“Excuse me,” asked an elderly lady with an inquisitive tone, “are you going to reuse that coffee cup?” Her non-judgemental tone did not ease my guilt. More than 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away every year. Ironically, I was en route to interview Charlie Bannocks about her zero waste lifestyle.
London has seen numerous businesses convert to biodegradable straws, September welcomed the annual international zero waste week and the launch of London’s first zero waste market, and now, in East London, Green Forest’s first zero waste grocery shop has opened. This wave of chatter sparked an interest within me to discover what the zero waste lifestyle is all about.Charlie arranged to meet me at her local environmentally conscious grocery shop, Planet Organic. We found a quiet spot in the cafe, away from the hustle and bustle downstairs. The background music, wooden benches and a birds-eye view of the industrial supermarket made a perfect spot for friends, readers and families alike.
Charlie is a bubbly 27-year-old, full of charisma and charm. Pale skin, rosy cheeks, contagious smile and ginger fly-away hair, tied down behind each ear. Charlie’s denim dungarees comfortably sat on a white T-shirt, hidden by an orange cardigan and adorned with a light blue wolf-head necklace. Everything was second hand.
“My wedding dress was made out of recycled materials,” Charlie tells me, “which I was very proud of.” She showed me a photograph of her wedding day. “It was made by a dressmaker called Jada Dreaming. The skirt was an old net curtain, and the corset was an old corset that she had found. The only new part was thread.”Charlie, at 21 years old, turned vegan and started looking for alternative cosmetic products. Lush supplied many vegan options. Yet, it also triggered environmental questions. “They are really into this ‘zero waste thing’ and ‘package free’,” she said.
With time, Charlie’s zero waste questions turned into purchases. From buying “the common things that people are talking about,” to choosing her recycled wedding dress in 2017. Yet, Charlie still wasn’t getting into the habit of the zero waste lifestyle. That is until she was hospitalised.
Perhaps, you are also asking, “what is zero waste?” Put simply; the zero waste lifestyle seeks to eliminate the amount of rubbish generated. The 5-R hierarchy nicely sums up the intentions of many living the zero waste lifestyle: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and finally, rot.
Charlie discovered that recycling isn’t the ultimate solution for our environment. There is a limited number of times an item can be recycled. According to the Auckland Council in New Zealand, plastic can only be recycled 7-9 times before it is passed on to landfill.
At this point, the plastic is left to decompose in a massive hole in the ground; this is not a fast process. Plastic bags, for example, can take from 400 to 1,000 years. Not all of the plastic ends up in a landfill, some is released into the ocean or sent abroad.
There is a limited number of times an item can be recycled.
In February 2018, Charlie found herself in hospital. She recalled that people were screaming, there was constant noise and long days with nothing to do. Thus, the internet quickly became her escape. “I watched this video,” she said, “that was explaining that everything that goes to landfill is covered up. Then they plant trees on top of it. The rubbish leaks out this poisonous gas into the environment.”
“It suddenly dawned on me, is one of the reasons that I got ill because I’m absorbing these things we shouldn’t be absorbing?” Charlie’s voice slowed down. “We’re sending a lot of our rubbish abroad. That’s impacting other people. That’s not a good thing or a nice thing to do.”
“I have the power to do something about this, so I’m going to do something about it. And since then, there has not been a single day I have left the house without my cup,” she said, pointing to her reusable cup and metal straw, containing an oatmeal ice latte.Charlie showed me, one by one, the daily alternatives she uses. Her shampoo bar had a couple of strands of hair clinging on from the morning’s shower. Charlie’s alternative solution to cling film is a wax wrap. As she opened it, you could hear the crackling of the wax paper. Inside, she had preserved onion bhajis from last night’s dinner.
Zero waste shops, such as Cups & Jars in Forest Gate, are not located close enough for everyone. Charlie has access to Planet Organic, but her shopping doesn’t come without a price tag. She saves money on her razors, 100 blades for only £10, however, she spends nearly £8 on one bag of pasta.
Yet, Charlie is not the only individual to have one of these light bulb moments. Whether she realises it or not, she is part of a whole community of individuals living this way. I wanted to investigate this further.Stav Freed, a marine biologist and conservationist, witnessed masses of waste being dumped on a daily basis. Four years ago, she was preparing to move to the Philippines, the world’s third-worst producer of plastic. At this point, Stav asked herself, “how can I be a bigger part of the solution?”
