What’s it like to live a zero waste vegan life?

Read Time:   |  16th June 2017

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Recycling comes naturally to vegans, but what’s it like to try to live a zero-waste vegan life? Charlotte Willis takes the challenge…

zero waste vegan life

Once upon a time, I believed I lived a very sustainable lifestyle. Recycle? Check. Save electricity? On it. Showers not baths? All over it. Doing my bit for the planet, I thought I was doing quite well. Until that is, I discovered a woman who can fit her entire year’s worth of rubbish in a mason jar. My recycling bin didn’t seem so righteous any more.

A rubbish state of affairs

It’s no secret, most people these days create a lot of waste. Although, as a nation, we are more aware of the waste crisis and need to recycle than ever before, it seems we just can’t bring ourselves to make the desperately needed changes the environment is crying out for. Grabbing a soya latté to go (most coffee cups are non-recyclable – waste), using paper towels to dry your hands (waste), the packaging from your online delivery (waste) and just about every food packet, box or bag (waste). Not to mention the vast amounts of household rubbish that is subject to energy-consuming methods of processing each and every day. It seems we have become too accustomed to creating rubbish.

Maybe if we saw the amount of rubbish we produce on a monthly basis, we would change our minds? The UK alone produces just over 100 million tonnes of household waste every year, the weight of which is equivalent to that of your own body, in rubbish, every seven weeks! What’s more, the rate of recycling in the UK actually fell last year, from 44.8% in 2015 to 43.9% in 2016. While this is not a monumental drop, it is quite staggering that it’s a drop at all, seeing as the government continues to invest in recycling schemes and aims to have over 50% of our waste sent to direct recycling by 2020. It is clear that we need to rethink our throwaway attitude.

zero waste vegan life

Meet the zero waste bloggers

In search of inspiration to reduce my own household waste, I delved into a world full of those who claim to create absolutely no household waste. I expected to be greeted by a bevy of hyper-conscious environmentalists, but in reality, I could not have been further from the truth. I never imagined a zero-waste life could be both modern and environmentally harmonious. These driven, passionate individuals are pioneering the way to the ultimate level of sustainability, reducing, re-using and recycling at a near heroic level, producing just a small jar’s worth of rubbish each year. Just imagine how much you’d save on bin bags alone? These bloggers are truly motivating, and have each developed their own ingenious methods to reduce and eliminate sources of waste from their lives.

The woman who never takes the bin out

Introducing Kathryn K, a woman who never takes out her trash. Not because she’s idle, but rather because she never produces any. Kathryn developed her conscious and ‘zero waste’ lifestyle just over two years ago, after a turning point in her health;

“When I was 20, six lumps in my breast were discovered. Thankfully, they were benign, but the whole experience made me think about what I put in and on my body. I learned a lot about how the products we use aren’t thoroughly tested, then made the decision to quit toxic products and plastic. After that, transitioning into a zero waste lifestyle was pretty seamless.”

Kathryn agrees that a see-nothing, do-nothing attitude is responsible for our current lack of consciousness when it comes to waste.

“We have one problem: we don’t see the waste. The garbage man picks it up and takes it away. We’ve become so accustomed to not noticing it, we don’t see it as a problem. We’re using two earths’ worth of resources to make products that are thrown into a giant hole in the ground, where they will never decompose. Maybe we should start rethinking the way we do things…It starts with you. If you want to change something, you have to start with yourself. ”

Waste not

Kathryn started her blog to inspire those who feel a need to bring about change, “Even if they can only do one thing, doing that one thing is better than doing nothing at all. I want people to know that they can make a difference, and I try to offer tips that can be implemented, no matter what your accessibility or background.” I asked Kathryn what inspires and motivates her to continue to live her life without waste.

“You eat better and healthier. Save money. Walk more. Support local businesses and feed back into your community. You get to know people and build up relationships with those you trade with. I believe that modern society will tell you that you are what you buy.
By living a more sustainable life, you learn to become a more minimal and simplistic person.”

This aspect of waste-free living is something that I’m sure we can all relate to. Having recently moved apartment, I can confirm that the average person accumulates plenty of stuff. I think it’s only when confronted with your life’s belongings in front of you in boxes, that you realise just how much we hoard in our lives.

