5 lessons learned after one year of zero waste

The beginning of this month marked the one-year anniversary of our move to Spain and the genuine start of our new zero waste lifestyle. I carried a trash audit 6 months in and did the same last week as we took the different recycling bins out. Except an increase in glass recycling due to the fact that the ’empty jar’ cupboard is now full, there are not major changes to report, so I will spare you the detailed inventory. Instead I wanted to share a few lessons I have learned in my first year of zero waste. I hope they can help beginners and less beginners to feel more confident in their waste reduction journey.

5 lessons learned in one year of zero waste

Focus on baby steps

When I first came across Zero Waste, I got over excited and though that once I really got started I would fit one year of trash in a mason jar. ZW was making the synthesis of a lot of ideas I had regarding what my lifestyle should be and I was excited to have a framework to put all those ideas into action. Because ZW touches all the little aspects of life, it was quite overwhelming at first as most of the things I considered routine needed to be reevaluated. The key is to focus on one or two little things at a time and find a new system for them. Once a new and better habit has been taken, then it is time to move on to the next thing. After one year, I still haven’t covered all the areas I wanted to when I started the journey, but I have a much more sustainable life style already.

Take your time to get rid of things the right way

It would be hard to live a zero waste life without looking into minimalism or simple living. Quite early on in my ‘zero waste observation’ phase, I realised that I had too much stuff. I got so relieved by the realisation that getting rid of the excess would make my life more breathable that I couldn’t wait to start decluttering. Now I wish I had taken more time and thought in this process. Beyond a couple of things that I was too quick to discard, I now realise that giving so many things to charity was not the best zero waste course of action. I got rushed by the move to give away things that would probably end up in landfill, when I now know ofbetter ways to give a second chance to those items (free cycle, FB give away groups…). We now have an area in the entrance where I put things to give away, letting myself the time to change my mind and waiting to find them a new owner.

Wait until buying zero waste gears

5 lessons learned after one year of zero waste
A few of the things I use every day to reduce my waste and that I owned before starting zero waste.

There is a certain aesthetic presented on social media around the zero waste movement. I confess to having been very close to buying a Klean Kanteen as I read several articles that were convincingly explaining that it had all the characteristics of the best reusable waster bottle. The truth is I already had several water bottles and although they were less ideal, they would do the job just fine for quite a few more years. If I didn’t buy a new water bottle, I bought a glass lunch box as I wanted to move away from all things plastic when it came to food. I now prefer to use the glass jars I buy my yogurt in as they are less heavy and could have spared the purchase. We all already have a lot of stuff that can be used or transformed to reduce waste at home. The only other things I bought new are my menstrual cup and recently menstrual pad. I might buy other zero waste gears in the future, but I will have taken the time to make sure I really needed them.

Enjoy the empowerment of the little things

Some people might say that zero waste is only a drop in the ocean and it will never make a real difference. I have a lot of reasons to disagree with this (the Zero Waste Chef compiled a great list of arguments to answer the common critics against zero waste). The main reason I think zero waste makes a difference (at least in my life) is that it guides me to make purchase decisions based on what I want society to be like. It broke me free from buying what is cheapest or what advertisements managed to make me think I wanted. I feel I have more control over my life and know more about what I consume. This is probably the most satisfying part. More so than the actual waste reduction.

Don’t try to be perfect

There are only so many hours in a day and at some point it is important to let go to keep the motivation going on the long run. There will be trial and error before finding a new habit and this same habit might need to be reconsidered a few months down the road because the situation has changed. There will be progress and then set backs, moments when you are caught unprepared, important items that are not available unpackaged. It took me a bit of time to accept that I didn’t need to beat myself up every time I couldn’t avoid producing waste. In the same way it is important to approach zero waste in incremental steps, it is important to accept that we don’t live in a context where it is possible to reach the zero of zero waste. Zero waste is about taking better decisions for a simpler life and the future of humanity.

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Zero waste progress

Zero waste is made of the accumulation of little acts of resistance against the status quo that threatens our future on this planet. I can never find enough time in the month to write a full post about all the little things I do to make my life simpler and more sustainable, so I would like to try a new post format inspired by the simple things series for the beauty is simple. Here are 5 little things that brought me closer to my zero waste goals this month.

