Clare has been on her low-waste journey for around 10 years, and has even managed to cut down her waste dramatically with a young family, which got me very excited – I instantly wanted to learn how she has done this so decided to interview her so I can share her advice and journey with others, as I think she is such an inspiration! Clare joined the Energy and Environment Institute in September to start her MSc investigating microplastic ingestion in Antarctic fish species. We soon got chatting about plastic pollution and going low-waste, something I have started trying to do in the past couple of years.
We could have chatted for ages, sometimes going off the low-waste topic a bit but still talking about environmental issues that are very much related. I learnt from our chat that going low-waste is definitely a journey, there are no quick fixes, and you should definitely not beat yourself up for not being completely zero-waste. It’s an extremely complicated topic, knowing what the best thing to do for the environment is; but just the fact that you are trying to help and making those small changes does make a difference.
What’s your background?
“I always had an interest in animals and our planet, I initially planned on being a wildlife vet, but decided I may not get that far, so my undergraduate degree was in Media and French! After my degree, it hit me that I really wanted to work with animals! I volunteered and did a part time HNC in Animal Science & Welfare. I then spent 10 years working in Zoos…in an office, working on records for captive breeding programmes, before moving towards in situ conservation work, where the impact we’re all having on our planet became much more apparent…this was the start of my journey. I’ve been working to reduce my impact from that point on. The fact that vast quantities of anthropogenic waste from everyday products was reaching the most isolated parts of our planet, but that we really have no idea what impact this is having, was what spurred me into investigating this further and why I put in my MSc proposal…I hope to be part of the large army of people that successfully revert the destruction of our universe!”
Why did you decide to go low waste/plastic free? Was there a moment where you suddenly decided to make changes or did it gradually happen or have you always done it! What inspired you?
“I was originally inspired, it must have been 10 years ago, by reading about this girl in California who had done an environmental science degree. She lived in a city in the States and decided she would do a year of reducing her waste; by the end of the year her waste fitted into a small Kilner jar. I’d like to get to that stage but I’m nowhere near that yet. She’s not some kind of hippy or anything but she had access to the stores where she could buy things without packaging. And if you don’t have kids then you can change your way of doing that a lot more easily!”
Did you make the change from then on or has it been more gradual?
“It’s definitely been gradual and I think it needs to be. It’s just very difficult to change your life – even now there’s lots of things I struggle with. For example with toilet paper lots of people have gone to Who Gives a Crap but they wrap all their toilet roll individually in paper Some people have used that paper as wrapping paper but I don’t buy that many presents!! Paper production has a high carbon impact, so I feel it may be better to buy the largest pack in a plastic bag that I can recycle in larger stores… but as with many things, it’s difficult to tell.
“Another of my friends has started using reusable toilet paper and I have mentioned this to my husband… So basically just flannels, which I’ve used for the kids, wiping poo off them and putting it in the washing machine, but for some reason your own kids poo doesn’t seem quite as personal and difficult to cope through your washing machine as your own! So I haven’t made that step yet! And I know people locally who have and have said actually its nicer, you know if you have a wet flannel you’re getting cleaner quicker but that’s a step too far for me right now!”.
Has it been disruptive to your everyday life? What’s been the hardest change?
“No not really. Each Saturday morning we go to the market and get our vegetables, it’s become a routine and I think that’s why it’s so important to go slowly so you need to have a look of what you can do and there’s a few things like porridge oats and other dried goods you can buy in bulk as they store well. I’ve tried lots of different ways but until yesterday we didn’t have a local zero waste store!
“There’s a really good one in Cleethorpes [around 1hour away] called Spill the Beans which has been around for years and years so we would make a trip to Cleethorpes, take a trip to the beach and make a day of it so that we would have some kind of feedback from that for the climate and then we’d go and have a boot load of stuff as it’s all dried products that last forever, so lots of it. But not ideal. We’ve tried lots of different stores, I haven’t yet tried this new one but there is one in York that has a much nicer system. Spill the Beans has scoops and you put your hands in so people worry about contamination and if you have allergies that’s a big worry but the one in York is a pull system. There’s a Morrisons near Leeds and they have a similar system but a small number of goods. There’s a price difference as well with these types of shops, the one in York you just couldn’t afford to do that regularly on a normal salary with kids! Possibly because we’re used to food being so cheap so it’s difficult to change but you have to take that into account as well.
