It was after seeing the short animated film The Story of Stuff online, in which environmental advocate Annie Leonard presents a series of environmental, social and economic concerns about the overuse of resources, that New Zealand couple Matthew Luxon and Waveney Warth decided to live for a year without sending any rubbish to landfill.
“We knew our lifestyle wasn’t ethical or sustainable and we wanted to do something about it,” says Warth. “You can buy fair trade coffee and organic vegetables, but what about the other 90 per cent of the things you consume?”
According to Warth, the challenge was a way to confront the overwhelming feeling that their consumer-based lifestyle was not a healthy lifestyle. “Once we got started, the challenge was pretty easy to stick to,” she says. To date, they continue to follow this ethos.
Every year the international sustainability think-tank Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculates the ecological footprint of almost 100 nations to discover natural resource levels. From this research, GFN concludes humanity is consuming (and discarding) resources equivalent to the production of 1.4 planets.
In support of these findings, James Leape, director general of the World Wildlife Fund, says the world is struggling with the consequences of over-valuing its financial assets and undervaluing its ecological assets. “Most of us are propping up our current lifestyles and economic growth by drawing, and increasingly overdrawing, on the ecological capital of other parts of the world,” says Leape.
The environment research organisation Worldwatch Institute says humans need a cultural shift away from excessive consumption and towards sustainability. Recent events, such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which prompted environmental campaigners to call for a massive reduction in our oil dependency, have pushed issues of resource sustainability to the fore. Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin says that as economies emerge from the global financial crisis, governments have a rare opportunity to prioritise ecological sustainability. “In the end, human instinct for survival must triumph over the urge to consume at any cost,” he says.
IN 2008 Luxon and Warth were living in Christchurch with their dog and two chickens. They owned a car but cycled often. They purchased foods locally from a butcher, a baker, a bulk-foods store and an organic store, and they cultivated a garden, which was feed with their organic waste.
But this wasn’t enough. They choose to reassess everything they purchased. Prepackaged food in plastic, takeaways in styrofoam and toothpaste in throwaway plastic tubes were all rejected.
Warth says that sticking to products in recyclable packaging is a crucial way of reducing your output, and composting organic waste could help reduce your rubbish by 50 per cent. Once your output is sorted, Warth says, you need to shift your perceptions while shopping.
“Look at everything as potential rubbish,” she says. “You might see something packaged in a wrapper that cannot be recycled, like biscuits, then you know it will just end up as rubbish, so do not buy it.”
Once you recognise products as rubbish, finding alternatives is essential.
To do this, Warth recommends buying local and organic, shopping at markets and sticking to the outside aisles of supermarkets where fresh produce is sold.
“We also did a lot of our shopping at a local bulk-foods store,” she says. “This helped us avoid packaging because we took our own containers and bags for dried foods like flour, pasta and sugar.”
SHOPPING BAG OF WASTE
At the end of the challenge, despite their best efforts to not produce any waste, the couple had amassed one supermarket shopping bag full of rubbish that weighed slightly less than two kilograms.
“There were just some things that could not be recycled, no matter how hard we tried,” says Warth.
It was these things that ended up in the bag – mostly odd items such as broken car parts, a scratched DVD, dental floss, toxic paint chips, scrap plastic, a blown light globe, a broken plastic peg and an expired dog tag.
Since the challenge, the couple have moved to Auckland and continue to incorporate their rubbish-free principles into day-to-day life.
TAKE THE RUBBISH-FREE CHALLENGE
Perhaps a rubbish-free year is too radical, but you would still like to reduce your household waste?
Waveney and Matthew suggest:
When shopping: Exercise your consumer power by only purchasing products in recyclable packaging.
Keep it fresh: Buy fresh, non-imported, seasonal foods from your local market, fruit shop, butcher and baker. When buying meat or fish, take your own container or ask to have it wrapped in paper.
Buy dry goods in bulk: Foods such as pasta, rice, flour, sugar, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts are ideal to buy in bulk. They keep will in airtight containers or sealed bags.
Make your own: Even if you are time-poor, there are easy baking recipes available to make biscuits, bread and muesli bars.
Grow your own: From backyards to balconies, vegetables and herbs are easy to cultivate once you get started with a good soil base.
Second hand: Sell, donate or give away unwanted items. One person’s trash is another’s treasure.
Fix things: Fixing things might sound old fashioned, but it will also save you money.
Compost: Try to recycle your organic waste. Worm farms are perfect for balconies or small courtyards.
Bathroom: Stick with toilet paper made from recycled sources and buy soap in paper wrapping or cardboard boxes. Avoid multi packs taped together.