Now, the zero waste concept is ‘entwined’ into Stav’s daily life. “I am conscious of packaging when it comes to any products,” she explains. “I prefer to buy second hand, as I’d rather give something a second life than buy something new.”
Alternatives to plastic saturate Stav’s home, from bedroom to bathroom and kitchen to dining room. “When it comes to toiletries and bath products,” Stav, just like Charlie, also uses “shampoo and body bars, a stainless steel razor, a bamboo toothbrush and plastic-free toothpaste.”
Stav doesn’t restrict her new habits to the home. “When I know I’m going out for a few hours, I always bring reusable cloth bags, a set of silverware, package-free snacks and water bottle or metal cup for drinking.” Her cloth bag is used for snacks which she may buy during her day.
Lilly-Anne is a part-time researcher from Canada. She recently moved to the UK and is learning to embrace new habits to fit her ‘low impact’ lifestyle. “I don’t think anybody is really zero waste. I think that concept can be misleading,” Lilly-Anne explains.
“I’m freezing my compost.”
– Lilly Anne
“I’m just trying to be zero waste. But I know that I can’t be. So I just tell people, I’m trying to be low-impact.” Unfortunately, for Lilly-Anne, this lifestyle doesn’t come easy. For example, the Brent council will not provide a compost bin.
“What I’m doing right now is I’m freezing my compost,” Lilly-Anne explains. She will then cycle for half an hour to the recycling plant. Once Lilly-Anne arrives, she will dispose of the frozen compost herself, as suggested by the council. However, Lilly-Anne is still on the lookout for an alternative option.
“I’m actually going to write a letter to my neighbour because I saw that they have their compost bins flipped over and that they never use them. So I’m going to see if I can use them.” To make things worse, Lilly-Anne’s building manager has suggested that the recycling collection may be discontinued.When residents place non-recyclable items inside a recycling bin, the rubbish becomes contaminated. As a result, contaminated recycling is rejected. The recycling overflows and everything is sent to landfill. This is exactly what is happening at Lilly-Anne’s apartment.
Businesses face the same issue. “Based on my experience of working with businesses, it is dry mixed recycling bins that get contaminated most frequently,” explained Sarah Craddock, Project Development Manager within Commercial Recycling from Resource London. “Different waste collectors can process different items, so all sorts of things find their way into the recycling which shouldn’t be there.”
“Some materials are really complex,” Sarah noted, “for example, most recycling bins can have plastic bottles put in them but not plastic wrapping. Ordinary paper can be recycled, but hand towels can’t.” While they are technically paper, hand towels have reached the end of their life.
Sarah went on to explain that hand towels “have come from paper that has already been recycled a number of times. Each time paper is recycled the fibres get shorter and so by the time good quality paper becomes a hand towel the fibres are too short to be recycled any further.”
“For me,” Sarah said, “it’s fascinating to understand the lifecycle of a product and just how vast an impact everyday materials can have on such an array of individuals and communities.”
“Commitments to change are great, but alone they aren’t enough. We need to ensure that we actually follow through on commitments, which means we have to ensure that they are achievable.” Change, according to Sarah, goes beyond ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ of the latest issue highlighted in media.
Sarah stresses the importance of ensuring ‘the full impact of change is reviewed before being implemented.’ There is a lot London could do. But for now, Sarah waits in anticipation, “I am looking forward to the Resources & Waste Strategy being published by DEFRA to see what the UK is committing to.”“In our organisation,” Sarah said, referencing Resource London, “we want to accelerate the change to a circular economy in London. We would see waste volumes being dramatically less than they are currently. A lot of waste would be designed out much earlier in the process.”
Resource London has several employees, including Sarah; it was formed by the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), working towards initiated change in London. Sarah indicated just how much change is possible, “We believe that London’s waste could be reduced by up to 60% by 2030 if all the measures we’re promoting in our Circular Economy Route Map are implemented.”
“Everyone needs to take responsibility. We all have a part to play whether we produce the material that will one day become waste, whether we are users of that material or if we collect and dispose of it.”
“Anyone and everyone can make a difference and in a variety of ways: opting for re-usable over disposable, shopping smarter and planning to reduce food waste, sharing resources and taking the time to repair or donate items instead of throwing them away.”
“Anyone and everyone can make a difference in a variety of ways”
– Sarah Craddock
For many Londoners, it starts with those little things. For example, Charlie saving leftovers in wax paper rather than cling film. Or Stav’s decision to buy stainless steel razor to cut down on plastic. It’s Lilly-Anne’s determination to compost her food waste. These small choices add up.
