Conscious Waste: how we slashed our year’s garbage to 1.5 kg

So you may have heard there is a global waste crisis and plastic is killing our oceans, and we are ALL contributing to it, through the stuff we buy, how we buy it and what we do with our waste.

Globally we generate over 2 BILLION TONNES of waste each year. The average Australian household produces around 1.5 tonnes a year and much of this, like plastic packaging and food waste, is avoidable.

How much waste do you generate? (image © Alan Levine, reproduced under license)

But the good news is, by following the nine tips below and making a few simple changes to slash your waste you can simplify your grocery shopping, simplify your kitchen (and your home), save money, save time AND save the planet!

I was always kind of proud of myself that we had such a small kitchen bin — it was only the size that fits a standard plastic shopping bag and that was all the waste our two-person household generated in a week. That was until last year, when I heard about this thing called zero waste, where people are fitting their YEAR’S waste in a small jar! While I wasn’t sure we’d ever manage to get our waste down to that tiny amount, I was inspired to start reducing it. And so, by taking a less daunting Conscious Waste approach, in just a few months with a few simple changes, we cut our weekly plastic shopping bag of waste down to < 1/10th full (and reduced our recycling as well!).

Eventually we realised we no longer needed such a large bin, so we down-sized to 10 litres (using BIO-degradable liners). However, we found that even these bags were mostly empty when bin day came around, so I thought “Hang on, our bin doesn’t include any food waste, so maybe we don’t need to empty it each week”. So we don’t. And that means we no longer have to remember to take our bin out by 4.30pm every Thursday, no more unlocking the gate, wheeling it out to the kerb, then wheeling it back in again a couple hours later. So we’ve reclaimed some time and effort we can now spend on other things! After 3 months our 10-litre bin did eventually fill up, and based on this I worked out we’re generating around 40 litres (4 buckets) of waste a year (uncompacted). In terms of weight this is about 1.5 kg. It’s more than a small jar but it’s still WAY better than 1.5 tonnes!

Our 10L bin that we empty 4x /year

So how did we do it? Well it was a combination of things, including substituting over-packaged products (e.g. plastic meat trays) with less packaged alternatives, buying in bulk and recycling stuff we didn’t previously (e.g. soft plastics). While I’ve always composted food waste, I also started composting tissues (and started using hankies) and personal care products (which were made from organic cotton and biodegradable materials, though I’ve now switched to reusable ones). So if you’d like a smaller bin and all the benefits that go with it, keep reading…

1. Buy unpackaged fresh produce. This should be as easy as it sounds but these days so much fresh fruit and vegetables (especially in supermarkets) is packaged (usually in plastic), and SO unnecessarily! It is frustrating that often a bag of potatoes or apples works out cheaper than the unpackaged ones but this is how they get you to buy more I guess. Many things that are packaged usually have an unpackaged alternative, so look for these and if there isn’t one ask why and see if they’ll look into changing it. The only way they’ll change is if enough people keep asking for more sustainable alternatives. Also make sure you have some reusable produce bags like these so you don’t need to use plastic ones. Another great way to avoid overpackaged produce is to shop at farmers markets, where you’re more likely to find unpackaged stuff (not just fruit & veggies but many other foods like bread, salami, etc.) and you can sometimes return empty bottles/jars to vendors (often for a discount!).

You’re more likely to find unpackaged or plastic-free fresh produce at farmer’s markets

2. Take a reusable container to the butcher/deli/bakery. Rather than buying pre-packaged meat, fish, cheese, olives, bread, etc. buy it from a butcher/deli/bakery so you can take your own reusable container/bag. Most supermarket meat is sold in plastic trays (many not recyclable) and is often massively over-packaged. I’m still tracking down an organic butcher but for now we get our meat from the farmer’s market in just a plastic bag, which is a lot less waste than a plastic tray (also soft plastic is recyclable), and we can pre-order so we can get say 1kg in a bag instead of just 500g. But we’ve also cut down the amount of meat we eat which has reduced our waste as well.

3. Quit single use. Apart from single-use take-away items there are also plenty that somehow make it into our homes, because they seem so convenient, e.g. snack foods, confectionery, drinks, plastic cling-wrap. Even raw food bars, paleo bars, protein bars, etc. (which sound super-healthy) are usually loaded with sugar (even if they’re sugar-free many still contain other high-sugar ingredients like honey or dates). Nuts and fresh fruit or low-sugar dried fruits (e.g. prunes, apricots) make a much healthier and waste-free snack. Buy yoghurt in large containers rather than single-serve tubs and put some in a reusable container to take as a snack. Apart from dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa) there is no confectionery I’d recommend consuming on a regular basis (unless you’re TRYING to get diabetes and tooth decay). And the good news is most chocolate (at least the good quality kind) comes packaged in foil and cardboard, which can both be recycled. Avoid single-serve bottled drinks (water/juice/soda). Water is the healthiest drink so invest in a good water filter (e.g. Alkaway Ultrastream). Fruit juice is best consumed in the form of fresh fruit. And soda/softdrink, well that’s just another form of confectionery. Instead of using plastic cling-film to wrap sandwiches, snacks or cover left-overs, reusable containers, beeswax wraps, silicone wraps (like the ones by Agreena) as well as Stasher self-sealing silicone storage bags which are airtight and come in different sizes, are great alternatives.

