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Dublin: 11°C Wednesday 18 May 2022

Is it really possible to live a zero waste life? I tried for a week (and did a terrible job)

It is definitely possible to significantly reduce your day-to-day waste … but it’s harder than it sounds.

All this week, TheJournal.ie has published an article each morning on the international climate crisis and what it means for Ireland.

We have looked at the energy sector, at transport and at agriculture.

To finish the series we’re taking a look at waste and what the individual can do to make a difference.

THE IDEA SEEMED like a simple enough one when I pitched it: Live a zero waste lifestyle for a week and report on it. 

‘Zero waste’ is pretty self-explanatory as a concept: work to ensure that in my daily life I produce little to no waste. There’s a Zero Waste Movement that puts forward to importance of the Five Rs:

  • Refuse (just say ‘No’)
  • Reduce
  • Reuse 
  • Recycle 
  • Rot

Planning ahead has never been my strong point, but I thought this really shouldn’t be too hard. 

The power of one

As we’ve been focussing on all this week as part of TheJournal.ie’s series on climate change, greenhouse gas (GHG emissions) are released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels to power our everyday lives. 

A lot of the language and rhetoric around emissions and climate change can sometimes seem divorced from our every day lives and a lot of times I wonder:

What can I, as an individual, really do to respond to this global challenge? What difference would anything tiny I do make anyway? 

That focus on reducing our emissions at a personal level can sometimes feel like a bit of a red herring, especially when you consider how much big industry contributes to the problem and how much of what we do is governed by political action (or inaction) and laws.

Why should I worry about taking a flight, or eating a burrito (or, indeed, a steak) when there are drills mining into the ground to extract oil to burn? Or when thousands of fires are burning in the Amazon? Or when China is building hundreds more coal plants across the world? 

The answer that environmentalists give to this is that if public action and outcry shift a certain way, then that inspires politicians to act. So when enough people lead by example and vote and agitate, political changes are sure to follow (that’s the idea anyway). 

Already we have seen government rhetoric and action ramp up in terms of the environment since the Green Wave gave the Green Party a significant boost in European and local elections in May. 

“I would say the ratio of responsibility… it’s 90% government, 10% individual,” said John Gibbons of environment group An Taisce.

In terms of what we as individuals can affect? Maybe 10%. But the difference is we as individuals when we get together we elect governments.

Over the past few years, as awareness of climate change and the damage being done to the environment has grown, consumer habits and behaviours have been shifting. 

In Ireland, companies are responding to the change: supermarkets are taking actions to reducing packaging and waste; there are far more vegan and vegetarian options available in restaurants and supermarkets; a lot of single use coffee cups are now compostable. 

As well as this, you see people with reusable water bottles or keepy cups far more often, and environmental action and awareness is definitely growing, with protests and direct action campaigns becoming the norm. 

Public awareness of issues around the warming planet, and how our consumption habits affect it, is definitely increasing.

In the context of this, I thought it would be relatively easy to shift to a zero waste lifestyle. 

Me, myself and why

My name is Cormac Fitzgerald. I’m a 29-year-old (very soon to be 30) working in Dublin.

I love to cook and I’ve been a vegetarian for the past two-and-a-half-years for a few different reasons, but reducing the environmental impact of my eating meat is one of them.

I still eat fish occasionally and love and eat cheese daily. I have a driver’s licence but don’t own a car and I generally get a bus to work from north Dublin, where I’m from and live.

So, in short, a typical young(-ish) working professional in Dublin. 

Like a lot of people my age and those younger and older, I’m worried about climate change and global warming and what effects my actions have on the world around me.

Over the past year, what has been a low buzz of mild awareness about the climate for most of my life – I remember doing projects on the environmental damage for CSPE (or, OSSP for us gaelscoil folk) in second year – has been growing into a louder and louder alarm.

greta-thunberg-sails-to-the-us Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has become the face of the climate movement. Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth

From talking with my workmates and friends, there’s a mixture of people genuinely worried about the future of the planet, those who think more about it and are changing their habits, those who don’t give it much thought, and one or two people who couldn’t care less.

For me personally, this fear around the future sometimes manifests as anger or a need to do something. But other times it comes as a kind of paralysed apathy. The issue seems so massive and insurmountable, and I feel tiny by comparison. 

“I believe that this hopelessness is felt, to some degree, by almost everybody in our society,” Green Party MEP candidate Saoirse McHugh wrote earlier this month in TheJournal.ie.

Some choose to deny the facts, others to ignore it and I understand why. Environmental collapse is a grave and horrible reality to face, but face it we must. 

And increasingly in Ireland, and across the world, people are responding to it, and talking about it.  Now, back to our waste problem and my attempts to live a waste free life.

What’s the problem?

According to the Environment Protection Agency, in 2016 (the latest year for which figures are available) Ireland as a nation produced 2.76 million tonnes of municipal waste – meaning household waste, or commercial waste that is similar to household waste. 

This averages out at about 580kg of waste – over half a tonne – per person in the country.

