The zero waste challenge

Back in February, my wife and I signed up to Green Up Luton, a three month challenge that has seen us cutting our energy use, using more sustainable means of transport, and now cutting down our waste. We’ve had a series of tasks, but this week is the most ambitious yet, to try and aim for zero waste.

That’s a pretty tall order. Between recycling and composting and re-using things when we can, we don’t throw away much in our household – maybe a carrier bag full or so a week. To knock that down to nothing at all is a big challenge. Part of that is using our imaginations and seeing what else can be re-used around the house, but I’ve already got a stockpile of old plastic trays and jar lids and bits and pieces. Trying to re-use everything is just going to land me with more clutter. So I’m being pushed towards an alternative solution, which is to try and stop the rubbish coming into the house in the first place.

Here’s where it gets interesting, because I’m immediately noticing things I hadn’t paid any attention to before. For example, fresh things come with less packaging. The more processes my food has been subjected to, the more layers of plastic have been added to the final product. I went to the bakery this morning and bought a loaf of bread. If I have it sliced, it goes in a plastic bag. If it’s unsliced, it comes in a paper bag. The addition of a ten second slicing process means it needs more sophisticated packaging.

When you think about it, that holds true across most of the food we buy. The more washing, slicing, mixing and cooking we’re prepared to do, the less waste we will create, and the trash gyres are the price we pay for the few seconds of convenience we buy for ourselves.

I’m also paying attention to the materials more, looking out for packaging that’s non-biodegradable. I considered buying a bar of chocolate as I was queuing past them in the Post Office, but they were all wrapped in foil/plastic composites. Not so long ago, chocolate came in foil with a paper wrapper, both of which would break down without any trouble. Perhaps plastic is cheaper, or extends the shelf-life, but paper and foil worked just fine for decades.

It’s a bit of a game, the zero challenge week in the Williams household, but these are the kinds of questions our whole consumer culture needs to address, little by little. Can we bring back deposits on glass bottles? Was fish and chips in yesterday’s newspaper really so unhygenic? How long until we all follow Ireland’s example and put a tax on plastic bags?


  1. We have also struggled with reducing waste but are really making a concerted effort. Nevertheless, I become more annoyed with how much I’m throwing away. Here in NYC, there are special challenges because of lack of space. We want to compost, but we have to figure out where to put the worm bin. That is my next hopeful endeavor. We’re thinking of making use of the vertical space we have and building a shelf up high.

    We use cloth bags for our grocery shopping, but I end up using plastic bags for the large number of bulk items we buy. This is so frustrating. I’m on the look-out for muslin bags that won’t add weight when the bulk items are weighed. I may look into making them out of some old t-shirts.

    I have discovered that our 32 oz yogurt containers make great pots for plants. I don’t use them for edible plants, but for the others, they work perfectly. I cut a drainage whole in the bottom, cut an inch or two off the top of the container if it needs to be shortened, and use the lid to catch water from the bottom.

    Anyway.. these are all quite fun challenges, actually. I’m totally interested in discovering more ways to re-use and create new stuff out of old stuff! 🙂


    1. it is fun, isn’t it? It becomes a creative challenge. I’ve been looking out for net bags for buying vegetables, but haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.

      I met someone the other day who claimed you could have a worm bin as a coffee table. Not sure about that… I think you may be better off with a shelf.

  2. The zero waste challenge idea is incredible, isn’t it? I haven’t done it myself yet but one of our founders did it with a bunch of other households last year (their daily blog is at http://www.ethical.org.au/zero_waste/).

    I’m trying to do a no new/no packaging challenge for my baby (now 16 months). We were always going to do cloth nappies but now we do cloth wipes as well, for example… I’m constantly finding other issues but it’s a good mindset to get into!

    1. We didn’t do very well at the zero waste challenge! I bought things really carefully, but we used things from the freezer and some food that was given to us, and finished the week with quite a pile of plastic. Definitely got me thinking though!

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