New produce bagsBulk drawstring bags

In preparation for potentially having to live apart from my boyfriend for a while, I sewed a few more produce bags so that we can both have enough of them to keep the amount of packaging we send to landfill low. I used my experience with the ones I have been using for a while to come up with a more convenient design for the bulk aisle (I’m hoping to post a tutorial for them soon).

Make it do with a bad purchase
Water bottle up cycle

A few years back I bought a ‘Bobble’ water bottle to be able to filter water on the go. What a bad purchase! With each change of filter, so much plastic had to go to waste that I only changed the filter once and stopped using the bottle. Since I didn’t want to throw the whole bottle away, I used a box cutter to remove the filter part and now we can use it as a simple water bottle.

Phone case from up-cycled materialsPhone case from up cycled materials

For Christmas, I offered P. to make a case for his new-to-him second-hand phone and I finally finished it this month. It is made entirely from materials that had a previous life. The fabric, button and elastic came from the pile of material I save for craft projects and the padding was some wrapping new screens came in at work. It is actually its third life as it was used to protect things when we moved last year. The design is adapted from this tutorial.

No food waste recipe: ‘Pain perdu’

Stale bread into french toast

We don’t eat much bread, so it is not uncommon that we don’t manage to finish the one we buy before it gets stale. This is not a reason to throw it away. Even weeks after, we make French toast with our hard bread. I love that in French it is called ‘Pain perdu’ i.e. lost bread. Recipe: Mix 1 egg, 10 cl milk and 25 g. Cut the stale bread in slices and deep them for about 30 seconds in the mix. Put in an oven dish and bake until golden.

Reusable pads

Reusable periode pads

As I mentioned before, my zero waste focus of the year is the bathroom. After successfully switching to a menstrual cup, I was still finishing up my disposable pad stock to deal with leaks at the beginning of the cycle. I finally invested in re-useable pads. I am looking forward for my first truly zero waste cycle.

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How about you? I’d love to hear what little acts of resistance you carried out this month.

3 eco-friendly alternatives to google search

We all use search engines every day, without really thinking about it. Most of us would use google because they keep implementing convenient functionalities, but behind the scenes they are selling our data to advertisers that are trying to sell us things we don’t need.

What if there was a way to make internet searches while protecting our privacy and making a positive contribution for the planet ? I have tested three alternatives to google search that aim at protecting the user’s privacy and contribute to something bigger.

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DuckDuckGo: it’s all about privacy

DuckDuckGo - A privacy oriented alternative to google search

When I started worrying about my privacy on the internet, I first came across DuckDuckGo.  This search engine is not eco-friendly per se, but it has a very high commitment on its users’ privacy: from not tracking users’ data to showing the same content to every user for the same search. For that purpose, it has developed its own search algorithm. It used not to have sponsored content, but added some to keep the project alive. However it is possible to opt out in the settings. If you use Safari or Firefox to surf the web, you can choose it as your default search engine.

I tried DuckDuckGo in its early days but came back to google pretty fast as I was not very satisfied by the search results. I tried it again last year and it has improved a lot, but it would still fall short when I would look for a combination of more than two ideas. I was finishing writing my thesis at the time and ended up having to use google for at least one third of my searches, which was not very convenient.

Lilo: support community projects

Lilo - Collect drops with every search and support environmental and social project

I still had in mind that I wanted to find an alternative to google search, so when one of my friends shared a post about Lilo on Facebook, I did a bit of research and set up to try it. The concept behind this search engine is to divert the ad revenue generated by our internet searches to  finance positive changes. Lilo redistributes 50% of their revenue to support environmental and social projects. For each search you make, you earn a drop of water. You can then choose to support the projects you like in a list of partner projects.

It works with the google search algorithm while protecting its users’ privacy (it doesn’t save personal data and protects you from web and advertisement tracking, but some basic info have to be passed on to google) so you don’t have to compromise on the search result quality.

Then there is the problem of the energy search engines consume. The internet gives this sense that things are dematerialised and it is easy to forget that behind each search there is an impact on the real word. Lilo offsets the carbon emission of its searches. This is also true for google, which uses 56% renewable energy and finance carbon reduction projects to offset the rest (see this Greenpeace report to know more about the green efforts of the giants of the internet).

