Just a few hours into my “five days to zero waste” Earth Day challenge, I realised transforming every aspect of my life might be a marathon, rather than the sprint I had been anticipating. A bank holiday was perhaps an ambitious place to begin and a night out in Peckham at the end of day one meant I failed almost immediately (I used a plastic cup because no, I didn’t think to take my reusable mug to the pub).
The basic premise of zero waste is that nothing we come into contact with should be sent to a landfill. This is harder than it sounds. It’s not just opting for a reusable water bottle or a tote bag for groceries (though they are both good starting points), it’s about assessing every aspect of our lives to find ways to reduce, compost or upcycle — embracing a circular economy so that nothing we use or buy is ever wasted. Sound easy? Here’s what happened when I tried it.
I wake to my first challenge: zero wasting my morning routine. Happily, it turns out that one of the easiest places to start is in the loo. Some 15 million trees are cut down a year to make toilet paper, so I’ve begun by switching to a recycled product. Who Gives A Crap makes rolls from bamboo and recycled fibres. Offering a subscription service, it’s pricier than average shop-bought rolls, but you pay for the right to feel smug (from £28 for 24 rolls).
I congratulate myself — although there is a niggling voice in the back of my head which reminds me that those truly committed to zero-waste can eschew toilet paper altogether by installing a Tushy bidet attachment. Instead of requiring trees to be felled, the contraption uses just one pint of water per wash. I’ll leave you to make a call on whether it’s a worthwhile trade-off as I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
Those truly committed to zero-waste can eschew toilet paper altogether
I switched to a plastic-free, fully compostable bamboo toothbrush long ago (mine is from Brushd; £2.49) but face a dilemma when it came to toothpaste as it’s estimated that about 1.5 billion tubes go to either landfill or the ocean globally each year. Toothpaste tablets are an easy win although, as I quickly realise, it’s definitely a case of trial and error — some are better than others. I try a few brands but settle on vegan-friendly PÄRLA tablets (from £8 a month for subscription).
In terms of beauty products, it’s best to switch to solid bars, which contain little or no water, meaning their carbon footprint is far smaller and the amount of resources wasted in making them is far less. Having been dubious about shampoo bars, I’m pleasantly surprised with the lather factor from EarthKind’s shampoo (from £6.95). I also switch to a cleansing balm and moisturiser from London-born skincare brand SBTRCT, which was also the first to incorporate actives like retinoids and vitamin C into solid products. Everything is waterless, plastic and palm oil free and comes in fully compostable packaging. Some solid products have no packaging at all, even better.
Jayn Sterland, chairwoman of the The British Beauty Council’s Sustainable Beauty Coalition (SBC), emphasises that how we use beauty products is almost as important as what we’re using. Using less and washing less are “the greatest things we can do” when it comes to getting to waste zero. She also recommends showers instead of baths and “if you wash your hair daily, try switching to every other day”. I make a mental note to skip tomorrow’s shower. By the end of the morning, zero waste is feeling attainable.
Ready to go again after plastic cup-gate. Ostensibly, shopping for basics is one of the more difficult activities when it comes to zero waste: plastic packaging is ubiquitous in all supermarkets. However, refill systems are becoming far more widespread both at zero waste shops (you can find your nearest using the map feature at useless.london) and high street retailers such as M&S, Lush, The Body Shop and L’Occitane. If you don’t have one near you, pouch refills can often be ordered online.
At Re:Store in Hackney Downs (a zero waste shop where people bring their own containers and pay by weight), owner Megan Adams says products like hair conditioner, laundry detergent and washing up liquid are most popular. “These are really easy to start refilling with because you’ll already have the right bottles.” At her shop, locals shovel sacks of oats and coffee into backpacks. I pick up some fancy (read: expensive) organic brown pasta that’s made in Leyton, but Adams is quick to point out that many products including herbs, seeds, sauces and other kitchen staples are comparative, and in some cases cheaper, than in supermarkets.
On social media an aesthetic has developed around the zero waste movement, and it can be easy to get sucked in. Before you know it, you’re knee deep in kiln jars. As sustainable living advocate Francesca Willow (@ethicalunicorn) stresses, though, it doesn’t have to be that way. “Think about the principles you want to embed over how it looks, and getting into rhythms of living that are attainable to you.” So that means using any old takeaway box, bag or even pillowcases to refill — as well as cutting up old clothes for cleaning rags, before buying into the beautiful-crafted bamboo ones.
