuse to believe that I can’t help protect their future. My usual response is “It’s only one plastic bag, said 7 billion people”. I think I stole it off Instagram or something.
No, my nagging doubt is about what truths I might find if I dig a bit deeper.
Take something simple, like recycling. Most of the nation does it in some way. Ours is almost exclusively metal and glass, and there’s a lot less of it than there used to be.
But I know the recycling process requires transport, energy to transform the material and more energy to reintroduce the renewed item back into the consuming system. Should we be “zero recycling” too?
And, if you start thinking about it, what about the environmental impact of the restaurants we go? The places we stay away from home? How our friends make the food we eat when we visit? If I really want to see this through, should I be asking our local café what they have had to throw in the bin to make me that sandwich? If they have, should I stop using it? Should I stop supporting my local economy, adding to the risk that it closes and people who live in my little town have to start driving miles for a cuppa and a cake?
What about all the non-physical consuming I do? What’s the carbon impact of the email I’ll send my editor about this blog post?
If I pursue zero waste to its limits, will I ultimately find that there are almost no services I can use? Will a truly zero waste life effectively mean dropping out of society? And if so, which compromise is one too far? Where do I draw the line between looking after the environment and looking after my family and myself? How much effort am I willing to make and at what cost?
Because these last two are the questions I suspect we’re all asking about our environmental responsibilities right now, here’s my 2020 pledge. I’m going to up my game, I’m going to go for true zero waste to see what that really means.
I’ll review the decisions that have got our family to where we are now, do the research on our real life impact and then take it to extremes to find out what is possible for your average household.
So, as I say, I’m not sure this is a great idea.