Every little helps when it comes to reducing the amount of plastic you use.  But just how easy is it to go cold-turkey? Here, Digital Writer Amber-Rose Hurst does the digging for you in a seven day zero waste experiment.
Close your eyes and imagine you’re in the holiday destination of your dreams, the untouched paradise of The Maldives for instance. You’ve gone for a dip in the crystal-clear turquoise sea for a spot of snorkelling. You're mesmerised by an array of fish in every shade of the spectrum. You look to your left and spot an unwelcome passer-by in the open water... a jelly-fish, only it’s not a jellyfish at all. It’s a plastic bag. Sorry to ruin the daydream. But that could truly be the reality in just a few year’s time because it’s estimated that by 2055 there could be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. But with a little extra work to produce less plastic and less general waste, there is a chance for us to flip this prediction on its head.   

Unfortunately, an immense amount of waste is still being produced worldwide. The UK alone produces around 30 million tonnes of household waste a year.  More than 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year much of which is single-use. Plastic bottles are a big problem, with the UK using around 13 billion a year.  Almost half of these aren’t recycled and go straight to landfill. And it’s not just plastic bottles either, the nation’s love of a barista perfect frothy coffee and high streets lined with cafes has resulted in 2.5 billion cups being thrown away every year. The problem with this crazy consumption is the sheer amount of time this harmful material takes our planet to get rid of. Plastic can take anywhere between 450 years to FOREVER to decompose. 
Thanks to the important work of climate activist group Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough’s most recent documentaries like Blue Planet 2 and the Our Planet series, sustainability is well and truly on the agenda.  More and more people are altering their lifestyles to produce less waste to help tackle the crisis and reduce their personal carbon footprints. For someone like me, leading a totally green lifestyle isn’t something that I ever thought I had to do. My mentality has always been quite an ignorant one, I always think “oh someone else will do it”. When in fact, the big players in the business world aren’t changing their ways. Therefore, individuals like you and I need to wake up and put our superhero capes on to help mother nature nurture our earth back to health. 
Living zero-waste could be the answer to many of these problems. To do this, you must reduce your personal household waste by as much as possible. And that’s exactly what I’m going to try.  But first, let’s establish what this actually means. 

What is zero waste living?

Going zero waste means you become totally mindful about the kind of rubbish you produce. The main aim is to greatly reduce waste that is destined for landfill, ideally eliminate it completely.  Someone who has been labelled a Zero Waste Hero is American environmental activist and co-founder of the Trash is for Tossers blog Lauren Singer. She managed to fit a whole year’s worth of waste into a single glass mason jar. On her website, she defines her personal zero waste journey as not producing any rubbish. “No sending anything to landfill, not throwing anything in a trash can, nothing. However, I do recycle and compost”. 

Trash is for Tossers co-founder, Lauren Singer, and her year's worth of waste
Credit: Lauren Singer via Instagram

Let's face it, fitting a year's worth of rubbish into a tiny pot isn't going to easy, that really is jumping straight into the deep end. Don’t let the concept seem baffling, your zero-waste lifestyle doesn’t have to be restricted to physical household waste.  There are many other steps you can take to live in an eco-friendlier way. Ways to reduce your carbon footprint can include: 
  • Eating less meat
  • Unplugging your devices
  • Reuse, reuse, reuse!
  • Don’t buy fast fashion
  • Buy less altogether
  •  Line dry your clothes
  • Turn the heating off

Throughout the course of a year, there are numerous different campaigns that happen across the globe that shed light on the importance of sustainability and looking after the environment. There’s Earth Day in April, World Oceans Day in June and of course Zero Waste Week in September. But why limit good deeds to one week of the year? I decided to challenge myself to complete a zero-waste week to try and break my bad habits and have the founder of the Zero Waste Week campaign Rachelle Strauss assess my efforts. Me being the typical 20-something millennial that I am, I find myself constantly on-the-go, living at 100 mph and not making the most environmentally friendly choices along the way. So, I figured something had to change. My aim wasn’t only to produce little or no landfill, I took it further to reduce my carbon footprint. Here’s how it went:

Zero Waste Week Diary

Day 1

First things first, prep. What do I already own that will help me use less waste? After frustratingly rummaging through my cupboards and draws I realised I had somewhat mixed luck. I found an abundance of plastic lunchboxes that I could have used for on the go lunches… except they were all missing lids. But on the upside, I found two thermal travel coffee cups, about five or six different canvas shopper bags and my trusty aluminium Chilly’s water bottle. These are all things I had previously bought in a bid to become greener but had all, in turn, migrated into the depths of a cupboard where they would remain until my conscious would have its next spurt of environmental guilt.

