In 2016 I set myself the challenge to look for ways to reduce waste. It consisted mainly in monitoring what went in my rubbish (mostly plastic packaging) and consistently looking for ways around it. The phrase ‘Reduce Reuse Recycle’ sounds engaging, but step into a convenience shop and you notice that most items are packaged – down to the individual cabbage sometimes. So how can one reduce?
I decided to experiment on this theme for a year and question every packaged product I thought I needed/wanted and either :
- look for an unpackaged version
- look for a less packaged version
- make it myself from unpackaged or less packaged ingredients
- do without, or…
- go ahead and buy it in all of its (un-)glorious packaging – for now.
My motivation for starting this drop-in-the-ocean challenge was manifold:
- I like challenges and experiments.
- I questioned the function of some packaging. It makes sense for the transportation of rice from South-East Asia; less so for individual cabbages. Yet I may be missing something!
- I often find it difficult to understand ingredient lists, labels and symbols on manufactured goods. I’m interested: What is in it? Do I really want it? Is it clean? Is this packaging recyclable?
- I never managed to find enjoyment in taking fours bins down two flights of stairs weekly.
- We talk about the fact that we recycle, but how about non-recyclables? Also, recyclable materials aren’t recyclable indefinitely.
- I’m concerned about whales and their right to have a plastic-free diet.
Here is a selection of a few changes I made or solutions I’ve come across so far; these are by no means the only ones at hand. Initially I simply went for it, one step at a time. And there is still a long way to walk! I have adopted most of these particular ones as habits for the long term.
Shopping for Produce
My first move of all was to order a box of fruits and veggies from a local farm – tasty quality products for a very reasonable price. A few farms around Edinburgh offer this service and one can either sign up for a scheme to receive a weekly box, or order boxes as needs arise. Some of those offering the service around Edinburgh are East Coast Organics, Oxenfoord Organics, Phantassie, and Grow Wild.
I started prioritising buying products from shops or markets I could buy loose products from. For this I set up a transport and storage solution in the form of cloth bags and boxes/jars I can take to the shops or the market.
I stock right up on dry food regularly and store all dry food in glass jars at home.
The New Leaf Co-op in Marchmont (Edinburgh) sells many loose products, including cereals, oils, soya sauce, beans, nuts and nut butters, dried fruit, spices, and yeast. Real Foods also sells loose porridge oats, rice, and muesli. I looked out for loose bits and bobs in other shops including supermarkets. I also avoided plastic bags altogether. If I did not have a bag with me, I would either postpone the shop of go home for a bag. The brain adjusted fine, I think it’s called reprogramming…
Making Choices around Packaging
For items only available packaged or a little too expensive comparatively in loose version, I prioritised packaging made from paper, cardboard and glass over plastic. I also paid attention to the content/packaging ratio. Buying a bag of 10kg of rice results in less packaging than buying 10 x 1kg (or 20 x 500g). Shopping in bulk every few weeks rather than on a daily basis also helps with reducing packaging.
Preparing Homemade Food
I became creative in the kitchen, making more homemade from fresh food. It has been a mixture of trying to modify my shopping habits and my consuming habits.
- I made hazelnut and almond milk to avoid plastic bottles and cartons, then made stacks of nice biscuits using the hazelnut okara (leftover pulp) – snacks for home and to take away! Amongst other recipes, I made delicious apple crumbles with almond okara.
- I made marmalade using oranges and orange skins that I’d kept in the freezer.
- I prepared soup stock from organic veggie peels – as a way to avoid individually wrapped stock cubes.
I’ve basically been cooking and baking more. The kitchen has been my playground.
Soon after taking up the challenge, I found myself with a shampoo bottle ready for the bin. This was an opportunity to question the bottles in which my body cleaning products often came. I decided to try and reduce the amount of products I used, or use an alternative. Just around then, I came across an article about cleaning routine, which got me wondering about the actual need for standard mainstream modern Western shampoo, when, for example, women in some remote areas of the Amazon have no access to shampoo yet have beautiful healthy hair. After some research on the topic I discovered the world of ‘No-poo’.
It turns out shampoo is only one of the dozens of ways to wash one’s hair – from exotic clays like Shikarai and Ghassoul, to other agents anyone in the West has in their kitchen or their garden. It is also possible to make one’s own soaps and shampoos too. It just takes a bit of getting acquainted with ingredients, and the nature of hair and skin.
I opted for experimenting with basic ingredients I had in my cupboards, but here is a list of a few different ingredients suitable for hair care: rye flour, bicarbonate of soda, apple puree (leave in), chickpea flour or chickpea cooking water, egg, honey (leave in), ivy, and the ‘water-only’ method – a technique involving water only and daily brushing/combing.
To hydrate hair, one can use aloe vera gel, or linseed gel, nettle, rice water, or oat milk. To nourish hair one can use oil (olive, coconut, almond, etc). I didn’t try, but avocado and banana can also be used. Different hair types have different preferences, so experimentation is key.
I used to wash my hair once every 3-4 days, I’ve progressively spaced the washes out to once every 10 days or so. Nowadays washing my hair is just a fun little activity. There was a bit of trial and error at the beginning but I’ve found a few things that work for me, and now I choose whatever I fancy from one time to the next. And depending what’s in the pantry!
Cleansing & Moisturising
- I acquired washable cleaning/make-up removal pads.
- I replaced facial cleansers and all moisturising creams with water, linseed gel (made a pot of that) and oil.
