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: 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.

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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.

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.

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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

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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.

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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. 

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?

Waste reduction: 6 months of trash

It has been 6 mouths since we moved to San Sebastian and since we ‘seriously’ started our waste reduction journey. I have seen people fitting their trash in a glass jar 6 months in their zero waste venture, but this requires more dedication than we have time for. Instead we focused on making simple accessible changes:

  • composting,
  • buying fruit, veg and cereals package free as much as possible
  • favouring glass, cardboard and paper packing over plastic
  • avoiding pre-processed food and cooking a bit more
  • avoiding buying new things unless we really need them
  • replacing disposables (kitchen roll, water bottles …) by washable and reusable alternatives

The result? We reduced our waste volume by  more than 12!

The compost

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We are lucky to have city compost in San Sebastian. In the summer, we have been taking a small bag of compost out per week. Now that the weather is a bit colder, we can wait 2-3 weeks until the bag is actually full. I would rather not use a compostable bag, since it uses energy and resources that could be spared, but it wouldn’t work with the city collection system. All this organic matter will be used to make natural fertiliser, sparing the use of chemical alternatives, instead of being burnt or berried.

The recycling

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In six months, we filled a crate of cardboard (a few deliveries, pasta and chocolate packaging mostly) and diverse papers (advertisement stickers don’t seem to be taken seriously). For the rest of the recycling, we have:

  • a few glass bottles (beer, wine and oil),
  • a couple of glass containers that I could not get presentable enough to re-purpose,
  • white vinegar plastic bottles (we use it instead of conditioner in the laundry and for all-purpose cleaning),
  • one month of milk bottles from before we found the zero waste alternative,
  • plastic beer bottles that we brought back home from a festival to make sure they would be recycled,
  • plastic bottles left by guests (no, we don’t kick people out if they bring waste),
  • a few other stuff like the empty hotel soaps I am trying to finish up, a few cans, and rare plastic pots.

This corresponds to about the same volume of recycling we use to get out every two weeks in London.

The garbage bin

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The photo above include all the none compostable, none recyclable trash of the last 6 months. That’s right, we only took it out 4 times and in small carrier bags as well! And we didn’t deprive ourselves to get to this result. For example, we didn’t find an easy zero waste source of cheese so we buy it from the supermarket. Same with the little meat we buy and a few other treats. I would bet that the content of those 4 bags would more than fit in the trash bags we used to get out every two weeks in London.

At first, I wanted to reuse the same carrier bag over and over, like we do for the recycling. I used a relatively resistant bag that could fit 2 months of trash, but there is too much fatty stuff in there so we moved to smaller thinner bags that last only one month.

Full disclosure

Because it’s easy to make things look more perfect than they are, here are a few points that hopefully make you feel that it doesn’t have to be perfect to make the effort worth it.

Full disclosure #1  There is also a few pizza boxes that went directly to the big street bin.

Full disclosure #2  I kept a few things that would go into the recycling for up-cycling craft projects that have high chances to end up in trash next time we move, as they are piling up faster than I actually make crafts.

Full disclosure #3  We recently re-subscribed to a weekly organic seasonal fruits and veg box and this is likely to raise our trash again as there is more packaging than needed and they don’t re-use the boxes like they used to do in London. When I opened the first box I was a bit bummed, but it makes our lives much easier since it reduces the shopping chore a lot and gets us to eat healthier. Once those veggies are in the fridge, we have to cook them! So I have decided to stick with it for now and see if I can convince them to consider waste reduction.

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Every fruit or veg type is in its own plastic bag. Help!

Full disclosure #4  We normally have lunch in the city centre and when it is sunny, we take a sandwich away to eat on the beach. The said sandwich is wrapped in aluminium foil and comes in a plastic bag with paper napkins. We haven’t found a good way to prevent this waste. If it doesn’t get too dirty I keep the plastic bags to use as trash bags, but we generate those faster than we use it. I keep the napkins to use as kitchen paper and throw them in the compost, but the aluminium foil often ends up in the city bins and is thus not counted in the inventory above.

