The Zero Waste Challenge: Is it really possible?

At the Ethical Writers’ Coaltion we’ve had such and interesting discussion about zero waste. Is it really possible to be zero-waste in our flawed system that is so closely organised around convenience and disposable convenience? Even if we aren’t generating trash in our homes, aren’t we still contributing to waste somewhere in the system? For example, I buy a 5kg bulk bag of buckwheat grouts from my local bulk food store. It comes in a plastic bag- the packaging that the store receives it in. But all the customers who only buy a kilo or two believe that they aren’t generating waste with their purchase. It is impossible for the bulk food store to be 100% zero waste, so even when we are greatly reducing our waste footprint, we cannot be absolved of responsibility for that waste.

There is a great deal that we can do. The point that I have made does not mean that we should give up on making personal changes. I just raise it to illustrate that it is HARD. No one can possibly be perfectly zero-waste in this flawed system that we live in.

To examine just how difficult it is to do this, my fellow writers and bloggers at the EWC have taken up a the #ewczerowastechallenge for the first two weeks of October. Here are the results of my efforts. Instead of trying to be perfect for this challenge, I’ve captured my usual life, the choices I make, and my battle to be better in this deeply flawed system. Here is my journal of one week of attempting to be zerowaste:

Day 1

I am staying at my in-laws house so I can get a bunch of work done over the weekend, away from the distractions my children. I am a busy and out of my routine. Not a great start for the challenge. I bought a bag of almonds (my go to protein source), but they came in a plastic bag. I keep the plastic bag so it can go into soft plastic recycling- I have a collection of soft plastics at home, waiting to be dropped off.  So far, there is waste, but at least it will be recycled. My fruit peels and cores get cut up to take home for my chickens.

I pop out for sushi and haven’t brought a tub with me. I say no to the sauce sachets which aren’t recyclable. The plastic box goes in the recycling. The rubber band will be reused, but will eventually end up in landfill.

I head out to cover the sustainable fashions brands at Fashfest. My friend and I have a couple of glasses of champagne. We don’t see the waste, but the purchase contributes to some. The bottles would be recycled, but I bet the cork and attachment end up in landfill. I could ignore that fact- and think myself virtuous- but the waste is still happening even though I don’t see it. I am hungry. The show is at dinnertime, and even though I ate before, I end up buying a packet of snacks.  One plastic foil bag that is completely unrecyclable and ends up in landfil.

Day 2

I eat a couple of piece of gluten-free toast. If I was home, I would have my home-baked bread. But I am still away from home, so my bread is packaged. The waste would already happen, but I have now benefited from it. I have sushi for lunch again and make the same mistake. Plastic box to recyling and rubber band to be reused. I go out for a coffee. So far so good. But the table is wobbly. The server tries to get to table foot to adjust, but ends up using a wad of paper napkins. I could take these home to compost, but then more will be used to solve the problem for the next customer, so I leave them be. Whilst my coffee seems zerowaste, having worked in cafes for most of my youth, I know that the coffee bag will not be recycled. At least the coffee was locally roasted and fairtrade, and I drink soy. Mind you, the soy milk container was probably recycled, but I don’t really know. Dinner was made for me, and a was delicious vegan meal. But there would have been one or two plastic bags involved. I didn’t see them, but I still benefited from them.

Day 3

Still away from home. I eat leftovers for lunch- no additional waste generated which hasn’t already been mentioned. We have some cheese for afternoon tea. Ooops, the cheese and crackers both came in non-recyclable packaging. Dinner at home this time. Eggs from our chickens and veges from the greengrocer. There was one rubber band on the spinach. Our chickens eat our leftovers, but they also eat some grain which comes in a large plastic bag. We reuse the bags for things in the garden, and it is recyclable but it is still unavoidably plastic.

Day 4

Home-baked bread for breakfast. But oh no, I still haven’t managed to refill my bulk natural peanut butter. I eat my husband’s peanut butter, which comes in a recyclable plastic jar. But there is always a foil seal that is not recyclable. I eat a cup cake for morning tea. I baked them last week, and I still do use paper patty-pans for them. I compost the used patty pan. At least my garden will appreciated it. I baked the cupcakes last week from a packet mix, plus eggs from our chickens from coconut cream and oil. The coconut cream can was recycled. The oil comes in a glass jar, but there is always a little plastic seal on the jar when you first open it. The box for the packet mix cake was recycled last week, and I washed out the plastic packets, let then dry, and them put them with my soft plastic recycling. I sometimes bake cakes from scratch, but it isn’t so easy when you need to make gluten-free ones. The packet mixes make things so simple.

Lunch is a left over vegan meal- pumpkin chickpea pasta sauce. I boil up some fresh pasta which comes in a plastic bag. I always make sure this is recycled too. I do have access to bulk options, but this particular pasta is the best and most affordable gluten-free pasta I’ve found. So I figure that recycling the bag is worth it. Afternoon treat is a small portion of chocolate. My favourite chocolate brand is fair-trade, organic and vegan, and comes in a vege-dyed recycled paper box, and the chocolate is wrapped in a plant-based biodegradable plastic. That goes into recycling and compost. Not zero-waste as something that is unpackaged, but nothing ends up in landfill- at least at my end. Who knows what happens at the factory?

Little ones are home from childcare in the evening. I unpack their bags. One is still in nappies (diapers). We send him with a supply or our cloth ones, so they don’t the disposable plastic ones that they supply. When my older child started childcare, we were the only family that did this. 4 years on, my younger child is one of 3 children at the centre that uses cloth nappies that the parents supply. This is progress! Even though I send a reusable waterproof wet bag for the nappies, some of the workers still wrap the individual dirty nappies in a plastic bag. I used to feel guilty about this plastic waste, but what more can I do? I am doing my best in a flawed system. I put the dirty nappies on a 2 hour hot wash in our front loader washing machine. Our old top loader used to require two full wash cycles to get the nappies clean. The front loader is much better for the environment.

