Zero Waste Lifestyle – Just Another Millennial Trend?

This week, Features Editor Somya Mehta sat down with Charlene Marrie, an ex-Leeds University student and Zero Waste lifestyle advocate.

What does the phrase ‘zero waste lifestyle’ mean to you personally?

To me personally, a “Zero waste lifestyle” means a lifestyle in which we completely avoid using single-use products that will most likely end up in landfills and oceans. This includes items such as plastic bags, straws, cotton buds and even tissue paper. It’s a lifestyle where nothing gets thrown away and everything is fully consumed (food) or reused (metal cutlery). Zero waste is substituting all single-use products that are a part of your everyday life with reusable ones; for instance a refillable metal water bottle instead of constantly buying single-use plastic bottles.

Why is it important and relevant in today’s day and age? Why should one go zero waste?

In today’s age, environmental issues are becoming a very central concern especially in developed countries that are now passing new laws to ban single-use plastics. This concern stems from horrifying facts and images of man-made waste. With new technologies and social media, information travels fast and so it is a powerful tool to influence people to make changes in their lifestyle. A great example that has encouraged people to adopt a plastic-free lifestyle is the viral video of individuals trying to pull a straw out of a turtle’s nose.

The zero waste lifestyle has been implemented by so many that it has given birth to new markets with emerging businesses selling eco-friendly, zero-waste and cruelty-free products.

Going fully zero waste is not easy but if one makes an effort to adopt such a lifestyle as much as they can, considering that a few million people would do so, it can truly have an impact. Less waste means less mess to clean up, more ecosystems and species are left undisrupted. This would avoid their extinction, both saving ourselves from the toxicity of our own mess and preserving the beauty of Mother Nature!

There is so much talk about plastic waste, but do you have any specific facts or statistics concerning sustainability that you have found particularly striking?

Here are a few shocking facts in relation to plastic waste that truly shocked me:

  • 8 million tons of plastic gets dumped into our oceans every year (Le Guern, 2018)
  • Only 9% of world plastic put in recycling bins get recycled yearly (Parker, 2018)
  • A plastic bag is used for about 12 minutes, but it takes 1000 years to decompose (O’brien, 2017)

However, on a more positive and encouraging note, in 3 months, Australia’s nationwide plastic bag use has dropped by 15 billion after supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles stopped giving them out (Khalil and AAP, 2018).

What motivated you to try the zero waste lifestyle?

In all honesty, it was the turtle video, the one with the people trying to pull out a straw from its nose, and on top of that, slideshows of plastic-filled animals ranging from seagulls to whales to boars. I felt so guilty seeing these images, and I told myself that I didn’t want to play a part in the mistreatment of innocent animals. From then on, I started becoming more conscious about waste, with the urge to learn more by researching and watching documentaries, one of which was “A Plastic Ocean”, which I truly recommend, and finally, I adopted a zero waste lifestyle.

How do you wish to achieve and maintain an eco-friendly lifestyle with zero waste?

In order to achieve and maintain such a lifestyle, it is important to always be aware and alert. The choice of this lifestyle requires me to add an extra bit of effort in my everyday life, but I don’t find it to be a burden in any way. It actually gives me immense happiness. For instance, if I order a drink at a restaurant, I will always remember to say “no straw”. Furthermore, I will always fill my water bottle in the morning to avoid buying plastic water bottles later on throughout the day.

What’s been the most difficult lifestyle change so far?

The most difficult change has been finding plastic-free options in supermarkets. Although this is the case, I try to buy the maximum of my needed products in bulk stores and markets. However, sometimes, plastic free is simply not an option, for instance with medicine. If you end up with plastic waste, the best next thing to do is recycling it, although, there is no real guarantee that it will actually be recycled.

What are your top tips for reducing the use of plastic in daily life?

There are so many substitutes for plastic products that can be considered. For example, I no longer use plastic packaged soaps and shampoos and I now only buy bar soaps and shampoos which I actually prefer! My top 5 go-to plastic alternatives are metal or bamboo reusable straws, reusable water bottles, small canvas shopping bags instead of plastic bags, storage boxes instead of takeaway boxes and beeswax instead of clingfilm.

How can we go plastic-free at university?

On top of the 2020 goal of using Keep Cups and going single-use plastic-free at Leeds University, I would suggest that all plastic cutlery in the refectory and cafes be substituted by Vegware cutlery, which is eco-friendly and compostable.

Furthermore, it would be great if all plastic straws were substituted by pasta straws as they are compostable. I wouldn’t recommend paper straws as a lot of people complain about their sogginess, but most importantly, the production of paper straws is extremely polluting and not sustainable.

On a final note, it would be great if the University started a partnership with a plastic recycling company ensuring that all plastic thrown in campus bins goes into recycling since as previously mentioned, the majority of worldwide “recycled plastics” don’t get recycled when put in government installed bins.

Will this be treated as yet another millennial trend, like veganism often is, or does it have a real potential to bring about change?

In my opinion, it has already become a trend! It can truly bring about change as it encourages millennials to adopt a different lifestyle and also pressurises governments and organisations to respond to such issues. Change is already happening as governments put single-use plastic bans into motion. Not only are they acting up, but also many businesses already have the initiative to adopt a zero waste policy.

Like veganism has led to trends such as #Veganuary, does this movement also have its own sub-trends that people can become a part of?

Zero waste sub-trends in the style of #veganuary or #movember, are starting to emerge. #TheLastStraw is the most relevant hashtag at the moment, which is a campaign to cease single-use plastic usage globally.

How do you wish to spread the message of leading an #EcoFriendly lifestyle amongst the youth?

The best way to spread the message to young people is first at school through academia than through social media and influencers who can use their platform to adopt a waste-free lifestyle, and then even word of mouth and personal experiences with the help of peers and society can be a useful tool. Once the trend takes off, the youth will follow!

Somya Mehta