To mark Zero Waste Week, we got in touch with Rachelle Strauss, the founder of the website Zero Waste Week. She started her blog My Zero Waste back in 2008 and she shows us that following a Zero Waste lifestyle really isn’t that complicated.
Zero Waste, you ask?
Well, it refers to 90% diversion from landfills, incinerators and the environment. People who strive towards a Zero Waste lifestyle also commit to a goal of reducing the amount of materials discarded, and any discards going to thermal processes as part of a continuous improvement system to zero. Supporters of this movement talk about the Five Rs:
We asked Rachelle what led her to decide on a change in lifestyle, how it can be carried out in the UK, what we can do to start living sustainably, and what still needs to be done.
Keep up to date with all things Zero Waste with the hashtag #zerowasteweek on Twitter!
- Question: 1. You have been living this lifestyle for almost 10 years now, what made you take the step?
Although the seeds were sown back in 2004, it wasn’t until 2008 that I actually took any real action. In 2004 I was on holiday with my husband and our daughter when we were caught in flash flooding, resulting in 10 feet of floodwater, the bridge that would take you out of the village collapsing into the sea and over 100 people airlifted to safety. As I was standing there holding my daughter in my arms, wondering whether I’d ever see my husband alive again, I had one thought. Whether it was right or wrong, doesn’t matter, it was the beginning of a gradual journey.
That thought was “Everything I’ve been reading about climate change is happening. Not in 50 years time, but right now and I need to be part of the solution.”
I came home from that holiday and started my local Freecycle group as a way of doing something good out of a horrible situation. And in January 2008 I decided to make more significant changes. I decided to start recycling more and told my husband. He wasn’t interested. His response was ‘What difference can we make?’ so I halfheartedly started to recycle, but in all honesty, by the time I’d fished emptying beer cans and newspapers out of the bin from underneath soggy tea bags and food waste I ran out of motivation.
Later that year I saw a picture of a turtle with a carrier bag in its mouth. I showed it to my husband. He put his head in his hands and with tears in his eyes said “I’m never taking another carrier bag, ever again.”
Our Zero Waste journey had begun!
- Question: 2. Has the Zero Waste lifestyle spilled into other aspects of your life?
I think it makes you more aware generally. We were already doing things like turning off the lights when not in the room, buying things from charity shops and not leaving taps running when brushing teeth. I guess a Zero Waste Lifestyle just makes you look a little more deeply into the root cause of things. So now I question my own consumerism and ask myself if its a want or a need before I purchase something, and I tend to support brands that make items that last longer rather than fall apart after six months. We were already buying organic and local food, so our diets haven’t really changed that much and when I was pregnant I was aware that 60 % of what I put on my skin can end up in my bloodstream, so have always favoured a ‘less is more’ approach to toiletries and cleaning products!
- Question: 3. Zero Waste Bloggers in the US talk about different ways of shopping (buying in bulk, taking cloth bags for fruit and veg, mason jars for meat). Do you find supermarkets in the UK look kindly on this type of approach? Or have you also changed your buying habits?
Where I live in Gloucestershire, buying in bulk bins is virtually impossible. There used to be a few but they have dwindled in recent years, probably due to health and safety laws. However, I find approaches to taking my own bags and containers favourable – especially in local, independent stores such as a local health food shop, butcher, deli and bakery. I have also tried this in supermarkets with varying amounts of success. I find a call to the store first, to check their policy works best, rather than turning up unannounced and expecting something different! I’m fortunate in that I have a couple of local farm shops nearby where it’s virtually ‘normal’ to take your own bags and boxes.
- Question: 4. Since you started a zero waste lifestyle, do you think society and government polices make it easier to reduce waste or is it still an individual journey to do so?
My local council has certainly made it easier for me. Since beginning this lifestyle I can now recycle tetra-pak cartons three miles from my home and just this month our local kerbside collection has increased to include plastic bottles, cardboard, batteries and textiles.
However, I’m not convinced that any particularly good policies ‘from the top’ have come into play and made it easier to reduce waste. There are still manufacturers producing appalling packaging that simply cannot be recycled by the average householder; food waste figures are frightening and there seems to be little political will to make meaningful changes. Having said that, we have recently had a carrier bag tax in England and usage has gone down by a considerable amount, so it’s a step in the right direction!
- Question: 5. Do you find it is a lifestyle that more and more people are taking on? What was the “scene” when you and your family started?
The whole ‘Zero Waste movement’ is increasing – there are bloggers from around the world sharing their journeys and advice. When I started out in 2008 there were two or three families I knew of in the UK, now I know of over 200 families from across the world. It was all a bit ‘fringe’ when we started, but in certain pockets of society and thanks to social media I now feel part of a growing movement!
- Question: 6. What simple actions can a person who wants to try their hand at zero waste do?
Take a bin audit – it’s a gross job but unless you know what you’re dealing with, you can’t make impactful changes. So, rubber gloves on and go through the bin. Make a note of everything you throw away and perhaps even weigh your rubbish so you know your starting point.
Once you’ve done your audit, research the materials in there. Have a look at your local authority website to find out what you can recycle from kerbside and bring banks.
Create a recycling area in your home; it doesn’t have to take up a lot of room, you could use a shed, porch or a few carrier bags on the back of the kitchen door. Get rid of the kitchen bin and make it easier for yourself to recycle rather than throw away.
Speaking of ‘throw away’, a useful question to keep in mind is ‘where is away?’ It’s not some magical place where things disappear; it’s always somewhere else – an incinerator, a landfill site, a ship to China or the bottom of the ocean.
Figure out your WHY. Why do you want to reduce waste – is it to save money, to preserve resources, because you’re worried about your children’s future or for spiritual reasons? Figure out your why and keep this in mind when deciding what to buy – BEFORE you reach the checkout!