09 Sep Beyond individual action: what’s next for low waste living?
Public awareness of sustainability issues feels like it’s at an all time high.
According to Forbes, 93% of people are concerned for the environment, and 77% want to learn more about sustainable lifestyles.
This surge in public interest has created a huge opportunity for campaigners, activists and eco-friendly brands to break into the mainstream and spread their message further, and while it’s often questioned whether conscious consumerism can make a difference, this awareness is clearly starting to change behaviour.
83.4% of the study participants recycle, 57.5% use reusable bags and 45.2% avoid single use plastics.
In the wake of Blue Planet II, the ‘Attenborough effect’ has been praised for encouraging consumers to reduce plastic pollution, as searches for ‘plastic recycling’ saw a dramatic uplift of 55%in the UK and 53% reported reducing their single-plastic use in the 12 months since the programme aired.
However, the majority of people surveyed (79%) agreed that it is the responsibility of the government to tackle environmental problems head on.
Many consumers feel that the weight of responsibility to “do the right thing” falls to them, while businesses continue to use wasteful packaging, exploitative and polluting practices and greenwashed marketing to cash in on the ethical pound.
In the UK, we’ve already seen the benefits that systemic change and legislation can have – as single use plastic bag sales dropped dramatically after the introduction of a 5p charge:
But we know that creating systemic change and legislation takes time.
Earlier this year we saw the UK Government reject the recommendations by the Environmental Audit Committee to clean up the environmental footprint of the fast fashion industry, and a proposed tax of 25p on disposable coffee cups was suggested after Blue Planet II but again rejected in the 2018 Autumn Budget.
The danger is that if responsibility continues to fall to the consumer, which often involves spending more and making the less convenient choice, even the greenest of consumers will become tired of bearing the burden.
We know that individual action is important, but alone it is not powerful enough to make the changes our planet needs fast enough.
So how can we as individuals, help contribute to the systemic change we need to see?
Nurture a love of nature
The number of people living within cities is projected to rise to 5 billion people by 2030.
As we’ve become busier and our society has become more urbanised, we’ve begun to lose our connection to nature.
A 2017 study showed that a third of children didn’t know that dairy milk comes from cows. 18% believed milk comes straight from the fridge or the supermarket.
A love and respect for nature is an essential part of creating a desire to protect and preserve it.
As individuals, we can reconnect with nature in simple ways by spending time outdoors and encouraging our children to engage with nature too.
Nick McEwen, Founder of Global WAKEcup, feels this is an essential part of a sustainable lifestyle:
“I try and instil a love of the environment, plants and animals into my family life, which will make them want to preserve it for the future as much as I do, or even more! As a biologist, diver and all round lover of the sea and sealife, I’ve seen first hand the damage single-use plastics can do. Low waste living is an essential part of ocean conservation, and it begins with a love of nature.”
With shocking reports that we may have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, and 30,000 tonnes of waste caused every year by disposable coffee cups alone, Nick and the Global WAKEcup team are on a mission to make low waste living stylish and sustainable.
Their beautiful bamboo products provide an eco friendly, reusable alternative to single use cups, bags and straws, and 10% of their profits go directly to their charity partners The Marine Conservation Society.
Libby Brewster, Founder of ethical gift company Every Origin, also recognises the importance of a strong connection with nature.
1 in 4 people are affected by a mental health issue at some point in their lives and by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally.
World Health Organisation Research suggests that activities focused on mindfulness and connecting with nature can help prevent and support the treatment of mental health problems.
Libby was inspired to start Every Origin after experiencing her own mental health challenges. As she explored new ways to live well she realised that connecting with nature and living more sustainably had a positive impact on her own wellbeing.
“Low Waste Living gives us a sense of purpose and hopefulness that together, we can make a real difference when it comes to the environmental challenges that the world is facing.” – Libby, Every Origin.
The increased demand for ethical and sustainable products has brought more options to the market, giving conscious consumers a choice of eco-friendly options.
When people begin their low waste living journey, they often start with small switches in the everyday products they use.
Although this is relatively simple to do, the products they choose at this time are crucial.
There is a common misconception that ethical and sustainable means lower quality, and unfortunately if beginners find this to be true, it may stop them from pursuing a more eco-friendly lifestyle further.
After living in Asia and seeing the extent of the plastic pollution problem first hand, Sue Cambell began exploring why more people don’t embrace low waste living, and set out to solve it with her range of solid, plastic free shampoo and conditioner, KIND2.