“It’s calming. I’m no longer filling my life with useless goods. Everything in my life has meaning. I’m living a simplified and more purposeful life. I’m more focused now on who I am and who I’m becoming, rather than letting the latest must-have or gadget define me. It’s more than happiness, but more of a recipe for contentment.”

zero waste vegan life

The waste Kathryn produced in one year can fit into a single jar!

Making my clean start

Living a free-from lifestyle is something that I’ve become quite comfortable and complacent with. If I’ve omitted gluten, dairy, meat and fish thus far for over three years now, surely rubbish would be somewhat of a doddle? The notion of being as close to completely sustainable and non-polluting as humanly possible both inspires my earth-conscious side, at the same time as terrifying my convenience-driven and hectic modern lifestyle-living side simultaneously.

But speaking to Kathryn got me thinking. What more can I do to help reduce my household’s waste? Sure, I recycle and attempt to compost like the best of them, but the idea of not producing any waste at all, that was a challenge I was most definitely willing to accept.

On her blog, goingzerowaste.com, Kathryn encourages her readership to take up the 30-day zero waste challenge. A venture like Veganuary, whereby each day guides you through an aspect of re-thinking or re-inventing your day to day interactions with the world around you. Not one to shy away from a challenge, I duly enrolled…

Week 1 Plastic? Not fantastic

The first week into my zero waste challenge, I had a plastic-infused realization. Tupperware for my meal prep, water bottles, phone cases, coffee cups, cosmetic casings – I was surrounded by this man-made, energy-sapping material. It is estimated that we throw away enough plastic to circle the earth four times every year, with only 5-10% being recovered and reused. Naturally, step one: remove most plastic (and recycle it wherever possible, of course). Some items were easy swaps – using a stainless steel coffee cup, taking glass water bottles to work, refusing to buy another Pret sandwich and swearing to always make my own meals in my earth-friendly take-out box. I even invested in bamboo, everything from cooking utensils (that claimed to be carbon neutral) to make-up brushes. My attempts to reduce the amount of plastic in my everyday essential items, such as make-up and toiletries, was the main challenge, but buying larger sizes of toiletries and only from carbon-neutral companies helps reduce your impact.

Tips from week 1

  • DO replace your everyday essentials with re-usable items. Try and bring your own take-out cutlery and food boxes to cafés and eateries. Try steel Tupperware and glass mason jars for lunch. Take your own cloth napkin instead of using paper ones.
  • DO refuse to be a part of the vast amounts of non-recyclable beverage and coffee cups wasted every year. In fact, the UK gets through 10,000 of them in just two minutes. Bring your own reusable flask instead (some chains such as Starbuck’s offer you a discounted beverage for your conscious efforts).
  • DO buy smarter, more sustainable materials, such as bamboo, glass and steel, particularly for regular-use items.
  • DON’T attempt to change everything at once. There will always be certain items that may require you to use plastic or excess packaging. Changing your relationship with waste is a step-by-step process, and it’s important to remember that changing one thing is better than changing nothing at all.

zero waste vegan life

Week 2 Shopping in bulk

I’ve long been a fan of bulk-buying wholefoods (to the extent that I am now a proud owner of a cupboard full of lentils, pasta, brown rice and jars upon jars of almond butter). Not only is this method far cheaper in the long term, but you reduce the amount of packaging involved substantially. Buying one huge 10kg hessian bag of brown rice, for example, is far more environmentally sound than purchasing 10 individual 1kg plastic-wrapped bags. The same principle can be applied to most non-perishable items, such as dried fruit and legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. Granted, you’ll have to find space, but when better to clear out the cupboard under the stairs?

Your food shop can be the most challenging of areas when it comes to combating waste due to excessive packaging. Just about every item comes wrapped in some kind of see-through plastic! Kathryn has given us a step-by-step guide to waste-free grocery shopping (see opposite). For me, the easiest and most convenient way is to order my produce via veg box companies who minimise packaging, and to visit my city-centre markets every week to top up on the essentials.

