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When Can I Call Myself “Zero-Waste”?

when can I call myself zero-waste

I’m starting off a new blog post format today – answering the questions I get asked via email and social media on the topic of sustainability. Let’s kick it off with this one. Got a question – email it to moralfibres@gmail.com and I’ll try my best to answer it here.

Dear Wendy,

I’ve been working hard over the last six months to eliminate single-use plastic from my life, and I’m wondering at what stage can I call myself zero-waste? Is it when I’m not producing any waste? I’m feeling disheartened by it, because I haven’t been able to cut out all single-use plastic, and some days I despair over the amount of plastic that has entered my life just while I’m going about my daily business; whilst zero-waste YouTubers make it look so effortless.

Anon, Darlington

Dear Anon,

Aah, the age-old when can I call myself zero-waste question.

I have many thoughts about zero-waste.

What despairs me the most about the zero-waste movement, as it stands at the moment, is that by in large it shifts responsibility from producers, manufacturers, and retailers to reduce their plastic packaging, or to shift away from single-use plastic.

Instead, the onus is on us consumers to become plastic-free super-consumers. Super consumers that have the time, money and ability to research and seek out plastic-free options; to travel further to buy food essentials; to often pay considerably more for a product than it’s plastic packaged counterpart; and then be able to make everything from scratch.

Fail at any of these points and there’s judgment abound. If you’ve spent any time on Instagram or in some (not all) of the plastic-free Facebook groups then that judgment can at times be pretty free-flowing.

The thing is 100% zero-waste living is not possible. Our society is currently set up in such a way that zero-waste could not become mainstream any time soon. There isn’t taxation in place to punish retailers who use plastic packaging; there aren’t widespread recycling facilities to efficiently recycle every bit of waste. Questions on how we make zero-waste affordable, inclusive and accessible for all haven’t been answered.

This is not to discourage – this is to say that because of this everyone’s version of zero-waste looks different. As an able-bodied white woman in her late 30’s, with two young kids, living semi-rurally with my partner, and an income that gives us enough to pay our bills but with not an awful lot leftover means our version of zero-waste looks different to, say, a childless single professional in their 20’s living in a city served by many zero-waste shops; or to a person in their 60’s living with a compromised immune system, who can’t shop in bulk shops because of contamination risk but still wants to minimise their waste.

Comparing oranges to apples isn’t helpful, nor are fleeting statements proclaiming “anyone can go zero-waste”, when zero-waste doesn’t have a universal meaning applicable to all, or an agreed goal – visual or otherwise.

Some might say, isn’t zero-waste being able to fit a year’s worth of rubbish into a glass jar? That visual, after all, is social media catnip. I would disagree – zero-waste absolutely goes beyond being able to fit a year’s worth of rubbish in a glass jar; or any other visible benchmark.

There’s all the stuff that doesn’t look good on visual dependent sites, such as YouTube or Instagram – the visually uninspiring stuff. The reusing a carrier bag until it falls to bits? That’s zero-waste. The using a clothes horse in a spare corner rather than using the tumble drier: that’s zero-waste.

My own visually uninspiring version of zero-waste is that as I write this post, I’m sitting at my desk with a hot water bottle on my lap because I’m the only one in the house and I don’t want to put the heating on just yet. I don’t see that making it to YouTube any time soon, but I’m saving gas and potentially making a larger carbon saving than driving for me what would be a 30-mile round trip to be able to buy some packaging free pasta. The message here: you do what you can.

My advice, Anon? This has all been quite a long-winded preamble to say that I would ditch the zero-waste label. I use these kinds of labels on the blog because they’re useful for people finding my blog and articles through search engines, but in daily life, I would say they’re unnecessary at best, and a hindrance at worst.

Instead, keep doing what you’re doing – it sounds amazing. That’s not to breed complacency though – do more where and if you can. If you’re looking for suggestions that go beyond a jar of waste, then some that are easier than others include voting for those with green policies; switching your financial products from those in invest in fossil fuels to those who invest in renewables; signing petitions; taking part in gentle activism (I liked this one from Girl Industries a few weeks ago); to sharing environmental articles with friends on Facebook.

Labels schmabels!

Resources

The Plastics to Avoid Next Time You’re Shopping

plastics to avoid

Today’s let’s chat plastic and the plastics to avoid next time you are at the supermarket.