I have been using Lilo since the beginning of the year and I am very happy with it. I only switched back to google for a couple of tricky IT questions that were hyper specific. To use it by default, you have to install a plugin on your browser. If you don’t like plugins, you can bookmark search.lilo.org. I like to see the drops accumulate through the month (I try to give my drops at the end of each month). It helps me realise how many searches I make and it is super nice to choose a project and give the drops away.

Ecosia: let’s plant trees

Ecosia - The search engin that uses its revenu to plant trees

Ecosia works in a similar way as Lilo, using Yahoo and Bing’s algorithm and giving away 80% of its ad revenue to a reforestation plan. You also need to install a plugin to use it. It is not completely clear to me where Ecosia stand in terms of the energy. I read here (have a look at the article if you want a more detailed comparison of Ecosia and Google search) that Bing and Yahoo are carbon neutral although Greenpeace ranks them lower than Google on green internet leadership. I didn’t find out if Ecosia does anything specific about their own energy use, but I guess since they contribute to planting so many trees they must offset the extra energy anyway.

As for privacy,  Ecosia don’t store permanently any personal data, but need to send some of them to Bing. Having read privacy policy of both Lilo and Ecosia, I would say Lilo is slightly better on that front, but if privacy is your main concern nothing beats DuckDuckGo.

I tried it for a few weeks and didn’t find a significant difference with Lilo in terms of the quality of the search results. As with Lilo, you can keep track of how many searches you make in the form of a counter telling you the number of trees you helped plant. Since you don’t have to choose which project to support, it doesn’t require any extra work to contribute to planting trees once you have started to use it. Although I like the idea that I can choose what kind of project I support.

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In conclusion, my current favourite search engine is Lilo, but that might just be a bit of chauvinism as the founders of the project are French 🙂  What about you ? Are you ready to try something different for your internet searches ?

No food waste recipe: Sour milk pancakes

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A while ago, I was telling you about our zero waste milk routine and how, as a result, we ended up having to deal with sour milk from time to time. After a few more tries, I have perfected (or rather simplified) the recipe of my sour milk pancakes and I wanted to share it with you. Since the sour milk was supposed to make the dough raise, I didn’t see why I also needed to put baking powder and baking soda. So I tried without it. Although the result is more a thick crepe than a pancake, it is super nice and I don’t see why I would need the extra ingredients.

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In the meantime, I also tried to make ricotta like cheese. I basically warmed the sour milk until it made curds and filtered it with a clean piece of cloth. It was quite fun, and the best part is that the whey can be frozen (I don’t have energy to make the dough straight after making the cheese) and used to make the pancake recipe later. The result is softer and sweeter than with the sour milk. Since neither of us is a huge fan of the resulting cheese, I would need to use it in a recipe to be worth the extra work, but last night we tried spinach and ricotta lasagna and this could be a good use for it in the future.

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Sour milk pancakes

Ingredients

For each cup of sour milk or whey (makes about 10 pancakes):

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 tea spoon of sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt

Mix all the ingredients in this order. Let the dough rise between 1 hour and one night. The dough is ready to make pancakes.

Zero waste progress: the bathroom

In my attempt to break with my consumerism habits, 2016 was focused on clothes: I simplified my wardrobe and learned mending skills. Now that I know where I am going on that front, I decided 2017 was going to focus on the bathroom.

Version 3

Like with my wardrobe, I started by an inventory to be able to monitor my progress. Not that it comes as a surprise, but getting all the content of my bathroom cupboards out on the table shows that I have way too many cosmetics compared to my needs.

Below are a few of the measures I have taken so far to get closer to a minimalist and zero waste bathroom:

1. Finishing up what I have

When I come across a piece of cloth I no longer want, it goes to the charity pile or to the sewing material pile if it is not in a good enough state. It is not that easy with cosmetics. In the long term, I hope to use only natural cosmetics with limited packaging, but I have set to finish every occurrence of a type of product before looking for sustainable and zero waste alternatives.

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By cutting our tubes of toothpaste open, we make them last at least one more week.

