Living Waste-Free: Realistic Steps Towards Saving Our Planet

Climate change and sustainable living are the words on everyone’s lips – politicians, scientists, and bloggers alike. It is a notoriously controversial conversation that can lead to heated debates across the dinner table or board room. However, saving the planet cannot be achieved through words alone. This article is for those of us painfully aware of our species’ careless and destructive treatment of the earth and its natural resources; for those of us who are, rightly, terrified about what comes next and want to take action. Look no further. There is still hope for the future, we just have our work cut out for us.

There are a number of different methods for tackling our personal environmental impact – from going vegan to installing your own solar panels – and each of these methods come with their own validity. However, it seems that the most tangible and effective change we can make is to address our production of and attitude towards waste.

The pessimists among us might be inclined to say that this is all just hippy-dippy since the earth is already done for; that a single straw pales in comparison to the rest of the world’s landfill . But this blasé attitude is part of the problem. Thinking that our individual actions will make no difference only helps to perpetuate our wasteful consumer culture. That, along with good old capitalist greed, gives us the root of the world’s current waste crisis. Excessive supply and demand for disposable goods used only once before being discarded adds a generous helping of arrogance to the human race. It has finally reached the stage where being unnecessarily wasteful amounts to nothing more than selfishness. We need to take responsibility, stop looking the other way and get our hands dirty.

On that note, here are some practical tips to jump-start your journey towards a waste-free lifestyle:

  • BE PREPARED. Harking back to your girl guiding/boy scouting days, part of being conscious of your waste production is being prepared for things that you might have previously overlooked or taken for granted. Rather than accepting a to-go cup or a plastic knife and fork with your meal deal, keep a reusable coffee cup in your bag for your morning latte, and a real set of cutlery that you can clean easily. Ideally, forgo buying food out altogether and prepare your lunch and coffee at home, saving you both money and excess packaging – a win-win.
  • YOU DO NOT NEED A STRAW. The media’s preoccupation with straws might be skeptics’ favourite way to belittle the eco-movement, but the fact that approximately 500 million straws are used daily in the US alone is not a statistic to be laughed at. As well as being non-biodegradable and non-recyclable – fated to remain in landfill sites forever – these thin plastic tubes are wreaking havoc on our oceans. When straws enter the ocean, rather than dissolving or biodegrading, they break down into even smaller pieces to become microplastics that threaten sea birds and marine animals. Perhaps most shockingly, experts believe that by 2050 – if changes are not made – there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. If you need a straw for medical reasons, that is a different matter. But, alternatives to these plastic, disposable straws are available. That said, the 101 adverts on Instagram promoting sexy, metal straws to take with you on-the-go seem more gimmicky than well-intentioned. The best bet is to just go without. For the sake of the Earth, you genuinely do not need a straw to drink your gin and tonic.

