When I signed up to go zero waste for a week, I was immediately struck by the enormity of the task that I had signed myself up for. However, going zero waste soon opened my eyes to the sheer amount of waste produced on a daily basis, and how simple it can be to produce less.
This article comes with a disclaimer: it’s impossible to become truly zero waste in one week. A week is not a large commitment and I wasn’t starting from scratch — for example, there was already food in the fridge, and I only had to buy what I needed for the week. As well as this, I live at home and commute to college. My family are big recyclers and composters. This is a significant advantage over those staying in accommodation or living away from home, where recycling may be questionable at best and composting is a fantasy. These factors meant that going zero waste was surprisingly accessible to me, and may not be for others. However, I think going zero waste is still a helpful exercise to understand the impact we have on the world around us.
“Once I started thinking about it, the amount of waste I produced daily was unbelievable — sweet wrappers, food containers, receipts, plastic cutlery, paper straws.”
So, what does going zero waste mean? It means leading a life that doesn’t produce any waste at all. When that’s not possible, reducing, reusing and recycling work too. Reducing waste is preferential over recycling, which still produces waste but disposes of it more responsibly. The issue is that completely eliminating waste is hard enough as it is, let alone when you are a broke, disorganised college student. Because of this, I focused mainly on reducing waste when I could, and reusing and recycling when I couldn’t. Once I started thinking about it, the amount of waste I produced daily was unbelievable — sweet wrappers, food containers, receipts, plastic cutlery, paper straws. The list goes on. I noticed that sometimes I wasn’t recycling things because I was lazy and recycling required more effort than chucking things into the general waste bin. This had to change.
Going into my zero waste week, I was excited yet apprehensive. I was looking forward to the challenge, and curious as to what would happen. I was equally nervous about one thing in particular: food. Commuting to college means getting up early and getting home late, meaning it’s much more convenient to buy lunch in college, usually with the collateral of producing a lot of waste. Going zero waste would mean — shock horror — getting organised. I decided to commit to bringing lunch with me for the week, and made a small meal plan consisting of curry, bagels and snacks. Here was another advantage of going zero waste: it would force me to eat healthier. Zero waste meant zero takeaways, zero breakfast rolls, zero chocolate. But this wasn’t as easy as I expected. Going to the supermarket, I was disappointed to find that a lot of plastic packaging isn’t recyclable, and loose fruit and veg were not always available. It took some shopping around but eventually I found what I needed, and the grand total of my shop for the week came to a stunning €15. That’s around the equivalent of 1.5 Sprout salads — what a bargain. Most of the ingredients I bought from the supermarket did come in plastic packaging, but I made sure it was all recyclable before buying. However, it was difficult making sure all aspects of packaging were recyclable — I learned my lesson with that one. Preparing food in advance and bringing it to college was definitely the biggest change I made, but it felt good knowing I was helping the environment and saving money.
“The only limitation of a reusable cup is that it requires cleaning, or at least emptying. But this is where the various kitchen areas around campus such as House 6 and the Hamilton JCR come in handy.”
Going zero waste meant other changes, too. I started bringing a reusable coffee cup with me everywhere. I thought that it would be annoying to carry a reusable cup with me all the time, but eventually I would forget I had it — except for when it came to buying coffee, of course. As if it couldn’t get any better, in some places you get a discount for using a reusable cup, like the Perch for example. Having a reusable cup with me was a very easy change, and bringing it everywhere meant I never had the classic excuse: I left it at home. The only limitation of a reusable cup is that it requires cleaning, or at least emptying. But this is where the various kitchen areas around campus such as House 6 and the Hamilton JCR come in handy.
Zero waste also meant no more vending machine snacks. The vending machines around campus provide convenient snacking for in-between lectures, and while this change was perhaps the hardest, it was also a blessing in disguise. However, the need for vending machines was eliminated when I made sure to eat enough throughout the day, as well as bringing various snacks of my own. By not using the vending machines, I was saving money, being healthier and producing less waste.
Nights out were another aspect of going zero waste. It really came down to no plastic cups, no post-night-out chipper and no paper straws — but this is where I ran into some external issues. Sure, paper straws mean less plastic, but it doesn’t matter if they are still ending up in general waste instead of the recycling bin. This sentiment goes for a surprising amount of things: compostable coffee cups and lids, recyclable napkins, allegedly eco-friendly takeaway food containers. It’s great to see a move away from single-use plastic, but these items only reduce waste if they are disposed of correctly — which they usually aren’t. I ran into the same problem when it came to bringing fruit to college: there aren’t any compost bins anywhere, either on campus or out in the wild world of Dublin city. The obvious solution to these problems is to bring all this waste home where I can dispose of it properly, but this means having to keep and carry home all my fruit scraps and empty boxes of Carluccio’s pasta. It’s manageable, but not exactly ideal.
“Sometimes setting yourself radical goals, like going completely zero waste for a set amount of time, are the push you need towards action that will actually lead to results.”
Coming to the end of my zero waste week, it felt strange being allowed to use single-use plastics again. This week was a learning curve, but I’m grateful I did it. However, I don’t think I will stay completely zero waste. I don’t think it’s reasonable as a student, and a person’s ability to be zero waste is heavily dependent on the context in which they live. However, this experiment showed me how easy it can be to reduce the amount of waste I produce and that, sometimes, setting yourself radical goals, like going completely zero waste for a set amount of time, are the push you need towards actions that will actually produce results.
Is it hard being zero waste? Yes. But is it hard to reduce your waste? No! Being mindful of your waste brings about positive changes — it helps the environment, while potentially reducing costs and improving health. There truly are no disadvantages.