Victoria Adams Fogg
Tippi Thole recycled. She composted. She thought she was doing a pretty good job environmentally. Then she heard a talk about plastics, and the container of rubbish she and her eight-year-old son emptied out every week began to look irresponsible.
Thole replaced her big dustbin with a small waste-basket that had been under her bathroom sink, and started to change the way she shopped and lived. Within 14 weeks, the family’s weekly rubbish fits into a small glass jar, with room to spare.
These days, a typical week’s worth of rubbish might contain a receipt or two, fruit stickers, a wine bottle cap, a bottle label, a Band-Aid and packing tape.
Thole and her son, Eames, are newly-minted members of the Zero Waste movement, a worldwide group that aims to eliminate as much waste as possible.
Zero Wasters avoid plastics and disposable products, bring their own containers when shopping, make things that most of us buy packaged, and buy clothing and furniture only when necessary and only secondhand.
Instead of plastic shopping bags, try re-usable tote bags. Illustration: Alla Dreyvitse
When Thole, a 41-year-old freelance graphic designer, examined her rubbish, she discovered most of it was food packaging. Now she buys her edibles at farmers’ markets and bulk-food stores and she belongs to a farm co-operative – all places that provide unpackaged food.
Cutting back on rubbish doesn’t require time, she says, but you do have to be prepared. Thole has a shopping kit that includes cloth bags and glass jars to collect dried food, liquids, meats and cheeses. She uses a wine tote to keep the jars upright and prevent them from banging against one another.
She keeps everything in a wicker basket, stored in the back of her car.
“By shopping for package-free food,” Thole says, “we’re able to eliminate this category of waste entirely. You can buy just about anything in bulk, from pantry staples to beer and wine.”
Instead of using a disposable drink cup, bring your own re-usable to-go cup. Illustration: Alla Dreyvitse
She also makes many items that other people buy as finished products, and has been describing her efforts at tinytrashcan.com and on Instagram at @tiny.trash.can.
“I keep sharing (on Instagram) because it keeps us accountable,” Thole says, “and the conversations are so interesting. Yesterday I had a butter wrapper. Someone suggested I could make my own butter. It’s just a matter of raising the question: Can I make this? How hard is it? Sometimes it just never occurred to me to learn how to make it.” (Making butter is simply a matter of agitating, or churning, heavy cream.)
Since February, Thole has posted about making butter, marshmallows, granola, cleaning supplies, dish sponges (out of orphaned socks), tortillas, goat cheese, kale chips, linguine, toothpaste, cotton rounds and facecloths (from her son’s stained cotton pyjama top), and produce bags (from old T-shirts).
“All the stuff is from recipes I’m finding online,” she says.
Her resolve to stop producing so much rubbish was sparked when she heard a TED talk about plastic debris in the Arctic. Thole says she was dumbstruck to learn “just how pervasive plastic is. It’s in our water, in our food and in our bodies. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade like other materials. It just breaks into smaller pieces, microparticles, which poison the environment and animals, especially marine life and, ultimately, us.”
After that, she says, “I couldn’t in good conscience use plastic”.
Every year, the world creates 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging, and a third of that flows into our oceans, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. By 2050, the total plastic in the ocean may weigh more than all the fish.
Such predictions have galvanised the Zero Waste movement.
Those who belong to the movement advocate living simply and taking a stance against needless waste with effort aound the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and Rot (and only in that order). Refuse things you don’t need, reduce things you have, reuse everything, recycle what can’t be used and put the rest in the compost bin.
It also has a positive effect on what you eat. By making a conscious decision to buy less packaging, you buy less processed food. No fast food, more fruits and vegetables. Clean eating in every sense of the word, says Thole.
Refusing and reducing also means her home has become more efficient, functional and spare. And because she keeps her food in label-free glass containers, “it’s a joy to be in the kitchen. I can see everything. I have extra space in my cupboards. You see all the food and not the advertising.”
One of Thole’s package-free cupboards. Since joining the Zero Waste movement, Tippi buys secondhand cups and glassware when possible. Picture: Tippi Thole
Zero Waste enthusiasts say eliminating packaging does not require excessive time and effort.
Zero Waste, say fabs, comes down to “a life based on experiences, instead of things. A life based on being instead of having.”