This post is adapted from Sustainability in the Suburbs, a new book by environmental engineer, award-winning sustainability educator and regular member of the Clean + Conscious Awards Expert Panel, Laura Trotta. Sustainability in the Suburbs is a green living guide for modern families and is available for purchase in hard copy here or in Kindle version here.
Do you have those chores in your household that everyone hates doing? You know the ones—they kind of just sit there undone, looking messier and messier until someone gives in and does the job out of frustration?
In most houses I’ve lived, especially share houses, that job was emptying the rubbish bin.
This reached its most comical levels when I lived with my elder sister while we were both studying full time at university. Chores got evenly divided up to make sure that everything was fair, but we hit a stalemate over taking out the rubbish. Neither of us wanted to do that one.
And so the game began …
We were both ninjas at squeezing just another bit of waste into the bin without it overflowing. Until the inevitable happened and you just physically couldn’t fit another piece in. If it was your piece that tipped the bin over the edge, it was up to you to take the rubbish out.
Fast-forward a few decades and I still dislike taking out the rubbish. But instead of being stubborn and jamming the bin to bursting point, I’ve taken a different approach, and that’s to reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.
I’m so thrilled to say that I hardly ever need to take the rubbish out because most weeks we just don’t produce any.
Recycling, yes, but waste, no.
I won’t say getting to this point happened overnight. Rather, a series of small changes made over time has basically meant I retired long ago from taking out the rubbish.
In this post I’ll share how you too can easily create a zero-waste household and improve your budget, health and happiness in the process.
What is a zero-waste household?
Consumption of resources in most households follows a linear model. That is, waste is a function of items brought into a home, minus items consumed and stored.
This model is inherently flawed as it’s based on the assumption that Earth has an infinite amount of resources as well as infinite regenerative capacity. In a world where the human population and consumption habits continue to grow exponentially, we need to move beyond the linear model and embrace a circular model, where any waste we create is a resource for another process, either within or outside our home.
A zero-waste household avoids waste being the end result of consumption and strives instead to be circular (where there’s infinite purpose in the products we create and use).
Australians produce 540kg of household waste per person each year, which is more than 10kg for every single person, every single week.[i]
Reducing our household waste is necessary because the waste we produce in our home is literally suffocating us and our planet:
» We’re burying items in landfill that will take hundreds of years, (if ever) to break down. Plastic alone takes over 500 years to break down. This means that every disposable nappy, sanitary pad, plastic straw, plastic film wrap and supermarket collectable toy ever tossed aside is still laying in landfill, intact.
» Of the organic wastes that do decompose, most release greenhouse gases like methane in the process. This contributes significantly to climate change.
» Our oceans are becoming a toxic soup of microplastics that are accumulating in the food chain and impacting marine and birdlife in the process. It’s estimated that about 130,000 tonnes of Australian plastic ends up in our waterways and oceans each year.
While the increase in kerbside recycling in recent decades is helping, we still have a long way to go. Of the estimated 67 million tonnes of waste Australians generated in 2017, just 37 million tonnes were recycled.[ii]
The waste we generate is changing our landscape, changing our oceans and changing our atmosphere. It’s changing our environment and because we’re part of our environment, it’s changing us. Waste is a serious environmental issue and at first glance it can appear too hard to solve, but it’s not.
Six principles of a zero-waste home
In 1976, the US Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to increase recycling and conservation efforts as waste became a bigger problem. The slogan ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ was born at this time.[i] While this mantra has inspired society to be more conscientious of our waste and the planet’s health, there are new elements to be added in to bring it in line with modern thinking and capabilities.
Let’s take a look at how we can expand the phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ to illustrate the principles of a zero-waste home.
This first principle of a zero-waste home simply encourages you to avoid the purchase or consumption in the first place:
» Do you really NEED the latest gadgets and gizmos?
» Does your clothing always need to reflect the latest trend? This principle extends to smaller items as well.
Do you need:
» A straw with your drink?
» A plastic bag with your purchase?
» The disposable cutlery that comes with your takeaway?
» Small shampoos and conditioners from hotel rooms?
Most likely, you don’t. Instead, become a conscious consumer and question every purchase or acquisition, and avoid single-use items. By only taking what you truly need (with the occasional want thrown in there to stop you feeling deprived) you’ll be stopping waste where it counts, at the source.
I started my music collection from a young age. By the time I was ten years old I was regularly spending my pocket money on music cassettes, and then CDs. By my mid-twenties my CD collection needed a large storage unit, carry cases to take with me on my travels, not to mention the sound system and Discman to play my favourite tunes. My music collection brought me much joy but there was undeniably a waste component to it.
