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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7 thoughts on “5 lessons learned after one year of zero waste”

  1. These are great tips! I think we get bogged down into the latest and greatest zero waste product and we forget that what we have often is sufficient or at least can be used up before buying new things.

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  2. Well done! As I said over on your FB page I do wonder if the name “Zero-Waste” needs a re-brand to reflect the fact it is not expecting people to go all out zero waste but to reduce their waste levels within their individual needs. I would be interested to hear your comments on this and whether you think that would make it more appealing to a wider audience.

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    1. You are right “zero waste” can be intimidating and I have been looking for alternatives. In French waste translate to two different words: 1) déchet – the physical piece of trash, 2) gaspillage – the action of using something unnecessary. So in the end, zero waste talk to me in the second sense, where I avoid what is unnecessary rather than in the sense of producing zero trash.

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  3. Nice blog Sarah, I completely identify with your start on this journey too: excitement, rushing to get rid of things; buying a cup and pads; buying a kleen kanteen (although to be fair, I didn’t already have a water bottl and needed one) and desire for my cupboard to instantly look like those on instagram and youtube. Thankfully, I too have calmed slightly and am quite happy to use what I have now, even if it is less aesthetically pleasing pickle jars, or jam jars rather than mason jars :).
    I too have experienced a freedom from marketing pressure, from desire for processed products (food and beauty), and from desiring material goods, except for when they are actually necessary. A less wasteful lifestyle forces you to consider more deeply the items that you consume and that’s when you realise, you really don’t need as much as you are told you need. It is so empowering to make your decisions about what you need, to make your own deodorant, or toothpaste, or to do a shop without any plastic involved, these are little victories.
    I agree that it’s incremental and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about not being able to always choose a zero-waste option. We can always choose the best option that we are presented with. I think a key in the attempt to reduce waste is not to make it a chore or a burden, that way it is more likely to be sustained.

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    1. Thanks Hannah! I couldn’t agree more. Actually zero waste has helped me to stop seeing the grocery shopping as the big chore of the week thanks to the feeling of empowerment it gives me.

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  4. Can anyone help me with the bottled water question? My family drinks an entire 24 pack of bottled water…daily 😦 The idea of the waste that this creates horrifies me, but our tap water is terrible. Any thought on a better solution?

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    1. Hi Terasa, have you considered filtering your tap water? My tap water is not awesome either, but a BRITA filter solves it. Since it still uses quite a bit of plastic, I am considering switching to active charcoal sticks (they can be composted after use) although this is more constraining since you need to wait for 2 to 8 hours after putting the water. And if filtering is too expensive for your budget, you could try to get the biggest water bottle you can find. I have seen 5 or even 8 litres ‘bottles’ in the supermarket.

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