I’ve had a couple of emails this week from people who want to start a Zero Waste lifestyle, but don’t know how to start. The term ‘zero waste’ is feeling unachievable to them. I wanted to address these concerns today, so if you find yourself not knowing where to begin, you soon will!
Set your ground rules
The first question to ask yourself is ‘What does Zero Waste mean to me?’ It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or does, this is YOUR journey. Think about it; if five people hired a personal trainer, you might get five different answers about what fitness means and what each person wants so achieve. One person might want to lose weight, another might want to increase fitness after an illness, another might need to strengthen their legs after an accident or surgery, another might want to develop stamina to run a marathon and another build muscle.
A zero waste lifestyle is exactly the same. For me, my zero waste lifestyle focuses on throwing as little non-recyclable waste in landfill as possible and reusing and reducing things. But other people take into account water usage, transportation, air miles or other aspects. Define ‘zero waste‘ for yourself, so you know what you’re aiming for.
Chunk it down
When I’m not busy helping people reduce their waste, I work as a life coach. And one thing is common to almost everyone I meet – overwhelm. When you’re overwhelmed the thinking part of your brain can switch off which means even making the simplest of decisions can feel impossible. So one of the first things I help people to do is chunk things down into small manageable steps. A bit like eating an elephant, right? One piece at a time!
When I think back on my own journey, we decided back in 2008 to only create one bin of waste for the year. It sounded huge and doomed to failure but we took it one step at a time. For the first month we focused on refusing disposable carrier bags, in the second month we started using our kerbside recycling collections, in the third month we started recycling at local bring banks as well, in the fourth we replaced a couple of disposable items with reusable ones – you get the picture.
Once you’ve got your definition of what you want to achieve, map out all the tiny steps to get there, then ask yourself a powerful question “What’s the smallest step I could take that would give me the biggest impact right now?’ and do it…
Find your tribe
A valuable lesson I soon learned when starting a zero waste lifestyle was that I needed other people onboard. I tried doing it against my husband’s desire and lasted three days! (pulling out a newspaper from the bin that was covered in vegetable peelings and soggy teabags was just not going to happen). Fortunately he soon adopted the lifestyle himself and we worked much faster together. It was also important to get support from a virtual group of people. At first we had people following and commenting on the site, then I set up a Facebook group and Twitter and of course, there are thousands of people taking part in Zero Waste Week every year. If you haven’t already, please sign up to this year’s Zero Waste Week newsletter here.
By having like-minded people to talk to, it makes the journey much easier, plus you don’t feel so alone or isolated. There are plenty of ‘on the ground’ events and meet ups too, so see what you can find locally or in your workplace.
Accept that things will go wrong
I’ll tell you now, you will fail along the way. You’ll make bad decisions, create waste, and makes lots of mistakes. And it doesn’t matter. (Although I don’t believe in mistakes, I believe in opportunities to try things differently next time). What matters is that you learn from your so-called mistakes, get back on the bandwagon and take the next step. No beating yourself up allowed!
You’ll come across situations that you have no control over and you’ll have to learn to compromise. For example, well-meaning people buying you unwanted gifts, children coming home from parties with plastic-tat filled goody bags, teens who have money to spend and don’t spend it in alignment with your values, travel that results in disposable items and sickness when you need convenience food or medication that comes in plastic packaging. You can’t do anything about these situations except try your best and brush it off. But as someone who takes mental health seriously, if you’re paralyzed by eco anxiety, or spend time ruminating about all the ‘mistakes’ you’ve done, you might need professional help. You can even do this from the comfort of your home with online therapy – so no car trips to add to your eco guilt!
You don’t need an instagrammable pantry or minimalist home
I get it.
The curated photos on instagram can feel totally unattainable.
The mason jars of trash impossible to achieve (Because your’s is icky and you wouldn’t want anyone to see it, let alone hold it in their hands, right?!)
The Zen-like people with their perfect minimalist lifestyles can leave you feeling more than a little inadequate.
I’m here to tell you that it’s ok to keep it real. It’s ok to have messy cupboards in your kitchen with out of date, yet edible, food in the back, 10 bottles of shampoo in plastic bottles that need using up, old plastic tupperware containers for storing things, acrylic jumpers in your wardrobe and what is all that stuff in the junk drawer?
Zero Waste is a journey that can take years to perfect and actually the environment is going to love you more if you continue to use up the things you already have in your home, rather than get rid of perfectly good things in plastic, just so you can buy photo worthy stainless steel containers, glass jars, sustainable hemp clothes or bamboo toothbrushes.
The most zero waste purchase you can make is none at all – hence the ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’ mantra.
So please, make do with what you already have – reuse that old water bottle, even if it is plastic. Plastic isn’t the enemy, but thoughtless, excessive consumerism – even of the sustainable items – might just be.
Celebrate your successes
One of the most important things to keep you on track, motivated and energised is to stop and celebrate your successes. It’s easy to look at the massive problems we face and spend time fretting that we’re not doing enough fast enough, but it’s important to keep balance. If you keep flogging yourself to achieve more you’ll get despondent and if you keep focusing on the big problem you might give up altogether. But if you stop and celebrate your small wins you’ll feel encouraged to take the next step. That’s where getting accountability or a bit of friendly competition from your tribe can be invaluable.
And if you’ve got nobody to share this with, send me an email – I’ll send you a high five across the ether and I love to hear your stories!