Is Zero Waste the Answer to Our Climate Crisis?

Reporter: Erin Bashford

Explaining zero waste is remarkably simple: it is just that, zero waste. It is the philosophy of living that uses no materials that are destined for landfill, incineration, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

According to National Geographic there are 8 million metric tonnes of plastic in our oceans. If every country lived like the USA, we would need 4 planets just to sustain ourselves.

Mainly, it’s plastic that is avoided by those following a zero waste lifestyle. Plastic takes up to 1000 years to decompose, and PET plastic can never biodegrade. Shops have popped up across the country that are dedicated to selling produce plastic-free. One of these is Ernie’s Zero Waste Shop in Norwich, which opened this weekend.

zero-waste shop

For the average person, shopping anywhere other than a supermarket can be too much of an ask. In a survey conducted in the Facebook group Journey to Zero-Waste in the UK, 17 of 46 people said they shopped solely at farmer’s markets and greengrocers*. However in a survey conducted in the Facebook group Vegan UK, 23 out of 35 people said they shop in supermarkets, but only buy produce without plastic**. So, perhaps achieving zero waste is more possible than previously assumed.

Often, those seeking plastic-free groceries head to outdoor market stalls. When asked about selling vegetables plastic-free, the manager of the market stall CJ’s Fruit and Veg said that, “veg from a wholesaler doesn’t come in plastic. It’s only the supermarkets that sell in plastic, because they’ve got so many people handling it. Whereas here, it’s just us.” Promising to shop only at outdoor markets isn’t always accessible, though, and often people from lower-income backgrounds or those in more deprived areas have no choice in what food they buy.

Some businesses, however, are taking concern for the planet into their own hands. Honest Crust, a British pre-packed sandwich company, only sells recyclable cellulose “plastic” wrapping.

New legislation announced this week confirmed that plastic straws, cotton buds, and stirrers will be banned in the UK from April 2020. This is a move towards a plastic-free Britain, and will offer some kind of satiation for those lobbying the government for more environmentally friendly official legislation.

tesco plastic
Plastic packaging in Tesco (Source: Erin Bashford)

In response to this legislation, Tesco, Britain’s leading supermarket, said that they have committed to “halving packaging weight by 2025, make all packaging fully recyclable by 2025, and ensure all paper and board used is 100% sustainable by 2025”. This is a symbolic move for the supermarket giant. However, Waitrose, a higher-end supermarket in the UK, already offer compostable vegetable bags instead of plastic in their shops.

Similar shifts are being seen in the EU, with the ban on single-use plastics in the European Union expected to come in by 2021. It’s clear that a handful of governments across the world are making moves to reduce their plastic consumption.

globa plastics production
Source: Our World In Data

Some people, though, have committed to avoiding not just plastic, but everything that ends up in landfill.

With the opening of Ethical Ernie and Re-Source in Norwich, it’s becoming easier to shop waste-free. These shops offer dry foods such as pasta, rice, beans, and nuts, and also sell homewares, such as washing liquid and shampoo without plastic packing. Customers are encouraged to bring their own glass jars, but Ethical Ernie sells these for those who don’t have them.

Ethical Ernie on Magdalen Street opened last weekend, so I went to find out what it means to be zero waste, if being zero waste is realistic for everyone, and if it will save the planet.

Photograph: free for use by Alexander Kim

It’s becoming increasingly clear that everyone needs to consciously reduce their plastic usage. There is not a clear cut solution to the problem. Plastic is inherent to our lives, and it is impossible to suggest that no plastic may ever be used again. However, with zero-waste shops, new legislation passed in Parliament, and local green voluntary groups, it’s becoming much easier to be plastic-conscious.

*Survey conducted by Erin Bashford, 23/5/19.
**Survey conducted by Erin Bashford, 22/5/19.

 

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