“That’s a very middle-class view – if I get better quality food and I’m helping the environment and that’s great but unfortunately not everyone can do that in terms of the economy if there’s cheap food and you’re struggling to survive, you’re going to go for cheap food. Okay I’m not in that position but I think that needs to be considered in terms of looking at change. The one in Cleethorpes was actually cheaper than a lot of goods I was getting in the supermarket so that was a good option”.
So you have 2 young kids, how difficult was it when they were babies? And has it got easier?
“So the nappy thing was the key aspect and unfortunately my 3 year old seems to be the last 3 year old to move away from nappies! We’ve even tried saying ‘you know we’ve got to save the planet’! And he went on a climate march and said we’re going to wrap the world in rope and get it on the helicopter and help save the world you know a very sort of literal view of it; we drew that on a t-shirt for him and he loved that idea but yeah that hasn’t encouraged him to get out of the nappies.
“Obviously, there’s the cloth nappy option and I’ve got hundreds of cloth nappies which I will give to someone that can reuse them. I used them with my first one. Not so much in the first year, babies are stressful and take up a lot of time, but after that, I used them most of the time. However, it’s time consuming to keep changing the nappies. A lot of my friends said they got on really well with them and they last longer than the disposable nappies but I found the opposite. I found I had to change them quite regularly otherwise they just leak [urine] through and you would just be washing all of their clothes! And my youngest now reacts if he has a day of reusable nappies – he gets really nasty rashes even if I change them regularly and so unfortunately I’ve not used them as much as I’d like with my second one.
“It’s still useful to have them in the house so if he dirties his nappy at 4 o clock and he’s about to have his bath if I put a reusable nappy on and he has a wee before bath time then that saves one nappy for like an hour. So yeah there are occasions when I use it but it’s not the ideal solution for me yet! But definitely recommend people with babies having a few for those short periods of time and that kind of aspect.
“There are other methods around, there’s something called the elimination method where you can apparently train your child to use a potty without ever using nappies at all! But yeah me and my husband weren’t prepared to go down that route; it’s difficult to know what the effects would be on the child in terms of development. It sounds like an interesting method and obviously saves a lot on nappies and, but requires a lot of time and perseverance at the beginning, especially when you’re sleep deprived and trying to cope with the feeding and why are they crying all the time and all of the other stressors!
“So yeah there’s certain things you can’t beat yourself up over. Give them a try and if they work for you then that’s excellent but also remember this is a journey that we’re all trying to take, some things you win and some things you lose.”
Do your kids understand going plastic free?
“Yeah so both of them are really into litter picking and my 6-year-old has asked to go on litter picks, so we’ve taken a bag and pickers on the way back from school, joined some local pickers and cleared up along near our house. But as with any kid that’s fine when it suits them but when they want a plastic toy that looks really good, it’s different! They are very used to me suggesting we can think of something more sustainable but yeah things like magazines every so often with the horrible toys – you can try and convince them as much as possible but I also don’t want to be too strict. I feel like I can advise them but this is my fight not necessarily their fight. I want them to work it out on their own a bit”.
It’s the same with I’m vegetarian but I wouldn’t want to force that one my kids. I would explain to them why and let them make their own decision.
“So we’ve reduced our meat content a lot recently and actually our youngest who’s quite used to that diet, on a few occasions where he has had meat recently he hasn’t enjoyed it as much. He loves sausages, I think every kid does, but he eats all kinds of vegetables. He’s not fussy but now he doesn’t seem to be so taken with meat and I wonder if that’s because we’ve reduced it so has just gotten used to it. But at nursery or school the majority of meals will have meat in them strangely. And even if you go to the vegetarian option they usually have Quorn which I struggle from the climate aspect…
“There are plenty of vegans or climate enthusiasts that are really opinionated and think their way is right and actually it’s not a simple answer, you know even if you’re vegan or vegetarian using things like avocados and soya obviously is a real monoculture crop.
“I think initial interest in waste and plastics came from looking at the palm oil issue; I boycotted palm oil for a long time and then some research, from ZSL [Zoological Society of London] initially, looked at the issues related to palm and basically palm oil is the most productive oil plant – you can get the most oil from the least amount of land. It’s just how its produced is the problem, so if you use sustainable palm oil its better than using rapeseed oil in terms in the amount of oil you’re getting from it. If you’re using local rapeseed oil possibly you’re supporting local businesses but the amount of oil used in everyday products could not sustainably be supported through local rapeseed oil production. That would disseminate our landscape just as palm oil is decimating Indonesian landscape”.
It’s so hard to know what to do!
