If you want to combat any enemy, first you have to know what you are dealing with. So when I wanted to scale down the waste our household produced, I went routing through the bins. Literally.
What I found was probably very similar to what you would in any western-world household. Most of it was packaging – for food, drinks or cosmetics. Then there were recyclable items like PET bottles, cardboard, magazines and papers, tins, glass bottles and organic waste.
I used to live in an apartment block where there were recycling bins but there was no option to separate organic waste. You can imagine the look (and smell) of the bins whenever they missed a collection. So I was very happy when we moved to a house where we could pick our waste collection company – and I picked one that collected food waste separately. Score!
That was even before I embarked on the Zero Waste journey so now I am pretty used to separation of green and other waste. With that sorted, there were the recyclables and the ‘general waste’ to plough through.
Recycling is great but refusing, reducing and reusing is still better. We try to cut down on buying stuff in general even though it comes in a recyclable packaging. One of the very first alternatives we adopted was switching from buying sparkling water in plastic bottles to the Soda Stream system. The gas cylinders are reusable and you even get a discount when you bring your old cylinder to the store. This had significantly helped reduce the recyclables because sparkling water is popular in our little household! An added bonus is that we don’t have to carry all the heavy bottles from the shop!
We also learned to love our tap water which (filtered) tastes great! This, in combination with reusable stainless steel bottles, cuts down another big batch of plastic waste! Oh and as for all the cokes, 7-ups and other sugary soft drinks full of god-knows-what, we just stop buying them. The only soft drink we buy in a PET bottle is a natural mango aloe vera juice.
“Mango Fizz” – the juice diluted with ⅔ of sparkling water – is my boyfriend’s beverage of choice :). You might argue that that’s also creating waste but I am trying to find a sustainable balance for our life that will work on a long-term basis and compromises are part of that!
So in this way, I went through all the recyclables and consciously divided them into two simple categories and courses of action: avoidable – stop buying – and non-avoidable (yet) – buy (much) less.
When I moved over to the ‘general waste’ pile, that’s where it got a bit tricky. Mostly because about 85% of it was packaging. A modern western life really seems to have an obsession in packing everything. Some of this might be necessary for transport but there is a lot of double or triple layers of ‘protective’ paper or plastic that is far from necessary. Take a simple pack of sliced ham or cheese. Not only are those 6 slices packed in a plastic box but they are separated from each other by a piece of plastic film. That’s such a waste! But sadly, it seems to be the norm.
The easiest thing is to buy less processed packaged food …you’d think. But here in Ireland it is quite challenging to buy even the ingredients for home cooking without layers of the wasteful packaging. Fruit and vegetables, which are perfectly fine in their own peels and outer layers of leaves, are often thrown into a plastic bag – just so that it’s easier to stick the label with a barcode on them.
It also depends where I want to buy my food. Farmers’ markets are great altogether but if there are none at a convenient distance from where I live or work, I will hardly visit them regularly. Burn the petrol in a car just to get some fruit and veg does not add up for me. There is one market nearby but it only opens one day for two hours. I went there a few times but it’s more of a baked-goods-and-preserves type of market – things I like making myself so don’t want to buy them. But I made a resolution to visit more often – especially during the summer when there will be, hopefully, more fresh produce to be bought.
I really want to support my local small fruit & veg shop but they pack everything – 6 apples on a polystyrene tray wrapped in cling film and sold to you in a plastic bag. I had a chat with them about selling loose produce but it hasn’t stuck for now. If I am really in need, I buy a pack of apples in there, don’t take the plastic bag and bring the polystyrene tray back. Then the only waste is the bit of cling film. As I said, compromises.
There are no bulk bin sections in the supermarkets here or dedicated bulk stores like in other European cities and America. Shopping for things with no packaging (or with the least packaging possible) can be challenging…and it does take a bit of planning to not make shopping a chore. But it’s totally worth it.
Next week, I tell you more about my other shopping solutions!