When I first became interested in the concept of ‘Zero Waste’, it seemed like such an easy to understand, if not always easy to follow, set of ideas to reduce my impact on the environment. By avoiding single-use plastic, buying food unpackaged (or if not possible, in paper, glass or metal), reducing and reusing the waste I created, I could reduce my carbon footprint and ‘do my bit’.

I was very proud that our ‘black’ bin (i.e. waste that would be landfilled or incinerated) went out just once or twice a year, got excited about milk bottle deliveries instead of throwing away plastic cartons, and carefully packed all my reusable ‘essentials’ to go on holiday – bamboo cutlery, reusable coffee cup, solid shampoo and more.

But I’ve come to realise that this idea of ZW is too simple and isn’t really tackling the actual problem or source of all this waste. With daily news stories of a growing planetary emergency of climate change and biodiversity loss, I propose to you now that we need a rethink of how we ‘do our bit’ and what ZW really means.

No simple solutions

Thanks to the work of campaigners, activists and the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, awareness of the seriousness of plastic pollution is greater than ever before. For people who had lived through years of trying to refuse plastic straws, carrier bags and get their takeaway coffee in a reusable cup, only to be met with strange looks and embarrassing refusals, it was the dawn of a new era.

It was a lovely surprise when coffee shops started offering money off for using your own cup. And much easier when supermarkets starting presuming you would bring your own bag. I was among many people celebrating this new, plastic-reduced world, which was surely only a good thing for the planet, right?

Wrong. Well, potentially wrong.

Did you know, depending on the cup, reusable cups need to be used anywhere from 20 to 1000 times to make up for the impact of a single-use cup? And honestly, how many people have just one? Whether a present, or a freebie from a conference, a lot of people have a couple lurking in the kitchen cupboards, collecting dust.

And cotton bags? A study commissioned by the UK Environment Agency found that a cotton bag needs to be reused 131 times before having a lower carbon footprint than a single-use plastic bag.

How many cotton bags do you have? Even without trying to accumulate them, I’m sure I must own at least seven or eight. And I have refused many, many more. That’s 1,048 uses of those bags before they’ve even broken even on their carbon footprint!

“But it’s not going to choke up our waterways, or suffocate turtles, or any of the other terrible things that happen to plastic bags when they get into the environment“, I would cry about my reusable cotton bag! No, it isn’t. But:

  • cotton producers apply 25% of all insecticides used each year.
  • in developing countries, half the pesticides used on all crops are applied to cotton.
  • studies have estimated the human impact from pesticides used on cotton to be as high as 20,000 people killed and three million poisoned every year.

Source: WWF

So, while I may not have a recycling bin or understairs cupboard full of plastic bags, and my rubbish bin remains mercifully empty, my reusable cup and my tote bag are anything but zero waste. The damage and the waste are further up the chain, with the environmental impacts most likely being felt by people living in incredibly vulnerable situations.

It’s what’s inside (the packaging) that counts

A few months ago, I switched to a plant-based diet. The evidence that showed it to be the most environmentally sound choice was too overwhelming for me to ignore.

But all of a sudden, I found myself in a whole new world of plastic packaging – goodbye returnable glass milk bottles and paper-wrapped butter, hello plastic-coated cartons of oat milk and plastic tubs of vegan spread. You can buy an unwrapped block of cheese from the deli counter at the supermarket, but only a vacuum-packed block of tofu.

UGH! Had I made the right choice? Our recycling bin went from going out every six months to every two months – perhaps not loads, but still three times more!

And herein lies one of the problems of the ZW focus on the waste you produce yourself – it doesn’t take account of the waste produced further upstream. Yes, a carton of oat milk takes up space in the recycling that a returnable milk bottle doesn’t, but can you really say that the dairy industry is not creating more waste? The BBC recently reported on a study undertaken at the University of Oxford, which found:

“Producing a glass of dairy milk every day for a year requires 650 sq m (7,000 sq ft) of land, the equivalent of two tennis courts and more than 10 times as much as the same amount of oat milk.”

The BBC has also made a handy tool that calculates the of environmental impacts of all sorts of foods. It says that drinking 200ml of oat milk a day contributes 65kg to annual greenhouse gas emissions and uses 3512 litres of water to produce. The same amount of dairy milk contributes 229kg to annual greenhouse gas emissions and uses a staggering 45,733 litres of water.

