Updated: Apr 13
I've decided to call this blog post going low waste, as apposed to the popular "zero waste" because I am still on the journey to reducing my waste. Plus I also think it's extremely difficult to truly become ZERO waste and function outside of a yurt as a zero waster- even to eat out at restaurants. So this is a snapshot into my journey to reduce my waste, holistically...
The plastics problem for most of the population arrived around the time of Blue Planet II. However, the plastic problem truly started long before that. For me, the journey started slowly. I lived pretty minimally after my degree, that I didn't really notice a huge amount of plastic use in my day to day life. Within my job as a conservationist, I'd pick up plastic from important wildlife sites regularly, and it wouldn't necessarily click that what I assumed was a fairly low impact life, wasn't so sparkly clean.
Around 2 years ago, whilst doing a particularly gruelling beach clean is when it really became apparent the problem. On the East Coast of Malaysia every year they have a monsoon season between October and February. The seas are rough, weather is stormy.
I'll let you into a big of background at this point. The oceans around Malaysia are an extremely busy highway. Fishing, cruises, cargo ships all use these waters. The currents change in the season, like moods. One year, the currents changed, and in washed tar balls, onto the delicate island beaches for a week. Ships entering Singapore, a strict hub on cleanliness, cleanse engines before they enter. They empty their oil tanks. This oil forming tar bars will float in a gyre, acculumating other bits of plastic, etc.
So this year, we thought that the monsoon bought in a particularly huge amount of ocean debris. A patch that had sat in the ocean for a while had been bought up onto the beaches. On asking, locals in fact told us this was a yearly effect. These "layers" of debris in the ocean are bought in every year.
We were daunted by the hundrds of miles of prime nesting beach, with plastic, glass, medicinal waste.
When we started working through the debris, myself and my lovely friend Rifqah were actually incredibly surprised to see so many everyday items in the rubbish. Straws, toothbrushes, lighters, water bottles. On Lang Tengah we were more accustomed to industrial waste, or fishing waste.
The one straw used in a cocktail a time before, assumed to have a little impact, was in fact having a huge impact when combined with the other thousands of stories with similar life histories.
Beach cleaning is hot sweaty heavy work. I started noticing with a grimace when I ordered a drink and it arrived plus straw. Where would it end up? On our beach next year? On a similar beach in 20 years? What will happen to it in the meantime?
Straws were the start, but I have started (and am very much still on this enlightenment) to notice how hugely reliant I was am (or was) on plastic. Without evening noticing, I had become accustomed to a life with plastic. Slowly, I have been reducing this addiction. Cold Turkey is tough- and not practical. Sometimes en route to avoiding plastic waste I was creating a heap of other waste, like paper. Sure paper is less potent trash, but it's still a huge waste of resources.
And that's where the next lesson comes in, because it's not just the plastic that adds up to a low waste life. The more you do, the more do see and adapt. Reducing waste is really hard, then it gets easier and you get used to it, then it gets harder again when you realise how far you've got to go and then it gets easier when you hit a level up. The lesson I'm learning quickly is not to beat myself OR OTHERS up too much. You can't and don't want to stop at plastic, paper water, water waste, and endless reduction in waste.
Sure, it's a pretty big task. Auditing my own life is sometimes a bit tiring. I am constantly trying to improve, to learn new ways to do things. New ways to avoid waste, and trying to pass on this new knowledge. Sometimes this process can get a bit overwhelming, and there seems an endless process of improving, instead of the "aha!" moment of being WASTE FREE! Things are also sometimes expensive investments, like a safety razor. With a pack of five razors left to use, it's inevitable that zero waste is a loooong process, because by the nature of the beat- throwing stuff away before it's finished goes against the whole idea. But once you buy those investments, they will last a lifetime with proper care, saving lots of money and plastic along the way.
Reducing your waste is a super slow process. It's also a constant process. I'm slowing building up the arsenal I need to fight waste. I'm certainly not there yet, but I'm on the way. It takes time, and beating myself up in the process is not going to help. It also does not look like the Instagram/ pinterest pictures of pretty, clean zero waste essentials. It's an incredibly old, well loved canvas bag used at the markets. It's the 5 times boiled bamboo toothbrush, the old scratched Tupperware that still survives so plays an important role still. It can also involve a lot of plastic, I really advocate not throwing plastic away (like Tupperware) just purely because it is plastic!! That is ludicrous, some plastics are good!
Some waste free swaps take some more getting used to, my moon up for example. I actually bought it years ago- and really did not get on with it for a few months and gave up. I retried this process a few months back, and total success! I actually really love it- and although I probably shouldn't have given up quite so soon, I am glad I'm back on the moon cup train.
Some things are also not negotiable. Medicine. Health. If I can buy anything plastic free, in glass jars, then I do. Otherwise, tablets, important lotions are plastic. Sometimes you'll accidentally become entirely not waste free- and be gifted something you wouldn't normally buy. How I've learnt to deal with this is BE GRATEFUL!!! Seriously. You've been given a gift, be entirely happy and grateful and enjoy it. Simples.
Lessons: I am learning not to beat myself up too much about this all. Sometimes low waste is tough. Most of the time its incredible, beautiful, elegant, inspiring and enjoyable. Sure, I am not 100% zero waste, but firstly I'm not sure it's entirely possible and secondly, I'm proud of my journey so far. Zero Waste is an INCREDIBLY new concept in some respects, in others it's old systems. We're all learning, we're all adapting, no process is perfect. In a year we'll know a lot more than we do now. With low waste lifestyle, it's important to try your best to reduce as much as you can, safely, reasonably. Tackle one problem at a time, and remember, zero waste is incredibly important, but thinking holistically about other environmental problems is key too...