- I used coffee grounds (or sugar) mixed with oil as a scrub – an efficient solution to the micro-bead issue.
My last move in the bathroom and quite a major one was to get a menstrual cup. This is a genius tool – no more need to buy pads or tampons for the rest of my life. Although a little tricky to place and remove at first, now that I’ve got the trick, I’m very pleased with this solution. Out, rinse, back in!
House Cleaning Products
I found many recipes for cleaning products and most share common ingredients. Before the summer, I purchased a couple of small bottles of white vinegar, a large packet of bicarbonate of soda, a packet of soda crystals, a large bottle of concentrated black soap, and a box of grated soap. I haven’t topped up since and there is still a good plenty of it all left to use as I speak. Water is the first ingredient in any recipe after all, whether the cleaner is already made or homemade.
Once in a while, I do little mixes and put them in old bottles and spray bottles ready to be used and reused over and over again. To make a couple of bottles of cleaner can take as little time as to make a bowl of porridge. Here are some examples:
- Window/glass cleaner: white vinegar, water + a few drop of essential oils to modify the smell. Try soaking some lemon peel in the vinegar overnight beforehand for a lovely strong lemon smell.
- Laundry detergent: water, black soap, grated soap, soda crystals. Other homemade laundry options can be entirely plant-based, using soapberries (Sapinda spp.), English ivy, or wood ash.
Mail and Printed Ads
- I went paper free for most of my bills and statements.
- I pasted a ‘No ads please’ sticker on the letter box. This did not work in my area. We are still getting leaflets and letters addressed ‘To the Occupier’ from utility companies we’re not subscribed with.
The next thing I would like to work on now is deliveries from online shopping as it can generate a lot of packaging (cardboard, plastic wrapping, peanuts, etc). You don’t think about it until it’s through your door…
Out of the House
When I was out of the house, on errands or out of town, I tried to do the following:
If I was away for the day on a job or other errand, I just tried to anticipate what I might need: lunch, a coffee, a snack to prepare and take away.
In our modern instant way of living, anticipating doesn’t come naturally, but it’s something I am trying to learn and develop. Bringing my own re-usable coffee mug and containers to purchase takeaway food did take some planning and getting used to.
I say no to leaflets and freebies, extra bags and wrappings.
If I’m out and desperate for a snack, I go for a piece of fruit or anything that is not wrapped that I can just take to the till. I’ve taken a bare croissant to the till a few times.
When I’m in a takeaway ordering falafel, I just tell the shopkeeper that the paper wrap is enough and to keep the extra box for another customer. It has never been an issue to decline something I didn’t need.
For takeaway owners and food event organisers, Vegware is a company based in Edinburgh that sells entirely compostable containers made from plants. Look out for takeaways or public events that use their products and make sure to put the containers in food compost bins (NOT recycling bins).
I went on a couple of holidays away over the course of the year. Being away from the usual places, with less familiar access to un-packaged items, and being with friends or family whose priorities were different, I basically had a little break.
I create my routines at home, but adjust to what is reasonably doable elsewhere. It is also an opportunity to flex up a little, which is healthy. For the mind, mostly.
What I Learned from My Zero Waste Year
It Changed my Mindset!
One year later, I can say the experiment of trying to reduce my waste has been a great learning curve and has modified the way I look at consumables. After playing around a little bit, I realise that I had been living with a cultural filter that created a distance with so many possibilities. In other words, I now enjoy learning about raw materials and experimenting with what I can do with them.
I Feel Lighter.
I now notice plastic a lot more than I used to just before I set out on the challenge to reduce waste. I’ve found living with less plastic and packaging has made me feel lighter. Healthier too, possibly because I eat a lot more fresh and homemade – simplified in some ways. There was a holistic quality to the experiment, which was satisfying on many levels.
From Now On, I Know I Can Minimise my Waste.
I still buy and generate some waste, but less so, and now I can see it is possible to do things differently so as to minimise it – as much as one is ready to.
It’s All About Routine.
I’ve been asked if it takes time to make things myself. The answer is that it does, but it also takes time to read labels, research to understand them, shop and carry packaged items, and carry multiple bins out weekly. To a great extent, although some research to prepare for particular changes take time, once the shift is made and a new routine is in place, it’s not that time consuming. Examples of that would be the cleaning products (no-poo included), or making my own almond milk.
Save Money by Cutting Waste.
I now regret not doing a before/after budget that I could show. I don’t tend to micro budget so did not think about it initially. I can however say that although I adjusted some of my eating habits, I did not spend more on food than I used to. I have spent a lot less on the bathroom and cleaning products fronts. I have heard that cutting waste and packaging, one can save up to 40%.
Reducing Packaging Goes Hand in Hand with Other Shopping Considerations
When I shop for anything, I take into account convenience, environmental friendliness, healthiness and price. All these considerations remained during the duration of my challenge but I loosely tried to prioritise packaging for one year. I think I can conclude that all these considerations very much come together.
There are So Many Resources on Zero Waste – Go and Get Them!
I had access to many ideas through different great resources. There is a whole zero-waste movement out there, which I was unaware of before the challenge. Below are a few resources in both English and French.
Resources and Links
Le Grande ménage de Raffa (in French)
No Poo (French group)
Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, by Bea Johnston
La famille zero déchets : Ze Guide, de Jérémie Pichon et Bénédicte Moret (French)
About the Author: Eleonore Wapler
Eleonore lives in beautiful Edinburgh. She grew up in France and currently works as a translator specialised in sustainable development and conservation. She enjoys reflecting, learning and writing about life.