Almost Mrs Average and her Rubbish Diet - The Inside Story
In January 2008, my local council set up a bizarre challenge: for one week in March, in order to reduce the rubbish that went to landfill, participating households should not buy or use anything that produced waste that couldn’t be recycled or composted.
A Zero Waste Week!
Strangely, reducing waste had been one of my new year’s resolutions. I wanted to do something about my bins. So I was keen.
The council were keen. They wanted to know why I was interested so sent me some questions, and they wanted a photo to feature in their local magazine.
I considered this: images of my smiling face, accompanied by bin bags, would greet residents as they breakfasted, lunched or dined. Everyone would know my business.
I didn’t like people knowing my business.
I was less keen.
“But it’s good because you’re average.” They asserted
“Hmmm. I suppose I am almost average.” I hesitated.
I could see their point. This kind of stuff was normally the domain of the Greens, or even the Thrifties. I was neither. I was just an almost average woman, with my almost average family, living in an almost average house in Bury St Edmunds.
But this was not your average challenge. This was something that would take me out of my comfort zone. I would need to challenge and change habits of a lifetime – and those of the rest of my family – and if I was to slim my bin in time for Zero Waste Week, which was only two months away, I would need to take it very seriously. And, as I agreed, I realised I would need the help of others, particularly the Greens, the Thrifties and a whole host of everyday folk who knew more about this kind of stuff than me.
“I know I’ll never do it” I said to Daniel Sage, the head honcho of our council’s Zero Waste campaign, as he was sat on my sofa eight weeks before our target date – 17th March – the end of Zero Waste Week.
“I suppose you could always stop using Clingfilm”, quipped the photographer who accompanied Daniel for the photo-shoot of me and my bin for the council’s newsletter.
"But could I really tear myself away from my much loved Clingfilm?" I wondered. Surely it couldn’t make that much difference, even if I did. Or could it?
So a year ago, my Zero Waste challenge began.
I wasn’t quite convinced that ditching the Clingfilm or indeed anything else would really get me that far. Yet, I was raring to give it a go.
After all, I thought I was pretty good at recycling, not because it was a keen interest of mine, but because I felt I could recycle, so I should recycle and I ought to do my best with the facilities on my doorstep. And we’re always told we should recycle. It’s part of society’s rules.
And having grown up with the mantra “waste not want not” as a child, I’d never really liked the idea of throwing things away. So I’d always followed the rules, but not giving much consideration to why.
We had two bins – one for general waste and one for recycling. I was always careful about what I did with my cardboard, my paper, and the plastic bottles that came my way, putting it all into my recycling bin.
Then there was my compost bin, which had been swallowing my vegetable peelings for years, not because I put it to good use on some vegetable plot, but because it just simply felt the right thing to do.
I’d also have my lazy days, the victims of which were yoghurt pots with pictures of Noddy and Big Ears, which were too fiddly to wash out so would be bunged in the bin. But I was still frustrated by the amount of stuff my family threw out, including the masses of drinks cartons that weren’t recycled locally, my husband’s holey socks and the kids’ wasted food
It wasn’t entirely out of environmental concern, though that was a factor. It seemed sensible and appealed to the side of my nature that loves a challenge.
But ZERO Waste! Now that definitely seemed an impossible challenge that was right up my street.
MY ZERO WASTE CHALLENGE
Before I could get cracking on my three huge bin bags I threw out each fortnight, I realised I needed a foolproof plan for the next seven weeks. I particularly needed a change in attitude.
So I imagined that I would have to bury my family’s household waste in our very own back garden.
Picture that. Odd bits of plastic, chicken carcasses, crisp packets and kids’ toys buried in your beautiful garden. That was enough to get me motivated.
But I had to keep motivated, so I set up this blog, The Rubbish Diet, the perfect name I thought, because slimming my bin was like a diet, but unlike many other diets this was the only one where aiming for a Size Zero was accepted.
So I announced the challenge to the world. And then I waited for those who had finished watching paint dry, to look in.
And while I waited I wondered who would possibly have the faintest interest in my rubbish? But I didn’t have to wait long to find out because people were interested and began to leave comments.