  • SHOP LIKE YOU ARE IN 40s BRITAIN. It is time to turn back the clock and live in the same worlds as our favourite period dramas. When it comes to buying your food waste-free, most advice asks us to live like we did before plastic found its way into everyday use. Find yourself a greengrocer’s, a bakery, a milkman, a fishmonger, and fill your backpack with paper and cloth bags. Not only is this a wonderful, green way to shop, but you can often save money too. When I am at university, I can fill a standard cloth bag with vegetables for £5 or less, all the while chatting with the grocer and supporting a local business. If you do not have the time to pop between shops, then buy your produce loose in the supermarket. Those small plastic bags are unnecessary and there is usually an in-store bakery where you can buy a fresh loaf rather than a pre-cut, pre-packaged one.
  • BECOME A FLEXITARIAN. Veganism is not for everyone, but we can certainly all cut down on our meat and dairy intake. The amount of waste produced by the farming industry alone is enormous. For instance, a single pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water and 30 pounds of CO2 to produce. Whereas the same quantity of potatoes or broccoli requires only 357 gallons of water and 2.2 pounds of CO2. Simple changes such as swapping to nut or oat milk in your coffee, or deciding to only eat meat when you dine out, can make a huge impact on carbon emissions, water and land use, and save you some pennies.
  • BUY SECOND HAND. Next to the food industry, the fashion industry is a terrifying contributor to landfill and consumer culture, notwithstanding the humanitarian crisis surrounding fast fashion. The documentary ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix is pretty sobering when it comes to this factor. Buying cheaply made, poor quality clothing in synthetic fabrics might be tempting when it does not cost much, but if you are going to overhaul your wardrobe a few months later with more of the same, you are simply taking your place as a cog in the fast fashion machine, churning out shirt after dress after shoe. Even if you donate your old things to a charity shop, you are still buying them in the first place and providing these unethical factories with more business. However, if you buy your clothes from charity shops, you are keeping them out of landfill and finding individual and unique pieces at the same time. There are some true gems to be found, just roll up your sleeves and be patient as you search through the racks – treasures await. Even better, if you have the money to invest, buying more expensive pieces from ethical clothing companies like paloma wool, Everlane, and Christy Dawn will last longer and do more to improve how clothes are produced in the long run. Treat yourself while you treat the earth.
Second-hand clothes | © MAKY.OREL
Second-hand clothes | © MAKY.OREL
  • MAKE DO AND MEND. I am sure you have heard this from a grandparent – lamenting ‘back in my day…’ – but that war-time spirit has some genuine value. We are so quick to throw things away and buy a replacement when there is really no need. If something breaks, fix it. Buy yourself a rudimentary sewing kit or support your local tailor. Invest in a screwdriver or take it back to the shop and ask for advice. Unless it has been smashed to smithereens, most things can be mended and given a new lease of life. Alternatively, get crafty and turn whatever it may be into something entirely new (google ‘upcycling’ for inspiration).
  • IT IS NOT GOING TO BE PRETTY. After you have invested in your first bamboo toothbrush and solid shampoo bar and your bathroom is an aesthetic Instagram post waiting to happen, it is important to remember what you are doing this for. A minimalist and beautiful looking home might be part of your motivation, but going waste-free is not just about looking good or fitting in with current trends. Do not rush to buy shiny new metal tupperware or a set of bamboo utensils when your cutlery draw and an old ice cream tub work just as well. Reuse jars and containers as water bottles and snack pot substitutes. Become a religious composter and grow your own herbs on your window sill. Get to know your own waste habits in order to tackle them head on. You might have to stop buying cheap make-up or excessive cleaning products but ultimately, your house, body, and planet will thank you for it.

I came to the world of waste-free living through the amazing resource that is trashisfortossers.com, founded by Lauren Singer, who’s commitment and activism is honestly inspiring. Her New York ‘package free shop’ sells and teaches everything you need to make a shift towards the active compassion of a waste-free lifestyle.

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We have worked SO hard to get to the point where @nytimes is starting to acknowledge low waste living. The climate is changing, the science has been stated, and my passion for individual action against climate change has never been more real. It doesn’t matter what got you interested, for me it was my hate of the oil and gas industry and thus plastic, but for someone else it could be as simple as how sexy veggies look when you buy them sans plastic. 🤗🥬🥦🥕 For all of you who take actions in your every day life to reduce waste, no matter how big or how small, a thought or an action, thank you, your work is having an impact, and I am so grateful for you. What made you start to think about reducing your waste? Let me know in the comments below! 👇 Gorgeous photo by @adamamengual

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Going waste-free is a real challenge and it is easy to become a perfectionist. Making mistakes and learning from them is just as valid as being a virtuous, environmental angel who gets it right every time. Try not to become plastic-phobic or beat yourself up if you forget to recycle your milk carton or to pack your shopping bags. The first step to cutting something out is to start cutting it down. Gradually build these habits into your life since it is difficult to make the leap all at once.

As well as being greatly beneficial to the earth and gentle on the environment, these small changes can do wonders for your mental health. Being mindful about the everyday details of what you use, wear, eat, buy, cook, is unbelievably grounding. In our increasingly virtual and disconnected lives, this thoughtfulness brings you back into the present and the tangible. You come to realise the value and importance of each small act, giving you a sense of your own value and place in the bigger picture.

So next time you scoff at someone for refusing a straw, take a second to ask yourself, what are you doing to make a difference?