10 easy ways to reduce waste

I may be a little late to the party on this, but ever since returning to London, I’ve become far more aware of how much plastic I use, and how much food I waste. There are a number of reasons for this change in mindset, including two very poignant articles; one about plastic bottles in London and the other about the uninhabited ‘garbage island’ in the South Pacific, which is covered in over 38 million pieces of plastic. But one of the main reasons is my recent trip backpacking across South America, where I witnessed the most beautiful scenery imaginable, as well as getting the opportunity to scuba dive and see a huge array of fascinating marine life. The idea that these are in danger, particularly the latter due to a growing amount of plastic in our oceans, is terrifying.

Taking in the sights in Taganga, Colombia

I’m aware that many people will not change their lifestyles and suddenly become 100% environmentally friendly, simply because I have written this article, or because they see a picture of a crab in a plastic tub. And whilst I am doing my best to adjust my habits, I’m still very far away from a zero waste lifestyle. But in my daily life, I’ve discovered a number of small changes I can make, which have a low cost, but a potentially high impact. I hope that personally, by taking these baby steps, I can work towards being more and more environmentally friendly, and hope others can be encouraged do the same.

My main focus is on plastic, which is also the worldwide priority. It takes 450 years to decompose, and once I started looking around, I realised how prevalent it is everywhere. Luckily, much of it is recyclable, but nonetheless I’m trying to reduce my usage, and have become oddly paranoid about checking the packaging on everything I buy. The other topic is food waste, which is a huge issue in the UK (around 7 million tonnes of food are wasted per year).

The below is based on living in the UK, specifically London. Having grown up in Switzerland, where you have to pay for your waste, which hugely increases recycling, as well as Germany, where there’s an extra charge on bottles that is refunded when you return them, I’m fully aware of how far the UK still has to go. It’s also based on my lifestyle: I work 9-5, live in a small flat in North London, and am responsible only for myself.

Saving plastic

  1. Check the packaging on your food and recycle everything you can. I used to only recycle the really obvious things, like wine bottles or cardboard packaging, but plastic in particular is often recyclable – like yogurt pots or fruit packets. Unfortunately, a lot of plastic still isn’t recyclable (like the bags salad comes in, or the plastic film covering fruits), which is a larger issue, but the packaging always states this. Even with something as small as a packet of hair clips, the cardboard they’re attached to, and the plastic they’re wrapped in, are wholly recyclable! Bonus: your bin takes much longer to get full.
  2. Never buy pre-cut fruit or vegetables. There are two benefits to this – value for money, and reduced plastic. For example, at my local Sainsbury’s, a whole pineapple costs £1, whereas the pre-cut plastic pot costs £3. Bonus: The first has around twice as much fruit, so you get way more bang for your buck!
  3. When you buy loose fruit and veg at your supermarket, only take a plastic bag if you need to. If it’s just one head of garlic, one courgette, or two carrots, you don’t need to keep them in three separate plastic bags! Unlike in other countries, British supermarkets weigh your produce at the counter, so there’s no need for you to separate and package it up, only to throw away the bags when you get home.
  4. If you have a greengrocer near you, try and buy your fruit and vegetables from them, as they don’t wrap everything in plastic, but use paper bags (at least my one does). Bonus: their produce is always better quality, and often cheaper!
  5. Buy a reusable water bottle and carry it with you. Luckily, the tap water in the UK is drinkable (if you’re travelling, I highly recommend investing in a LifeStraw bottle), and I have often walked into a coffee shop or bar to ask for a refill without any issues. Bonus: staying hydrated.
  6. Avoid plastic cutlery and straws. These are a huge contribution to the plastic in our oceans, and so easy to avoid. I now ask for my drinks without straws, always take metal cutlery at work, and if I get takeaway from itsu or similar, I don’t take cutlery, because I can use what I have at home.
  7. Take your own bags grocery shopping. This is already quite common in the UK due to the 5p charge on plastic bags, implemented back in 2015, so most people have already bought into this.

Our flat’s ‘recycling corner’

Reducing food waste

  1. Plan your meals. When you buy food, plan your meals to make sure you have enough ideas and opportunities to use it all up. Alternatively, if you have a grocery store close to you, try and avoid doing a big shop, but rather a couple of smaller ones, so that you don’t buy things ‘just in case’, and then waste them (I’m quite lucky, because my supermarket is just across the road, so I do the latter).
  2. Use more of your food, and eat your leftovers. I’ve started using lemon zest, as it’s so flavourful and versatile (a new favourite side dish is to mix up Greek yogurt, za’atar, and lemon zest, or just grate it on top of spinach/asparagus). Slightly wilted lettuce can be fried with garlic like a bitter green. Fruits that have gone soft can be blended into smoothies, or juiced. Stale bread can be made into croutons. If your meat is about to go bad, stick in the freezer and use it at a later date. And so much more!
  3. When it comes to perishable food, only buy in bulk if you really need to. Offers are always so tempting – in German, the expression for this is aktiv sparen (active saving), when you buy more at a discount without needing it. These offers are often more enticing than useful, and I’ve definitely been tempted to get three heads of broccoli for the price of two, before remembering that I don’t actually like broccoli!

In my opinion, it’s very difficult to change your habits entirely (a zero waste lifestyle is, quite frankly, unrealistic for most people), but the above can hopefully help in some way without being too invasive. I personally have already seen the benefit, and it’s only been 7 weeks since I got back from South America. And it’s not just the environment – a lot of the tips above save you money, too!

I’ve also come across various companies recently that embrace various aspects of the pro-environment lifestyle:

  • Ecosia – a search engine that plants a tree with every search you do. An easy Google Chrome add-on or mobile app
  • OLIO – an app that aggregates unused food that you can pick up for free, from supermarkets and individual users in your area
  • 4 Ocean – a company aiming to clean up the oceans by selling bracelets made from recycled plastic
  • Tiny Leaf – a zero waste, vegetarian restaurant in South London that uses ‘wonky veg’ and produce that would otherwise have been thrown away. Read more about them here.
  • Toast – a company that brews beer made from surplus bread (it’s surprisingly tasty!)

… and so many more! One area where food waste can definitely be optimised is within restaurants, as so much of what they cook is discarded, even when it’s perfectly edible. Nisbets has a great guide to food reduction measurement and processes, aimed specifically at the hospitality industry, and I do hope more restaurants take a leaf out of Tiny Leaf’s book (pun absolutely intended) in the future.  

How do you reduce your plastic usage? And food waste? Do you know any great companies/brands that are doing their bit for the environment? I would love to hear more from you in the comments!

My 4Ocean bracelet

This post includes a paid partnership with Nisbets Australia and their waste reduction measurements for restaurants. All other tips, tricks, and opinions are firmly my own.