Tetrapak’s website estimates that each litre carton (similar to the type used for lots of plant milks) produces 31g of CO2. Over a year, calculated at the same consumption as the values above, that’s 73 cartons and therefore 2.263kg of CO2. All of which is still a drop in the ocean in comparison with dairy milk.

Yes, plastic pollution is a very real and HUGE problem. I hate, hate, hate bringing plastic back into the house and do have plans to start making my own oat milk (blender/suitable device recommendations welcome). But, in this case, the waste I can now see is still less of an environmental catastrophe than the refillable option it has replaced.

Travelling Zero Waste

If I haven’t already offended anyone kind enough to come and read my ramblings (which I really do appreciate by the way), then I’m going to have a proper go now, with what may well be a massively unpopular viewpoint:

Bringing your refillable water bottle, solid shampoo or non-plastic wrapped sunscreen on holiday isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference, if you’ve taken an aeroplane to get there.

A return flight between New York and London results in the melting of three square metres of Arctic sea ice. That doesn’t sound like much, right? But that’s only one person. If you’d like a slightly more alarming stat, the Environmental Transport Association states:

“Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe.”

The latest stats I could find suggested 4.2 million people took this specific trip in 2016. And of course, all the other flights taken all over the world have this effect too – it’s estimated that 3.7 billion flights were taken in that same year.

While of COURSE it’s a good idea to try and avoid bottled water, and those cute-but-ultimately-wasteful hotel mini shampoos, any waste saved has already been eclipsed many times over by how you got there. It can’t even compete.

But, what IS the solution, if not ZW?

So, what does all this mean? Have I started getting coffee in takeaway cups if I forget my reusable mug, or using a carrier bag rather than an armful of groceries in the absence of a canvas bag? No. And I’m not going to start.

What I want to propose is that we need to rethink zero waste in two key ways:

One – It’s time to channel Mary Poppins, when she said “Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can’t see past the end of his nose.” We have to stop taking ‘waste’ at face value, and we need to start asking questions: who made this, where did it come from, and where will it go when I’ve finished with it?

We also need embrace the ‘zero’ of ZW – say no to that free canvas bag, ask if we really are ever going to use that beautiful stainless steel straw. We need to not get distracted by that sleek, shiny water bottle if we have an ugly old container that will work just as well. It’s about seeing consumption as a choice, rather than an inevitability. For a reusable anything to be truly sustainable, it needs to be reused and reused and reused.

Two – This one I think is the most important. We need to start seeing ZW and personal action as an impetus to wider change. It’s great that committed individuals are sorting through a sea of plastic waste to find more sustainable options, but the real problem here is that the plastic waste still exists, and will most likely be bought by someone else.

So, please keep flying the flag for your personal choices, but my plea to you is let’s take our fight out on to the street, both digital and real – if you’re angry about the amount of plastic in your weekly food shop, email the CEO, or post pictures of the packaging on Twitter. Walker’s Crisps, here in the UK, actually brought in a recycling scheme for their empty packets after people started posting them back to the company. The message is loud and clear – it’s not YOUR rubbish, but THEIRS!

And don’t just do it alone – join your local Extinction Rebellion group, or other local climate change organisation and tell them about zero waste. Amplify your voice and reach out. Personal action is a statement of intent about the world we want to see, but the power of a group raising their voices in unison shows governments and businesses that it is something to be heeded.


In conclusion, Zero Waste needs to be a way of identifying waste, and then making the people producing the waste in the first place do something about it. Stop feeling guilty about your own waste – you’re doing the best you can – and let’s loudly and visibly point the finger at the real culprits. Let’s make it a movement for social change, not individual responsibility. That way, everyone benefits.

Rethinking Zero Waste - A Refuge for Daffodils

Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


18 thoughts on “Rethinking Zero Waste

  1. This is a much more realistic view of waste however grim.

    You’re right that although the little things people do in their millions add up the effect is dwarfed by the ongoing splurge further upstream. I’m reminded of the view that beaches shouldn’t be cleaned up by individuals, it’s a massive job that should be undertaken by the people who sold the plastic and they are the ones who have to change.

    I don’t see the crisp packet recycling as a win, it was a clever marketing response and doesn’t change the production process. Does it make any real impact at all? Marketing responses will mean free reusable shopping bags at conferences because that’s what benefits companies – I totally agree, consumer pressure changes promotional tactics but the game is still the same. It does take politics to change things.

