23 June 2018

No time for baby steps: Zero waste is not a journey

Time and again we hear the shift towards a different way of living described as a "journey". Changes  seen as something that might take months, or even years to work towards, with tiny changes in habits made each week, or within an arbitrary timeframe. Through the choices our family has made over the years, I'm pretty sure we've described a few different shifts in this way ourselves. But our experience of waste free living has highlighted for us why we feel like the baby steps, long, slow journey approach may not be the best way to tackle taking responsibility for the waste you create. The thought of moving towards zero waste living as a years-long, or even lifelong journey, is downright disheartening. It can make it seem like an unattainable goal, when really the shift is quite simple at its core. The earth needs us to speed things up a little, and we believe that's totally achievable for many people. Reframing how you approach it can make all the difference. 

Towards the end of her life, my dear Nana gave up smoking. I suspect she already had advanced lung cancer by then, so it was the thought of breathing a little easier and not struggling through another winter cold with a raspy cough that convinced her. And possibly a stern word from her doctor. Nana was a force to be reckoned with, and when she decided to do something, she did it. Just like that. And so she quit smoking one day, cold turkey. She was almost 80 years old. It was somewhat bittersweet the day Nana realised how easy quitting would be. "Oh, I thought it would be hard and take months, and I'd have to join one of those program things. I'm not a joiner!" Nana said. But once she'd made the decision to quit, she found it quite simple, taking each day as it came, and she wished she'd done it decades earlier. Fear of the journey meant she missed meeting her first great grand-daughter (Big Owlet) by six months.

I sometimes wonder if it's this fear of the journey that holds many of us back from committing to making straight forward changes, like reducing the plastic we've come to rely on in our homes. It alls seems too daunting. We don't want to deal with the length of time it will take to work out all of the things we'll need to do, and how hard it will be to learn and remember new habits. I know this is what had been holding our family back from making the leap. Not really understanding how best to approach zero waste living, or what our life would look like without the weekly supermarket trip or online delivery. It all felt like an expensive, uphill battle. And so we chipped away at it and thought about it slowly, still forgetting our cloth bags most times and still lamenting the things we felt we couldn't change.

It took a little nudge towards commitment to get us to rip the bandaid off and try waste free living. We audited all our waste, spent a week researching, and then dived right into to two weeks of living waste free. That was one full pay cycle, and felt like enough time to get the day to day workings of it in place. We put all the things we couldn't buy at a bulk foods shop, butcher or green grocer on lockdown, and lived like they didn't exist for those two weeks. What we discovered, somewhat sceptically at first, was that our shopping budget remained the same, our quality of life remained (and was even better then before), and this thing we'd been putting off, or considered approaching in tiny increments, was actually achievable all at once, when we approached it wholeheartedly.

We discovered that zero waste living isn't a journey, it's a simple decision, made over and over again. 

Every day you make hundreds of choices about where you shop, or what you consume, and how. You choose that single use straw, or you refuse it. You choose that single use coffee cup, or you bring a cup from home. You choose to buy a packet of biscuits instead of making them. You choose. We all do. If each time you choose to buy or consume something potentially wasteful, you ask yourself the simple question; "Am I willing to take responsibility for consuming this product, and the waste it creates?", the way forward becomes very simple and clear.

There are times when the decision to consume that potentially wasteful thing is absolutely valid and justifiable, and there should be no guilt felt during those moments. We each have different situations and life circumstances where potentially wasteful products are necessary to keep us going, and if you're facing that situation, then your decision is obvious. Describing zero waste living as a "journey" makes the choices that seem contrary to a waste-free approach to be setbacks along a linear path. When really, they are not. They are just choices you need to make, that are right for you at that time. At other times, where there are valid alternatives you can access, those are the times where your choice to live waste-free guides all the little choices you make. And it informs all of your choices throughout the day, until your entire week can be counted in resources, compost and lived experiences, rather than who's putting out the bin.

Possibly the biggest fear when it comes to leaping into zero waste living (and often a reason for the baby steps approach), is the perceived cost. It's an understandable concern. We hear: "Bulk food shops seem expensive! Oats cost $4/kg at the bulk foods shop and $1.50 at the supermarket! That's unaffordable!". On the surface, that seems correct.  But in our experience, buying everything without packaging, and making food and household products from scratch means the costs even out. You're more likely to buy what you need, rather than surplus servings, and you're less likely to impulse buy those biscuits when the packaging and advertising isn't there to entice you as you wander the aisles. If you continue to buy that expensive deodorant or toothpaste, rather than making your own for a fraction of the cost, then spending more on oats does absolutely seem out of the question. But if your entire shopping approach has changed, and you're embracing waste free living in a wholehearted way, it's quite possible that you can afford more on certain products while spending less on others. You may not see how that balances out without doing some serious sums, or jumping right in.

Many of the more successful zero wasters, those who have managed to embrace zero waste living effectively and for the long term, will tell you their change in lifestyle began as the result of a commitment. Either a challenge set externally, or by themselves. And they looked beyond the challenge to incorporate more change into their lives. It's that all in, wholehearted approach that helped them along. And then once they got started, the momentum propelled them forwards until there was no looking back. That's been our experience, and it could be yours too. The world can't wait for bans to take effect and for baby steps towards reducing plastic and household waste to catch up. It needs solutions now (most of them exist), and we are each of us responsible for those tiny choices we make every day. Are you ready to make the leap?

If you'd like to set yourself a challenge to help you leap towards waste-free living, we'd recommend joining Plastic Free July. Tackling plastic will help you address one of the more wasteful aspects of modern living, while giving you the kick start you need to make the waste-free shift in other areas of your life. If you'd like to tackle the whole lot in one go, try joining our Zero Waste Families eCourse, which could see your family move to waste-free living in four weeks. 

~ Lauren. xx