Technology quickly advanced in the 2000s, leading me to donate most of my CD collection to a community radio station in our declutter prior to our last house move. I now pay a monthly subscription to stream any song or album I wish, ad free, and I’m happy with that arrangement. Smartphones and music streaming services together have eliminated the need for CDs, Discmans and CD players. It’s just one example of how processes can be redesigned to eliminate waste.
Designing out waste is key to a circular household, yet the reality is that most items today are still designed for the linear model. One question you can regularly ask yourself when it comes to items in your home is “is ownership really necessary?” Once you embrace renting, streaming or borrowing and returning items when you’ve finished with them, you significantly reduce the number of items you need to manage and ultimately the volume of waste from your home.
The sheer fact that we’re living and walking on this earth means that we’ll have an impact, but there are many ways in which we can minimise the impact we have. Simple actions you can take to reduce the waste you generate include:
- Buying in bulk to reduce packaging waste
- Choosing products that have less packaging (or compostable packaging)
- Opting for quality purchases that will stand the test of time rather than buying a larger number of cheaper goods
- Eating the food you purchase to reduce the volume of food wasted.
Another strategy is to simply wait for longer periods before you replace an item. Can you put up with your perfectly functional smartphone for another year before upgrading to the latest model?
This step involves the adoption of the mindset of ‘single use sucks’. Bit by bit, replace as many single-use items in your home and workplace as you can with reusable alternatives. Some of my favourite reusable items include:
- Reusable food covers or containers instead of covering foods in plastic wrap
- A menstrual cup rather than tampons
- Handkerchiefs rather than tissues.
As a herbal tea drinker, I carry a thermal flask of hot water with me when out and about so I can enjoy a cup of tea wherever I please, without the waste of a disposable cup from a café.
It’s important to remember that recycling also uses resources. It’s better to avoid the generation of waste in the first place than use energy and chemicals to recycle items. One area we particularly need to improve is e-waste recycling.
E-waste is any electrical or electronic item that needs a plug or battery to work. With ever-advancing changes in technology, households can have numerous electronic gadgets, many of which only last a few years. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in Australia and contains many toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and lithium. In landfill, e-waste leaches these hazardous substances into the soil, groundwater and surface water which can lead to health and environmental problems. Global e-waste is expected to hit over 70 million tonnes per year by 2030 and despite the waste stream containing gold and silver, valuable glass and rare earth elements, only about 17.4% will be effectively recycled, based on 2019 figures.[iv]
As we get smarter with our waste management systems and technology continues to advance, there will be more and more opportunity to recover energy from waste. Many local councils are already capturing gases from landfills to use as energy sources and recovering by-products of sewage for fertilising degraded lands. We can employ this principle of zero waste on a smaller scale in our homes too!
What waste stream are you producing in your own home that can become an energy source for another purpose? Food waste is a great example here; by either composting your food scraps or feeding them to animals like backyard chickens or a worm farm, you’re turning your waste into a valuable resource such as organic compost for your vegetable garden or ethical eggs.
Reducing household waste significantly lowers our environmental footprint and the negative legacy we’ll leave on Earth. By transforming your household mass balance from linear to circular and understanding and enacting the principles of a zero-waste home, you’ll be well on your way to joining the growing number of people who have retired from taking out their rubbish bin.
Laura Trotta is one of Australia’s leading voices on sustainability and has spent almost three decades working to protect our planet. Fusing her professional expertise as an environmental engineer with the down-to-earth pragmatism that comes from being a busy mum, Laura is an eco thought-leader who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Laura’s first book, Sustainability in the Suburbs is out now.
Here’s where you can purchase:
[i] Clean Up Australia, Australia’s waste challenges go far beyond one day, https://www.cleanup.org.au/clean-up-our-waste [accessed 22 June 2022]
[ii] Clean Up Australia, Australia’s waste challenges go far beyond one day, https://www.cleanup.org.au/clean-up-our-waste [accessed 22 June 2022]
[iii] Panthenon Enterprises, The Story Behind “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, http://pantheonchemical.com/reduce-reuse-recycle/ [accessed 22 June 2022]
[iv] Kilvert, N, 14 October 2021, E-waste surges in 2021 as world sends goldmine to landfill, https://www.abc.net.au/news/ science/2021-10-14/e-waste-electronics-landfill-gold-landfillrecycling/100524744 [accessed 1 July 2022