Waste Free February: Reducing Waste Part 1

As promised, here is the first of our posts about reducing waste. You’ve probably all heard of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which is a great starting point. But did you know that the Waste Hierarchy, as it’s known, actually consists of seven Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rehome, Repair, Recycle, Rot. In this post we are going to look at the first 3 Rs and what you can do in this respect.

Refuse

At a very basic level, this is as simple as choosing not to buy. It could be that a product comes in single-use plastic which can’t be recycled; as a consumer, you can simply choose to refuse this product. A few years ago, when my children were toddlers, we used to regularly buy cheese strings and yoghurt in squeezy tubes. Both in non-recyclable packaging, but very convenient for lunch boxes or snacks on the go. But during Waste Free February I decided to stop buying them. And do you know what? It wasn’t that big a deal. The kids grumbled for a bit, but quickly forgot about them. They can have a chunk of cheese or some yoghurt decanted from a larger (recyclable) tub into small reusable tubs. Even better, if you take a few minutes to email or tweet the retailer or manufacturer about your decision, you may bring about a change in policy!

Refuse could also mean saying no to an unnecessary bag or receipt in a shop, opting out of junk mail (see our post Lockdown Eco-Actions You Can Do At Home ) or, controversially in my case, asking not to take part in the office Secret Santa!

Perhaps you might take a more far-reaching approach to Refuse and choose instead to buy nothing new. Inspired by the brilliant Jen Gale at Sustainable(ish) who documented a year of buying nothing new in her Make Do And Mend Year, for over a year now I have been mainly buying second hand clothes, shoes, toys, books, etc. It is an approach I thoroughly recommend, as it really makes you re-evaluate your buying habits and question whether you really need something.

Reduce

OK, so it’s easy enough to Refuse some products or items, but some everyday essentials are often packaged in single-use plastic. In our house nearly all our landfill waste consists of plastic wrappers from things like pasta, butter, cereal, crackers, and cheese. To minimise our waste in this respect, I try to buy in bulk as much as possible; although 3kg of pasta and 2.5kg of cheese don’t last long in this household!

I’d also really recommend visiting a refill shop if you have one near you. We are very lucky to have quite a few refill shops within easy distance, with my favourites being Love + Joy Home, The Healthy Life, and Packaging Not Included. I tend to buy most store cupboard ingredients (flour, sugar, rice, couscous, lentils, muesli, dried fruit and seeds, spices etc), cleaning products (laundry liquid, white vinegar, multi-purpose cleaner, loo cleaner) and toiletries (shampoo, soap etc) from refill shops. As most of these items have a long shelf life, I usually visit once every six weeks or so and stock up using my own containers.

Another way to reduce reliance on single-use products is to invest in some reusable alternatives:

Shopping Bags and Face Masks

Hopefully you already have reusable shopping bags, be they bags for life or more heavy-duty fabric bags. It’s just a case of remembering to use them! As for single-use face masks, they are made from polypropylene and can take up to 450 years to degrade. It’s estimated that 129 billion single-use face masks are being used each month during the pandemic; it’s no wonder that disposable PPE is already littering our streets and oceans. So, buy a reusable face mask or even have a go at making your own! Our dad is particularly proud of his face mask made from an old sock!

Tea and Coffee Cups

If you like to grab a takeaway coffee when you’re out and about (something we can only dream about at the moment), invest in a reusable coffee cup. There are loads around, including collapsible ones which don’t take up too much room in your bag! Personally, I have a reusable cup from Bodum which I love. It’s insulated so keeps drinks really warm, doesn’t burn your hand and has a very tight lid to prevent spills. This is particularly important for me, as I’m more likely to make my drink at home, sling it in my bag and take it with me!