4. Buy in bulk. We now buy most of our dried food in bulk, including flour, sugar, bicarb soda, salt, spices, tea, nuts, grains, legumes and olive oil. You just need some reusable airtight containers (like these jars) for storage and reusable produce bags (which come in muslin or mesh). If you don’t have easy access to a bulk store or find certain things too expensive then buy larger sizes. E.g. we switched from 300g cereal flakes to 1kg (which also worked out much cheaper!). We also make our own granola or bircher-style muesli, which is much healthier than most packaged cereal. You can buy tomato paste and puree in large jars/bottles and freeze what you don’t need for next time, rather than small cans or single-use tubs. You can also buy perishable food in larger sizes e.g. milk and meat, and just freeze the portion you won’t use before the expiry in a reusable container (although we only use 1 litre of milk per week we buy 2-litre bottles and freeze half in a reusable bottle).

No more plastic packaging: nuts, seeds, grains & legumes are just some of the things you can buy in bulk

5. Recycle better. Make sure you’re recycling everything that can be recycled (but also check you’re NOT trying to recycle things that can’t) — check with your local City/Council if you’re not 100% sure. We started recycling soft plastic once we discovered it wasn’t just plastic shopping bags but anything scrunchable e.g. rice, pasta, toilet paper packaging (in Australia all Coles supermarkets have collection bins. See Redcycle for details). We also started recycling the aluminium foil from blocks of chocolate. When you screw it into a ball it seems pretty insignificant, but it adds up, and aluminium is a valuable resource (worth $1,200/T). Just shake any crumbs out and save enough wrappers to make a ball at least the size of your fist and then you can put them in your recycling bin. We stopped buying tetra-pak cartons (e.g. for unrefrigerated nut/grain/soy milks), once we discovered they can’t be recycled (due to the complex mix of plastic, foil and paper all smooshed together). Avoid these and other items that can’t be recycled e.g. certain plastics (like polystyrene (#6) and PVC (#3), which are toxic and you’re better off without anyway, ESPECIALLY when they’re used for food packaging). For more useful tips on how to recycle properly read this earlier article.

6. DIY. Start making some things yourself — e.g. snack bars, muesli, fermented foods. There is so much stuff I want to start making but just don’t have time right now, so if this applies to you too the best strategy is start with the easiest/least daunting thing + what appeals to you the most + something that would not only provide a waste reduction benefit but also a health benefit or $ savings (as this gives you extra motivation!). Only take on one new thing at a time and give it at least 3 weeks, maybe even a couple of months, to get used to it before you try the next one. This way you can adjust to a new routine gradually and you’ll discover that you DO actually have time!

Homemade paleo granola (image: Eat Drink Paleo)

7. Compost (is not a dirty word). Composting is not as difficult or messy as you might think. All you need is a compost bin, a place to put it, a benchtop container for food scraps and some basic knowledge about what and what not to put in it (which you can learn here)! Apart from emptying the food scraps maybe twice a week and removing some compost from the bin every few months (or when it gets full) this is a zero maintenance system, that will reduce your household waste by about 1/3, reduce your greenhouse gas emissions considerably, give you free fertiliser and no more smelly kitchen bin! If you live in an apartment you could try a Bokashi bin (or the Urban Composter which is supposed to better) or check out, which is a fantastic global initiative to hook up people with food scraps and people with compost bins. This article gives a good overview of different composting options.

How to compost if you live in an apartment: the Urban Composter bench-top compost bin

8. Reduce your bathroom waste. Replace single use and disposable items with reusable ones — e.g. swap tissues for hankies, disposable menstrual products for a menstrual cup and/or reusable pads, disposable cotton buds/swabs for a stainless steel one, toothpaste for bicarb soda (look out for more on Conscious Waste skin/hair/body care in an upcoming article!).

9. Buy smarter. According to The Story of Stuff, we buy more stuff than we used to and most of it is discarded within 6 months. But the planet can’t support our endless buy-dispose-buy more habits. In a recent article I gave some tips for buying quality kitchen products, but these can be applied to any household or personal item we buy. When you decide to buy something new: ask yourself if you REALLY need it, be clear on the features you need/want, buy quality products and be prepared to pay extra (it will work out cheaper in the long run), choose appliances that are repairable, look for the simplest design available, avoid composite materials (which reduces recyclability) and avoid plastic components as much as possible (choose metal or glass which are more durable/recyclable).

Buy for life: simpler & smarter kitchen appliances

So, sounds like a good idea, but you could use a little more motivation? Here are some benefits of down-sizing your bin:

  • You’ll have more space in your kitchen.
  • Once you start composting food scraps your kitchen and wheelie bin will stop smelling gross.
  • You’ll save money on unnecessary products.
  • You’ll save time and energy not having to take your bin to the kerb each week.
  • You can even save money on your rates if you downsize your wheelie bin (check with your local Council/City regarding bin size options and savings).
  • You’ll be contributing less to plastic pollution and our growing waste issue and increasing the chances that your kids will still have a place to live in 50 years’ time.

If we all slashed our household waste to 0.1% of the national average imagine what a difference we could make! I hope you’re inspired to ditch some disposables from your life and down-size your bin. I’d also love to hear about your journey to a smaller bin — what wins you’ve had + what you struggle with!

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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