Lilly-Anne mentioned a challenge with one of the zero waste alternatives, “Initially it was really hard to change my toothpaste because the toothpaste was so salty. I think I actually vomited in my mouth the first time. You can brush with just baking soda. It’s gross. It’s really salty, but it’s possible.”
“My dentist told me that baking soda is really abrasive, so it’s good to dilute it with something. You can make a mixture with coconut oil.” Lilly-Anne now alternates between tooth tabs and her homemade toothpaste.
Despite these challenges, Lilly-Anne keeps a positive outlook. For her, creating alternative products is a hobby. From homemade toothpaste to her cookie recipe, which replaced the granola bars she once loved. “If it’s your hobby, it doesn’t bother you.”
“It’s really time-consuming to live zero waste. Either you have to make your products, or you have to go really far to get your products.” Lilly-Anne explained. Finding a suitable supermarket can be a challenge. Cost and distance were recurring challenges among many of the individuals I interviewed.
Emily Walker-Smith is 25 years old and based in Hackney, London. “My passion for the planet has been growing all year. It all started when she was on holiday in Mexico and visited a baby sea turtle rescue camp.”A shallow pool catered for roughly 50 baby turtles which were saved from poachers. “They go out and dig up the fresh laid turtle eggs and bury them back in the sand in camp to keep them safe.” She told me that a couple of days after the turtles are born, it is time for them to be released.
“My mum and I were the only people there at the time, so it was a really moving experience. We got two each and carried them down to the sea edge. You hold them high in the air so they can smell the sea and then down to the ground to smell the sand they will need to return to when they have eggs to lay.”
“Then you put them down, and they race to the sea. One of mine went a bit off course so I worried about him and how long he’ll last out there. The thought that all of them might not survive their first year because of plastic and predators hit me.”
Emily tried out the plastic free July and then made the lifestyle her New Year’s resolution. “After moving to plastic-free, it would have been difficult to go back to using plastic so I’ve carried it on, and it has changed my life. I walk into supermarkets now and all I see is plastic.”
“We’re always looking to innovate with non-plastic packaging”
Lilly-Anne previously told me she aimed visit Waitrose, to see whether they sold any zero waste products or package free produce. With zero waste grocery shops scattered sparsely around London, finding an environmentally friendly supermarket can be a challenge.
We contacted Waitrose to find out what they are doing to reduce single-use plastics. Laura Blumenthal, from Waitrose’s press department, wrote: “Reducing our impact on the environment is really important to us and we know it is to our customers too. We fully support the UK Plastics Pact which aims to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.”Waitrose are not ‘all talk’; since 2009, the supermarket has reduced their overall packaging by nearly 50%. Waitrose will no longer offer disposable takeaway cups from Autumn 2018. This decision will save 52 million cups from being thrown out every single year.
“From March 2019 we will no longer offer 5p plastic carrier bags and by Spring 2019 we will remove loose fruit and vegetable plastic bags. The move will save 134 million plastic bags, the equivalent of 500 tonnes of plastic a year,” Laura told us. “We’re always looking to innovate with non-plastic packaging.” I contacted Tesco, to see what the ‘average priced’ supermarkets were doing about this issue, yet I received no response.
“I find that buying food plastic-free is a nightmare, particularly in the UK.”
– Maud Oustalet
Maud Oustalet is a 35-year-old textile artist and mother of two ‘mini eco-warriors’. “I have always worked around upcycling fabric or using sustainable materials.” Three years ago, she began ‘consciously’ reducing her waste. It all started with “saying no to plastic bags.”
Now, Maud creates all of her cleaning products. She has a wormery on her balcony and buys second-hand clothes. “There is so much I could do,” Maud tells me, “it’s sometimes overwhelming but I keep going on, one step at a time. The nice thing is that a lot of my friends and family are getting into it too”
“I find that buying food plastic-free is a nightmare, particularly in the UK. I am from France where there is better access to affordable unpackaged food from markets or small independent businesses.”
Now, Maud aims to provide an alternative option within her area. “I am part of a project to create a bulk dry goods co-op in Tower Hamlets which hopefully will help with avoiding the supermarket packaged option.” However, Maud thinks the government is responsible for a real change.