Shampoo bars are one of the simplest first changes people can make when they want to start a low waste journey. However, many don’t work very well (especially in hard water) which means people feel frustrated, disappointed and often revert back to liquid in plastic bottles.
KIND2 have created an innovative formula that works brilliantly in hard water, so removes that barrier of adoption by being high performance.
“We understand that consumers want to make more sustainable and ethical choices but are limited by what’s easily accessible, does the job properly and delivers value for money. KIND2 is a step towards tackling these challenges in one haircare innovation, giving you a more conscious choice, without compromise. Saving the planet doesn’t have to mean bad hair!” – Sue Cambell, KIND2.
As conscious consumers, we can make a difference by sharing the high quality products we use. This helps support small, ethical businesses and encourages more people to buy and use sustainable options.
Resourcefulness is a key component of low waste living. In our convenience culture we have become used to disposable, single use items and disconnected with the system of where our purchases come from and where our waste goes when we throw it away.
‘Zero Waste’ has become a trend, with influencers sharing Instagram photos of the entire rubbish they’ve generated in a year neatly styled in a fashionable mason jar.
On one hand, making eco friendly lifestyles more aspirational is a good thing. It helps to break the negative stereotypes and encourages more people to get involved.
But these images can also make it less accessible – perpetuating the idea that it is a privileged and elitist way of living.
There’s no denying that sustainable lifestyles are less convenient, and can be more expensive.
Often sustainable products are more expensive because they’re made ethically without exploitation – so the upfront cost is higher.
Although many conscious consumers will agree, adopting this lifestyle will save you money, as it’s built on an ethos of “buy less, make it last.”
Although the rise of the ‘eco influencer’ has made zero waste fashionable, it’s not a new trend. Low waste living is actually a return to life before online shopping, one click ordering and supermarkets and coffee shops on every corner.
Older generations knew how to be resourceful because they had to be. In many ways, living a sustainable lifestyle is reverting back to their way of doing things.
Food waste warriors Too Good To Go are combining the resourcefulness and sustainable attitudes of the past with the latest tech innovations, to tackle the major food waste problem, which contributes to a staggering 8% of greenhouse gases!
Each year, over 10 million tonnes of food is thrown away – estimated to be worth £17 billion a year. That’s £700 per family per year spent on food that ultimately just ends up in the bin.
Too Good To Go are on a mission to rescue meals that would otherwise go to waste. Through their app, they connect consumers with restaurants, cafes and food outlets, to create ‘magic bags’ full of all the delicious, perfectly edible food that stores and restaurants have to throw out at the end of the day.
“At Too Good To Go, we try to be resourceful in everything we do. Resourcefulness is a catalyst for creative thinking, which is a handy trait in the workplace. At Too Good To Go, it also comes to play in a more practical sense – for instance, every Friday we create a team lunch from the leftovers in our fridge, It’s a value everyone on the team brings to the table, and it’s certainly a value that’s at the heart of low-waste living.
In the UK, we’re lucky to have access to such ample resources – from the food we eat, to the electricity that runs readily through our homes. We’re very lucky, but it means we’re not forced to be resourceful that often.
When you start trying to live a low-waste life, you start using that ‘resourceful’ muscle more and more – whether that means finding a way to create a meal from the scant leftovers in your fridge instead of throwing them away, or planting your own veggie garden so that the food on your plate has fewer travel miles under its belt.” – Too Good To Go
Convenience culture has led to a dramatic increase in food waste.
Over a third of all food produced globally goes to waste every year, and a WRAP report earlier this month estimated that £1 billion worth of food is wasted before it leaves the farm. Just 25% of the total food waste could feed all malnourished people in the world.
Oddbox are on a mission to structurally reduce food waste and its negative impact on our environment at farm level.
Through their wonky fruit and veg box delivery service, they aim to make sustainability convenient and tackle 5% (500,000 tonnes) of the pre-farm gate fruit and vegetable waste (produce lost or wasted before it leaves the farm) by 2022 in the UK and the EU.
They pay farmers a good price for what was deemed surplus or rejects, preventing perfectly good food from going to landfill, and they never add plastic to their boxes (although they do rescue some produce that has been already pre-packaged for supermarkets).
By giving consumers a high quality, low waste, sustainable option that is also convenient, it makes it easier for more people to adopt this lifestyle.
While a small percentage of proactive people will go out of their way to be eco-friendly, we need to create mass market appeal in a sustainable way for it to be adopted at a wider scale.