Decluttering by enjoying the pretty things

I tend to be the kind of person that likes to keep the best bit of my meal for the end. So never snatch food out of my plate without permission. The method has its risk, as I might not be that hungry any more when I get to the cherry of my cake, but why keep eating if the best bit is already gone? However, what might be a nice way to enjoy a meal might not be the best strategy for life. If nothing else because ‘the end’ is more difficult to place in time than for a meal.

PrettyThings

When it comes to consumables, I tend to put pretty things in my shelves and only look at them from time to time, but never seem to use them or at least not completely finish them, because I don’t like the idea of it being gone. Once I started to think about this, I noticed I do this for  food, stationary, cosmetics, candles and more. This inevitably leads to accumulation. And while the pretty things lie around unused, I need to buy less pretty, functional versions of those things. Once put like this it sounds a bit silly right? Why not use the best things straight away and get another pretty thing to replace it if needed once it is over?

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So here was my good resolution for the summer holidays: I won’t keep the best for the end any more. Because I needed to pack light, I decided to finally use this cute notepad my mum gave me many birthdays ago. I also got my mum to bring me my ‘collection’ of hotel soaps and cosmetics samples. Of course it was already decided not to add anything new to it, but now it is time to use it all before they need to go to the bin anyway. And my parents were quite happy of the space it freed in their bathroom. This is just a start, but from now on I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for this lousy habit.

How to reduce shopping waste without produce bags

When I first stumbled across zero waste, it looked like I had to start by investing in all those accessories  in order to reduce my waste and that seemed very exciting. I had started to make a mental list: stainless steel water bottle, produce bags, Mason jars… The list goes on. A bit of time passed before I could actually started to change my habits as I was too busy at the time, which let me time to think: ‘do I really want to start a lifestyle that is about buying less by buying a whole bunch of new stuff?’ It seemed a bit like starting a diet by eating a big piece of chocolate brownie.

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So I decided to wait and see what I could do with what I already had. And I already had quite a few reusable shopping bags. It took us a few trips to the supermarket to make it a smooth process, but here is what we do at the moment. We have one bag for veggies and one for fruits. For each product we pick, we first weight it and then put it in the corresponding bag. Then we stick two labels back to back and present them to the cashier at the till. At the organic shop, they weight everything at the till, so it is even easier. I just put the fruit and veggie by groups on the counter. Et voilà, no need to use a new plastique or paper bag each time we want a couple of tomatoes. Depending on the cashier, they find it more or less weird, but none of them has told us off so far.

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They didn’t have loose cherries that day and they taste like candy at this time of the year. I couldn’t resist!

This doesn’t quite work with small items such as cherries or cherry tomatoes or when we want 2 kg of potatoes to make tortilla for our guests, so I try to have an extra shopping bag and a few paper bags that we reuse from the bulk store. In the long run, it would be more convenient to have one bag per product, but rather than ordering a set of produce bags that can be rather expensive and require new resources to make, I prefer to slowly make a few at a time repurposing old fabric. It also leaves me the time to evaluate our needs.

As you can see on the picture above, there are still a few things we buy with packaging and I am planning to work on getting rid of this later on, but considering how significantly we already reduced our waste, I am not necessarily in a rush. Hopefully I convinced you that you can work on reducing your waste with what you have and without feeling guilty about the ‘zero’ in zero waste. One little step at a time…

Zero waste milk routine

Finding a good supply for milk seems to be one of the challenges of many zero wasters. In San Sebastian, we are lucky to have fresh milk vending machines and one of them is just around the corner! It has reusable bottles for sale (both plastic 😦 or glass 🙂 ), but we just re-used glass bottles that we bought orange juice in. The machine lets you chose between 1l or 1/2l of milk. The milk is local and since there is less intermediaries, the agriculteur probably gets a fairer price for his milk. At least that’s what I hope…

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The down side (or is it?) is that since it is fresh, it only conserves for 5 days and after that it becomes sour. But that is not a big worries because there is plenty of nice things to do with sour milk. On top of my list came cottage cheese and pancake. I did not get the time to throw myself in the cheese-making adventure yet, but pancakes are definitely in my range and they raise much better with sour milk.

