The UK produces over 100 million tonnes of waste every year, half of which goes to landfill. In under two hours, we produce enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall. But, there is a rubbish revolution happening; the rise of the 'zero wasters'.
The zero waste lifestyle aims to dramatically reduce the amount of rubbish produced in our daily lives. This approach bypasses the need for waste disposal, saving money, resources and labour costs. But in the fast paced, grab and go culture of the capital, is it really possible to live without a dustbin? London's zero waste community certainly think so.
"If you’re concerned about the environment, you have to tackle waste," explains journalist Amandine Alexandre, "the pollution caused by what we throw away is massive." Originally from France, Alexandre moved to London eight years ago and admits to being shocked at the amount of packaging on fruit and vegetables. "It's not very attractive, I don't really want to buy things that don't look like food, so in 2010 I ordered a veg box and that was the first step along the zero waste path."
In her blog Alexandre shares news stories about environmental issues and waste campaigns alongside her own tips on going waste free. These include cooking from scratch, buying in bulk and finding alternatives to single use items such as cling film and foil. "It’s about finding simple solutions," she says, "for example you can cover left over food with a plate. Instead of using kitchen towel, just use a tea-towel. Rather than paying for plastic bags, take cotton shopping bags with you."
These small changes enabled Alexandre to whittle her weekly waste down to under 200 grams. "I compost as much as I can and carefully plan what I'm going to buy before going shopping. One very simple change that has made a big difference is this..." Amandine reaches into her rucksack and pulls out a stainless steel water bottle. "I take this everywhere and refill it at pubs and restaurants. It's a small thing but very effective in avoiding plastic bottles."
For zero wasters, plastic is public enemy number one; it takes 500 years to decompose. In the UK we slurp through 15 million plastic bottles each day, not to mention countless margarine tubs, salad bags and ready meal trays. One eco-activist who's overcome the plastic problem is Ash Brown from Camberwell. "I never buy things online as purchases always come in plastic wrapping," he says, "I don’t buy foods like chocolate bars or biscuits unless they're in recyclable packets. Also if I buy a salad when I'm out, I ask them to put it in my travel Tupperware instead of their container.
"Although it's great to recycle, recycling is till resource intensive. So the best thing is to reduce the trash full stop."
Brown's commitment to preserving the planet extends into her work-life as she runs her own branch of grocery network, the Food Assembly. The organisation sources local crops and produce to supply directly to the community. Customers can enjoy produce which was harvested that day and comes from within a 50 mile radius. Not only is the carbon footprint kept minimal, but everything comes in reusable paper bags or cardboard boxes.
Although still in its infancy, the zero waste movement is rapidly gaining momentum in London. A key sign is the emergence of zero waste cafes and shops. Tiny Leaf in Notting Hill (currently seeking a permanent home) thrust waste into the limelight earlier this year by creating dishes from salvaged produce. In terms of grocery shopping, Alexandre is a regular at The Dry Goods Store in Maida Vale. Patrons take their own containers to fill up with flour, nuts, rice or whatever takes their fancy. The west London store also runs zero waste masterclasses and cooking seminars.
Whilst food packaging is the biggest sources of household waste, the bathroom is another area where zero wasters get creative. Plastic toothbrushes can be replaced with biodegradable bamboo versions and traditional metal razors can last the shaver a lifetime. Brown buys shampoo bars and toothpowder from Lush in refillable tins and is an avid fan of the Mooncup, and reusable menstrual cup. "It’s so much better for the environment and it saves so much money."
Like many members of the community, Octavia Fox from Kilburn avoids packaging by making her own cosmetics. "I’ve made my own lip gloss using freeze-dried raspberries and beeswax, I also use a homemade eyeshadow made of shea butter and cocoa powder." She also uses gram flour as an exfoliant, coconut oil as a moisturiser and baking soda and vinegar as toothpaste. "My bathroom used to be full of plastic tubs, bottles and tubes," she says, "now it’s almost empty! It horrifies me to think how much rubbish I used to produce without even thinking."
Even the most dedicated zero wasters have their limits though. Whilst some environmentalists have chosen to forgo loo roll in favour of the 'bum gun' our interviewees all favour 100% recycled toilet paper.
Another vital element of reducing daily waste is extending the life of our items. Alexandre shares how she recently visited a cobblers to fix her sandals instead of buying a new pair. "I try to mend things as much as possible, which has also meant learning new skills. Last year I brought a sewing machine and have also begun knitting."
Many zero wasters have embraced their inner womble to find new uses for rubbish. Some artsy folk have made purses from strips of foil, turned lightbulbs into vases and even created cushions from old sponges. Upcycling classes such as The Old School Club in Battersea are ideal for those who want to ring in the changes.
Another nifty tip is investing in reusable items. Fox shares that she replaced Biros with a refillable fountain pen and has forgone face wipes in favour of cotton handkerchiefs. "Most modern conveniences are based around disposability. It's a fun challenge to find alternatives, like taking photos of people's business cards or using a soda stream instead of buying bottles of pop."
Living without waste obviously takes dedication and planning ahead. Brown never leaves the house without her coffee cup and Fox admits that she misses grabbing the occasional over-packaged McDonald's. But all our interviewees say the returns are well worth the effort. Not only has their lifestyle saved them money, it has encouraged them to look at life in a new way and appreciate the simple things. And of course, their alternative approach helps preserve the city we all inhabit.