How to live a zero waste lifestyle

A Zero Waste lifestyle is living your life without collecting or throwing away any waste. The aim is to have nothing in your bin bag at the end of the day, every day.

More than three decades ago, a recycling project saw a radical change in rubbish collection with some households being given bins with four compartments holding coloured sacks – one for paper and card, textiles, cans and bottles. Many of us of a ‘certain age’ recall washing out aluminium cans, removing the paper covers and the lids before crushing them. If scraps of material weren’t used for rag rugs or quilts, they went into one of the coloured sacks. These bins were provided by a voluntary organisation and were used alongside conventional bins. The project has disappeared into the corridors of history – perhaps it was too expensive to operate or perhaps we didn’t fully engage. If we had, perhaps we would be a few decades ahead in terms of recycling and consideration for our planet.

In days gone by, those of us with gardens would put the scraps on the compost heap to be used at a later stage on the flowerbeds and vegetable patch. Who can forget the mobile greengrocer? And the butcher? And the rag’a’bone man who collected old bits of iron and textiles? When the fruit and vegetable van parked outside, we’d take our own containers or the greengrocer would give us brown paper bags.  When we went shopping, we’d bring our purchases home in brown paper bags. There was a knife-sharpening chap who came round once a month to service our knives.

We’re beginning to look back in order to move forward. Some supermarkets have already reintroduced the strong, reusable paper bag to use instead of plastics. More of us are using recycling centres and we’re looking for ways to reduce waste. 

A string reusable bag with oranges, limes and lemons.
Refillable cereals

What is a zero waste lifestyle?

A Zero Waste lifestyle is living your life without collecting or throwing away any waste. The aim is to have nothing in your bin bag at the end of the day, every day.

Why do we need to aim for zero waste?

  1. In the UK, the average person throws away around 400 kg of waste each year, seven times our own body weight. Of the 26 million tonnes of waste produced in the UK, 12 million tonnes are recycled, 14 million tonnes are sent to landfill sites – an average recycling rate of 45%.
  2. Every year 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans. This is equivalent to five shopping bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.
  3. We are overusing plastic and damaging the environment we live in – with potentially disastrous effects for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
  4. Living a Zero Waste lifestyle is a goal that involves a ‘journey’ and it’s a process that can take months and even years. Every small step is one in the right direction. If you’re reading this article, there’s a reason for it.
Coffee cup plastic lids
Plastic rings

Serious climate change

Single use plastics are a serious climate change hazard. Plastics production is expanding world wide and plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle from production to refining and the way it is managed as a waste product. By 2050, it is estimated that plastic will be responsible for 13% of the total ‘carbon budget’ equivalent to 615 coal fired power plants.  Plastic in the oceans has become high profile but not the contribution of plastic production and disposal to climate change – which is equally serious. Plastic packaging accounts for 40% of the demand for plastics world-wide and nearly all plastic – 99% - is made from fossil fuels. We need to change our plastic-filled lifestyles if we are to make a difference.

Climate change protest sign
Melting glaciers

The most common plastics and plastic-related products found on beaches are:

  • Cigarette butts

  • Food wrappers

  • Plastic drinks bottles

  • Plastic grocery bags

  • Other plastic bags

  • Drinking straws and stirrers

  • Plastic take away containers

  • Plastic lids

  • Foam take away containers

Starting a Zero Waste Lifestyle?

If you’re starting on your journey to a Zero Waste lifestyle, take a look in your bin and think about how you could cut down what goes in there.  The following are just a few ideas:

Plastic waste in the bathroom

There’s so much plastic in the bathroom – from toothpaste tubes to shampoo bottles.  The following are ideas where you can cut down:

  • Biodegradable cotton buds: Most cotton buds are largely made of plastic and are one of the top 10 items found on beaches by Marine Conservation Society volunteers. People flush them down the toilet and they pass through the sewage system to the sea. Choose organic cotton buds that are 100% biodegradable.

  • Plastic-free bars: Steer clear of liquid shower gels and handwash and switch to solids. Bars of soap don’t contain a high proportion of water as do shower gels and liquid soaps, they last longer and are more cost effective. What’s more, the carbon footprint of liquid soap is 25% more than a soap bar – needing five times more energy to produce and using 20 times the amount of packaging. Choose natural bars if possible in minimal packaging. Avoid palm oil to avoid environmental land impact.