I used the inventory as an excuse to reorganise the different types of products together.  As I mentioned before, I am working on using all the samples and hotel toiletries I have accumulated. We finished most of the shower gels, but I find some shampoos really don’t agree with my hair. I started using those as shower gel after a friend gave me the idea.

There is still a long way to go. Between all my samples and the different types of hydration cream I own (do we really need a different product for hand, face, body … ?), I have 40 hydration cosmetics to finish!

 

2. Identifying the products I really use

I don’t have a complicated beauty routine and I would like my bathroom cabinet to reflect that. Beyond not having multiple versions of the same product, I would like to have fewer types of products in the future.

Once I finish what I already have, my plan is to find a good alternative for my everyday toiletries (any combination of DIY, organic, natural or package free):

  • 1 Soap for body, hand and face (this one ?)
  • 1 Shampoo
  • 1 Toothpaste
  • 1 Deodorant
  • 1 Hydration cream for body, hand and face
  • 1 Lip balm
  • 1 Sun screen
  •  + Conditioner if the water is too hard: I got used to hair conditioner in London, because the water was too agressive. I was planning to replace it with vinegar as I already did this successfully in Denmark, but it turns out I don’t need conditioner here.

And keep a bit of the fancy stuff for the special occasions:

  • Make up (1 mascara, a few eye shadows, a couple of lipsticks)
  • 1 Perfume
  • A couple of nail polishes

Considering how much of those I use, I probably don’t have to worry about renewing them for quite some time. Then the big question is what to do with what doesn’t fit in those two categories. I’ll let you know if I find a good answer.

3. Getting natural zero waste soap

Zero waste bathroom progress

I was happy to find some Alep soap without packaging at my organic shop. I haven’t really started to use it yet, but P., who got a bit tired of my shampoo hotel business, has been using it since Christmas and doesn’t seem to complain.

4. Changing my period management

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I use to not see the point to spend money for organic things that were not food until I heard a specialist explain on the radio that pesticides in tampons and pads were actually more dangerous than in food. They are in contact with mucous membranes and the chemical thus go directly into the bloodstream. So even if you don’t care about the plastic pollution, it is worth reconsidering the status quo.

I bought a menstrual cup before leaving London. It took a bit of time to get used to it (3-4 cycles), but now I definitely find it to be the most comfortable way to deal with my periods. I still use a pad in addition for the first days. At the moment I am finishing a box of organic ones, but I am planning to switch to reusable pads ASAP. I made an attempt at sewing some, but I was not super successful, so I am going to buy some.

5. Installing a compost bin …

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… and removing the ‘traditional’ bin.

I use the glass pot on the picture above to put my hair and nails until I take them to the compost. For the rest, we need to walk to our balcony trash centre. As explained above, I am on my way to zero waste periods and I already stopped using other disposable items. I no longer use Q-tips because they are bad for the ears and since I don’t make up often, I simply wash my face with soap instead of using cotton pads and make-up remover. However if you need cotton pads, it is easy to make or buy reusable ones. Aren’t those and those cute? I have to resist not to make some for myself.

No-food-waste recipe: Parsley salad

Skip directly to the recipe

I love getting a weekly fruit and veggie box. It frees so much time by limiting major groceries to every 2-3 weeks and it ensures we eat well. But it means that we have to get a bit creative not to waste food. Recently they gave us quite a bit of parsley, and I was not sure how to use all of it. As a happy coincidence, it is the week Pioneering the simple life chose to share a parsley pesto recipe. I thought this was the perfect way to conserve our parsley, so I set up to do my own version of it (I’m very bad at following recipes 😉 ).

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After spending some time chopping the parsley, garlic cloves and almonds, our blender refused to work. Not a big surprise since I got it second hand and it was quite old, but I had already mixed everything together and I was a bit upset at the idea that I wasted time and ingredients. This is when I thought about saving everything as a salad. After all, this is kind of the idea behind Lebanese tabbouleh. It turned out pretty nice. 


