How to Save the Planet with a Sewing Machine and Some Baking Soda

For about a year now, changes have been slowly creeping into the WLCB household. They started slowly, hardly noticeable to the naked eye. But over time they’ve tightened their grip on us and the way we live our lives. Now things have reached the point where we can’t hide it any more – we’re zero wasters.

Being a zero waster is just what it sounds like – we aim to produce as little rubbish as possible. Ideally none at all. Although reaching that level of zen mastery takes a lot of dedication and bucketloads of creativity. We’re not there yet. Not even close. But the most important thing is that we’ve set out on the journey.

For a more in-depth explanation of the whole concept, watch this TED Talk by Bea Johnson. She’s the Mr Money Mustache of the zero waste movement and claims she can fit her entire family’s rubbish for a whole year into one mason jar.

Ok, But What’s the Point? Is This Some Kind of Weird Lifestyle Experiment?

No. We didn’t just wake up one day, realize we were bored and decide to shake things up a bit. It all started when I watched The Story of Stuff, then more and more of the related videos YouTube kindly suggested to me. They got me thinking more about the problem of overconsumption and where all our “stuff” goes when we get bored of it. Over time I stumbled across videos introducing the zero waste movement, which focuses more on the problem of the day-to-day rubbish we produce. Once I became aware of the issue I realized that everything I did, from washing my hair to drinking takeout coffee, produced some kind of plastic waste. Plastic waste that will still be on this earth when my great-grandchildren are grandparents themselves. It was pretty shocking and I decided I’d better do something about it.

So What Did You Do Mrs W? Did You Stop Washing Your Hair and Drinking Coffee?

Again, no. Rest assured that my hair is still shiny and fragrant and my caffeine addiction remains a big part of my life. It just turns out that by approaching things slightly differently you can get most things done without leaving a trail of rubbish in your wake. Crazy but true.

Through a combination of making things yourself and buying from companies that offer zero waste products, you can very quickly reduce the amount of rubbish you produce. Here are just a few of the things I’ve done:

That Sounds Like a Lot of Work. Is This Actually Improving Your Life?

zero-waste-binDefinitely. I get a lot of satisfaction each time I manage to avoid using disposable plastic and that spurs me on to take the next step. I enjoy trying to think of creative solutions to avoid creating waste. It’s a bonus that a lot of these solutions involve me repurposing things I already have in the house anyway to make new things we can use every day. It makes me happy each time I use something I’ve made to do a zero waste version of a task that in the past would have created plastic waste. I feel like the time I spent making the object was time well spent. I’ve also learned loads about what goes into commercial cleaning products and cosmetics (spoiler alert: some pretty nasty stuff). It’s been an eye-opening learning experience.

I also enjoy celebrating each small step on our journey. Last week we realized that we produce so little rubbish that can’t be composted or recycled that we could switch our normal-sized kitchen bin for a tiny little bucket.

That’s All Fine and Good. But I’m a Die-Hard Sceptic. What Are the Downsides?

Getting Overwhelmed

We’re trying really hard but there’s still so much we have to change. And sometimes we’ll run out of something and I don’t have the time or energy to work out how to make my own, so I end up buying another bag of commercial washing powder or whatever.

I try not to beat myself up about it. Making such big changes takes time, so I try to focus on taking small steps and making each purchase slightly less bad than the last. For example, at some point I’d like to make my own liquid hand soap from scratch, but for the moment I’ve settled on buying bar soap that comes in only cardboard packaging and melting it down into hand soap. One day I’ll get to the handmade soap, but for the moment at least I’ve stopped buying a new plastic bottle of hand soap every month or so.

Getting Frustrated by People’s Stupidity

D'oh

Image credit: http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/D%27oh

When you get sensitized to the problem you suddenly become aware of just how much plastic there is everywhere. Especially in supermarkets. I’ve also become aware of how wasteful other people are and I get frustrated by some people’s stupidity and complete lack of awareness. Like the time I ordered takeout coffee and my reusable coffee cup was too tall for the machine. Instead of using a ceramic cup to make my coffee, the woman at the café used a plastic disposable cup, then proudly poured the coffee into my cup and handed it to me with a big smile on her face.

Speaking of my reusable coffee cup being too tall for some coffee machines, that’s another downside. The whole point of buying a product to replace disposable objects is that it should last several years, if not a lifetime. But since you have no experience with the product it can be difficult to choose the right one. It turns out that the coffee cups I originally bought were too tall for some machines, and they were also quite ugly. I’ve since found a couple of companies that do smaller cups in loads of really pretty designs. A few weeks ago we finally cracked and bought a couple. If you’re thinking of getting a reusable coffee cup yourself, learn from our mistake and make sure it’s small enough to fit under the nozzle of most coffee machines.

Bah Humbug. So What Are You Going to Do Now? Save the World?

Probably not. I’m going to keep trying reduce our waste. I’m not aiming at fitting all our rubbish for a year into a mason jar because I don’t see the point in taking things to extremes. Instead my aim is to be a little bit less awful to the planet.

I also want to set an example for my kids and raise them in a way that zero waste is normal for them. Then they won’t need to go on their own zero waste journey when they’re older. I don’t want to raise them in a zero waste bubble though. They will also learn about the conventional plastic way of doing things and why it’s not sustainable.

I also aim to find a balance between making things myself and buying things from sustainable companies that offer zero waste products. I think it’s important to show these companies that there’s a demand for their products. That there are people out there who are really grateful for what they do. The more powerful these sustainable companies become, the more the conventional companies will have to sit up and take notice. That’s the theory anyway. If you don’t want to make any products yourself, or if you just don’t have the time, buying from such companies means that you can still reduce your rubbish production and keep your sanity at the same time.

It’s also important to say that zero waste isn’t about buying all sorts of fancy new gear. You can do a lot by repurposing and upcycling things you already have. At the same time, the main point of zero waste isn’t to save money. Some changes I’ve made have ended up saving me money while others are probably more expensive. I consider the money I’ve spent on things like the reusable coffee cups money well spent.

But Mrs W, You’re Just One Little Household. It Doesn’t Matter What You Do If the Other 7 Billion People on the Planet Carry on as Normal.

True. But talking about the issues helps enormously. It makes people aware of the issue and gets them thinking. The concept is gaining ground and has become more widespread recently. I was surprised when we went to Scotland for Christmas that so many of my friends there are thinking about it on some level. They’ve all taken at least one step towards producing less rubbish. One has switched from paper tissues to cloth handkerchiefs. Another had just taken a delivery of bamboo toilet paper and was excited to test it. (It was great, in case you’re wondering.)

While I was writing this post, I had the idea of adding a section to What Life Could Be dedicated to documenting our zero waste journey. Partly with the hope of inspiring you and partly to remind myself how far we’ve come on days when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m not going to change the focus of this blog to zero waste, but since it’s become an important part of our FI lives I wanted to create a space for it here. We’ll still be blogging about all kinds of FI-related stuff. I even have the beginnings of a proper, hardcore real estate post taking shape in my head. There may even be spreadsheets in it. I know you can’t wait so I’ll get cracking on that right away.

The issue of plastic waste is gaining a higher profile in the media and at the political level. I was going to talk about that here too. But since this post is getting quite long already I’ve decided to save that until next time.

What about you? Have you already heard of zero waste? Have you taken any steps to reduce your own rubbish production? What do you think about the whole concept? Let me know in the comments below.