Reducing waste

Waste. To treat as valueless. To be expended without useful effect. Useless remains or by-products.

Waste is an interesting concept. It’s relatively new in human history. To treat something as having no value. Of course there has always been waste per say, but it was mostly biodegradable. Middens; deposits of shells, bones, botanical remains, ash and charcoal, provide evidence of the food sources and locations of Australian Aboriginal people. These are the pre-European rubbish bins of Australia. Over a long time they would have broken down and disappeared. Our rubbish of today will never go away. Petrochemical products don’t biodegrade, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces that are ingested and absorbed by all manner of organisms, infiltrating every part of the food chain.

Consumerism. A preoccupation with consumer goods and their acquisition. For as long as I can remember I have never enjoyed shopping as a leisure activity. Shopping for things I need, sure. Wandering aimlessly around the streets in my lunch breaks, every day. But shopping for the sake of buying as much as I can afford? No thanks. I’ve always taken my own lunch and avoided bottled drinks. I think this stems more from financial limitations than a strong desire to reduce consumption. I was super jealous as a kid of everyone who brought packets of shapes and tiny teddies to school, whilst I had carrot sticks and four savoys with a slice of cheese. And I did want to have cool clothes. But my inability to have things led me to rejecting them in some way, unwittingly reducing my environmental impact, even as a child.

I guess it was inevitable that I discover the zero waste movement. A Geography major, I studied human/environment relationships. I now work in sustainability education and my whole career history is in some way related to the environment or DIY. I find making things myself challenging and enjoyable and I can’t eat onion or garlic, so most packaged foods are off the menu anyway.

Reducing personal waste is one of the easiest things to do sustainability wise, and one that has a visible impact on your immediate environment. It can also be achieved by most people, regardless of if they’re renting or own their own house. Other sustainability measures such as energy efficiency, improved insulation and window coverings, buying green power, purchasing efficient products all cost a lot of money up front and are not achievable in a rental property.

When I work with schools to reduce waste, most of the focus is on ‘nude food’. Bringing unpackaged food and drinks to school for lunch. Of course, in many cases this is simply diverting waste from the school bin to the one at home, but it does get teachers and parents thinking about the amount of waste food can contribute to. Schools with canteens are most hesitant to participate as they loose revenue if they stop selling drinks. But student and environmental health should come first. We live in an area with high quality tap water. There should be no need to purchase bottled water, for significantly more money, except during emergencies.

Making the change. I thought about zero waste for a long time and read widely on the topic before committing. My trial was Plastic Free July, a month without single use plastic. They market it as just to saying no to disposable coffee cups, straws and plastic bags, but as a non coffee drinker who rarely buys a drink that comes with a straw and always takes reusable bags, I took the challenge up a level. And it was really hard. That first walk through the supermarket was thoroughly depressing. Isles of plastic upon plastic. And I had my period. I was not ready for reusable menstrual products yet.

I didn’t succeed in using no plastic, but I significantly reduced my waste. I saw the difference I could make as an individual and decided to continue going zero waste. Of course, ‘zero waste’ is a myth. At some point in the supply chain there is still waste and there are products that are a necessity of life, like medication and in our house, milk, that are unavailable without packaging. Zero waste is an unattainable goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one worth aspiring to.

I have found reducing waste to be incredibly rewarding and very tasty too. Home made crackers are so good. They take a while to make, but they are worth it! I’m always trying to make new things. Sometimes they work well, sometimes I need a few goes and sometimes they fail miserably. But the key is to keep going.

Persevere. Tell people what you’re doing. Pick up litter. Shame people that contaminate their organics and recycling bins. Plant a few veggies (or in my case, a lot). Get chooks if you can. Look for package free options wherever you are. Ask shops to use your own container – they might just say yes!

A lot of small actions combined will have a measurable impact. Start small and see where it goes.

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p.s. These are our chooks, enjoying some time out of their pen, under the watchful eye of our border collie. He has learnt that chooks are friends, not food. Finally.

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