I also took it upon myself to source some zero waste toiletries. Over the years I seem to have collected a bounty of skincare products that are all packaged in an excessive amount of plastic. Pink sparkly tubes, black stickered bottles and nifty pipettes are just a few of the appearances made in my bathroom cabinet. All in all, I would say I own more than 50 different items of skincare, makeup and toiletries. The beauty industry creates 120 billion units of packaging every year, and packaging is the number one contributor to plastic production in the world. So, there's no hiding that my obsession with all things moisturising, pretty and fruity is causing some serious damage. I found some shampoo and conditioner bars made by a brand called Ethiqué. They eliminate plastic packaging because they are in solid form (like a bar of soap) and come hosed in recyclable cardboard.

In my home, people always seem to leave lights on. This is something I can say hand on heart that I'm pretty good at remembering. But something I didn't realise about energy savings, is that any device or appliance that is plugged into the wall uses energy, even if it's switched off. This is referred to as 'vampire energy' or quite simply 'standby power'. These devices that leech on energy can account for up to 20% of your monthly electricity bill. Growing up in a poor household when I was younger and having the fear of using too much electricity in case the power shut down is engrained into my mindset. So after hearing about this new villainous term, I was frantically running around the house switching and unplugging everything. I may have got slightly carried away though, as I turned the dishwasher off whilst it was mid-cycle... sorry Dad. 

Day 2

Today I made some mistakes, but it started off well. My daily routine usually consists of going to the gym for an hour, so I walked there. It took 18 minutes exactly. While I was walking, I noticed how many cars that used the main road going into my little town. It’s something you never really take notice of when you’re driving. It was even more apparent after the smell of exhaust fumes took over my airways on a few occasions. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, which accounts for 81% of the total UK greenhouse gas emissions. So, by opting to walk instead of hopping in the car for short journeys can greatly reduce your carbon footprint. It was a good way to warm up before a workout too

It was when I arrived at the supermarket after my gym session that I ran into a few issues. As I stood in front of the fruit and veg aisle, I realised there wasn’t a single item on my list that didn’t come wrapped in plastic. I wasn’t about to go to Waitrose 30-minute drive away, the nearest plastic-free branch. That would be counterproductive. Instead, I was a little more mindful about what I was putting into my basket. I picked up a pack of tomatoes that were in a brown cardboard box rather than the plastic one and took a little extra time reading the disposal instructions on the packaging. Unfortunately, I still ended up having to add a few pieces of pesky plastic to my weekly count. 

Eating less meat is a challenge I have accepted before. I did Veganuary this year and I actually stuck to it. The first week was so difficult, no thanks to my profound love of cheese and chocolate, but after the first hurdle, it was a piece of cake. A dairy and egg-free piece of cake that is. Though to jump straight into a vegan diet isn’t manageable. It’s best to start cutting thing out bit by bit. A 2018 study by the University of Oxford found that ‘avoiding meat is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on Earth’. So, this week I decided to go veggie to reduce my impact. I started off my veggie cooking with a rich and spicy tomato and mushroom pasta. Top tip if you’re a meat-lover trying to make the switch, mushrooms mimic a meaty texture and bulk up a meal so will effectively trick your brain.

Day 3

After my little zero-waste faux pas during yesterday’s grocery shop, I decided to pay a visit to somewhere that I definitely wouldn’t come into contact with plastic. Over the past two years, well over 100 zero-waste stores have popped up across the UK. These business models involve no form of plastic. They sell many things in bulk that you can fill reusable containers with, like plastic, grains, spices, cereal and even liquids like milk and juice. Most of these new eco havens reside in environmental hotspots like Bristol, Brighton, north-east London, and more recently (and randomly) my home-town on the edge of The Cotswolds. So, armed with my mason jars and Tupperware, I made my first trip to Wast0, and came out with oodles of store cupboard staples and no rubbish at all. 

