ZERO-WASTE is hard. Surrounded nowadays by choice and convenience it means re-thinking old habits, questioning need, dissecting existing habits and deliberately building new ones.
I’ve learned this over the past six months, after bouncing my family into a hardcore week of strict no packaging on our shopping, and then just keeping that going.
A couple of weeks into the New Year, after mentally criticising distant 2030 and 2050 targets set by countries and organisations for various environmental goals, I realised we as individuals can turn change around far faster than that. And if we can, surely we should.
Fast forward six months, and we’ve succeeded, failed and are using Plastic Free July as the perfect time to reboot.
Plastic Free July is a global movement to reduce plastic pollution. While much plastic is technically recyclable, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of it that has been produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled.*
Zero-waste, a conceptual model that aims to keep the resources already in our environment in circulation, reduce linear waste to an absolute minimum, and conserve future resource usage, has caught on as a mainly plastic-free lifestyle model with over three million instagram images and hundreds of influencers showcasing their experiences.
For us as a family, our initial, highly focused zero-waste efforts delivered a near elimination of residual waste and a 90% reduction across all recyclables.
We kicked off very well, our six almost all adult household of three meat eaters, two vegetarians and one human food-processor were surprisingly willing participants, for which I crediteffect.
Despite a few cosmetic grumbles, everyone went out of their comfort zone to get takeaway in their lunchboxes or consciously choose what to eat based on how it was packaged. Bring cups were brought for coffee or hot chocolate, water bottles remembered and fast fashion internet purchases have at least slowed down.
Being the person in charge of food shopping in our house, the responsibility was on me to eliminate packaging, both recyclable and non-recyclable from our weekly shop.
While there isn’t any full package-free shop in Cork, there are plenty of producers and stores selling unpackaged fruit and veg, pulses and rice are available loose at the English Market. Many butchers and fishmongers are happy to fill containers on request so it was a matter of organising a manageable new routine and mustering up the courage to ask for produce in my own containers.
Some places, like Mr Bells in the English Market, were straightforward — I just scooped grain, beans and pulses into my net bags, weighed them and paid for them.
At meat counters I nervously produced my containers to the butcher and asked if they could fill them and was extremely relieved that it was welcomed.
My shopping went from weekly with random ‘top-ups’ and various last-minute dashes to pick up something for the school lunch, to a manageable grain, pulse and meat shop once a month all served into my own containers, a monthly store-cupboard stock up online of more dry goods (via Minimal Waste Grocery) delivered to my door in paper bags and packed in recycled cardboard, weekly purchasing of vegetables and of milk in reusable glass bottles at the weekly market, and a much smaller trip into the supermarket for a few remaining bits.
It became clear that we weren’t going to be able to replace every packaged item exactly and it was important to embrace the change needed to implement solutions and options.
While there are swaps that are simpler than we ever imagined, e.g. instead of tinned pineapple I buy fresh pineapple, and instead of tinned tomatoes actual tomatoes, other solutions mean cultural change.
The age old teenage problem that ‘there’s no food in the fridge’ doesn’t disappear but the fall-back dash to the petrol station for something handy has been replaced with children who have learned to cook quick snacks, at least most of the time.
Large unpacked vegetables take priority over smaller vegetables that come in packaging. Turnip, cauliflower, cabbage, squashes take precedence over mangetout and baby sweetcorn.
We haven’t ironed out all the creases, and indeed to avoid mutiny frozen fruit in its plastic packaging continues to make the trolley. I know this week I will struggle to find loose coffee beans I like as the existing stock finally runs out.
But those are proper examples of first world problems. We are eating more fresh, raw fruit and local vegetables, which is a good thing and have discovered new staples such as asparagus, sweet potatoes just because they are package free.
I’ve harvested nettles, cleavers and dandelions from the garden to juice and use every scrap of green that comes attached to beet, carrots and radishes currently in season in stir-frys and salads. Who needs plastic packed greens when they come for free attached to vegetables?!
So, with waste down, local purchases up and a surprising but welcome side effect of reduced petrol costs, we were winning. It wasn’t all plain sailing however and at the outset the obvious increase in prep was an enormous brain drain. There were times when I just didn’t have the broadband to figure out what was on the menu for the next meal, but this eased off as new routines have developed and the volume of change has slowed down.
About four months in, we were ambushed from an unexpected source — choice, the pull of new. People had started to feel they were missing out, independent purchasing saw more rubbish arrive and as that became consistent I got tired of being the waste police.
On top of that, my own questions about whether our efforts were worthwhile, society’s questions about whose job it is to reduce waste – ours, industries or governments — and other people’s comments saying that it just wasn’t practical or indeed that it was cost prohibitive led to a relaxation of our initiative and a definite, noticeable creep upwards of both our waste and recycling.
After several discussions with myself, I decided that responsibility for more climate- and planet-friendly packaging and consumption is everyone’s responsibility. And even if large organisations and governments hold the power to address the challenges needed to mitigate climate chaos and decouple our carbon-locked economies, that doesn’t obliterate individual responsibility or mean that we should just wait for them to do so.
And purchasing is one of our powers, I see money as a key messenger. Our own total monthly spend on groceries has remained the same, but about 60-70% of it now supports small, local food suppliers, businesses I really want to see survive and thrive.
My remaining supermarket spend is directed to package free goods in order to support supermarkets plastic free initatives.
The biggest factor in re-sharpening our zero waste focus was quite simply the kids asked me to. They saw the recycling increase, the residual waste sneak up and the number of exceptions creep up. And they weren’t OK with that.
Plastic Free July is the perfect opportunity to re-boot. I love Plastic Free July because it focuses and filters. We all make our purchases through filters that we have pre selected, and plastic free is just another filter. Filters make life easier, because it means we don’t have to focus on EVERYTHING.
This July we are looking forward to the increased challenge of going plastic free as we visit different parts of Ireland.
I am extending my focus to our clothes, who wants to dress in plastic anyway? Yet we routinely and habitually buy synthetic clothing, which, even if recycled or made from milk bottles, still releases microfibres with each wash.
As for other ‘stuff’, yes it’s hard to resist the buzz of buying. As a culture we love new, but a disportionate amount of purchasing is driven by want rather than by need and disposed of quickly. For me, this July, I aim to buy nothing and if it is an actual need, prioritise the pre-used version of new.
At the outset in the New Year I expected to fail this initiative and in that I have succeeded. But we have succeeded beyond what I expected and will continue to improve. The most significant revelation has been that the biggest barrier to package free shopping wasn’t cost or time or convenience, it was belief.
Translating change into sustainable, long term habits means stumbling, falling, picking ourselves back up again and realising that while there are times that I think we are rocking this, there will be plenty other times I despair at our progress and question its value.
It’s important to remember that a few people doing picture perfect Zero Waste has far less of an impact than millions of people taking much more wobbly steps to minimize their waste.
Remember, with any change comes discomfort.
Don’t rush out to buy a ‘zero waste kit’, use containers, bags, cups and bottles that you already own.
Expect your solutions to be different from the next person’s, just as your current lifestyle is.
Start with a step, any step. Then keep going.
9% statistic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced- recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/
Plastic Free July: https://www.plasticfreejuly.org
Linda Fitzpatrick is mum to four almost-adult children. Linda is a CHASE campaigner, in which capacity she assisted in the startup phase of Cobh Zero Waste. She lives outside Carrigaline with husband Rory and their Big Pig composter. Blog: thezeroway.com Facebook: facebook.com/thezerowaychallenge/