Living a Zero Waste Lifestyle by Becky & Tom
The following article was originally published in issue 13 of the Procrastination Paper: Sustainability, in January 2020. I love catching up with what Becky and Tom are up to on Instagram - they inspire me to be better and care more and show that it can be possible to live as close to zero waste as possible whilst living in both the city centre and the middle of the countryside. I hope their tips inspire you to rethink at least one aspect of your life - whilst it's not viable for everyone to be perfectly zero waste, we can all make a difference. Tom and Becky are both scientists and Becky runs Cepheid Studio, where she designs and sells scientifically accurate goods that make great gifts!
Living a Zero Waste Lifestyle
We're Becky and Tom, and when we want to make a change, we commit HARD. We've always been thrifty and generally environmentally conscious people, but in 2018 we suddenly woke up to just how much more we could be doing to reduce our impact on the planet. We started reading about how few things that get put in the recycling bin actually get recycled, and how much energy this requires. We found out exactly how much CO2 was released into the atmosphere just to get oranges out of season from far-flung destinations, and we learned just how damaging the dairy industry is. These realisations were paralysing, and it was hard to know how to deal with it; it felt like every good choice we made would have an unseen negative knock-on effect. We lived in a small apartment in the centre of Paris with no green waste collection so all our food scraps had to go in the bin destined for landfill. We felt trapped by a society designed to optimise short-term gain at the cost of our futures. It took passion and research, but we quickly managed to carve out a low-impact lifestyle that reduced both our own guilt and our negative effect on the planet. We're not perfect, we're still not 100% zero waste, but we're two humans doing our very best. Here's one of our first adventures into zero-waste living that we think perfectly encapsulates the challenges and successes of making a big lifestyle change…
We often say it's best to 'go big or go home'. As we're usually already at home, our only choice is to go big. Case and point: we could no longer justify milk on two levels: the plastic bottles it came in, and the contentious subject of the dairy industry in general. We mainly used milk for porridge, so we decided to try making our own. We looked up a few recipes online ('recipe' might be a bit of a grandiose term for soaking something in water, whizzing it up in a blender and straining the pulp, but hey ho), and found directions for making hazelnut, almond, soy, and oat milk. We already had oats in the cupboard so we decided to try that first. Twelve hours later we had a pint of oat milk in the fridge, ready to use. The next morning when we went to make porridge with it we realised the error of our ways. We'd really just made fancy oat water to pour onto… oats and water. What a pair of absolute nitwits. Lesson learned. Think your zero waste solutions all the way through before you go for it. Don't worry though, we worked it out eventually. We found French hazelnuts (low mileage and therefore lower carbon footprint than almonds, which came from abroad) at our local zero waste shop and got into a great rhythm of making our own nut milk. We even used the leftover pulp to make zero waste biscuits. What a win! Since then we've reduced our needs again and decided that even nut milk is superfluous to our needs, so that's one less thing to think about. Always learning and improving!
It's true that maintaining a zero waste lifestyle takes more thought and mental capacity than picking up fast food for every meal and chucking everything into landfill, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. We were raised in the UK in the 90s and 2000s, born into a culture of high expectations; society demanding things faster and cheaper, always. The message seemed to be that if it didn't fit those criteria, it was worthless. Our priorities needed to change, and now our goal is to live a life that's as low-impact as possible. Often we're asked things like "Isn't it a hassle?" or "How much more does it cost, though?". The attitude seems to be that people expect zero waste living to fit their current lifestyle, but we think that as a society we need to ask ourselves how can we change our lifestyles to make low-impact living possible.
Zero Waste Tips
Making lifestyle changes is hard, and it's easy to feel like throwing in the towel if you have a slip up. But remember this: the world doesn't need a handful of perfectly zero-waste people, it needs everybody to be doing their very best. The world won't stop spinning because you forgot your reusable fabric bag that one time. You've got this!
