Many corporations are now adopting sustainable strategies in their daily operations, setting out to decouple their growth from their environmental footprint while increasing positive social impact. But for industries like fast-moving consumer goods, there is still a long way to go, and consumers still have to take the matter of sustainable purchasing into their own hands.
The goal of zero waste requires action and responsibility to be taken at government, corporate, and consumer level. It is a set of principles focussed on eradicating waste at every stage of a product’s lifecycle so that no garbage is sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. The practice follows a holistic approach, ensuring that the management of materials, energy, land, and resources is sustainable.
The phrase “the customer is always right” was not created to make retail workers suffer ‒ it is a reminder for big companies of who the real boss is. We as consumers tend to underestimate our power in deciding which products appear on our shelves. Many of us don’t realise that if we stop buying water in plastic bottles, it will stop being made. But by purchasing unsustainable products, we are effectively investing in companies that create waste.
We have the power to choose products that cater not only to our needs, but also our values. The public can make a conscious choice not to support companies like Coca-Cola, who (according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment Spring 2019 report) found that the company produces over three million tonnes of plastic waste per year. And it’s not just the food and drink industry that’s acting unsustainably. Recently, a Danish TV documentary alleged that since 2013, H&M had been burning around 12 tonnes of unsold but perfectly usable clothing annually every year.
According to ZeroWaste Česko, the average person in the Czech Republic creates three tonnes of waste every year. Work to reduce this is ongoing at all levels, from government to corporations to activist groups. The European Commission has proposed a ban on disposable straws, plastic-stemmed cotton buds, and other plastic products and big companies like IKEA, Tesco, and McDonald’s are also showing initiative in reducing the amounts of plastic waste they create.
But as a consumer, a great way to act responsibly is by turning to your local producer. Consider purchasing groceries like fruit and vegetables at your nearest farmer’s market, buying meat from the neighbourhood butcher and ordering furniture from a local carpenter. Not only would this entail less waste in terms of packaging and transportation, but you’ll also be supporting smaller and more sustainable businesses.
Zero waste activists often think in terms of communities. Rarely does an individual change the attitudes of an entire country, so it’s important to first shift mindsets in smaller communities. With each member of that community making a change, the goal of a zero waste nation becomes more achievable.
In some parts of the world, political activism at a municipal level is slowly changing the way whole cities and regions are run. Flanders in Belgium is a great example of a community that has been steadily working towards zero waste. Since the local government issued the first Waste Decree in the 1980s, nearly 75% of residential waste is diverted from landfills, the highest in Europe. The amount of litter per person has fallen from 225kg a year to 150kg. This was made possible by a combination of door-to-door and drop-off waste collection services and the promotion of home composting. By 2010, approximately 34% of the Flemish population were composting at home, preventing around 100,000 tonnes of organic materials from going to waste.
Ljubljana made headlines in 2014 by becoming Europe’s first capital city to commit to a zero-waste goal. The Slovenian capital now recycles 61% of its municipal waste compared to 38% in the Czech Republic. Its success is even more remarkable given that the city only introduced waste separation in 2004.
Are you convinced that you have the power to make a difference through your actions? Would you like to know how to live more sustainably? There are five main pillars of the zero-waste lifestyle, known as the five R’s:
Refuse. Remember that everything we consume creates the demand to make more. Refuse items that promote unnecessary waste, like plastic straws, coffee cup lids, and grocery bags. Say no to things like printed receipts, freebies from hotels, and utensils and sauce packages when you order takeaways.
Reduce. Cut down on your electricity, water usage, air travel, and petrol. Take shorter showers, invest in eco-friendlier light bulbs, and a low-flush toilet. Shopping from bulk bins is another great way to save money, since you don’t pay for packaging – you have to bring your own.
Reuse. Swap, borrow, and fix instead of buying new items. Use car shares and bike shares instead of buying a car, and use co-working spaces. Buy used items instead of shopping for new ones. Replace your disposable paper and plastic products with reusable alternatives such as cloth napkins and handkerchiefs, glass jars, and tote bags. Fertilise your houseplants with coffee water, nail clippings, and eggshells.
Recycle. Even though it is not a dependable solution to our waste problem, since it misleads us into thinking plastic and paper are harmless and easily reusable, it is still better than tossing something into the trash. So, before you do it learn how to do it right – wash your plastic pots, tins, and cupboard containers before turning them in; remember that broken dishes and cups don’t belong in the glass recycling bin; and bring your egg cartons to the egg seller at your farmer’s market (or use them to buy more eggs).
Rot. Start composting your organic waste. Drop off your compost at your local community garden (the map for the Czech Republic can be found at https://www.mapko.cz/) or start such an initiative in your community.
If you are looking for small ways to start, look for something close to your heart. Making little changes in areas you genuinely care about will make your motivation to live sustainably last longer. For example, if fashion is your passion, research local second-hand stores, visit clothing swap events (like the one at Prostor 39), or have a look at fashion brands that upcycle or use recycled materials.
Big animal lover? Support businesses that do not test on animals. Even though testing cosmetics on animals is banned in the EU, you still can’t be sure that your favourite moisturiser hasn’t come from somewhere that permits it. Keep in mind that “cosmetics” doesn’t include household products like wall paint or soap, drugs, or laundry detergent. If you are wondering how animal cruelty and zero waste are connected, the answer is sustainability. Squandering animal lives is just as bad as wasting other natural resources. According to PETA, 97% of animals are slaughtered after the experiments are done, in addition to animal testing contributing to air, water, and soil pollution; public health concerns; and biodiversity issues.
The biggest change we can all implement is related to food – its preparation, consumption, and transport. Take, for example, the latter: preparation is key. Hanging a tote bag by the front door so you don’t have to get a paper one at the store is a good idea, as is sticking a couple of reusable sacks into it to avoid putting your bananas into a single-use plastic bag. Speaking of bananas, collect the lonely ones – they are no worse than their brothers in the bunch, but they will most likely end up in the garbage pile if you don’t pick them up. And, if you can afford it, don’t buy pre-packaged greens, opt for those at a local market – no-waste and sustainable shopping at the same time.
Czech cities are great for implementing zero-waste practices into your everyday life. Many people here are very passionate about reducing the piles of garbage they create. Take the aforementioned Zero-Waste Česko, which works to end unsustainable waste practices and provides a lot of resources for those who are interested in sustainable living. In Prague and other parts of the nation, there are plenty of zero-waste/no-packaging stores, like Country Life, Bezobalu, and more, which can be found on this map https://mapa.reduca.cz/.
Otoč Kelímek (“turn the cup”) is another great initiative that distributes colourful reusable coffee cups. Customers in places like pop-up markets pay a deposit of 50Kc for the cup, which is used for drinking coffee, and all they have to do is return it later to get their money back. You’ll sleep a little easier at night knowing that one less single-use coffee cup ended up in the landfill or ocean.
Solving the world’s waste problems seems daunting and in some ways impossible. But every one of us has a choice – being a part of the problem or contributing to the solution. If we consumers change our way of living, shopping, and managing our waste, global corporations will have no choice but to follow suit. By starting your zero-waste journey today, you’ll be doing your part in ensuring a healthier environment, a cleaner home, and that for which we all strive for, a clearer conscience.