“I really believe that unless the UK government starts taxing plastic packaging there can’t really be a change, people are becoming more conscious but only a change in the law can stop this issue. Plastic is used because it is practical and cheap. If it isn’t cheap, then industrials will have to find alternatives.”
At the start of 2018, a proposed 25p taxation on disposable cups was recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee. The UK had seen an 85% decrease in the usage of plastic bags since 2015 when a 5p fee was first introduced. While this ‘latte levy’ doesn’t tax all plastic, it would be a starting point.
Earlier this year, March 13th 2018, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas addressed this issue in the House of Commons, said, “the levels of hypocrisy from this government is quite extraordinary.” She went on to tackle air pollution, then the ‘plastic crisis.’
“Why is there such a gulf between government action and the words?”
– Caroline Lucas MP
Caroline’s tone was steadfast, “How can he say that the plastic crisis is urgent and then propose a deadline for the elimination of plastics in a quarter of a centuries time? Where is the latte levy? Where is the deposit scheme? Where is the urgency from this action? Why is there such a gulf between government action and the words?” There were no cheers, only the sound of shuffling papers and people rising from their chairs.
Philip Hammond simply responded to Caroline’s concerns about his building project and the impact it would have on air pollution; he did not comment on the latte levy. Nor did he address the plastic crisis as a whole. However, the Autumn Budget 2018 has announced a new tax on plastic packaging. The tax will be implemented from 2022 on all plastic that doesn’t contain at least 30% recyclable materials.London’s first vegan zero waste market took place in September 2018. The turnout was impressive, 750 people gathered. The market featured numerous zero waste alternatives and vegan items. However, the event was primarily ‘a chance to raise awareness’ about environmental issues.
Abigail Penny and James Morgan, co-founders of Zero Mkt, said: “climate change is on everybody’s lips right now, and it’s no wonder. Animal agriculture, fast fashion, plastic, and waste in landfills are devastating our planet.” They explained to me that they felt ‘compelled’ to take action.Individuals gathered around stalls to explore the zero waste alternatives; products ranged from bamboo toothbrushes to make-up. Recycled jewellery, upcycled bags and eco-friendly wallets. Fairtrade toys, gifts and original art. Independent businesses promoted their merchandise and shed light on this alternative lifestyle.
“Cutting meat and dairy from your diet can reduce your carbon footprint by 73%,” Abi and James explained. “Around 100,000 sea creatures die from plastic annually, becoming entangled or through ingesting plastic toxic chemicals, and 92 million tonnes of fabric waste ends up dumped in landfills annually.”For individuals such as Martina Heinrichova, who had no prior knowledge of the zero waste concept, all it took was a podcast. Martina recalled listening to Lauren Singer chat about the concept. “I just thought it made so much sense and decided to attempt the same principles to my life.”
Every Saturday, Martina can be found at the Farmers Market collecting her weekly veggies. “I am very lucky that the area where I live has lots of options that make zero waste lifestyle so much easier.” Of course, the lifestyle did throw a few surprises her way. “The most shocking discovery for me was that tea bags have plastic in them, but replacing them was easy.”
“There are many, many things that need to change. I’m sure big corporations need more plastics restrictions,” Martina says, “However, I think the most important thing is to educate people, especially young people and children, on the problems of waste, plastic pollution, environmental change and how all our actions are connected.”
Martina paused. “For me, everything starts with education.” Considering that Martina dramatically changed her lifestyle based on a podcast, it is not surprising that she values environmental education as part of the broader solution for the UK.
“I did end up writing a letter to my neighbour”
– Lilly Anne
As the saying goes, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ Everyone I spoke with had reached a point in which they couldn’t turn back. Charlie couldn’t forget the images she saw online from her hospital bed. For Emily, it was the baby sea turtles which she released into the ocean. Stav witnessed waste being disposed of every day, and she couldn’t ignore it.
After realising the impact that rubbish causes to our environment, many expressed the feeling of being ‘overwhelmed.’ It takes a particular strength to do something, knowing you can’t change everything. Simply adjusting one aspect of your life at a time, little by little.
Having followed up with Lilly-Anne to see how her compost dilemma worked out, she said, “I did end up writing a letter to my neighbour. It turns out they have two compost bins and don’t need both. She kindly wrote me an email back and offered us her second compost bin.”
Luckily for Lilly-Anne, her neighbour’s generosity means that she does not have to cycle all the way to the recycling centre. “She left it out near the street last night, and I put my frozen compost in.”