Chloe Tolley Worsman, Founder of the Cruelty Free Beauty Box, understands that this is not without its challenges.
Chloe started her business out of frustration that companies were able to use loopholes to apply the cruelty free label to their products even when they weren’t completely cruelty free. She wanted to create a way for people to discover new ethical products in an easy and convenient way, so that more people would adopt the lifestyle.
However, prioritising one ethical value (like cruelty free or vegan) can often lead to compromises in other areas (like plastic free), as it’s hard to create a product that ticks all the boxes.
That’s why The Cruelty Free Beauty Box have gone above and beyond to make sure their packaging is as planet friendly as possible – opting for sugar cane stickers to seal the boxes, seed bard paper for description cards which can be planted and encourage bees into your garden! And brown boxes instead of white to avoid the bleaching process.
Many small businesses like Chloe’s are going the extra mile to be as ethical and sustainable as possible, and by supporting them and voting with our wallets, we can send a message to the bigger corporates that sustainability is not only planet friendly, but also the most profitable choice.
“The realisation hit me when I heard that Glastonbury had saved over 1 million plastic bottles from being used – this was just one festival, over one weekend. It just goes to show the scale of the problem. Big companies need to step up & quick, but they also need to educate people along the way.” – Chloe Tolley Worsman, Founder of the Cruelty Free Beauty Box
Unexpected areas of waste
Consumers at the start of their low waste living journey often begin by auditing their bin and tackling household waste.
This has led to an increase in household recycling in the UK, and many consumers opting for more eco friendly options like solid soap, refillable washing up liquid from their local zero waste shop and bamboo toothbrushes – to name but a few.
Once these simple switches have been made, consumers can be left wondering what’s next. But as we increasingly rely on technology and the internet for every day tasks, our digital lives are creating a waste footprint too.
In 2012 there were 500,000 data centres around the world. Today there are 8 million.
Globally our growing online data consumption and creation equates to a massive increase in energy use, a need for more and more resources and production of additional waste.
Green Hosting and Make Hay Ethical Web Design want to shine a light on this hidden waste problem, and help create an internet that is powered by renewable energy and used more sustainably and efficiently.
“The internet is a hungry beast but not everyone is aware of the impact it has because our digital lives seem intangible. We are much more conscious of the resources we use and the waste we create in our offline activities and are making big changes to turn this around, but we also need to apply the same level of responsibility in our digital lives.” – Vicky, Green Hosting and Make Hay Ethical Web Design
Inspire others by celebrating small steps
Conscious consumers can also make a big difference by sharing their own progress with friends and family, and encouraging them to get involved.
We must be careful not to preach or shame anyone for not being “green enough”, but we can lead by example and show people how rewarding a sustainable lifestyle can be.
One way to do this is to give eco friendly gifts and tell the story behind the products.
Snooty Catz is a contemporary health and gift boutique for humans and pets, with a range of beautiful products to inspire a cruelty-free, plastic free, natural and vegan lifestyle.
“We believe small changes to low waste living by everyone will have a positive impact on our world. As a business the easier you make this without forcing massive changes to someone’s lifestyle, the more willing they are to consider their options.” – Jill Dunn, Founder of Snooty Catz.
Eco entrepreneur Maxim Gelmann also understands the importance of small steps.
As more and more bars and restaurants start switching to paper straws in an attempt to curb their plastic use, customer frustration grew as it was revealed that even paper straws can’t be recycled, and often aren’t strong enough for the job.
An online petition calling on McDonalds to bring back plastic straws even attracted 53,000 signatures!
Maxim realised the importance of ensuring that eco-alternatives are high quality and easily accessible, to keep consumers on track with their sustainable swaps.
That’s what inspired him to develop Stroodles – drinking straws made from pasta!
“A better world is a world without single-use plastic items like plastic straws that end up in the oceans and harm the environment. Stroodles is a very easy way to make that change, one straw at a time. You don’t have to compromise your drinking experience or say no to straws – just switch what they’re made with! By Stroodling you can go about your routine and still do good for the environment.” – Maxim Gelmann, Mr Stroodles.
When we take small steps in favour of the environment, we can encourage others and inspire them to do the same.
As an individual, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of pollution, food waste, fatbergs and plastic garbage patches in the ocean – but we must remember we are part of the system that created this mess – which means we can be part of the system that cleans it up too.
When it comes to low waste living, it’s time to turn awareness into action and push for a cleaner, greener, circular system.
What do you think the next steps should be?