Now, I know we are all trying to avoid plastic as best we can – and I’m not advocating the use of unnecessary plastic, but let’s have some real talk first before moving on to the plastics to avoid. Going 100% plastic-free isn’t something I have been able to achieve, or get close to.

It’s certainly a work in progress, however, the plastic-free movement is tied in to a whole lot of privilege (money, time, access to shops, health, capacity, and ability) that currently, it’s unlikely to become a realistic endpoint any time soon for many, including myself. Do I feel guilty about this? No, I certainly don’t feel guilty for not being able to be plastic-free (and you shouldn’t either).

It’s also important to not lose sight of the fact that plastic waste occurs further upstream before “plastic-free” items get to us. This excellent article points out that bulk shops themselves aren’t plastic-free. Meanwhile, someone I know who makes plastic-free/packaging-free products confided in me that they can’t source the raw materials plastic-free. Plastic waste is still produced from our actions, even if we don’t physically have to deal with that waste.

So plastics come in to our life, whether we like it or not, and whether we see them or not.

One thing we can do is make better choices about the types of plastic that come in to our lives. One of those is to try and avoid certain types of plastic.

Plastics to Avoid

According to research from the University of Oxford, of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% of that was recycled.

In England, the government aims to recycle 50% of waste by 2020, rising to 75% by 2035. Scotland has a target to recycle 70% of waste by 2025, as does Wales. Northern Ireland has a proposal that 60% of waste is recycled by 2020.

Whilst the array of numbers on plastic can be complex and vary from local authority area to local authority area, one of the best ways to help ensure that your plastic is actually recycled is to understand a bit more about the different types of plastic.

This is a really useful table from The University of Oxford about different types of plastic, and their recyclability. Every local authority area is different in what they will accept for recycling so treat this as a more general guide.

plastics to avoid
Source

Remember, to increase the chance of an item being recycled, make sure it’s thoroughly washed – without any food on it.

Now that we know what is and what isn’t recyclable it’s important to bear in mind that just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s economically viable to recycle. Say what? Put simply, some plastics aren’t worth the cost of recycling them.

It’s easy to forget that recycling is a global industry when we’re putting our recycling bins out on the kerb on bin day. I think a lot of us see recycling as a public service, when actually it’s a huge multi-billion pound global industry. Yep, an industry, which like any industry makes decisions based on cost-effectiveness.

Recycling companies sell recycled plastic pellets on to manufacturers as a raw material and each different type of plastic, and crucially the different colour of the pellets commands a different value.

I’ve put together a graphic indicating the maximum price per tonne recycling companies can currently (as of September 2019) earn for different types of plastic:

Source

As you can see, different plastics are worth different amounts – clear, white and light blue plastics (both HDPE and PET plastics) are worth considerably more than coloured plastics, or composite plastics.

The reason for this variation in price is that clear, white and light blue coloured plastics can be recycled and used to make a variety of different products. It’s easy to add pigment to them to make them different colours if required by manufacturers, giving these types of plastics lots of flexibility in usage.

Coloured plastics on the other hand, when recycled, turn a murky brown colour that isn’t particularly desirable to manufacturers as the plastics can only be made in the dark murky brown shade or darker – you can’t go lighter. As such, whilst you can put these items in the recycling bin for recycling, what you won’t see is that more than likely, further down the recycling chain, these green or red PET plastic bottles will get sifted out at a recycling centre and sent to landfill.

Takeaways on Plastics to Avoid

There’s a lot of information here, but the main takeways on the type of plastics to avoid are avoid coloured PET – the plastic most commonly used for soft drinks, bottled water, and cooking oil. Clear ones are worth money to recyclers, but coloured ones are unlikely to be recycled due to their low value.

When choosing cleaning products and things like shampoos, and other beauty products which are commonly housed in HDPE bottles, choose products in clear bottle preferably, and if not then white bottles. The clear bottles especially are worth nearly four times as much money to recyclers than the ones in coloured bottles – and the plastic product yielding the most money to recyclers – so are most likely to be recycled.

Manufacturers of eco products who use coloured plastic in their packaging know that this reduces the likelihood of the products being recycled – treat this as a form of greenwashing. If you know of a company doing this email them, tweet them or whatever your preferred form of communication is and let them know that you’re on to them, and ask them why they aren’t using clear plastic.

Of course, plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before it isn’t viable to recycle them anymore, whatever the colour of them, but let’s help increase our shockingly low recycling rates by demanding that manufacturers make better packaging choices based on recycling values.

ps: found this article useful? You can buy me a coffee. ;)