I want to live sustainably. In other words, I want to live in a way that doesn’t use up an unsustainable amount of my resources, of other people’s resources, or of the earth’s resources. I know I’m not alone in this, but how do we live in a way that is sustainable for the earth without making our lifestyles unsustainable for ourselves, especially in a society that is set up – in nearly every way – to promote unsustainable lifestyle practices?
Poison the Earth?
We are all dependent on the produce of the land, no matter where we live, what our diets, and what our lifestyle, but don’t you find it easy to forget how fragile we – and the ecosystems we are part of – are? So much of our contact with food is in supermarket aisles or online, disconnected from any hint of growing.
When we lived in Era such blindness was impossible. We were keenly and daily aware of the weather, the labour, and the land’s fertility that went into growing the food that literally kept us alive. We saw too how the waste this process generated was itself generative – it was all biodegradable, eventually becoming part of that fertile land again.
Well, all, that is, except the waste products of the products that came from town – tins and sweet wrappers and plastic bottles and cardboard boxes and paper and batteries – and as importers of many such town products we found ourselves faced with the unsustainable nature of so much of what we consume. In town, waste ended up in huge piles of stinking rubbish, waiting to be burned. In the rural areas, we burned what we could and buried the rest.
The sick feeling that this left me with in the pit of my stomach was a great motivator in reducing what we bought from town – there is nothing like digging your own personal landfill site next door to the gardens you eat from to make you realise how disastrous it is to poison the soil that grows your food. We came back from that experience completely and utterly convinced that we had to do something to get our waste under control in Britain too.
How’s That Working Out?
It’s harder here, for sure. Life operates at a different pace and so much is sold wrapped in layers of packaging. Living in a way that is sustainable for the earth sometimes feels like it can become unsustainable personally – costing so much time, energy and money that we end up giving up. However, I’m increasingly convinced that leaving this problem to the politicians to sort out is a false hope – we’re going to have to do something, one-by-one, until our small efforts gain momentum and become a movement.
So what can we do? Well, we certainly don’t have it all figured out. We’re at a stage in life where our personal resources feel a lot lower than normal but we have found some realistic ways to drastically reduce our waste from what it was without costing ourselves too much time, energy or money.
So, how about I share with you what’s working for us, and you promise not to judge us on the things that we haven’t nailed yet? Instead, share with us what’s working well for you. Together, we can implement each other’s ideas and work together to stop poisoning ourselves, each other and the earth. Deal? Deal.
Our biggest waste-reduction strategy has been to start composting. Now before you dismiss this, hang on. We don’t have a garden and our council doesn’t collect food or garden waste, but we’ve still found an easy, cheap solution.
I figured that if our council weren’t collecting food waste then they were probably promoting another solution, and that turned out to be true – about five minutes digging on our council website provided me with a link to subsidised compost bins, wormeries and rain water butts. If you’re in the UK, check out getcomposting.com or your council’s website for equivalent deals for your area.
So now, to many of our guests’ amusement, we have a compost bin and no garden. “What are you going to do with the compost?” everyone asks us. Well, first of all, I think our bin is 330 litres, we have been using it for about 18 months, we eat a LOT of vegetables, and it is just over half full – the waste really compresses. When the summer comes, it will probably rot down even further. So what we do with the compost is not exactly an urgent question. However, here are our ideas:
- post it on freecycle
- donate it to the local community garden allotment
- donate it to a friend who has an allotment
- take it to the recycling centre and put it in the food/garden waste
I was initially intimidated by composting – it seemed more like an art form than a bin, and we really are not experts. However, all we actually do is:
- put all our food waste except meat in the bin (which came with a list like this one http://www.recyclenow.com/reduce/home-composting/making-compost)
- add some scrunched up newspaper or cardboard if it starts to get a bit smelly or we notice flies
If all our compost ends up being is a very easy, very cheap, non-smelly, soil-like storage space for our food waste that we have to take to the recycling centre once every three or four years, well, that still seems like a massive win to me.
Not having a garden is not a reason not to compost! If you don’t have any outdoor space at all, then a wormery (http://www.verticalveg.org.uk/how-to-make-your-own-wormery/) might be a good solution for you.
It’s nearly too obvious to mention but surely if your local council offers free roadside recycling it is a no-brainer to use these services – I’m still surprised by how many people don’t.
The key with this is to make recycling easier than not recycling. The quick win for us on this front was making our recycling bin easily accessible and spacious enough to not overflow. Why not put your recycling bin indoors and your non-recycling bin outdoors instead of the other way round?
We get our cleaning supplies from Splosh and we love them, especially when it comes to their zero-waste, zero-hassle approach. They deliver eco-friendly cleaning supplies in concentrated packs to your door and you put them into reusable bottles and add hot water. Sustainable for us, sustainable for the earth.
