We live in bizarre times, with the coronavirus outbreak bringing the world to a near standstill.
On the zero waste front itself, it has been confusing.
In this atmosphere of fear, it can be hard to talk about waste when everyone feels backed into a corner and in pseudo-survival mode. Hygiene is often associated with disposables and convenience takes center stage when options are narrowed.
Everyone is on edge about the transmission of viruses through surfaces, and disposables have gone on the rise with takeaways. Some F&B businesses started denying reusables.
Certain wet markets, a go-to for unpackaged food, had to shut operations or limit their hours.
The food waste from breaks in the supply chain or eventually as a result of errant stockpiling compound the effects in a time when many can’t afford to feed their families.
It’s a tricky situation to navigate.
The link between the pandemic to the careless ways humans have exploited the environment, however veiled it may seem right now, cannot be disregarded.
But like all scenarios, there are silver linings, lessons and adjustments.
Here are some ways zero waste living helped me adapt with the changing times, setbacks, and what we can all learn from this.
Zero Waste Living Helps Us Adapt To Our New “Normal”
Strategic, Optimized Shopping
The zero waste lifestyle has taught me how to shop ‘better’ over the past few years – with a little more intention and a little less impulse.
Shopping for food includes planning and preparing containers to be refilled for each of the items on our shopping list.
I’ve gotten better at managing the optimum amounts of food we buy to avoid food waste. Buying them loose meant we can buy the exact amounts we need.
Though I’m not immune to it, it helps me avoid “running to the supermarket to buy this one thing I forgot”, a luxury we’re not afforded right now.
I’ve also become more familiar with fresh ingredients and dried goods available in bulk, the ones most commonly available unpackaged.
These dried grains, beans and rice were now the perfect food to stockpile – long lasting and nutritious – to tide us over in this season.
It helped us not leave the house for 8 days while still cooking and eating full nutritious meals heavy with fresh ingredients.
I usually buy vegetables in bulk at the wet market for the week to minimise trips – greens get cooked first, root vegetables last longer and are cooked later in the week. I bulk buy tofu in my container, freeze portions of them for later.
A lot of what zero waste living teaches is prioritising, finding solutions and alternatives to creating waste. So when zero waste options are not available, we accommodate and improvise to lessen our impact.
We can buy bigger packaged bags instead of individually wrapped.
We can bypass fresh produce wrapped in plastic, and choose from the selected few unwrapped in the supermarket.
If we stockpile with packaged food, we can try and choose those in recyclable packaging and recycle it after
We eat from our urban garden and grow more.
We try not to indiscriminately panic buy packaged food that may ultimately go uneaten.
So whatever ways we’re getting by in this season, we can still do it with lower impact.
The Power of Community
Like many other other groups, active players in the zero waste and sustainable living community used the power of community to keep communication and logistic channels open to help to divert food and divert food to those most in need.
In Malaysia, food rescue groups became support systems to their partner network who now had even more potential food waste to be diverted with many clients ceasing orders. Zero Waste Malaysia mobilised their volunteer network to help those requiring assistance. Kebun Kebun Bangsar donated produce from their community permaculture garden to feed the vulnerable. Biji Biji Initiative started producing emergency PPE and medical equipment to help with the shortage on the frontlines.
Many zero waste stores responded quickly to the community’s needs, buying and producing hand sanitisers in large volumes to be refilled as needed, policing purchases as best as possible to ensure more people could access them. While pharmacies and supermarkets across the city were sold out, they were a saving grace.
Simplifying Our Lives
Shopping trips are an arduous endeavour at this time, so simplicity is key.We can greatly reduce our need to buy multiple items by switching to some handy zero waste staples.
Bidets (or your shower) means you don’t need to buy toilet paper.
Handkerchiefs means no need for tissues.
Bar soaps like Aleppo / Ghar soaps can be used from head to toe, even to brush your teeth (though I am not a fan). The bar soap is everyone’s best friend, in keeping our hygiene and in keeping things simple.
We can fill our shopping carts with food for the week without having to worry about stocking up on liquid soap packets, shampoo, toothpaste etc.
Where Zero Waste Takes A Backseat
Health and Medical Waste
Precautions like wearing a mask in the interest of avoiding potential contact with the virus is not something any of us should recommend forgoing. I don’t reuse masks for the sake of “saving” due to risk of contamination.
But we can greatly reduce the number of masks we’re using to protect ourselves by cutting down on the amount of times we go out in public.
Zero waste living helps cut down 90% of our individual waste, the unnecessary waste, so we can allow for the 10% of waste we do create that is absolutely necessary.
Between a plastic bag for a fried snack and a surgical mask – I rather the surgical mask.
When stockpiling panic took a hold on most people during the coronavirus outbreak, I personally needed to override my fear of the “what if”s too.
What if food supply chains are disrupted? Should I buy a lot of packaged food?
What if water supply gets cut? Should I be buying bottled water?
I held out and fought off those fears.
But it never came to me battling the rules I set for myself – I had family members override me, who went shopping without me to get some packaged food for emergencies.
While I didn’t threw the zero waste handbook out the window, I definitely relinquished some of that control.
This brings me to some of the lessons we can learn from this past few weeks:
It’s Okay To Relax The Rules You’ve Set For Yourself
I can be less harsh on myself, at the same time I can still use my internal compass to decide how far I’m willing to relax my rule on not creating waste.
If push comes to shove, it’s okay to prioritise other demands. Safety comes first.
The crux of zero waste living is not to be perfect, plus not everyone has access to the same solutions. We continue to find ways to reduce our environmental impact to the best of our ability and situation.
We Take a Stark Look at Our Priorities
The devastating economic impact on a large part of the population saw a lot of income drying up, particularly for freelancers and small businesses.
Many individuals have limited savings to weather the storm.
This season has become a powerful motivator for many to reprioritise spending so that we’re all able to stretch our dollar further for longer.
The most important things – our health, shelter, and food, have taken their rightful place – whilst all the unimportant have fallen to the wayside. The “non-essential goods”.
Impulsive, unnecessary purchases are quashed.
Zero waste and minimalism principles overlap in this regard – generally helping us avoid buying things we don’t actually need or can access with a greatly reduced cost both to our wallets and the environment.
This can amount to significant savings that contribute to a rainy day fund to keep us afloat in times like these.
Self Sustainability / Homesteading
When it feels like the world is ending, the Doomsday Preppers agenda can look like the ideal solution.
I found myself wishing for more self sustainability and less reliance on the system.
A permaculture garden to feed us. Rainwater harvesting for potable water. Solar panels.
It made me realise how far of a reality that was to my current state. There’s so much more for me to do, and for us to do as a society.
I’d really like to encourage everyone to explore and enjoy more areas of zero waste living, so that we can be better stewards of the environment and be an agent of change to steer the world away from the next crisis.
I hope everyone is doing well and managing as best as they can. Don’t beat yourself up too much if you already see a growing pile of trash in your bin.
We learn, we readjust, and we do better the next time.
Stay Safe Y’all