Hello, everyone! Do you know what today is? No, I don’t mean Monday (even though it technically is…)
Today is October 15th, which marks the first day of Zero Waste Week! You may have heard the term “zero-waste” be tossed around before, especially in the news and on social media lately. It has received a lot of media attention in recent years, and it is gaining support every single day. From Facebook groups (which I may or may not be a part of…), to clubs, to provincial policy plans, the Zero Waste Movement is taking centre stage in the world’s current sustainability efforts.
The Zero Waste Movement came about when concerned citizens began to understand how their actions impact the planet, its ecosystems and other people around them. In particular, people began to realize how much damage their daily habits were creating because of the waste they generate. The Industrial Revolution allowed for much easier production, storage and delivery of products that would have been made slowly by hand before; the twentieth century was a time of great human advancement in transportation, manufacturing and—this is the force really working against the Zero Waste Movement—consumerism.
Fast food and T.V. dinners made meal-time cheaper, quicker and more wasteful. Fast fashion meant that last season’s sweater is no longer acceptable to wear. The emergence of monster chain stores like Walmart, Costco and Target meant more plastic bags, wrapping and other single-use products were being produced at rates faster than ever seen before. While all these innovations have led to the evolution of the modern man, it has also led to the creation of a heck of a lot of waste. Waste that, not surprisingly, is starting to negatively impact how we live now, and potentially prevent us from living whole, healthy lives in the future.
The purpose of the Zero Waste Movement is to educate and inspire individuals to reduce the amount of waste they are sending to landfills. A key part of the movement is to recycle, repurpose and restore materials that we would have used only once before. Avoiding single-use products altogether, such as plastic bags, water bottles and food containers/cutlery are some of the easiest ways to adopt low or zero-waste practices in your everyday life.
Why is reducing our waste important? The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks says that we are running out of landfill space for our waste; if current waste practices continue, we will need 16 more landfill sites by 2050 in Canada alone. This requires destroying natural land, such as forests or grasslands, stripping them bare to create a new landfill site. Entire ecosystems are lost, soil degraded, populations of plants, animals and insects eradicated. Tearing down forests also removes our planet’s natural carbon sinks: soil, shrubs and trees have the ability to absorb atmospheric carbon, reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions floating around in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. When we remove these vital ecosystem components, the decaying trees and other plants actually release the carbon they absorbed and the carbon making up their cells, becoming a carbon source that contributes to climate change. Climate change is real, and is not only adversely impacting the environment, but also human populations around the world as natural disasters occur more frequently and with greater severity.
In my last post, I discussed how single-use products like plastic water bottles, Styrofoam take-out containers and plastic cutlery have a lifespan of anywhere from 500 to 5,000 years. These synthetic materials leach chemicals into the environment when they find their way into our waterways and forests. These chemicals can have a variety of negative effects on the environment, such as being endocrine disruptors that prevent the nervous system in seabirds from responding to hormone signals. Not to mention that 100,000 marine animals and 1 million sea birds die every year because of our single-use plastics, whether they’ve ingested deadly pieces of plastic that tear at their organs, suffocate them, or tangle them so they drown.
All in all, it is essential to decrease the amount of waste we are creating. Not only to protect our important ecosystems and the resources they provide us (air filtration, carbon sequestration, food, etc.) but also to avoid future environmental problems that impact society economically and socially.
At my university, the Sustainable Campus Initiative was handing out mason jars to take part in Zero-Waste Week. Basically, you keep track of how much waste you accumulate throughout the week, putting any waste other than organics and recycling into the jar. One of the biggest issues that comes with reducing waste is the out of sight, out of mind mentality that our society has: once we throw out something, we lose perspective of how much waste we create. The mason jar initiative allows you to keep track of your waste and visually see how you are contributing to the waste crisis. I picked up a mason jar, and I am very excited to take part in this initiative, and I encourage you to try it out yourself! If you don’t have a mason jar, you can use any small container/box that you have. It also doesn’t have to be just during this week. Try keeping track of your waste for one week so you can get a stronger understanding of your own waste habits.
So we can keep track of our waste, what’s next? Once you see where most of your waste comes from, then you can try curbing your habits to reduce waste in that specific area. For instance, say at the end of the week your mason jar is mainly full of granola bar wrappers. Why is it full of granola bar wrappers? Did you plan your food out for the week? Did you meal prep your lunches, only to realize that you didn’t pack enough and were still hungry so you had to hop over to the grocery store for a snack? Did you run out of time for breakfast while rushing to class? Do you just like the granola bar and wanted a tasty snack?
These are all common reasons for generating waste. Really it comes down to a matter of convenience, something our society values so much today. Sometimes I fall into the convenience trap as well, but I make a conscious effort to plan and prepare around it as much as possible.