The zero waste shop in my home town, WAST0

Day 4

I’m a prime example of someone that buys an item of clothing for a specific event and then ends up only wearing it once. It’s the throwaway culture amplified by Instagram likes and the unbound rule of never being photographed in the same outfit twice that has seen the fashion industry become one of the most environmentally damaging sectors. Fast fashion is inexpensive clothing that is rapidly produced using cheap materials by mass-market retailers to keep up with the latest trends. In the UK, online brands such as PrettyLittleThing, Missguided and BooHoo are some of the main culprits. And I am no stranger to these sites, my clothes rail is pretty much filled with their polyester pieces that daren't worn In direct sunlight due to the fear of transparency. 

So, even though I may not have bought a new item of clothing this week, but for the purpose of this zero waste experiment, I thought that I’d see what it was like to buy second-hand. In 2017 alone, 235 million garments were sent to waste, this is where charity shops come to the rescue. According to The Charity Retail Association, charity shops divert 29 tonnes of textile away from landfill every year. I went into a few charity shops in search of something pre-loved. I’ve heard of people finding all sorts of treasures in second-hand shops, like vintage Levi’s and quality leather jackets. I walked away with a faded denim jacket, a timeless piece that I can wear year after year that will survive every trend.

Day 5

Today was a potter around the house and get my life together sort of day. That basically means tackle the pile of washing that has quickly mounted up to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m the sort of person that wears every single item of clothing I own until I have nothing left to wear because it’s all dirty. So instead of just bunging a load in the washing machine and thinking nothing of it, I thought a bit more about the environmental costs of washing and drying the laundry. I set the washing machine to eco which, if you’re not familiar, washes at a lower temperature. This reduces the amount of energy required to heat the water. 

The drying process is what causes the most damage though. An average tumble dryer cycle uses more than 4kWh of energy and produces around 1.8kg of co2. But, if every household dried just one load outside or on a clothes airer each week, they would collectively save over a million tonnes of CO2 in a year.  I actually already own an airer, but it’s usually reserved for the items that will shrink in a tumble drier. This time I let everything dry naturally, although I had to be creative and hang clothes off anything in the garden because there was just so much of it.

Day 6 and 7

I’ve decided to combine Saturday and Sunday into one because I do the same thing every week. I work weekends. Something I’m very guilty of is nipping out at lunch to get something convenient to eat. Meal deals are my downfall because they’re easy and cheap.  Up until now, I've never realised how much plastic they contain. Pasta pots, soup pots, salad boxes, crisp packets, chocolate bar wrappers. There really is no avoiding this when you don’t prepare. Before my zero-waste week began I bought a bento lunch box, which is basically a lunch box with different compartments. This particular one included a little pot for dips inside. The segregated design of these boxes means there is no need for extra cling film or bags to separate foods. Plus, making your own food is WAY healthier. Cue the salad and hummus.

Coffees are another weakness of mine. I’m a slave to a barista-style, extra hot, frothy coconut milk latte. It’s a bit of a mouthful but an exotic caffeine hit before a long weekend of work is needed. But to be a bit kinder to the environment I remembered my stainless steel coffee cup, gold star for me as I usually forget every single time (I quite literally got an extra star on my loyalty card for bringing my own cup, win-win). 

And just like that my zero waste week was finished. I had practically HALVED my plastic waste which was my main aim. This experiment definitely helped me become more aware of the sheer amount of packaging and plastic in the world that most people take for granted, and how relatively easy it is to avoid those things. But, to dive straight into this way of living wasn’t exactly plain sailing.  I personally didn’t get on with the slippery shampoo bars or the strict veggie diet. Though I certainly will be changing my mindset when it comes to plastic packaging, food waste and general reusing. 

On the left is my waste the week before I completed my zero waste experiment and on the right is my waste after completing the challenge

Something that really stood out to me in my week, was that in a sea of people I was pretty much the only person with a reusable bag, water bottle, and certainly the only one lugging around containers. I learned two major lessons. First, living on zero waste is remarkably challenging and second, the society that we live in just isn’t ready to entertain the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle.  Still, all good things must start somewhere. Your input may seem like a drop in the ocean, but every little change counts.  

Main images: Unsplash