I Try Going Zero Waste for a Week…and Failed

Li Hao/Unsplash
Li Hao/Unsplash

But not for lack of trying.

Before I delve into my own experience with attempting a zero waste lifestyle, let’s first shed some light on what precisely going zero waste entails.

What is a zero waste lifestyle?

The Zero Waste Alliance defines zero waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”

If that definition is too complex, a zero waste lifestyle can be simply summed up by its namesake — to eliminate waste in our daily lives such that we leave no impact on the natural environment around us.

While the Zero Waste Alliance’s definition seems to suggest action on a more industrial scale, the zero waste lifestyle has been popularised as a movement accessible to the layman in recent years. This first started with the trash jar movement, where individuals would fit a year (or more) of their trash into a single mason jar.

Seems extreme? It is, but the rationale for doing so was simple — to minimize the impact we, as individuals, have on the environment as much as possible.

To this end, the zero waste lifestyle promotes a movement towards the circular economy (as opposed to the typical linear economy).

Zero Waste SG

Zero waste living in Singapore

In Singapore, all our waste is incinerated, and the ashes are subsequently dumped at Pulau Semakau. This system has worked well for us and enabled us to keep our waterways and environment relatively free from pollutants and waste.

In fact, our waste management system has been so successful that Pulau Semakau, a supposed landfill, is a thriving ecosystem on its own. But it won’t be this way forever.

Experts have estimated that the landfill will run out of space by 2035.

In a bid to reverse this trend, Singapore has set a target to send 30% less waste to Pulau Semakau by 2030 in order to hopefully extend the lifespan of the landfill. While institutions have systematically implemented measures to achieve this goal, individual citizens too have taken up this call to reduce the amount of waste we generate.

The Facebook group ‘Journey to Zero Waste Life in Singapore’ has over 14,000 members who regularly share resources and information on ways to reduce their waste in Singapore. I, too, hoped to become one of them by the end of the week-long experiment.

My experience going zero waste

Despite what the title of this article says, my zero waste journey actually started a couple of years ago after I watched the documentary “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Horrified by the vast amount of waste in nature and the devastating impacts it had on the environment and wildlife, I started doing more research on how I can reduce my own waste.

This led me to discover the zero waste lifestyle and subsequently, adopt some of the habits in my own life. Even so, I wasn’t a complete convert by any means. I could never quite find the conviction to abandon the conveniences I have grown accustomed to over the years, which meant that while the amount of waste I generated was reduced, it was never quite to an extent that I could be proud of.

Thus, when I had the opportunity to pitch an article, I decided to try going zero waste for a week to see if it was something I could actually commit to. News flash: the answer was a resounding no.

Going zero waste for a week

The week didn’t begin well.

Within the first hour of Monday, I had already found myself with a disposable plastic cup and straw in hand, courtesy of my loving parents who had bought me a cup of soy milk to start the day. Thankfully, habits I picked up in my earlier years of trying to be sustainable saved me during lunchtime as I had brought my own food from home, packed in my handy Tupperware box — my little win of the day!

Unfortunately, that didn’t continue as dinner time saw me caving into the temptation of getting ice cream with my friends; the sinful treat served as a double whammy, coming in a disposable cup and spoon.

Overall, Monday didn’t go too bad, but it definitely wasn’t something for me to shout about. In fact, it wasn’t any different than I would have done on a typical day at all.
I’m ashamed to say that the rest of the week went pretty much the same way. I shall spare you the trivial details, but all in all, I would say that my week of going zero waste was a feeble attempt at best, and an abject failure at worst.

Still, I wouldn’t write this week off altogether. After all, it did help me realise precisely how much waste I generate in a week.

Just for the record, my complete tally of trash is as follows:

  • Five plastic cups (one for each day to fuel my flavoured beverage addiction)
  • Five plastic straws to go with those cups
  • Two plastic spoons
  • One paper bowls (lined with plastic)
  • Many, many pieces of tissue (I simply can’t bring myself to use handkerchiefs)
  • Miscellaneous plastic packaging from grocery shopping

Little wins for the week:

  • No plastic bags! (I carry a foldable reusable grocery bag with me daily)
  • No takeaway containers (I usually bring my own food to work)
  • No disposable sanitary products (I use a combination of reusable pads and menstrual cups)

Admittedly, the wins for the week were from habits that I had long since formed in the years prior and not as a result of my one week experiment.

So…is going completely zero waste a futile attempt?

I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion just yet. If anything, my one week attempt has rekindled my desire to do more. By forcing myself to keep track of the amount of waste I generate, it has inadvertently jolted me out of my complacency. Rather than being dejected about this failure, I see it as a week of learning more about my own habits and look forward to taking concrete steps in the future to further reduce the impact my actions have on the environment.

I might never go to the extremes of being able to store one entire year’s worth of trash into a single mason jar, but if there’s one thing I’ve realised in learning about sustainability, it’s that every bit of effort counts.

After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So…how can you go zero waste?

Or at the very least, integrate some zero waste habits into your lifestyle.

Zero Waste SG proposes that you refer to the responsible waste management hierarchy, as shown below.

Zero Waste SG

The hierarchy serves as a guideline for assessing all the consumables in your life.

As seen in the hierarchy, despite constant refrains telling us to recycle, recycling is actually the third step in the pyramid, after reducing and reusing. Thus, the decision to reduce waste in our lives should come not at the end of the life cycle of the products we use, but before we use them at all (i.e., reducing our consumption from the onset).

As an illustration of using this pyramid in my daily decision-making process, I could have easily reduced the amount of plastic cups and straws I wasted in the week simply by reducing my reliance on flavoured beverages and sticking to plain ole’ water. Otherwise, I could have reused my own water bottle for such purchases, or even recycled the plastic cups after washing them. All of these steps would have been better than what I did, which was to simply dispose of the cups — the last resort in the hierarchy.

Clearly, I have much to work on when it comes to practicing a zero waste lifestyle, but this week served as a much-needed reminder of how much more I can do.

Hopefully, my own experience serves as a reminder for you to do what you can too!

If you’re looking for resources on how to start your zero waste journey, do join the Facebook group ‘Journey to Zero Waste Life in Singapore’ for a like-minded community to support you in your journey. They also have a comprehensive list of resources and learning units to help you kickstart your zero waste journey.

Good luck, and I wish you much greater success than I had (even though I will keep trying)!


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