How we reduced our rubbish in the last 12 months
Originally written in August 2019, updated November 2022
Challenging ourselves to reduce the rubbish we send to landfill
A couple of years ago, we decided to seriously reduce our rubbish. We wondered how low we could realistically get it down to, whilst still living a pretty ‘normal’ family life.
We started from a point of putting two black bags of rubbish out for council collection every week. How much could we actually reduce our waste?
The key was taking small steps, setting up new habits and lots of little grocery packaging swaps.
First, we reduced to one bag a week, then one a fortnight, then one a month, and so on! Over the last 12 months, we have put out four black bags of household rubbish, plus one bag of garage rubbish (after a big sort out of garage stuff that had accumulated over the years).
As I said in my post about not being perfect at zero waste, I still have a few ‘Eco confessions’.
My biggest issue is soft plastic packaging, since the recycling scheme in our area of NZ was put on hold last December. I have reduced how much I buy that is wrapped in plastic, but I have still ended up with another black sack full of plastic that I can’t bear to throw out. It is all washed and dried, waiting for the collection to start again in my area. If the recycling scheme doesn’t restart, then I will have to put it out for the rubbish collection and it will end up in landfill.
How have we reduced our rubbish?
We have mainly used the Five R’s of waste management, which are in the triangle diagram below. You can also read about a slightly different version of the Five R’s in this article on the 1 Million Women website.
The suggestion is that the things at the top of the inverted pyramid are the most important things to do to reduce rubbish.
In our case, we have found that some of the R’s are in a different order to the diagram. They all contribute to the overall reduction in waste though.
I have listed my top ways to reduce waste in the order I think is most important to me.
A key thing for us has been to swap standard grocery items for the same thing but in a reusable or recyclable package. I’ll mention this in the section on ‘Refusing’.
1. Reduce the amount we buy
Simply put, we just had to stop buying so much stuff!
I think the turning point for me was when I went through a phase of listening to the The Minimalists podcasts. The idea of being more aware and more mindful about what I was buying made me realise that I didn’t need to shop so much.
We have more than enough of the following in our house:
- Clothes and shoes
- Plates, cups, glasses, etc
- Cushions, blankets, bedding in general
- Craft items for both me and the children – we enough to run a small school!
I have a tendency to be a collector, and I think there are lots of people like me in that way. My favourite items to buy are funky clothes and shoes, and retro crockery. I just have to stop myself from buying everything that takes my fancy. As an example; I already have three teapots, I really don’t need another one. It’s just another thing to own, to dust, to clutter my house.
When I stopped buying so many items, I stopped the packaging that goes with them, the plastic bags they came in, (back before the plastic bag ban in New Zealand – hooray for that!). And the receipts and tags and warranty information, and all that other paperwork that clutters up your life.
If we do want to buy something, we think about it and research to find the best option. For example, I want to replace a worn out Teflon pan with a better option. This is both for our health, and to reduce the waste created by buying something that won’t last very long and will end up in landfill. It looks like cast iron will be best option, so we will buy one as soon as we find the right one (hopefully on special offer too!)
Retail therapy, using shopping as a pick-me-up is a real thing, but there are other ways to feel good instead of spending money.
Gifts for others
This may not involve reducing your spending, but if you want to buy a gift for another person, I think these options are great alternatives to ‘things’:
- making homemade gifts, like baking.
- giving vouchers of ‘time gifts’ e.g. three hours of babysitting, one hour of spring cleaning!
- buying locally made consumable products such as soaps, or interesting fancy food the recipient might not buy for themselves.
- plants and flowers – either shop bought or grown in your garden.
- giving vouchers for experiences such as a trip to the movies or vouchers for dinner.
I recently went to a new bulk refill grocery store, and was able to refill a bunch of my jars with basic staple food.
It was great to reuse my own jars to reduce packaging. The pricing was somewhere between the cheapest NZ supermarket (Pak N Save) and the slightly more expensive one (Countdown). Some items were much cheaper – making your own peanut butter in their peanut crushing machine was much cheaper than buying the brand I usually buy. But, this method of shopping does take some preparation and time, which lots of working people might not be able to do, so may not suit everyone.
However there are lots of ways to reuse things:
- Use reusable bags and containers at the supermarket.
- Swap plastic clingfilm for reusable napkins or beeswax wraps.
- If you use tinfoil or baking paper, try silicon baking sheets instead.
- Take a reusable water bottle with you.
- Use your own container for takeaway food.
- Keep a set of proper reusable cutlery in your bag or car, instead of using plastic cutlery.
- Take a reusable coffee cup if you are getting coffee – or go one step further and take a thermos with a hot drink from home!
- Cut up old worn out cotton clothes to reuse as cleaning cloths.
- Reuse wrapping paper! Or wrap a present in a present – use a scarf or tea towel as wrapping.
- Straws – these have kind of become the poster child for reusable items. You could get reusable metal ones, paper ones, even pasta straws! Or just refuse a straw.
- Use handkerchiefs instead of throwaway tissues, and cloths / tea towels instead of kitchen paper.
- Make beer at home – you can reuse the bottles so many times!
Reusing items saves a lot of money over time, too.
