Zero-waste: How individuals help the environment, one choice at a time

Allison Dew owns a small zero-waste business called Sleepy Soak, selling bath bombs and shower steamers. Picture: Sian Donazzon.
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Resolving the world’s waste problem is a big task, but it has to start somewhere. The impact of zero-wasters reducing, reusing and recycling is setting up a foundation for change. By Sian Donazzon

Most Victorians have lived their entire lives filling their yellow and red bins to the brim each week to have it picked up by the garbage collector – out of sight, out of mind.

But what if we actually thought about the waste we create … and what if we didn’t create any waste at all?

Some Victorians have already stopped putting their bins out – they call themselves “zero-wasters” and they’re doing it for the planet, the community and their own wellbeing.

“I feel it’s respectful to our planet. It’s beneficial to my mental and physical health,” says Angela McDonell, a zero-waster.

People like Ms McDonell are making small changes in their mission to save our planet. So, is it enough to opt for a zero-waste lifestyle – can individuals really make a difference?

Ms McDonell with her own wall art, made with recycled materials. Picture supplied

Consumer choices bring change

Australia’s waste problem is massive, with the rubbish we generate growing at twice the rate of our population every year, according to statistics from ABC’s 2017 documentary series War on Waste.

Dr Nick Florin, a research director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, says people and corporations need to change the way they produce and consume items to ensure a better environmental future.

“Collectively, the environmental benefits to reducing waste are significant,” Dr Florin says.

He says consumers are the only reason supermarkets and other retail and grocery giants re-think the packaging for their products.

Plastic waste accounts for 3.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. Picture: Pxfuel.

“When consumers choose products that are produced in an ethical way … they send a strong message to producers to redesign products and services with a better environmental and social impact,” he says.

“Supermarkets … have a lot of influence in their purchasing decisions. They could prioritise stocking products made with recycled packaging that would help grow markets for recycled material.

I think the most substantive positive impact comes when producers of products change the design and consumers, through their consumption choices, can encourage more producers to design … no or lower-impact products.

Jenni Downes, a research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, says consumers are the key to producing less waste.

“Better consumer choices can play a role, but more significant are improved resource management and smarter product design,” Ms Downes wrote in The Conversation.

Dr Florin says supermarkets are trying their best to switch to more eco-friendly options, as consumers demand a supply of more recyclable and reusable items.

“We are already seeing some interesting initiatives led by supermarkets, including Aldi’s commitment to 100 per cent renewables [and] Woolworths … promoting reusable packaging.”

But he says big supermarkets could do more. “It would be great to see these initiatives expanded,” he said. 

Rebecca Jennings, reporting on the zero-waste movement, argues that responsibility rests with governments and major corporations. “Our individual consumer choices are just a drop in the bucket of their waste creation,” she wrote in The Goods by Vox.

Small businesses take initiative

Small businesses are leading the way in showing zero-waste is possible on a smaller scale.

Allison Dew owns a small zero-waste business called Sleepy Soak, selling bath bombs and shower steamers. 

She says it’s important for small businesses to open zero-waste stores “to show [bigger stores and individuals] that it can be done”.

Ms Dew says money is the biggest barrier to starting a zero-waste business, and it may be the factor deterring big businesses from making that choice. “Zero-waste products, even wholesale, are more expensive. You buy in bulk, but that can be a struggle for small business.

“We are a small business, so everything is done by hand, putting our prices up. People like the cheap and easy convenience [that bigger stores provide].”

Although it’s more expensive, it’s worth it for the peace of mind, Ms Dew says. “[Our store] isn’t having a large impact [on the environment]. But it allows people to still enjoy the little things in life without having to worry about their [carbon footprint],” she says.

Plastic has no place in our world

Plastic waste accounts for 3.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study in Nature Climate Change last year. A National Geographic report said this is due to the abundance of plastic waste produced, the way it is disposed of and the longevity of a typical piece of plastic’s lifecycle, which is estimated at around 400 years.

Choosing a zero-waste lifestyle and recycling plastics rather than sending them to be burned or buried in landfill is much better for the environment. According to Plastic Tides, an international non-profit organisation focused on ocean plastics, one person can save 1460 single-use plastic bottles from being produced by switching to a reusable bottle.

Making a global difference has to start somewhere, and it starts with individuals following zero-waste practices.

With only 9 per cent of plastics being recycled, a UN Environment report says, the majority of the world’s waste sees landfill. 

According to the Toronto Environmental Alliance, 20 times less energy is used to make an aluminium can from recycled materials than from raw materials.

China’s 2017 Blue Sky/National Sword policy, which banned the import of contaminated plastic waste, was implemented to improve China’s air quality and improve public health.

And it has. “The average citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persist,” according to a report for Earth.Org.

Toy alphabet cubes made by Ms McDonell. Picture supplied

Zero-wasters making a difference

Angela McDonell has been practicing zero-waste for most of her life and says the environment isn’t the only thing that benefits from zero-waste practices.

“It’s the way I want to live. I feel it’s the right thing to do and I feel better knowing I produce less waste,” she says.

“I want to feel I’ve done the best I can for our earth.”

But Ms McDonell admits it’s not easy and there will always be times when something needs to be wasted.

I do have a rubbish bin and use it rarely.

“I accept that I will always produce some [sort] of waste being alive … I don’t beat myself up. It happens sometimes but I don’t waste energy [regretting having to waste something]. I know I’m doing my best.”

Ms McDonell reuses nearly everything in her house to live more sustainably. 

Ms McDonell’s quilt cover made from old clothes and material scraps. Picture supplied

“I make toys, have a small garden… mend clothes and items when possible,” Ms McDonell says. “I’m inventive when I purchase food – what is edible? What do other cultures eat? Like frozen banana skins.”

“It’s a hobby for me and I enjoy working strategies out. I talk to others for ideas and information … utilise the [internet for solutions] when I can’t think of a way to reuse something.”

Australia’s 2018 National Waste Report statistics show the average Australian generates 1976kg of waste every year. 

When one person has a zero-waste lifestyle, the average waste produced per capita is reduced, Ms McDonell said. It takes a group of individuals to make a collective difference to our planet.

“I’m doing the best I can in my little pocket of the world. I feel if … others have [their own] little pockets it can make a big difference with lots of little efforts.”