Sour milk pancake

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For the first try, I used this recipe. Since there was not specific instruction to mix the ingredients, I mixed them in the order of the recipe. After putting the milk in my mixing bowl I wondered if it was not a mistake, but it worked well and the big advantage is that I got an idea of how much sour milk I had and scaled up a bit the rest of the ingredients, especially the flour. The first batch was too salted, so when milk got sour again I tried it with only 1/2 teaspoon of salt, which is way enough. We had them for diner, first savoury with tomato, cucumber, cheese and cream fraiche, then sweet butter and honey. And the best part is that there were some left for breakfast.

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Local yogurt found in a glass jar at the supermarket.

We now decided to only get 0.5l at a time to avoid having to make pancakes too often (I know it is delicious, but not the quickest meal for busy people), but in the (distant?) future I want to try to make my own yogurt and this will  be a terrific way to stop the kitchen from being invaded by a new glass pot every week.

New city, new habits

Moving to a new city is the perfect occasion to create new habits. At first, I hoped to use the momentum to be close to ‘trash in a jar’ zero waste straight away, but I had to relax a bit the constraints to keep my sanity. We have been quite busy and finding my mark in a new city with a new language takes a lot of energy. I admire people that start the zero waste adventure and directly replace their landfill bin by a glass jar, but this would’t work for me. There is only so many changes I can take in at a given time.

Shopping

We have all the ingredients to manage zero waste shopping. An organic shop with bulk dry food and detergents, lots of fruits and veggie without plastic in the supermarket or in dedicated stores all over the city, cheese and meat at the counter in the supermarket or in permanent markets.

New city, new habits - Bulk section of our organic shop

We are trying to shop organic as much as our budget allows, but most of the time we end up doing some complementary shopping at the supermarket. Also because the veg and especially fruit stale in the organic shop is not so big. We manage to get the fruit and veg mostly package-free except for a few stickers. We give preference to glass, paper and cardboard packages over the rest. We even found canned tuna in a glass pot. I never saw this before. We get pasta and flour from bulk stores in paper bags that we have been reusing again and again. And we’ve been buying bread in the draw string bag I made.

Doing several stops makes things complicated, so hopefully we can simplify a bit in the future. At the moment, we still have a bit of plastic from meat and cheese, because my current level of Spanish makes me feel shy to go at the counter. I could probably manage to ask, but would probably not understand the answer. Who would have known that finding Spanish classes was going to be in the priority list to be more environmentally friendly.

Waste

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San Sebastian collects organic waste, so I don’t need to worry about doing my own compost (for now?). It is only voluntary and you need to request a special card to open the organic container. I got super excited when our landlady told us that. She probably thinks I’m crazy by now. I haven’t quite understood why it had to be so complicated though. I think  people that do compost get a reduction of their ‘garbage tax’, but it is not completely clear on the website.

I didn’t want to buy garbage bags as I hope I won’t need them anymore soon, so I started using the carrier bags we have left (we used quite a few to pack stuff when we moved). The one we started with when we moved in, end of April, can still fit a few more things (maybe I’m pushing it a bit though). How’s that for progress?

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One month and a half of waste

Zero waste progress: and out of the office?

Read the first part here.

I have also re-started to get a weekly veggie box. Organic – check, seasonal – check, local – hum they are a bit vague, but guarantee zero air miles, zero waste – well I generate much less waste than if I went to the supermarket. The cardboard box goes in front of the door to be re-used, but is the plastic wrap around the tomato, the cabbage and spinach leaves very necessary? On the plus side, it prevents us to buy the same veggies over and over again and forces us to try new recipes which make cooking more fun!!! If I was not moving to another country soon, I would try to lobby them toward zero waste.

We also tried Tiny leaf, the first zero waste, organic and vegetarian restaurant in London. The chocolate-courgette brownie was definitely worth the trip to Notting Hill. I took a few pictures, but they are terrible. You better have a look at Green Travels‘ review.

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I also started to carry a ‘berry’ bag with my everywhere (merci Nonna), brought back my egg package for refill at the farmer’s market and refused lots of potential rubbish (plastic bags, leaflets…).

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This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a start and I don’t want to become a hardcore zero waster (yet?). ZW is merely a tool to reflect on the impact of my life style choices. I like the reflection of My Minimalist Baby on how zero waste might not always be the best choice. I want to start with what is easy (and FUN – I guess I am a sustainability nerd) and see where it leads me. Changing one habit at a time…