Zero Waste experiment
Mis à jour : 16 déc 2019
6 months, one small bag of trash
It has been over a year since we started to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. We barely create any trash and we compost all our food scraps. Everything we cannot refuse, we reduce, reuse or recycle. Living like this has taught us a lot and has showed us many different perspectives on how we cook, how we eat and how we consume in general.
How we learned about the ‘Zero Waste movement’
As we were traveling New Zealand without a real fixed plan, we often ended up in interesting places, meeting all kinds of people. So it happened that we ended up doing the dishes at the Sustainability Centre on Waiheke Island. Around 50 people had just enjoyed a free meal, cooked with only ingredients that were going to be thrown away by the local supermarket. The community feeling was way bigger than the pile of dishes. Lots of lovely people enjoyed sharing inspiring ideas, theories and ideologies. Somebody mentioned we ought to look up The Rubbish Trip if we were interested in the environment and global warming. The Rubbish Trip is a blog about a young New Zealand couple that travels around the country sharing their Zero Waste lifestyle insights with communities willing to listen. We had a look, we started reading and we were hooked.
The six month experiment
After having done our research, we made some slow changes towards reducing our waste. The changes became gradually bigger and at one point we felt we were ready to go all the way. We decided that the two of us were not going to fill more than one bag of trash over the period of 6 months. Preferably we wouldn’t even fill that bag at all. Items that are recyclable were even going to be avoided. This was a serious commitment and we decided we would not allow ourselves any exceptions, constantly being each other’s supervisor. We were going all the way and this was going to be a challenge! Whenever we made a decision we followed the R hierarchy from Bea Johnson, which goes as follows:
Refuse (and replace)
If you want to learn more tips and tricks for living a zero waste lifestyle, have a look here.
A new way of shopping
Journeys to the supermarket became significantly shorter. We only needed to look at a small amount of the sections. Basically we just bought fresh fruit and vegetables and items in the bulk section filling it in our own bags and jars. Convenient instant food, pre-made sauces, chips, biscuits and candy were no longer on our shopping list which was actually better for our general health. Dairy and meat without packaging was hard to come by as well. We had to contact local stores and ask if we were allowed to bring our own boxes to fill with meat and cheese we were craving. Since we were often on the road, we had to contact several shops on a regular basis. Meat and cheese became rare in our meals and were almost seen as a luxurious exception. Not allowing ourselves to buy packaged pasta, rice or bread, forced us to be creative. We often went to specialized bulk stores where we could fill up containers, boxes, bags and jars with whatever our hearts desired and often it cost us less money. Some things cannot be bought in bulk or without packaging, which left us with the only option of making it ourselves. We were two inexperienced cooks who only knew how to make basic meals, which weren’t even that great either. The experiment was becoming more demanding. No exceptions were allowed, so we started making our own bread, our own pasta, basic cheese and even ketchup. We also started making homemade toothpaste and deodorant. Surprisingly this did not take up as much time as we expected and doing it ourselves was almost always cheaper than the convenient option.
We were doing pretty well with keeping the amount of trash on the low, but we still had food scraps we had to discard. Being on the road, we were not able to compost our food scraps, so we started to look for places that could benefit from our food scraps. Visits to organic shops became associated with trying to donate our food scraps. Not all places where we traveled, had organic shops and not all organic shops would take our food scraps, so we had to find solutions. We started asking in Facebook groups if people needed organic material for composting and we even found an app called “ShareWaste” where compost donations could find a place with people who were composting at home. Our little experiment was enabling us to socialize with a lot of passionate people.
Halfway through the experiment we had already learned more than we had anticipated. We had become vegetarian and almost vegan, we had interacted with several local communities and our culinary skills had gotten a level up. We felt great about our achievements. We were actually doing it. We were showing the world it was possible! Unfortunately, this made us change the way we looked at the people around us. When we saw plastic bags or packaged food we felt revulsion growing inside of us. We were, unconsciously, judging the people who did not make a, big or small, effort towards a greener world and a healthier environment. We became alienated and polarized from society and it was not healthy for our social lives. We saw plastic everywhere, we saw it in the street, in restaurants and we even noticed it while watching movies. Our attitude towards waste became almost an obsession. It took us a while to realize how alienated we were. The only thing we were too busy managing this lifestyle without allowing any exceptions.
Taking a step back
Our living situation at the time, never sleeping more than 3 hours in a row, did not enhance our social interactions or our view on our surroundings. When you feel several negative emotions in your daily life, it is a good idea to take a step back to put things in perspective. We analyzed our decisions and decided to go back to a regular sleeping pattern. This created some space to look back at our social experiment. We asked ourselves again about our motivation for living zero waste. We found it was not worth it to put ourselves in extremely difficult situations, but setting a good example and living up to our values were vital to us. Individual changes are a good way to inspire people and to explore alternatives, but the odd exception really does not matter that much. You could state for example that an environmental scientist, who eats meat and uses plenty of single use plastic, still has a very positive impact on the planet. We decided to continue living according to the zero waste philosophy, allowing recyclables and some non-recyclable exceptions when things were very hard during travels. Along the way, we kept on learning about waste reduction and cooking from scratch. Small challenges created opportunities to think outside of the box and we are still grateful to all the knowledge we have gained. Cooking wholesome meals with fresh ingredients are always our first choice now. The way we look on processed foods has changed completely after our experiment.
After the six months
These six months of extreme zero waste were extremely insightful. This was the most impactful lifestyle change we had ever experienced. It has defined who we are now and has been the gateway towards the sustainability path. Before the challenge we had basic knowledge about waste and we acknowledged the problems, but these wasteless months opened up a whole new world for us. The moment we finished, we continued a lighter version of zero waste because it is harder to do it as we travel, but we do intend to continue when we settle down in Belgium again. In hindsight a slower approach with small, incremental changes would be more doable and mentally healthier. If you are brave enough to go all the way and you love a challenge, then please go for it and embrace the mission and everything that comes with it.
By the way here is a video about zero waste we made for high school students
Edit: traveling zero waste in Asia is very hard and nearly impossible. It is easier to momentarily put your values aside and enjoy the country and its people.