 Parsley salad recipe

Serves two

Ingredients 

  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 10 almonds
  • olive oil
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 pinch of pepper
  • seasonal and/or fermented vegetables (tomato, carrot, beetroot, sauerkraut …)

Put almonds to soak in water. It is supposed to reactivate the enzymes that went dormant when the seed dried. It makes it easier to absorb all the good nutrients of the almond. In any case, it makes the almond softer. Anything from 20 min to overnight is good. Since I rarely plan meals in advance, I normally just put them to soak when I start cooking and prepare all the rest first.

Chop the garlic, the parsley and the almonds. Add the lemon.

Clean, cut and add the rest of the vegetables. Put salt, pepper and olive oil to taste.

If you are not too starving, let it macerate a bit in the fridge.


The first time I used tomatoes and fermented beetroot. You can tell we are in Spain, because we get tomatoes every week from a company that sells seasonal organic veggies. I wish they would put something else though cause they are not so tasty at the moment.  

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Since last week we got parsley again, I made the salade again, replacing the fermented beetroot by homemade sauerkraut! I am pretty exited about this. I made it to prevent a cabbage to go to waste. It doesn’t look like I expected, but it is super nice. 

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‘Invisible’ jeans patching

As part of my attempt to dematerialise gifts and to slow down our crazy accumulation of stuff, I offered a ‘fixing one piece of cloth’ voucher to P. for his birthday. I love the idea of visible mending, of imprinting its history on a loved piece of cloth to make it even more special. But sometimes it is not a good option. For some reason, P. didn’t want to draw attention on his crotch.

The hole was already quite big by the time I got to take care of it, so I needed a patch. Since there was a bit of extra length at the bottom of the legs, I thought I could use that. So we started by hemming the jeans. Yes, we. I took the occasion to teach a bit of sewing to P. and we did one leg each. Who says sewing is a woman only thing?

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I used a seam ripper to make sure I would have as much fabric as possible out of the legs’ cut. After a bit of ironing, I cut a patch in the smaller piece, pined it in place, stitched all around the patch and around the hole to keep it in place. I started by doing a simple hemming stitch, but because the patch is in a high-stress zone, I had to do it again with a catch stitch to prevent the patch to fray.

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Et voilà ! It is not perfect, but when P. is wearing it, you don’t see a thing. And there is still quite a bit of fabric left for future patches.

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5 steps towards a sustainable Christmas

Christmas is a magical time of the year that helps warm our hearts to get us through winter, but we have turned it in a bit of a mass consumption ritual which is far from environmentally friendly. Before moving on to 2017, I wanted to share the five little steps I’ve taken this year to make gift giving a bit more sustainable.

xmas

1. Sending a Christmas list

Christmas lists don’t have to be reserved for children. Since loved ones are going to spend time and money to get me a gift, I prefer it to be something I need/want, and thus will use and enjoy, than another piece of ‘stuff’ that will pile up in my cupboards without daring to get rid of it. Surprises are so overrated.

After looking around for a gift list application, I finally used google doc, as all the lists I found required to link items to commercial websites or people to sign up. I just wrote a word document, added pictures and in the sharing settings I choose anyone with the link can edit. I then sent the link to my parents for diffusion. People with the link could then look at the file and put their name next to the thing they picked.

It was not perfect as I made the list too long (5 pages), too complicated (I tried to include all the zero waste gift options I could think of) and too late (the time to figure out the best option to do this, people had already started shopping), but it helped me get things that I was planning to get anyway like a good cooking knife or a Spanish grammar book. Plus now I know how to do it better next year. Do, learn, improve.

2. Giving hand made gifts

baskets-pants.png

Since I piked up sewing this year, I decided to sew a little something to everybody. I had made a few fabric baskets for myself and found it convenient to tidy small items together. I made two types of baskets (this one and something in the line of this one adding lining inside to hide the seams), all this from material I already had: some trousers’ bottoms that got cut before hemming, and fabric left overs that came with my grandma’s sewing machine.

3. Giving edible gifts

I bought Spanish Christmas sweets to fill the baskets. I like the idea of giving food that people would not normally buy, as they will eat it thinking about you and not be cluttered with it for long. And in case the recipient doesn’t like this particular food, it should not be too difficult to find someone who will.