Before you spend lots of time and energy trying to find a zero waste alternative to everything in your life, ask yourself this: do I even need this thing? You'll be surprised at how much unnecessary shit you can cut out of your life by taking a moment to assess what's really important to you. For example, there's been a huge trend of metal and bamboo straws this year, but how many of those people Instagramming their 'eco-friendly straw' actually used a straw for every drink before? Aside from people who would genuinely struggle to drink without one, the vast majority are actually just buying more stuff they don't need, to solve a problem that never existed.
IN YOUR KITCHEN
The key to successful zero waste food shopping is preparation. Make sure you make a list to keep you focussed in the shop; you're less likely to be tempted into buying a packet of biscuits if you know you're buying ingredients to make muffins later.
Get into the habit of remembering your reusable bags. Keep them by the front door so you see them as you're leaving the house. Don't forget to write their empty weight on the label so this can be deducted from the food weight at the till!
Zero waste shops can be a great place to fill up on wine and fancy gins, but finding unpackaged non-alcoholic drinks can be a little trickier. Luckily, making your own fizzy pop is actually really easy! You can make the fizzy drink version of a sourdough starter using fresh ginger, sugar and water to make a 'ginger bug'. You can keep it in a jar and make your own pop whenever the mood takes you - we made fizzy tea in the summer, it was great!
FRUIT & VEG
This is an easy one; instead of reaching for a plastic bag of apples, take the loose ones. If your regular shop only sells fresh food in plastic, start shopping elsewhere and tell the manager on your way out that it's 2020 and this is madness.
Kitchen sponges are out, washable cotton dish cloths are in. Knit your own, rope in your thriftiest grandmother, buy some on Etsy. They work just as well as a sponge and can be used for a lot longer. When they get gross you can throw them in the washing machine and they'll come out good as new.
New zero waste shops are popping up everywhere nowadays, which is fantastic! Do a bit of research to find out if there's one in your area, and become best besties with the owner. They're clearly super cool.
If you're miles and miles away from a zero waste shop, it's time to get creative and think about minimising the amount of packaging you're taking per kilogram of product. Buying in bulk and sharing with other like-minded folk can be a great way to reduce the amount of packaging waste you produce.
No matter where you live you can also get super creative with your quest for no packaging. After living close to a zero waste shop in Paris we moved to the countryside, land of "les grandes surfaces", or mega supermarkets filled with plastic packaging and the like. It seemed like there'd be no way to get unpackaged food, but a quick internet search led me to a local grain farm and flour mill. They didn't have much information on their website so I emailed the owner asking if they'd let me bring my fabric bags to the mill to fill them up directly. I didn't really expect a response (going zero waste can seem like an uphill battle sometimes), but within an hour I had a reply saying that I was welcome to come by the next day to fill up as many bags as I wanted! We now go a couple of times a year to stock up, and we now get our pasta there too after the flour mill teamed up with a local pasta maker. In short, it's always worth asking.
COMPOSTING & VERMICOMPOSTING
If you have a garden, a compost bin is a great way to make use of both your food waste and paper waste too! Lots of local councils will provide you with one free of charge, but it's also really easy to build your own. You can then use the compost on your garden to grow more delicious food!
If you don't have any outdoor space, a vermicomposter (worm compost box) is perfect - you can keep it hidden away in a cupboard (we keep ours under the sink), and use it to dispose of most food and paper waste. You can make your own bin out of a couple of storage boxes, or order a purpose-built one, complete with a bag of worms, from the internet. Buying worms online was definitely one of the weirder moments of 2018 for us, but there you go! The worms are incredibly efficient at turning your waste into compost, so you'll soon have your own personal supply of vitamins for your plants.
Preparation is key when you’re traveling zero waste. It might seem like a great idea to set off on a trip with lunch boxes full of treats, but what will you do with the lunch boxes when they're empty? Maybe you'll be happy to carry them around for the rest of the trip, but I find that beeswax wraps are a great alternative to rigid containers when I'm travelling. I tend to need snacks when I'm out and about so I always pack some homemade flapjack or biscuits in beeswax wraps which can be folded flat when I'm done. You can buy beeswax wraps pretty much everywhere nowadays, but you get bonus points for buying (or making) ones using local beeswax to reduce the miles the ingredients had to travel to get to you.