    I think you have highlighted the greatest benefit of the little steps that people are encouraged to make – it’s not the cumulative effect of everyone refusing straws it’s the awareness that things have to change upstream.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting point on the crisp packets – I saw it as them bowing to consumer pressure, but it is equally arguable that it’s a publicity stunt. I guess one thing to look for is if they use it as a catalyst to at least change the packaging to something more sustainable (and ideally look at their whole business model), or if it’s just a sticking plaster and they think ‘job done’.

      And yes! I am very much for systemic, legislative change. I am completely furious at our current government gazing pointlessly into the abyss while doing nothing meaningful about climate chaos.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! I have long been totally fed up with these zero waste blogs and Instagram accounts that just seem to be about buying more products. Not to mention how expensive it must be to do that; it makes it entirely inaccessible for normal people. Thanks for talking about the harder truths.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading it! I’ve been as guilty as anyone for promoting ZW as an individualistic agenda. And I still will continue to try and live as low-impact as possible. But it’s also a cold, hard truth that people that don’t have the luxury of time or money to care about these things likely have a much lower impact than myself. It’s the people, governments and businesses who are profiting off environmental destruction that need to take responsibility for their actions first and foremost.


      1. So glad to see the point about flying. Although we are still far from zero waste
        posts from people excitedly refilling their water bottle at the airport really bug me. Especially on routes you could easily do by train/road ( although they obviously aren’t the most damaging long haul ones).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting thought on plane journey length from this website: “Planes use the most fuel, and produce the most harmful emissions, during takeoff. On short flights, as much as 25 percent of the total fuel consumed is used at this time. The most fuel-efficient route length for airlines is 4,300 kilometers, roughly a flight from Europe to the U.S. East Coast. About 45 percent of all flights in the European Union cover less than 500 kilometers”. (http://www.worldwatch.org/planes-utilize-most-fuel-during-takeoff)

          So in some ways, short flights are even worse because they’re wasting more for the length on the journey in comparison. But TBH there is not really any green way of flying…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Enjoyed your thoughtful post especially since I am working on zero waste myself. Making your own plant milk is definitely the way to go. We do soy, rice, and nut milks at my house and use a SoyaJoy maker http://www.soymilkmaker.com/ It’s one of the best things we have ever bought and get used several times a week. We tried to make oat milk in it once and ended up making really fantastic oatmeal instead. We’ve since repeated the oatmeal a number of times but haven’t yet tried for milk again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great read! Shared on the zwbn fb page. I have to say though that the 2 metal straws, the 3 metal container and my 2 reusable cups that I bought 6 years ago, are used much more than 1000 times.
    I understand your point, it’s not the end consumers responsibility. But I think that if the end consumer starts changing behavior and requests other solutions, production will also change. Yes, we should request changes as a group and not fight our fights all alone at home. But that’s where the change starts. Most people still don’t give a damn about any of this. And they need to hear the message. That’s the mass of people that need to get the light bulb moment. Might be that some chic celebrities need to get into zw.
    Let it be the cool new thing to safe the world!


    1. Thanks for sharing on the page Inge! I hope you’re keeping well, we haven’t spoken in ages. I agree with all you say, I think my fire is more aimed at the idea that gets presented in FB ads and Instagram-style posts that we can shop our way out of environmental devastation. And groups are indeed made of individuals – it just frustrates me that governments and businesses can keep pumping out the plastic-wrapped, pesticide-laden crap and then tell people “but you have a choice”!


  5. just stumbled upon this blog trying to find motivation to continue the no-new-clothes-challenge, and I’m liking it very much. This post is very honest, and I like that you ask yourself questions that many people deem too complicated about the real impact of our choices.

    Just reacting about your stats about the amount of water needed to produce various foods… since you seem no enemy of complexity, I wanted to share a tidbit I found in a study about Comté cheese (I live in France and am French). The study argued that since “total water” includes the rainfall needed to grow the grass to feed humans or animals (as well as the water cattle drink), and rain is usually plentiful in mountain areas where cow or goat cheese is produced, it is not that bad. Also, the steep uphills and high-altitude pastures could not be used for crops (actual growing season is too short for most cereals) anyways… so, now you know how the French justify not going vegan, because they love their cheese too much!


    1. Hello! Thank you for such a lovely, thoughtful comment (and sorry for the slowness of my response). I think there’s a huge amount of merit in eating the foods that work in harmony with the landscape in which they’re made. Right now, I am spending a fortune on eating SO MUCH British asparagus because it’s in season. I don’t eat it the rest of the year due to the issues it causes where it’s commonly grown in Peru (https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/asparagus-draining-dry/).

      I hope you stay in touch 🙂


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