If the idea of a zero waste life seems impossible, waste warrior Anita Vandyke has some words of reassurance. Just start where you are, she says.
“A lot of people get scared off by the term ‘zero waste’,” says Vandyke, “but… small steps make a big cumulative difference.” Which is why her recently released book, A Zero Waste Life in Thirty Days, actually offers three levels of change-making.
The former rocket scientist (she has a degree in aeronautical engineering) turned medical student and blogger, who currently divides her time between Sydney and San Francisco, also wants to spread the word that making changes can be easier than you might think.
Chatting from the US, Vandyke says that cutting down on waste has actually given her more time, and more money – and allowed her to live a life more in line with her values than the high-paying corporate role she quit at the age of 26 after a light-bulb moment in a meeting.
“I came to environmentalism based on economics first of all, which was how to make ends meet on one income [her husband’s] after quitting my corporate job. So I reflected on how I could do this and I realised that all my life my parents had been doing this. Being the first-born daughter of a Chinese migrant family, we never had a lot of money growing up. And so, my parents were always environmental in the way they did things because they had to. Things such as buying things second-hand, not wasting your food, treating your resources as if they are of value and not a throw-away resource was something that was really ingrained into me,” she says.
“So I reflected on all the lessons I'd learned growing up and applied them to my everyday life.”
While it might seem like a zero-waste life would take a lot of time, effort and even money, Vandyke says it’s the opposite. Buying less food and wasting less of it has cut her food bill by around 20 per cent; and having less stuff, and simpler options, has given her more time to do the things she really cares about.
Sounds good? We asked Vandyke to give us her top tips for people wanting to make some changes and cut down on their waste.
Apply the Goldilocks approach
In her book, Vandyke espouses a Goldilocks approach to decluttering, which is a big part of her low-waste life, and she says it’s a good way to think of the entire low-waste journey, too.
“With everything I just say, ‘do what feels right for you’. The Goldilocks rule, it's a balancing effort. Not too much, not too little. Just right for you. And only you can know what's right for you,” Vandyke tells us.
And give yourself some grace – as she writes in her book, “Be kind to yourself. Perfection is not the goal.”
Make a take-it-with you kit
“A zero waste kit tackles the big four plastics that are most commonly found on beachside clean-ups – that includes plastic drink bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags and coffee cups. All those four things can be replaced by reusables.
“I put my stainless steel drink bottle in there, a little stainless steel straw, my reusable coffee cup, which I also use to put snacks in as well - so that's a little hack there. I can also put takeaway in there, so a bit of pastry that you might have from a café or the leftovers of a salad. A cup has so many great purposes. I also have a foldable tote bag. And I transfer that little drawstring bag easily from a backpack to a handbag. A zero waste kit prevents about 80 to 90 per cent of waste when you're out and about."
Do a bin audit
“This is day 2 of my 30-day guide for a reason. I think the changes that we make have to be in alignment with our lifestyle,” Vandyke explains. “So the bin audit is a reflection of ‘Hey, what are we actually sending to landfill and can we make sensible changes?'.
"We might find that there's a lot of coffee cups. A simple switch for that is really easy - to get yourself a Keep Cup. Or if there's lots of take-away containers, think of how you can adapt your lifestyle to make some recipes that are really simple and easy to do.
“I suggest go through the main bin in your house just before the bin pick-up day is. So if your bin pick-up is on a Tuesday, then do it on the Monday night, so you can see how much waste you're actually going through a week.”
“I was initially daunted by the idea of doing my own composting, “ Vandyke writes in A Zero Waste Life. “I was worried it would be messy, smelly and attract rodents. But it turns out there are simple solutions for all of these issues.” Her suggestions include keeping a food scraps container in the fridge or freezer, and taking thse scraps to a community composting location, such as a community garden; or buying a composter or an apartment-friendly Bokashi bucket to do it yourself.
Put an “Eat Me" box in the fridge
Vandyke says having an ‘Eat Me First’ container as a home for “the food that mysteriously disappears in the fridge” is a great way to cut down on the amount of food you throw out.
Have a ‘favourite five’
“Have a handful of turn-to recipes that you can pull up in a jiffy so it [cooking] doesn't have to be onerous,” Vandyke suggests. “Because I think sometimes we're overwhelmed with choice and by keeping it simple and having five favourite recipes, you know that you can always turn to those without having to resort to take away.”
“And cooking from scratch doesn't have to be hard, because once you cook seasonally and you cook produce that's so fresh, you don't need to do much to it… It doesn't take much more time than getting take away. “
Have a Friday night mash-up
Vandyke nominates a good curry as her favourite “Friday night mash-up” – her description for getting creative ahead of your weekend shop and turning vegetables and other leftovers in the fridge into a meal. Egg scrambles are another favourite.
Vandyke even uses some leftovers in homemade cleaning products, with citrus skins used in her DIY all-purpose cleaning spray.
Small changes, big picture
When we mention to Vandyke that food waste has been front of mind for the SBS Food and Food Network teams partly because of Zero Waste Week and partly because the eye-opening documentary Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, narrated by Anthony Bourdain, is coming up on Food Network (9.30pm September 23), she says she was a big fan of the globe-trotting chef.
“I love that documentary … because firstly Anthony Bourdain, who doesn't love Anthony Bourdain? But also, it goes into waste in a way that we hadn’t seen before, in terms of specifically food waste. There's lots of documentaries about plastic waste but this was about epidemic of food.”
But Vandyke doesn’t want anyone to feel like the problem is so big that they can’t make a difference. “Environmentalism isn’t about overwhelming pollution statistics… it’s about embracing simple, everyday switches,” she writes in the book.
So what’s next?
Vandyke is in countdown mode – the medical studies are on hold, because she’s expecting her first baby, due in November. She’ll be moving back to Australia to be closer to family. But in the meantime, it’s onwards with the zero waste message.
“[People] always say, ‘What can one person do?’ But, I love that there's a little meme going around saying, ‘One straw, does that make a difference? What if eight billion people said that?’ So I like to think of small differences, small changes making a big cumulative difference."