A reusable travel mug can be really handy when you fancy a hot drink on the go. Lots of places even give you money off your drink if you bring your own cup, which is a great incentive.
RECYCLABLE ≠ ZERO WASTE
Let's clear up the difference between 'zero waste' and 'recyclable packaging'. I've seen countless Instagram influencers praising brands (who have gifted them items that were unnecessary in the first place, but that's another issue for another day) for the oodles of paper and cardboard packaging because it's 'recyclable'. Sure, paper-based packaging is probably better than a plastic alternative, but we also need to a) curtail over-packaging in general - your baby clothes do NOT need to be presented in three nested boxes with layers of tissue paper between each one, and b) stop slapping a 'recyclable' label on things and pretending we're eco-warriors. In fact, only a fraction of items in your recycling bin actually end up being recycled. You can look up the rates for your country, but even then, recycling takes energy and has a carbon footprint. The only way we can truly lower our impact is by reducing the amount of packaging altogether.
Having said that, it's inevitable that you'll still get letters and junk mail and so on (here in France we've signed up for 'paperless banking', which sends us just two letters each month instead of one per transaction…!), so how can you make sure they're being disposed of responsibly?
IN YOUR BATHROOM
*Ding ding ding* it's time to question how often you actually need to wash your hair! Everyone is different, but in general, the more frequently you wash your hair, the more frequently you'll need to wash your hair. One of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce your waste is to incrementally increase the time between hair washes. Solid shampoo bars eliminate the need for plastic bottles, and they're becoming so popular that you can find one for every hair type.
It's hard to find a palatable zero-waste alternative to loo roll, but finding a paper-packaged version instead of plastic is a great start. The paper packaging can either be reused, recycled, or turned into compost in your vermicomposter.
Did you know that for a healthy mouth you really don't need to use toothpaste at all? The action of brushing (i.e. scrubbing off plaque) is the main key to dental health, and toothpaste is really just a fancy accessory we've become accustomed to. Having said that, I've tried brushing my teeth with just water and it. felt. gross. I also tried using just bicarbonate of soda, which is found in regular toothpaste and acts as an abrasive while brushing. It was still a bit of an ordeal for me (but 10 points to you if you can handle it!), so I've settled on a tooth powder made locally in a refillable pot. It's minty enough to make me feel fresh, contains just five locally-sourced ingredients, and means I'm not chucking away a non-recyclable toothpaste tube multiple times a year.
Another great use for bicarbonate of soda! If you've ever put an open pot of bicarb in your fridge to keep it smelling fresh, you'll be familiar with it's odour-absorbing properties. You can make your own dry deodorant to suit your skin and lifestyle by experimenting with different ratios of water to bicarb, or find pre-made dry deodorant at your local heath shop.
WATCH OUT FOR....
See metal or bamboo straws (as mentioned earlier) and crocheted make-up removal pads. Did you even need the makeup in the first place? You look great. Enjoy your face. It's lovely. Also look out for big companies bringing out 'eco-friendly' products that aren't actually sustainable at all or 'organic' clothing ranges whilst still pumping chemicals into rivers.
Are you at a work event that's giving out reusable travel mugs as their event souvenir, but you already have a reusable travel mug? Don't take another one! But it's free, you say? Unless you have a specific person who will definitely make good use of that mug, don't be drawn in. Just because it's 'non-disposable' doesn't mean that it's necessary. Also see: notebooks you'll never actually use, tote bags that are too small to carry anything, and stress balls. Nothing stresses me out more than the pointlessness and environmental impact of stress balls.
If you're changing your lifestyle, tell everyone you know! One of our greatest sources of waste is gifts from people who don't understand what we're trying to do. It's really hard to walk the line between standing up for your principles, and looking like a dick when you can't be happy that your grandma bought you a bag of INDIVIDUALLY WRAPPED TOFFEES.
Big thanks to Becky and Tom for sharing their top tips! You can find Becky on Instagram at @cepheidstudio, shop at cepheidstudio.com and follow along with the couple's renovation adventures at @ateliercharneddy