One granola bar wrapper may not seem like much, but if you’re eating a granola bar or packaged snack every day, for 365 days a year, that’s a lot of waste! These are “convenience foods,” catered to our fast-paced, rushed society. They are meant to be appealing because they are cheap and easy to eat on the go. However, there are easy ways to nourish yourself without producing so much waste. Let’s look at the scenarios:
- You didn’t prepare any meals for the week so you had to buy all the pre-packaged items. If this is the case, try setting aside even an hour on the weekend or night before to prepare a delicious, nourishing meal that you will enjoy. You can even use leftovers from dinner for a quick, easy lunch fix.
- You didn’t pack enough food. Easy solution: just add a bit more to your meal! Maybe you made a salad and didn’t find it very satisfying – try adding some good fats like sliced avocado, an olive oil and vinegar dressing, and complex carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa or barley. Vegetables are bulky, but not dense: they can fill you up quickly, but that feeling of fullness can dissipate quickly.
- You didn’t have time for breakfast. Wake up five minutes earlier than you normally do so you have time to make toast, a bowl of oatmeal, a smoothie, eggs or whatever your favourite breakfast is. You can even prepare your breakfast the night before (overnight oats = life) or have the ingredients ready to go in the morning.
- You just like granola bars. Who doesn’t? Try making your own, using your favourite ingredients. There are so many recipes online replicating your favourite brand-name bars, which you can enhance/switch up however you like. This is much cheaper than buying packaged bars, and if you wrap them in reusable materials (beeswax wraps, reusable snack bags/containers) there is no waste. Also, who doesn’t like their house smelling like fresh baked goods?
It’s easy to make swaps in your daily life to live a lower-waste lifestyle. If you want to start working towards a low/zero-waste lifestyle but are intimidated by the process or don’t know where to start, fear not! I made this post which provides twelve simple ways to switch out the products you use in your everyday life for zero-waste, eco-friendly ones. When I started swapping out items in my own life, I made a list throughout one day of all the items I used: my toothbrushes, plastic food baggies and wrap, cotton pads for makeup removal and plastic cutlery are just a few of the items I have stopped using by simply going through my day and making note of the different items I use. If you’re worried about costs, it really is not that expensive to switch out your products. While some things may be costlier than others (like fancy metal bento box-style lunch containers), you can also use items lying around your home, or repurpose items that would end up in the trash. For instance, I use the inside of my cereal boxes to create mind maps and diagrams for when I’m studying for my exams!
You may think that using one water bottle, or one plastic fork, or one coffee cup isn’t a big deal. You may say, “oh, next time I’ll buy a reusable mug,” or “next time I’ll remember to pack food ahead of time.” We must stop saying “next time” because next time needs to be right now. Sure, you may only be throwing out one plastic water bottle, but so are millions of other people around the world. That equals a lot of waste being accumulated every. Single. Second.
The only way we can change things is to start taking action in our own lives. If every person in the world makes an effort to change just one of their wasteful habits–by purchasing a set of reusable cutlery, bringing a refillable container to the bulk food store, asking for no plastic straw in your drink—we can start restoring our ecosystems, protecting our carbon sinks, and cleaning up the mess we have created. It’s hard to clean things now when more and more waste just keeps coming.
For this year’s Zero Waste Week, I challenge you to make one small change in your life. Make this a small, consistent action you carry out every day. Maybe you start packing your lunch instead of buying a sandwich every day; maybe you purchase that reusable water bottle you’ve had your eye on for a while, or maybe you start buying your personal care products like shampoo or conditioner from a company that recycles their bottles. Whatever the action may be, every single one matters. When you combine your action with the actions of 7 billion other people around the world, that is a massive change.
This Zero Waste Week, I am going to keep an eye on my waste to further reduce it. Since making so many changes in my daily habits, the amount of waste I create has reduced drastically in such a short time. I’ve even noticed in my apartment off campus that the only things I throw out are food scraps (which I bring to campus–yes, I walk to campus with a bag of food scraps…) and I recycle cans or containers if I can’t find a second use for them. Also, my goal is to change my makeup removal habits: while I use reusable cloth makeup pads (they’re amazing!), I still use commercial-brand makeup remover that comes in a disposable bottle. I want to find a more natural, zero-waste way to take off makeup. I’ve heard coconut oil is good for makeup removal, which would be great because I already use coconut oil for my skin and hair. If I stop using synthetic removers, not only will I no longer wasting the empty bottle, but I’ll also no longer be rinsing potentially dangerous chemicals down the sink when I wash my face. I’m going to do more research on this, and I’ll keep you posted on both the waste I collect in my mason jar for this week and the zero-waste makeup remover that I choose!
See how easy it can be to make a change? I want you to stop and think right now about one simple thing you could change in your daily life. What do you hold your food in? What do you use to brush/floss your teeth? How often are you ordering food/drinks out? One small change can lead to a huge difference.
Let’s make a change this week. Your small action will start a ripple effect, inspiring others to take action in their own lives, until we have a global movement. We need to reduce our waste to save the planet and to have enough clean, healthy water, air and resources for future generations to live well. We may not be able to do it alone, but together we can make the world a sustainable place for us, our future generations, and all species inhabiting the planet. Let’s make a change, starting right now.
Until next time!