Day 5

This is one of my mamas days- week day at home with my little ones who are not yet school-aged. I quickly get the nappies on the washing line so they have time to dry in the sun. Then I pack a lunch so we can head out- bananas, dates, almonds (all unpackaged), and plastic wrapped muesli bars. I’ve decided to continue with these muesli bars because they are Australian made, palm oil free, and wrapped in recyclable plastic, and they also have a gluten free option for me. My husband still buys the cheaper ones for himself, which are none of these things. His priorities are not on this zero waste journey- I have to accept that and influence in the ways that I can (which is mainly lunches and dinner- which tend to be zero waste, or close too it).

We walk to the library, my older one on his scooter and my little one in the pram. I put my big bag of soft plastic recycling in the pram so we can take it to the drop off point. I also pack a glass jar so I can pick up my zero waste peanut butter. Outside the library we eat our snacks. I keep the banana skins to take home- we chop them up and feed them to the chickens. If I have fruit waste when I am out, I either take it home or find a garden where I can drop the compostable waste under a bush. Anything to ensure that it doesn’t go to landfill.

At dinner I use up a soy sauce bottle. I usually get my soy sauce in reused bottles from my food co-op. But sometimes I run out and have to get it from the local supermarket which is a block away. This bottle was from there. I try to carefully take out the plastic attachment from the neck of the bottle. I want to wash it so I can donate it to the food co-op. Alas, the plastic attachment and lid snaps and it cannot be reused. Into the recycling it goes.

Day 6

A work day for me. I work from home, so it is easy to be more-or-less zero waste. I put my bread on to bake so I can have freshly baked gluten-free sour dough for lunch. I put another loaf’s worth of the grain on to soak for the next loaf that will be baked in 3 days time. After an early lunch I head out to my local food Co-op. This is a lovely routine for me- I cycle there with a trailer on my bike, loaded up with glass jars. The Co-op has a cafe with internet, so I enjoy a fair-trade coffee and sit down to an hour or so of work.

I drop off a collection of clean jars that I have collected for the co-op, then I set to work packing the jars I’ve kept for myself with my staples. I really enjoy this little shopping ritual. We still do some shopping in a standard supermarket- but it is for a few little convenience snacks (mostly for husband and little ones), and cans of beans and alike.

Day 7

Another mama day. I pack our snacks again, much like last time. I also remember to throw in an empty plastic container- I plan to buy sushi again, and this time I will not need their plastic box! I do use the paper napkins for my little ones, but I pop them in our bag and make sure they go into our compost. We enjoy some cupcakes at one of our favourite vegan cafes. Oops, I forgot to take those paper patty pans home for the compost.

My week was a mixed bag. I do quit well, but I still have improvements to make. Most of my own food is zero-waste, but my husband and little ones do eat some things (bread, cereal etc) that I don’t (I have Ceoliacs). I also regularly fall pray to weakness and eat the rice crackers and cheese that my husband stocks the pantry with. I am not perfect, but in the past year I have seen our rubbish footprint greatly reduce. We generate about 1 standard shopping bag full of landfill per month. For a family of 4, that isn’t too bad. However, we still create a lot of recycling. This needs to change. Progress is slow.

I am not perfect. I have made choices that go against the advice that I espouse on the blog. But it is important to espouse lofty goals, whilst also being kind to yourself when you don’t live up to them. I will keep trying. Things improve when life isn’t too busy, and fall down when things get on top of me. I can live with that, as long as the general trend it improvement. This system is deeply flawed and it is important not to let it overwhelm you. The last thing we need is stressed-out environmentalist who continually feel as though they are failing.

We all must keep trying, individually and collectively, to change the system. Our personal daily choices matter. But our activism matters too. I hope you can find your way to strike a balance between striving for perfection, and being kind to yourself. This is a journey of a thousands steps, and occasionally you may find you’ve been going backwards or in circles, just as I have. That is ok. Just don’t small failuers or regressions defeat you entirely!





  • Caroline Barnard

    It’s so hard isn’t it! Just reading that felt slightly overwhelming.

    I struggle most with the things I know could be recycled/composted but I can’t do it. We don’t have a garden, and our council doesn’t collect food waste so every banana skin or mouldy bit of lettuce just has to go to landfill.

    • Yes, it is a struggle in this system. In your case, perhaps you would be better putting your efforts to lobbying your council to start collecting green waste. There isn’t much you can do when the system doesn’t support you. Lobbying your council is probably a better use of your time than stressing and feeling guilty about not being zero waste.

      There are always small things that we can work on. But it is important not to guilt ourselves when we aren’t perfect. It is just impossible to be that way in the system that we are operating in! All we can aim for is to try to be a little better than yesterday and hope that the trend is improvement over the long term. Otherwise it’s too overwhelming.

  • I always think about how bulk foods arrived at the stores, too. Even fruit and veggies come in waxed cardboard boxes sometimes (mostly wet veggies).

    • All we can do is do our best, and keep asking the system to do better. Perfection is impossible and I think it can be harmful to hold ourselves to a standard that isn’t attainable.
      One plastic-free blogger- Regan Jade- suggested treating plastic-free living as an 80/20 diet. If we work hard to do well most of the time, we should be kind to ourselves on those times that we fall down. I think that is the only way to stay sane in the system that we live in!