Water Bottles

According to Surfers Against Sewage, over 150 plastic bottle litter each mile of UK beach. That’s not surprising really, when you learn that 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world. And very few of these are ever recycled. Reusable water bottles come in all shapes, sizes and materials and to suit all budgets. We have a selection in our house including ones made from BPA-free plastic and stainless steel. My personal favourite is my Chilly’s bottle, which I was lucky enough to be given a few years ago. It’s stainless steel, insulated so it keeps drinks either hot or cold, and it doesn’t leak. Chilly’s also sell replacement silicon seals for the lids and whole lids in case you lose yours.

Food Storage

There are lots of alternatives to clingfilm (plastic wrap) which are better for the planet. For sandwiches and lunchbox items, try small reusable plastic boxes. For keeping food in the fridge, you could use plastic tubs, glass jars or beeswax wraps. Beeswax wraps are made from fabric covered in melted beeswax which makes them cling. Why not have a go at making your own with one of these kits from Oakdale Bees?

Wet Wipes

I must’ve got through loads of wet wipes when my kids were babies. I cringe at the thought now as most disposable wipes are made from plastic. Luckily, at some point when they were still toddlers, we discovered reusable wipes from Cheeky Wipes. We still use Cheeky Wipes hand and face wipes now if we’re out for the day.

Period Products

Apparently, a pack of conventional sanitary towels contains as much plastic as five plastic bags. And according to a 2018 report, period products are the fifth most common type of marine litter found on beaches in Europe. There are plenty of eco-friendly reusable options such as menstrual cups, period pants and cloth sanitary pads. They do require an upfront investment, but the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll recoup your outlay! If you’re not ready to ditch the disposables, you can still choose plastic free period products like those from Natracare. For more information about plastic free periods, check out this page from City to Sea.

Reuse

It’s great that more and more supermarkets are now offering a recycling service for stretchy plastic like bread bags and cereal packet inserts (although a cynical part of me wonders if it really does get recycled – check out Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s War on Plastic). However, as you can see from the Waste Hierarchy, Recycle should really be the second to last resort. So how can you get creative with your waste?

For starters, the aforementioned bread bags and cereal packet inserts can both be used for food storage, such as wrapping sandwiches. I’ve heard that cereal packet inserts make great freezer bags, although I haven’t tried this myself yet. They’d probably also be good to take to a refill shop for dried goods (again, I haven’t tried this yet). Glass jars and ice cream tubs are also really useful for food storage.

My recent quandary was what to do with the wax coating on some cheese my husband received for his birthday. A quick Ecosia search told me that you can use the wax as firelighters, so I am saving it in a jar for when we have a bonfire or barbecue!

With a bit of creativity, lots of things can be reused or repurposed. We mentioned before Caroline’s wildlife pond made from an old bath and her bird baths from old frying pans. Wooden pallets can used for all sorts of things, my dear husband made my two compost bins out of old wooden pallets. And years ago, our parents made a chicken coop from an old wardrobe.

If you have old clothes which are no longer wearable or repairable, cut them into washable rags to use for cleaning or mopping up spills instead of kitchen roll. This is nothing new, I have vivid childhood memories of having to clean my grandma’s trinkets with brasso and a pair of her old knickers! And of course, you can always use an old sock to make a face mask!

These are just a few ideas to help you reduce your waste and there are plenty more things we could have included and probably will in future.

Two things have struck us whilst compiling this post. The first is the importance of making habits; once something becomes a habit, you no longer need to think about it and therefore have the headspace to tackle something else. So, pick something and work on it. Maybe it’s remembering to take your shopping bag or coffee cup with you – why not get into the habit of leaving a bag in your car/handbag/coat pocket? Perhaps it’s thinking ahead about food so you avoid food waste or having to buy a takeaway lunch.

The second is starting with what you have; you don’t need to rush to buy new reusable items. Use plastic bags that you already have, before buying new shopping bags. Or maybe you could reuse an old pillowcase or item of clothing to make a shopping bag or face mask? Reusable wipes are super handy, but an old towel cut into squares would work in just the same way and, what’s more, it’s free!

So, find what works for you and keep doing it!

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