3. Refuse things that will just end up in the rubbish, or will need to be replaced quickly
Some things you are given are destined for the rubbish bin almost straight away. Free samples in little pots at the supermarkets, plastic cutlery that breaks immediately, goodie bags full of random stuff at conferences or expos, cheaply made plastic toys that break easily, the list goes on.
You can choose to refuse! If lots of people said no to disposable items, maybe the manufacturers and distributors would stop making them and giving them out?
Say ‘no’ to things that become your problem to dispose of.
I think ‘Refuse’ also applies to refusing to get into the game of constant upgrades to everything from electronics, appliances to homeware and fashion. We can choose to stick with the TV / phone / any other item that we have, even if a new model comes out. If my current model still does the job, I don’t really need to buy a new one.
Refuse to buy products in packaging that will end up in the bin – make some swaps
When I am at the supermarket, I also make decisions on what to buy based on the packaging. In some cases, I can refuse to buy a product that it is in packaging that I can’t reuse, compost or easily recycle. I try to find a similar or even the same product, but in packaging I can deal with easily.
Examples of swaps include:
- Potatoes in paper bags rather than plastic
- Passata (tomato puree) in a glass jar, instead of pizza sauce in a plastic jar
- Pasta in a cardboard box rather than plastic
- Spices in glass jars or cardboard boxes with paper liners, rather than plastic pots
- Tinned cat food rather than sachets
- Sugar, oats, flour, etc in a paper bag instead of plastic
- Soap bars and shampoo bars instead of liquid soap or shampoo in plastic bottles
- If you drink fizzy drinks, try Soda Stream made at home rather than buying plastic bottles of pop. You can use cordial syrups in glass bottles, instead of the branded Soda Stream syrups in plastic.
- Cleaning products – I use Baking Soda for cleaning a lot, you can buy it in cardboard boxes or bulk buy it at farm supply shops.
- Laundry powder is pretty easy to make from basic ingredients, I learnt about this at an workshop by the Dairy Farmers Daughter, but you can easily search for a recipe online. I also buy a laundry powder that is in a cardboard box with no plastic bag, and has a scoop made from bamboo, from Living Green.
4. ‘Rot’ – use our compost and chickens to process food scraps
Having a few compost bins (well, five dotted around the garden!) and keeping chickens hugely reduces food scraps and waste. Most vegetables peelings or parts that you aren’t going to use can go in the compost or to the chooks.
I also put some cardboard and paper in the compost bins. Old worn out clothing made from cotton, wool or bamboo, such as socks, undies, and the bits left over when I cut up cotton clothing for rags also go in the compost. I don’t put any elastic parts in the compost though, as it could be made from rubber (a natural material that will biodegrade) or it could be made from synthetic material. It’s another thing to research, so I can tell the difference.
If you have paper or cardboard takeaway food wrappings, like paper from fish and chips, or pizza boxes, you could also put those in for the chickens to peck at. We have a low compost bin in the chicken area that I put things like that in to. The chickens jump in the compost bin, and peck and scratch to get the remaining food! We don’t have a rat problem in that area, so it doesn’t seem to be attracting rats, the chickens eat all the available food morsels!
I give any leftover cooked food to the chickens too (if it can’t be saved for another meal). They particularly love leftover rice, and the used grain from when my husband has been making home brew beer.
5. Recycle glass, metal and plastic (plus random other things!)
We put out one recycling bin of glass, metal tins, and plastic types 1 and 2 every week. It isn’t always full, it depends what we have been eating or drinking that week!
The most common item in my recycling bin is plastic milk bottles. I could switch to a delivery or pick up of milk in glass bottles, I need to do some research into what is available and the costs. Recently, I have sometimes bought unprocessed milk directly from local dairy farmers, who have refilled milk bottles I give them. I really like this milk, as it is richer and creamier than shop bought milk. However, half of my family members are not fans of it. Something to think about, as it is cheaper and it involves less food miles.
This is what happens to the recycling I put out for collection by my local council:
Glass is recycled here in New Zealand. It’s mainly turned into bottles and jars but can also be made into what’s known as ‘glasscrete’ and ‘glassphalt’, which is a material used in road building.
Paper and cardboard can be made into newsprint, writing paper, tissue, corrugated cardboard, egg cartons and fruit trays. This is also done in New Zealand as well as Asia.
Our plastic is sent to Australia, China and Southeast Asia to be made into just about anything plastic can be made in to, which is a lot! Buckets, polyester fibre and wheelie bins are just some of the new forms our plastic takes.
Aluminium is used to make new aerosol and drink cans, while steel is made into food cans, wire and building materials in both New Zealand and Asia.https://www.waikatodistrict.govt.nz/services-facilities/refuse-and-recycling/recycling
For me, recycling isn’t the only answer, as covered in this article by in the Guardian newspaper. It is a part of what we currently do with our rubbish though, otherwise more of our family’s rubbish would end up in landfill.
I try to buy food in packaging that is more easily recycled in New Zealand, by favouring paper and cardboard, glass and tin cans, instead of plastic packaging. It does take some time and effort, but I take it one step at a time.
Next challenge – reduce rubbish even more!
We still have some way to go to reduce our waste further. I would like to be able to put out only one rubbish bag per year in 2020 – there’s a good challenge to work towards!