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It can feel a little overwhelming to know how to get started living a lower waste life. Here’s the honest to goodness truth: The process isn’t linear, it’s actually a set of steps and stages that you build on slowly over time. If you go into the process trying to be perfect at living zero waste, it will only set you up for failure and frustration. It’s too big a task to suddenly radically change the way you consume food and material goods, so if you take things one step at a time you slowly get used to this new lifestyle and then more and more changes come naturally.
It’s well known how devastating single use plastic is for the environment. These are items like straws, plastic water and soda bottles, yogurt containers, crisp bags, cereal bags, bags that pasta come in, the plastic on the top of the grape and strawberry and meat containers, plastic produce bags, etc. These are the plastics that cannot be recycled. They sit in landfills for up 400+ years and never actually biodegrade, they only break up into small particles called microplastics that then get into our waterways. We end up consuming these microplastics in our drinking water and in the fish and other seafood that we eat, as they ingest the microplastics as well.
So what we as consumers can do is aim to purchase as little plastic as possible and a good place to start is with our food shopping. When I say plastic, I’m referring to single use plastic of course, but also “recyclable plastic” as the recycling process for plastic is quite damaging to the environment as well, and, due to cost and other factors, 91% of the worlds plastic is NOT actually recycled.
Begin to only buy fruits and vegetables that are loose and have no plastic packaging. This is a great way to get started because you can do this without going to any extra stores. When you’re in your regular shop be it Lidl, Aldi, Tesco, etc. just look around and choose only fruits and veg that have no plastic packaging. This will change the fruits and veg that you buy, and there can be a sense of loss with that, but it’s a sacrifice that you’re making for the benefit of the environment. I’m not perfect, and every once in awhile I’ll purchase a punnet of strawberries or blueberries as a treat for the kids and we all really enjoy it.
I can often find the following fruits plastic free: Apples, pears, mangoes, pineapple, bananas, pears, avocados, kiwi, tomatoes, lime, lemon, oranges. Of course I wouldn’t be purchasing all of those in the same week, but this just shows that you will still have plenty of variety.
For plastic free veg I can regularly find: Sweet potatoes, broccoli, peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes (in a paper bag), carrots, cauliflower, and asparagus (with a rubber band wrapped around it, which I save). I do continue to buy spinach which is always in a plastic bag.
Step two: Transition to buying products packaged in aluminum cans and glass jars – not plastic. (Glass and aluminum are widely and easily recycled).
-Rather than the dried black beans in the plastic package, purchase the can of black beans.
-Rather than the peanut butter in a plastic jar, purchase the glass jar. There is cost difference between these two, and it may mean that you don’t buy peanut butter as often.
-Rather than buying the plastic jug of olive/rapeseed oil, buy the glass one.
-Bring your own reusable cloth bag and use it to purchase loaves of bread.
This is where this low waste lifestyle starts to feel really inconvenient and difficult – skip the packaged biscuits and cookies and crisps. Yes, they’re delicious, but they’re foods we really don’t need to consume anyway and the waste from these items is astronomical.
There are always going to be items that don’t have a simple plastic free alternative. One item I always end up buying in a plastic wrapper is tortillas. We use them often for wraps, tacos, quesadillas, etc, and I just have to be okay with the plastic waste. Cereal is another difficult one, my kids eat a small bowl of cereal every morning when they wake up so we always have it in the house. I also have yet to find milk that I can purchase in reusable glass bottles. Other items I have yet to find plastic free are cheeses, crackers, bacon lardons, and smoked salmon.
Step 3: Once you’re rocking the plastic free fruit and veg and buying items packaged in glass and aluminum as much as possible, it’s time for the next step – buying meat with your own glass containers from a butcher shop.
Many are cutting down on their meat consumption and that is really commendable. As a family we’re not there quite yet and we eat meat at least 6 days of the week. That’s a goal for us to work on in the future. When I’m gathering up my items for grocery shopping, it always includes glass containers. This takes a little getting used to, but it’s not difficult. At my local butcher shop I asked if they’d be willing to place my items in the glass containers and they said it was no problem at all, so just ask! My usual purchases from the butcher include: ground beef, sausages, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, pork, sliced deli ham, and fish.
Meats that we consume about once a month that I cannot yet purchase plastic free include – a whole chicken, a bacon joint, ground turkey, prawns, and while I can purchase salmon from the butcher, it is quite a bit more expensive than in Lidl so I go back and forth on that.
Step 4: Begin to purchase plastic free items from a minimal waste grocery store. There are several of these popping up all over Ireland in places like Westport, Clonakilty, and Dublin. I don’t live near any of them unfortunately, BUT two stores give you the option to order on-line, youme.ie and minimalwastegrocery.com! This is where I’ve begun to purchase pasta, rice, lentils, dried fruits, nuts, baking supplies, quinoa, chia seeds, oats, and popcorn kernels.
Step 5: This step can be done at any stage really, but look around your local area for Vegetable Shops (this is where I buy zero waste eggs as well as fruit and veg and dried fruit), minimal waste grocery stores, and organic farms that sell their produce to locals and not just commercially. I just placed my first order for a zero waste fruit and veg box from Beechlawn Organic Farms which is near me and it will be delivered to my door next week!
Zero/low waste food shopping takes some getting used to and practice. It requires dietary changes that can be difficult to make and a bit more effort on your part to prepare meals and snacks. Ultimately though it’s a healthier way of living both for you and for the environment, and it really does become second nature as you get used to it. Start slowly, and make more and more zero waste lifestyle changes as you are able. There will be a far greater impact to the environment from everyone in Ireland and beyond aiming to live low waste than from few people living perfectly zero waste.
I’m Kristina, an advanced practice nurse currently on a career break, and I live in Co. Galway with my husband and 5 year old twins. We’ve been transitioning to a low waste lifestyle for the past 3 years and we still definitely have areas that need improvement. Besides low waste living, our passion is traveling as a family and we aim to do this with as small a negative impact on the environment as possible. We share about our travel life and low waste living on our Instagram page @transatlantic_leonards.