Turning to the kitchen, I’ve ordered an Oddbox subscription, which delivers seasonal excess fruit and veg from farms to your door fortnightly. Willow points out this is “not only a good way of reducing plastic but also tackling food waste at farms and hopefully contributing to creating better food systems.” Doug McMaster, who founded the world’s first zero-waste restaurant, Silo, in Hackney Wick, recommends freezing leftover veg as much as possible. “Freezing veg is particularly great for scraps, which can accumulate for stews, broths, stocks and making pasta sauces,” he says.
He also suggests fermentation. Turning wilted cabbage leaves or carrot skins — “peeled things are good because you’ve already done half the job” into sauerkrauts and kimchis. These use few ingredients and are great for gut health, too (shop bought versions are pasteurised, which can kill off good bacteria). I use some leftover cuttings from an Oddbox delivery to attempt my first ever kimchi. It is, admittedly, much more time consuming than just buying a jar — and I also have to buy gochujang, a Korean chilli paste which gives it its flavour. I opt for one in a glass jar though, and plan to use this for refills another time. It does feel exceedingly satisfying to know that every bit of the broccoli I was sent is being put to use — even the stalk and small leaves that I would otherwise have binned. Saving where you can in the kitchen is worth it, though. “If you waste 30 per cent of your food, and it costs £1,000 a quarter, you’ve thrown away £300. It really does add up,” adds McMaster.
Turn wilted cabbage leaves or carrot skins into sauerkrauts and kimchis. They use few ingredients and are great for gut health, too
For the foods I can’t turn to kimchi, I try composting. “Lots of people don’t have a garden and while there are some indoor composting solutions it is also worth seeking out compost initiatives in your community. We’re working with one in Hackney,” he continues.
Recycling in general can be confusing as many boroughs have different rules. So I put in a call to my local authority and am emailed a comprehensive alphabetical list of everything and anything that can and cannot be recycled — from how to recycle batteries (didn’t know) to not recycling takeaway pizza boxes (did know), it’s a helpful refresher and worthwhile if, say, you’ve recently moved home.
There are loads of clever ways you can zero waste your food intake at home I’m discovering, but eating out on the go is a much bigger challenge. I’ve been making a conscious effort to eat everything I’ve got in the fridge throughout the week and find myself emptying tins of sweetcorn and tuna into a uni-style pasta dish for meal prep but when I forget to take my lunchbox out one day I am faced with no choice but a pre-packaged sandwich.
I’ve learned some tips and tricks for zero wasting my everyday life, but ultimately low waste living is about engaging in the circular economy in as many aspects of life as possible. This means thrifting and buying second-hand from places like Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, Depop, Vinted, Thrift+ and engaging in the barter economy by doing things like arranging clothes swaps with friends.
I delete the four fast fashion apps from my phone and feel like this will all be very easy until I realise I need a new pair of glasses — can you even get these second hand? Apparently you can. I head to RetroSpecced where they upcycle cool vintage and designer frames for very reasonable prices. I’m going to a party later in the week but don’t even bother looking for something new to wear — the boom in fashion rental services means it’s easier than ever to rent a dress.
By the end of the day I’m buzzing from just having sold a pair of jeans on Vinted and am planning to spend my next foreseeable Sundays at car boot sales — is this the new me?
As I said, my timing for this little experiment wasn’t ideal as the first four days fell over the bank holiday and I’ve had a few slip-ups (an end of bank holiday pizza delivery was not very zero waste living; greasy boxes can’t be recycled in my borough). So now I’m feeling a bit deflated.
It takes a quick Zoom with sustainability educator Isaias Hernandez, aka @queerbrownvegan, to re-motivate me. Instead of striving for perfection, a gradual, more cumulative approach is the way to live a lower waste life, he says. Hernandez recommends starting with the 70:30 rule, whereby “more than half of your day is plastic [or packaging] free”. He also recommends swapping one household product per month to a zero waste alternative. “It might not feel like a big difference, but 12 over the year is still reducing your waste — focus on one thing at a time rather than trying to fix everything.”
Low waste living does take more planning but it’s also incredibly satisfying. Some of the swaps are so easy to make — toothpaste, toilet paper — that once done, I don’t even notice them. Convenience items, such as food on the go, are more annoying. But, I realise, anything is better than the eco-doom of knowing that I’m not doing enough.