A few years ago, I would have said my lifestyle was ecologically responsible. I was recycling, using what I thought were biodegradable bags for garbage, eating only organic food, using natural cosmetics, wearing second-hand clothes, upcycling furniture I found in the street and, in general, trying to only buy what seemed essential. Even so, Iwas still buying lots of things in plastic packaging and creating lots of waste. A friend from London once asked me why French people used so many plastic bags, and I had no idea what she was talking about.
For Christmas 2014 I got a book called “Zero Waste Home” about a family of 4 that produces only a single glass jar of landfill waste every year. In the book the author Bea Johnson describes her transition from a consumerist lifestyle and, in a very practical way, explains how to reduce waste.
Her mantra is:
- Reduce what you need.
- Refuse what you don’t need.
- Reuse. This means repair, buy second-hand, borrow, replace single-use items by reusables ones.
- Recycle, but only as a last resort. Recycling is, in general, a complex process that requires a lot of energy and then requires a market for the recycled materials, as well as being pretty inefficient. It is well known now that most of it is sent to developing countries, who can’t really deal with it. Especially for plastic, if it does get recycled, it can only be recycled to a lower quality material, so one day or another, it will definitely end up in the landfill. Metal and glass are a better option because they can be recycled over and over.
- Rot. Compost your organic waste at home, because organic waste that ends up in a landfill degrades very slowly and, at the same time, releases toxic methane gas in the atmosphere.
And only in that order!
Bea makes another important point when she explains how stainless steel and glass don’t leach chemicals into food and that plastic does. I also love how she suggests writing to companies you buy from to let them know that you don’t want plastic packaging anymore.
My first response to the book was to be overwhelmed. I suddenly realised that the rubbish I was throwing away didn’t magically disappear and that I was relying on a system that didn’t work. For the first time I understood that there was a difference between single-use items and packaging and things and materials that can be used again and again; that single-use packaging and items, no matter what they are made of, represent an insane misuse of resources and materials, let alone the environmental impact of shipping and transport. I had never thought about any of this before.
So this is how we started reducing waste, and there were big ups and downs along the way. To start with I joined a Zero Waste Facebook group for support and ideas and started reading various blogs. I remember being really nervous when I took my own containers for the first time when I went to buy groceries. Now a bit more than 4 years later, I don’t even think about it: it is just part of my routine. Since then a zero waste shop has opened in the street we used to live in. Maybe things have really started to change. The zero-waste movement has certainly created lots of awareness and even a few big companies are reconsidering their policies. As Beasays in the book, think before you buy. Every time you spend money on a product, you encourage the manufacturers to make more.
When we moved to Paros, I wanted to find local solutions as well as keep learning about this new lifestyle, so I started the Sustainable Living Paros Facebook group to share and exchange ideas along the way.
Here in the island, things are relatively easy: we can find a lot of things in bulk, and shops are very friendly when it comes to selling you olives, capers, cheese, and even yogurt in a glass container.
We compost all our organic waste and don’t need to recycle very much at all. We definitely have very little garbage for the landfill. We don’t even need a plastic rubbish bag because we don’t have organic waste, which is wet. There are a few things that we haven’t yet figured out how to avoid but we are working on them. And some things, my boyfriend is not yet ready to do without (so if you see me out and about buying bars of chocolate, I promise you they’re not for me). We also try to buy mostly local to avoid the CO2 emissions that shipping would generate and also to support the local economy. We do our best to save water, to buy less and second-hand, and recently we have decided to reduce travelling.
What I love about this approach is that for the first time I feel empowered and that I don’t have to wait for everyone else to take action. Watching the television news of climate change, melting ice, plastic pollution and so on can get depressing. But as an individual I can still effect some change.
Since I started there has been lots of learning, frustration, but also lots of fun. And now I realise there is no way back. Two years ago, I visited the landfill in Paros and saw the whole valley covered in a sea of plastic bags flying. Now everytime I am offered a plastic bag, the image of the landfill comes into my head. The island is so small and so beautiful that I want to do anything I can to avoid polluting it.
So this is what we have been trying to do since we moved in the island. In between we have also discovered regenerative agriculture and we are trying to learn to grow our own food and to plant trees. Our next steps are to plant a forest-garden the land we bought, and to build a passive and eco house that uses very little energy and has a low impact on the environment. We also hope to share all of these experiences through local workshops.
To offer more information about this, I’ve begun work on a practical website that will be a guide for a zero waste lifestyle, a bit of permaculture and offer ways to reduce your impact on the planet. The environmental problems we face can seem insurmountable, but there are still lots of ways we can all do our bit to turn the tide.