Week 3 Household waste

The majority of us by now have become accomplished recyclers, but how many of us actually compost our kitchen waste? If you live in a rural or semi-rural area, this may be as easy as investing in a composting bin and donating your detritus to your nearest farmer or community growing scheme (or get hands on with grow-your-own). For those urbanites out there, composting can still be achieved by using specialised odourless bins, the perfect size for the kitchen. A quick browse online will reveal if your local council can supply you with a composting bin, or where there may be a composting facility near you. You can compost most vegan food scraps, off-cuts of veg/fruit, newspapers and even some cardboards.

The process undoubtedly has made me reassess my relationship with tin foil, and I now opt to use containers or bowls to store excess food. I’ve also reduced the amount of baking paper I use in my cooking and refuse to buy kitchen towel.

zero waste vegan life

Tips from week 3

  • DO seek out local markets and independent stores. You’ll soon develop a relationship with them. Being a regular customer, you’ll reap the benefits of freebies, insight and discounts for your loyalty.
  • DO start composting your kitchen waste. Investing in an odourless bin is something anyone with a small apartment will be grateful for! Turning your waste into plant-food is something of a wonderful virtuous and natural cycle.
  • DON’T If you’re unsure as to whether an item is suitable for recycling, check what it is made of. Try to reduce buying items with non-recyclable materials: http://learn.eartheasy.com/2012/05/plastics-by-the-numbers/)

Week 4  Re-working waste

One of the most prominent lessons this week has been learning how to reinvent my waste. Being able to transform unwanted sauce bottles into a home-decoration, donating excess possessions to charity, or rejuvenating old bits and pieces of furniture into modern accessories, brings about a real sense of unexpected accomplishment.

Re-working waste doesn’t just extend to the home environment either. You can help by encouraging your company or business to begin a more comprehensive recycling programme, even just by implementing a recycling and compost bin you are helping support a more carbon-neutral attitude.

Tips from week 4

  • DO use less paper at work and encourage your company to be more carbon-neutral and waste aware.
  • DO re-invent your wasted household items. Electronics can be readily recycled at retail outlets (often for free and some even pay you!), donations of clothes and furniture are welcomed at charity stores. Even old pet products can be of use to some rescue shelters. If in doubt – ask!
  • DO get creative with your waste. Today’s trash could become tomorrow’s coffee table with a little TLC.
  • DON’T send old items to landfill. There is bound to be someone out there who will benefit from your old items, and be thankful for your donation. Remember, just because it is out of sight doesn’t mean it won’t have an impact upon your own waste footprint.

zero waste vegan life

Kathryn’s Ultimate Guide to Getting Waste-Free Groceries

  • Buy most veg and fruit loose – unless it’s salad leaves, you don’t even need a bag to hold them together at home.
  • Buy seasonally and locally from markets, there is less of a carbon footprint and you maximise your nutrition too.
  • Take your own containers for things like loose cereals or coffee beans. Pre-weigh the container first to make the transaction easier.
  • Talk to your local market stall holders, they will be more than obliging to provide you with a reusable container for your produce.

30 days. Waste free?

I’ll be honest, going completely waste free is a goal I will work my way towards in the future. And while, in an idyllic world, we would all leave nothing but dust behind us, I produced about half a small waste-paper bin’s worth of rubbish in 30 days – mostly excessive non-recyclable packaging of organic bananas!

Progress? Certainly so, as I previously produced around two large refuse bags every month. I have become more aware of my personal burden on the environment and have begun using more re-usable and sustainable items than ever before. Reducing the amount of items around me has been extremely cleansing (having donated to charity or to friends), and living life in a more simplistic way is an added benefit to this experience. It’ll be a while before I fit my year’s worth of rubbish into a jar, but as Kathryn explains, “My parting advice would be never give up. There’s only steps in the right direction. Anyone can work on reducing their waste. Just commit to doing one thing. Once you do that, then maybe look at making another change. Just make that commitment, and always do your best to follow through.”

So readers, what’s one thing you could do today?

Many thanks to Kathryn Kellogg for her advice. Her blog www.goingzerowaste.com and 30 day challenge www.goingzerowaste.com/30-day-zero-waste-challenge/ have inspired me.

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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