“So that’s why I took the zero-waste option – and when I say zero-waste I mean lowering waste, the idea of reducing, reusing and recycling. So reducing first so trying to use things as little as possible, reducing food waste, reducing things that we buy. I remember a comment recently on twitter regarding plastic use in washing machines. And someone commented well just don’t use plastic clothing, That’s all very well but… if I chuck away everything that contains plastics in my clothing or bedding or anything that’s going through the wash the amount of plastics that’s in there you’ve got that waste already so if you put a filter into your washing machine then you’re coping with the problem of plastic waste to a certain extent but if you replace all of those what am I going to do go and buy new organic cotton clothing because I can’t find non plastic clothing in reuse shops? And I’m not saying necessarily buying plastic clothes from a charity shop is the way forward but if you need clothes then surely that’s a better option.
“I just think all of the problems are so complex and if you buy everything locally the population in the UK is huge and we don’t actually have the land to sustain it – and I know that’s a problem in itself – but if you analyse every single option you’re just not going to live! If you did just buy cotton then you have to think about monoculture, GM crops, pesticide and water use; bamboo in itself has issues in production…”
What are the hardest things to find alternatives to? Especially as a family?
“Crisps are probably the thing I’m struggling with most! We get larger bags to share, but it’s difficult to substitute that salty, crunchiness! I try and replace with salted roasted seeds, which work to an extent, but not quite the same!”
What do you think are the advantages to a low waste lifestyle?
“I guess just slightly less guilt and once you start, you realise quite how much waste we produce as humans. It’s nice to see the change we’ve made when we put the bins out”.
Can you give us some examples of how you reduce your waste in the bathroom?
“Sure, so soap bars have come back in fashion, so we use soap bars for shampoo (Lush and the Yorkshire Soap Company do nice ones), shower gel and hand soap; cloth wipes for make-up removal and Dentabs for toothpaste, which I order in a 6 month batch from ‘Anything But Plastic’ who deliver from a large imported pot into a cardboard box to send, and there’s even a scientific paper where researchers investigated the effectiveness of them for cleaning your teeth!”
What do you think is the greatest issue when it comes to being low waste?
“I don’t think I’ve found many issues, it’s just about taking it slowly, not being hard on yourself. I went through a stage of panicking when we picked anything up that would increase our waste, but now I take things in my stride more and just do as well as we can. Occasionally life becomes busy and tiring, so sanity comes first…e.g. a ready meal or something! But I’ve become much more disciplined in preparing waste-free pack-ups, which must save money in the long run!”
For someone who wants to start reducing their waste or plastic use, what would you suggest is the best way to get started?
“So I would say don’t be hard on yourself, think of it as a journey. Definitely buying things in larger quantities so when we can’t get to the zero waste store, Morrisons and Tesco do a 3kg pasta bag which you can put into pots in your own house which will last longer than buying lots of separate packs. So even if you’re on your own you can do it as dried products have such a long life! Things like dried products are easy to buy in bulk and store in Tupperware or tin or anything you have and then transfer small amounts that are useable in a daily amount in a jar so that’s one of the options.
“And just like everyone’s got used to taking bags to shops, get used to taking Tupperware so anything you get from the delicatessens and on occasions when we get take-away I ask the chippy to put chips in a box. Don’t be afraid of asking, shops are getting more used to it and they like it. Try and use your local vegetable market since we’ve been using it they’ve got more and more used to putting stuff out without plastics and those that they do like strawberries they’ll reuse that pot for someone who needs it. So yeah don’t be afraid to give the containers back, they’ll either work out how to use them or say to their suppliers we no longer need it. It does work eventually.
“And sanitary ware is an interesting one (sorry guys!), I haven’t bought any for quite some time and find that the reusable ones, without going into too much detail, work really well. My sister used the mooncup when travelling round the world, she found it so useful and has never looked back, if you use tampons definitely go down the cup route but the alternative is reusable sanitary towels and they work well too. I feel in terms of global poverty issues those type of options should be made available. I know they’re expensive as a first off and washing facilities are not always available, but if you’re providing free sanitary towels or tampons then why don’t you provide those options too with instructions, for those that can use them it saves the need to purchase and also prevents waste! It won’t be for everyone, but could help”
Thanks so much for chatting with me Clare, you are such a zero-waste inspiration! I’m looking forward to reducing my waste further, but remembering that it is a process and not to give myself a hard time for not being perfect! I hope it has been helpful to others too and would love to hear any other low-waste tips!