Once upon a time, I used to be a bit of a greenie. While I'm not sure whether I was an "eco-feminist" (believing that the Western scientific and capitalist framework marginalises women's connection with nature) I certainly felt concerned about the future of the planet in terms of global warming, waste strategies, energy policy and nuclear weapons. Sadly as a haggard mother of two, my eco warrior credentials have taken a poor second to my struggles to get through the day. Recently, a couple of people recommended I read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson (2013). It has become a cult hit, a book about an American family's attempt to produce zero waste in a year. I read it in a weekend and was inspired, finally a writer who can knock me out of what she calls "eco-depression" and "action paralysis".
What I like about Bea is that she is not one of those superior types who has always worn hemp and made their own yoghurt. She went from a truely materialistic existence, where her happiness and self-worth were based on what she looked like and what she owned, to trying to simplify her life and focus on what is important. From botox injections, she goes to making her own make up! She and her husband downsize, clear the house of everything they don't actually need and start refusing all that tat that modern life is filled with - junk mail, party bags, endless packaging. They buy in bulk using re-usable containers and compost everything they can. Instead of having a wardrobe full of clothes, she has one of each item she needs and when packing for a holiday, just throws it all in. She does an inventory twice a year, fixes things that need it then buys only what needs replacing. Instead of spending all their spare time shopping and maintaining their home and belongings, they save money and hang out with their kids. Simple.
I love that idea. I have become one of those guilty people who has ten canvas totes at home but never remembers to bring one out shopping! Our house is filled with clutter and bits of paper and spares of everything, in case something gets lost or thrown up on. I found four opened bags of caster sugar in our stuffed cupboards, tubes of teething gel all over the house (but never to hand when my son is screaming like a banshee in the middle of the night) and a ridiculous stash of scarves that nobody ever wears! Before finishing the book, I was clearing surfaces like a zealot whenever I had a second, filling up bags for charity with clothes, toys, crockery...
Going on holiday made me even more determined. In a holiday-let, you just have the utensils you need. There aren't ten coffee cups, there are four and instead of them piling up by the sink, you just wash them up quicker. The same with towels. This is obvious if you think about it but in our house, we ended up in a vicious cycle - we couldn't keep up with all the piles of things that needed to be washed so bought more, just generating more to wash!
We are all familiar with the idea of re-using and most people do in some form. It is especially important in tough economic times and "upcycling" is now trendy: doing up furniture, reinventing sheets as tea towels. Buying secondhand is really easy with kids' stuff - charity shops are full of clothes and toys, ebay has bundles of outfits sorted by age and gender. There is less social stigma about hand-me-downs as people pass on to friends and relatives or sell things as charity shop chic or vintage. The danger with this, of course, is that you can end up with more than you need because it is cheap or for a good cause. Our house is full of extra toys and clothes that we would never have considered buying new but seemed like a bargain at the time. These are all on their way out.
Refusal is also a key part of the zero waste strategy. You have to say no to unnecessary materials in your life, even to things that are recyclable. Recycling counts as waste if you think about it. While recycling junk mail might make you feel better, the resources and energy that have gone into making it, transporting it and then recycling it are entirely wasted. I have contacted our nursery to ask for information to be sent via email instead of in endless newsletters that get lost then end up in the bin. Next step is to phone up all those companies that send me catalogues and ask to be taken off their lists. Yes, it's a pain to do it but it will remove temptation and save time recycling all the bloody things!
Before you think I am a total Zero Waste fanatic, there are some issues I have with Bea's manifesto. Firstly, she lives in the suburbs of San Francisco, which has a generally temperate climate. In the UK, summers and winters need entirely opposite clothing and gear as temperatures range from -5 to 30 degrees Celsius, not necessarily at the time of year you might expect. This means that there has to be a drawer somewhere full of your summer beach stuff or your woolly jumpers.
Secondly, Bea is proud that her house is so free of unnecessary decorations and adornments, it is very easy to rent it out when they go on holiday. Personally, I like my home to be homely, not resembling a showroom or a hotel. Ideally, somewhere as big on personality as it is low on clutter. I think if you become too puritanical about the whole thing, it is not sustainable. That is why I fell out of the green movement in the first place, I wanted a bit of joie de vivre back in my life. In my opinion, things in the home relating to celebrations and fun are just as important to your well-being and shouldn't be sacrificed along with those shoes you're never going to wear again and the other nine canvas totes.
Finally, Bea admits that she started her crusade when her boys were at school. For the parent of the baby or toddler, it is a different world. She manages to sidestep the whole nappy debate quite neatly with reference to a friend using a nappy laundry service but for those who have tried washable and eco-nappies, it can be expensive and time-consuming trying to limit your landfill while keeping up basic hygiene. Baby wipes would of course be a cardinal sin - all those wipes, all those packets! Yes I know we should use a damp rag to wipe faces and bottoms but in the real world, that is a big ask. The other issue with very young children is that you can often end up with lots of little packets and cartons of food and drink. These mini portions prevent food wastage and are perfect for meals on the go. I am trying to wean our children off these packets and pouches and get into more re-useable bottles and boxes, but it is sometimes tricky to use larger quantities up in time.
So, I don't think we are in the right place to start a Zero Waste Home ourselves right now. But we are definitely in a good place to start simplifying our lives and our possessions. Modern life can be suffocating and it really is liberating clearing both physical and mental space. The tricky bit is of course making sure all this stuff goes to a good home. But that is definitely a help when clearing out gifts you feel sentimentally attached to but will never use - surely someone else deserves this more than you? Bea talks about leaving skills to our children rather than objects - I like this idea too. How to sew, how to make chutney, how to fix things. There is also a "simple parenting" movement - I suspect this will be the next obsession!
Here are a couple of family-friendly ideas to reduce waste:
Wage a war on party bags
Collect up your old baby-wipe packets and send them to Ellie's fund for recycling
Buy a fold up tote to keep in your handbag so you are never without one
Scrap sandwich bags and get a Wrap'n'mat or Keep Leaf Food Wraps
Get your grocer to drop off a veg box
Sign up for a regular milk delivery and enjoy retro milk bottles again!
Buy and sell at NCT Nearly New Sales
Keep biscuit dough in the fridge and bake some for pack lunches or surprise visitors
Go fruit picking and make jam!
Johnson, B (2013) Zero Waste Home: The ultimate guide to simplifying your life, Particular Books