  • Shampoos and conditioners: Try bar versions of shampoo and conditioner which use less packaging, are longer lasting with lower carbon footprints for transporting and fewer chemical ingredients. Shampoo bars include:

    • Friendly Shampoo Bar: Lavender & Geranium - £2.62

    • Lush Shampoo Bar: Montalbano – £7.50

    • Foamie Shampoo Bar: Floral Flair for Damaged Hair - £6.99

    • Christophe Robin Hydrating Shampoo Bar with Aloe Vera - £17

    • The Natural Soap Company Nettle & Rosemary Shampoo Bar - £4.50

    • Bain & Savon Shampoo Bar: Zesty Orange - £5

  • Beauty products: many of us aren’t aware that the chemical ingredients in cosmetics can have harmful effects on the environment. Ingredients like BHA and BHT, triclosan and siloxanes can harm fish and other wildlife. Words like ‘natural,’ ‘clean’ and ‘safe’ have no official or legal meaning when it comes to cosmetic labelling. Some of us, after years of using beauty products and shampoos, can suddenly develop allergic reactions including contact allergic dermatitis. Many natural beauty products including cleansers and creams contain ingredients with healing properties – lavender, wild sage, lime and coconut. Look for independent producers who are environmentally conscious – and will recycle used bottles. produces completely natural ingredients.

  • Toothpaste and toothbrushes: if you’re looking for plastic free toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash see The prices are very reasonable, some toothbrushes have plant based bristles with bamboo or similar handles, there’s silk dental floss and corn starch vegan dental floss - and so much more.

Bamboo toothbrush
Soap bars

Recycle old items, donate, sell or upcycle

  • Don’t throw old items away – donate or gift to friends, take unused clothes and items to charity shops.

  • Find a local company producing natural cosmetics and donate your used plastic bottles – for refills or for them to reuse. The Body Shop accept any empty, clean bottles, tubes or tubs to be recycled under the TerraCycle scheme and members may receive Recycle Awards.

  • Some major supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are beginning to offer incentives to shoppers who recycle. A new scheme has been launched in Lincoln where customers can return plastic bottles of any size up to 3 litres and receive 5p coupons towards shopping. Iceland has the same sort of scheme at five branches, paying 10p vouchers. Tesco is trialling a bottle return scheme, paying 10p for plastic bottles – up to £1 at a time. All these schemes are in limited number of stores pending results.

  • Use your local recycling centre – many centres have plastic recycling facilities for hard and soft plastics (see Keep an additional bin in your kitchen for your clean plastics. When recycling plastics:

    • Empty, wash and squash your containers – replace lids on bottles after they have been squashed

    • Remove any film or labels – these go in general waste

    • Plastic bags, cereal bags, bread bats, plastic wrap from toilet rolls and other items, bubble wrap and plastic wrap can be recycled at carrier bag collection points in large supermarkets

    • Electrical items such as plastic garden furniture or toys may be taken to your local recycling centre if they cannot be reused or donated

Shopping bags

We’re all using more reusable bags and bags for life - but go for all natural bags or the strong reusable paper carrier bags some supermarkets are reintroducing.

Reusable bag
A bag of apples

Think about your food waste

In the UK, it is estimated that 10 million tonnes of food and drink waste is produced a year – and 60% could be avoided. Around 70% of the food we throw away comes from the home. In 2015, the average UK household wasted £470 worth of food and avoidable food waste is estimated to have generated 19 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. 

Facts about food waste:

  • £50 million chickens are wasted in the UK each year

  • £470 a year is the amount the average UK family spends on food that is binned not eaten

  • One third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted

  • 100 million pints of milk go down the drain each year

Cows in a field at sunset

To reduce your food waste:

  • Plan and store to cut food waste

  • Don’t overshop – try to buy what you need

  • Know the difference between use by and best before dates

  • Use leftovers to create new meals

  • Recycle your food waste – created a food waste bin

  • If you or your neighbours have a garden, start a compost heap or compost bin

  • Buy in shops that are committed to less plastic packaging and buy in bulk

  • Make sure you don’t use plastic cutlery, disposable plates, plastic food bags

  • Avoid plastic-coated Teflon pans – use traditional cast iron pans

  • Wash food dishes with wooden dish brushes with replaceable heads, copper sponges and 100% cotton dishcloths.

  • Choose reusable straws – they are the 11th most common item found in oceans

  • Buy a reusable coffee cup and drinks bottle – choosing stainless steel or china

  • Choose glass or metal storage containers and lunch boxes

  • Wash jars that come with jams, sauces and pickles and reuse them at home

Paper straws
Zero waste products

Over the last few years, a number of shops committed to reducing plastic waste and sustainable shopping have sprung up and there’s an excellent website to find the nearest ones to your home – www.zerowastenearme. The site has a coding system so you can see which ones offer:

  • Bulk food buying

  • Household refills

  • Zero waste shops

  • Vegan friendly

  • Bakery services

Go vegan graffiti
Plant-based coffee

Latest articles

Get regular updates from us

We’ll email you details of the latest properties, exclusive events and real life stories straight into your inbox.