In 2017, waste was responsible for about 1.5% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction on previous years due to the amounts we recycle and burn to convert to energy (rather than it going to landfill)

When we talk about waste, a lot of the focus comes onto plastic, particularly single-use plastics like food packaging and straws which we immediately throw in the bin. 

In Ireland in 2016, our plastic waste measured up to about 58kg per person, one of the highest amounts in Europe.

Plastic pollutes oceans and waterways, lasts for up to 1,000 years, and is damaging to the environment and animal life. Awareness of plastic and how much we use and throw away is growing in Ireland and across the world.

(you can listen to our Ireland 2029 podcast  on plastic waste and what we can do about it below)

New laws to ban single use plastics and cut our plastic waste are coming down the line from the EU in a few years, but there is a form of waste not getting as much attention that is even more environmentally damaging then plastic. 

If food waste was a country…

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate, another damaging form of waste – as bad if not worse than plastic – is food – with food waste estimated to contribute to over 8% of global GHG emissions.

If food waste was a country, the experts say, it would be the third largest emitter of GHG emissions in the world, behind China and the United States.

Some of the food I buy – fruit or vegetables in particular – ends up in the bin a week later. 

FoodCloud is an Irish social enterprise that links supermarkets with surplus food that is going to go to waste to charities in need of it.

They have designed an app on which put in the food they have that will be wasted, and local charities can signal that they want it and collect it themselves.  

“So in Ireland we waste over 1 million tonnes of food annually,” Iseult Ward – co-founder and CEO of FoodCloud - told me when I visited their head office in Tallaght last month. 

But the problem is across this supply chain, so there’s not one part of the supply chain that can act alone to have the greatest impact, everybody needs to work together on it.

Their sister organisation FoodCloud Hubs takes food from distributors that’s likely to go to waste and stores it to pass onto charities later.

FoodCloud says its had helped save 22,000 tonnes of food from going to waste since it was set up six years ago.

“There’s a responsibility with consumers to be about more cognisant of the food that they’re wasting,” said Ward.

“There is also a responsibility on the retail sector to educate people, but also manage their own food waste, similarly, across the supply chain.

And in government as well, to make sure that any kind of policies introduced, ensure that we are feeding people first.

My failed attempt 

So, my plan didn’t go too well in terms of waste. As the week progressed I realised just how embedded packaging and plastic was in my daily life.

Want to have a shower? You use body wash from a plastic bottle. Want vegetables? Most of the main supermarkets will have them wrapped in plastic packaging.   

Earlier this week a co-worker ordered some Indian take away. It came in a bulky cardboard box with the main dish in a plastic container, rice in another tray, naan and poppadoms individually wrapped. All just for the food to be immediately served onto a plate and the packaging thrown away.

Another co-worker ordered a pair or earplugs online that arrived yesterday in this box:


Over the week, I ate a mixture of fruit and porridge I borrowed (stole) off a workmate for breakfast. I ate dinner at a restaurant twice, and ate roast vegetables and couscous (from a cardboard packet) other nights.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t personally waste anything while eating in a restaurant but that’s hardly economically sustainable. 

I slipped up on the second day when hunger got the best of me and come lunchtime ate a burrito wrapped in tin foil that I threw in the bin when I was finished. Other days I bought some vegetables in with me, but I caved another few times and bought deli rolls wrapped in paper.

I cooked pasta (from plastic packaging) one night and ate leftovers from earlier in the week another.

Aside from food, I generated waste in other areas: body wash from a plastic bottle when I showered; a dishwasher tablet individually wrapped in plastic; a filter when making coffee which I throw away after, all of it adding to my waste pile. 

I realised as the week went on that any meaningful reduction in waste would need proper planning and discipline. It was a busy week in work, and I’m not a great planner, so the whole thing was probably doomed from the start.

My habits and my lifestyle was too geared towards convenience: buying groceries in the local supermarket as I need them and eating out and all the waste those things generate. 

I definitely reduced my over the week waste: I said no to disposable coffee cups, to snacks wrapped in plastic or film, and I bought vegetables that were packaging free. Any food I did buy, I made sure to finish it.

But all in all, hands up, I did a pretty terrible job.  

The actual Zero Waste Movement 

It won’t surprise you to learn that there are people out there who are better planners and have done a better job than me in reducing and eliminating waste.

American Bea Johnson – who came up with those Five Rs I mentioned at the start – has been called the “mother of the zero waste lifestyle movement”. 

“Of course at first it takes time to find a system that works for you but then once you have that system in place, oh my gosh,” Johnson told The Journal.ie back in 2017. 

It’s like a huge amount of time that you save, and then you just regret not having started earlier because you see your whole life as a waste of money, but also a waste of time.

There’s every indication that this movement is growing in Ireland.

A number of whole food shops have opened in Dublin in recent years where you can buy grains, vegetables, spices, hand soap, washing up liquid and other products and put them in your own containers.  

There’s also a lively and active Zero Waste Ireland Facebook group with over 14,000 members.  

These are all part of that growing environmental consciousness I mentioned earlier, as people begin to see the damage their habits are having on the environment and look to make a change in their lives.

I might try again next week – but this time, I’ll make sure to plan a bit more. 

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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