4. Finding something people need/want

My grandma wanted some business cards with her new address as she finds troublesome dictating it over and over, so I offered to take care of it. As a good zero waster, I found a company that offered them on recycled paper made in a factory powered by renewable energy and where the minimum order was 50. With most companies you have to get at least 100.

underwear

Looking around, I couldn’t find a gift that resonated with me for my mum. Instead of buying something because I had too, I asked her if she needed anything and she asked me for underwear travel bags. We looked together in my fabric stash and selected some pyjama underwear whose elastic band had dried out. We spent a morning making three little bags out of them. I love the irony that they are underwear bags made out of underwear and my mum being there and contributing made them more special. Christmas is not so much about the stuff than the memories.

5. Using furoshiki gift wrapping

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In my family, we have always been reusing gift wrapping over and over, but would still get some in the bin every year. Last year my mum started the furoshiki tradition by wrapping her presents in tea towels that were part of the gift. Still digging in the pile of fabric from my grandma, I used pinking shears to make fabric squares to wrap all my presents. It is much faster than with paper: two knots and voila! And they will be reused every Christmas for decades.

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Photo credit: SN, JN and MD. 

Mending socks : darning vs patching

With St Nicolas around the corner, I thought a post on socks was quite appropriate. Am I the only one whose socks always fail in the same place? It seems a waste to get rid of socks because they have a small hole in the back of the heel when the rest of the sock is still in perfect condition. So I looked into my options to extend my socks life a bit.

darning-vs-patching

Darning

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The most documented sock mending option seems to be darning, which consists in weaving thread over the hole. So I tried this on my thin store bought socks, but I was not super convinced. Because I used thin thread to match the thickness of the sock, it was difficult to follow the mesh. It still did the job ok, but the result somehow doesn’t feel super comfy and I tend to keep this pair for when all the others are dirty. However I used darning to fix a hole in my glove and it worked very well.

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If I had bothered buying matching embroidery thread, the mending would be invisible.

Patching

For a while I had the idea that I could use several old socks to make a new one, but I thought the seams would be a problem. Looking if someone had done something around this idea, I found this tutorial from Stale Bread into French Toast that suggests patching store bought socks.

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Traditionally a darning egg is used to put in the sock to help fix it, but I found that the toy box of a big kinder surprise works well. I am sure you have something ready to do the job at home too.

After struggling a bit to understand how to make a catch stitch, I fixed a first pair and then liked it so much that I fixed another two the same way. The patch actually gives a bit of padding in the place I normally get friction from the shoes and I also kind of like the way it  looks. I used an old sock that had been turned to rag a while ago for the patches. After patching 6 socks, I still have about half of the old sock left to save other socks. The only inconvenient is that both socks need to be patched otherwise it feels wired.

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In conclusion, I would use darning for thick socks and maybe for areas below the sole, but patching otherwise. Now I am waiting to see how much longer my mended socks last.

Organising to favorise waste reduction

As a complement to my last post about how much (or how little?) waste we generated in the last 6 months, I wanted to show you how  we organised our disposal areas, as it helps us being more aware of our trash.

Our flat has two attendant balconies: one big in the living room and one tiny small in the kitchen. At first I thought it was silly that the balconies were split in two, but it turns out it is perfect to help us with our waste reduction goals. We have put all the bins (compost, recycling, and general waste) out on the tiny small balcony. The only disposal facilities we have inside are the paper and cardboard crate as humidity could be a problem, a glass jar for hairs and nail clips in the bathroom that get regularly emptied in the compost and a compost bowl on the kitchen’s counter top to store food scraps before it gets emptied once or twice a day.

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My mum gave me this bowl she made to store the food scraps before they land in the compost bin.

Having the bins on the balcony is great because it frees a lot of space in the flat. But mostly, the fact that each time we need to get rid of something we have to go all the way out to the balcony forces us to be more aware of the things we throw away and give us time to think whether we could avoid this waste in the future. Making it somewhat annoying to trash things is a good motivation to generate less waste. You will tell me not everybody has the chance to have a special balcony to install their waste centre. It is true, but there are other alternatives like a garage, a remote storage closet… The point is that as a society we have been making it too easy to throw things away (where is this ‘away’ anyway?), like it is a natural thing to do. Do you know many species apart from humans that generate waste that cannot be absorbed by nature?