Use the code 219CF8 to get £5 off your starter pack (we’ll get £1 too).
Once we nailed roadside recycling, the next big dilemma was what to do with recyclable goods that the council won’t pick up. Items such as ruined clothes and other textiles, old shoes, scrap metal and electronics too often end up in landfill, even though they are recyclable.
What’s worked for us is a simple solution. We hung a massive Ikea bag on an easily accessible hook inside the cupboard under the stairs where we put all of these waste items. We also set aside a box for reusable items that charity shops would love to take off our hands. Then, once every year or so when we have access to a car we drive to the council’s recycling centre where they recycle ALL THINGS (it’s a very exciting place), stop off at a charity shop, empty the bag and the box, and start again.
I know most people probably think that they don’t have enough storage space to do this, but it really doesn’t take much space – even a bag in the boot of your car (if you have one) would do.
Of course, an initial clear out can help too, firstly, because after an initial clear out the bag won’t fill up very quickly and secondly, because most of us use up a lot of our storage space with random stuff we don’t want or need.
Online Shopping + Plastic Bag Recycling
I’ve written before about how we do our grocery shopping. I just wanted to flag up that as well as being cheaper and easier, buying in bulk online also reduces packaging. Plus, we don’t need to use plastic bags and the delivery man takes any dirty or torn plastic bags we have collected over the month away with him to recycle. Win!
After we applied the strategies above, we began paying a bit more attention to what we actually were throwing in the “normal” rubbish and thinking about one commonly discarded item at a time to see if we could reduce it. I won’t go through these one-by-one, but simply asking this question about things we throw away regularly has made a difference: “Is there another way we could solve this problem?” Having friends who can share ideas helps with this one – and we still have a long way to go!
I don’t always manage this one , but if I’m about to throw away a bunch of things and can’t think what to do with them I try to do an quick online search first. I’ve been surprised at what I have found, such as charities that will come and collect things they need for craft supplies etc. It’s worth checking! If you know a charity or church nearby who work with kids, do ask them if they can use any of your typical rubbish. Things like toilet rolls, empty jars, tealight holders and old CDs are all treasures to children’s craft activities!
We have been using these strategies for about 18 months now and they haven’t cost us more than about £20 and maybe 6 hours over that whole time span. Even better, they have drastically reduced our landfill waste. I think we now fill a black bin bag between the two of us about once every two to three weeks – and it’s so nice not having to empty the bin so often!
Share Your Ideas
Although I’m pleased to be throwing less away, we still throw away about the same amount in a month that our team of seven was throwing away in a year in Era – we’re not there yet! Here are just a few of the ways that we would like to improve:
- Water waste: we don’t do anything to reduce our water waste yet and I think that’s pretty important.
- Bleach: We use it (to counteract our mega mildew problem). I feel guilty. Does this invalidate all our other gains?
- Reducing our recycling: recycling things is better than landfill but it still uses energy and it’s definitely better to reduce than recycle.
- Reducing packaging: some amazing people search for packaging-free versions of the items they need to buy, going to different shops if necessary and boycotting places like Amazon that massively over-package. We haven’t yet managed that level of commitment because I don’t know how to make it sustainable in terms of time and money.
- Re-using packaging: other than our cleaning supplies, most things come in one-time use packaging. I’d love to use a milkman, for example, but we can’t afford it right now.
- Buy sustainably-sourced products: I don’t do a lot of research into where the products we use come from, and one day (after I finish this PhD?!) I’d like to up my game on that.
- Reduce our electrical and gas use: which, basically, means living somewhere with better insulation and more natural light I think. Or living somewhere smaller. Or sharing a house. Or moving to the tropics.
- Black bin bags: these are themselves dodgy are they not? Surely there is a better solution, no?
- Grow your own food: To say that we don’t have green fingers is an epic understatement: our home is a house plant graveyard. Still, maybe one day we could live next door to someone who grows their own food and Aaron could write them personalised songs in exchange for eating their vegetables. That’s a thing, right?!
I could go on, but I won’t because I have a thesis to write and this post is already long! As you can see, we’re far from perfect, so please do share your easy, sustainable waste solutions too!
P.S. A tip for UK friends: I went into this attempt to reduce our waste thinking that if our council didn’t offer roadside recycling for particular items, they were probably promoting an alternative waste solution, and that has often proved to be true. The internet is an overwhelming place when you’re trying to research eco-friendly waste disposal solutions, but relying on our council’s services has made things much easier, because they have accessible information on nearly every type of household waste and they are realistic about what people are actually likely to do. Plus, nearly all their services are free or subsidised. So, if you’re a UK citizen, bear in mind that adding “council” to your online searches (e.g. “recycling centre + council,” “wormery + council” and so on) can save you time and money.