Even more strangely, I became interested in their rubbish. Before I knew it, I was talking rubbish with hundreds of other people. Advice began to roll in from people all over the world, encouraging me along with top tips about freezing this, recycling that and keeping an eye out for the other.
I even found myself interviewing the odd celebrity and journalist about their rubbish, “gate-crashing” industry conferences, catching up with old rubbish friends and challenging other average folk (such as Jo, Ruby and Mrs Green) to reduce their waste.
And that is how The Rubbish Diet concept was born, with a challenge, a blog and some much needed faith.
As with any other diet, however, I soon realised that slimming my bin was not an unconnected activity. It was linked to my whole lifestyle. It was not just about recycling; it affected how I shopped and the things I bought, right through to how I cooked when I brought the ingredients home. I started to look at every aspect of my life with a fresh pair of eyes, whether I was cleaning the house or enjoying family celebrations. Even school holidays were met with the rigorous tests to see if they conformed to The Rubbish Diet rules.
It may have felt like a mid-life crisis, but what I was really going through was a complete, old-fashioned lifestyle makeover. I revisited everyday habits from decades gone by and updated them for 21st century living.
As the weeks progressed, I became aware that it was not just about me and my family following the rules in our home environment. I gradually woke up to the impact of rubbish on landfill and the environment at large and I began to realise the importance and the urgency of what I was doing.
Finally the big day came and on 10th March 2008 Zero Waste Week began.
It started off badly, when on Day One I cut my finger and was offered a plaster, but we recycled, we composted, were very careful with our shopping and, at the end of the week, that plaster was all my family threw out to landfill.
One single plaster, thanks to some imaginative attempts to eliminate some sellotape and a few sweetie wrappers.
The story was also broadcast on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which felt as bizarre as the challenge itself.
People now often stop in their tracks when they hear that all I threw out in one week was one single plaster from an unexpected cut. However, the plaster isn’t the important player here.
What’s more significant is since attempting the challenge, the amount of rubbish now sent to landfill by my almost average family can now fit into one single carrier bag.
That’s one single carrier bag per month.
If it wasn’t for the odd clumps of cat litter, we wouldn’t have to put the wheelie bin out for months, or even a whole year.
However, The best thing about the whole experience is having inspired others to follow suit, a whole host of average people, including ready-made Greens and some Thrifties too. And the funny thing is, a year on from taking up the Zero Waste challenge, I too seem to be turning a funny shade of green and I've become more wise with my pennies too, saving a whole stash of money along the way. Perfectly timed for the Credit Crunch.
I was never the first to slim my bin and I won’t be the last. And there are many others all across the world who live a minimum waste life but don’t shout about it, because it is just part of their lifestyle. It is such a deep part of their nature, they would probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
But there exists a continuous stream of people all over the world who are seeking to reduce their waste and other Zero Waste Weeks have since been rolled out across the UK. Even next week, it is expected that over 1000 households will be attempting their own challenge across the county of Gloucestershire, with Mrs Green and her family leading the way.
But for those new to a Zero Waste challenge, who may feel daunted about taking so much on I say take it easy. Go slowly and tackle your habits step-by-step. And if you're concerned about the effects on your recycling bin particularly at a time such as now, you'll probably find that it will slim down along with your landfill bin. You see it's not just about recycling more. It’s also about reducing your ‘baggage’ in the first place and re-using what you do have.
My Rubbish Diet experience has indeed been serious in nature, but I’ve also tried to show that it’s about fun and that you can still let your hair down. It’s all about enjoying life and allowing your inner cheeky monster to help you deal with challenges that arise. You’ll sometimes need to say no to people and look at your habits with a fresh pair of eyes. And when you start living life with waste in mind, you will find ways to comfortably break free from expectations of 21st century living but without sticking out like a sore thumb.
There will be challenges and unexpected ones at that. But the one thing I have learned is that reducing my waste was a lot easier than I thought and if I can do it, anyone can. You don’t have to be green and you don’t have to be thrifty. You don’t even have to be average. You just simply need the gumption to rise to a challenge that could just change your life for ever.
So that was how it all began, a story which includes some extracts taken from the book, The Rubbish Diet: Achieve Zero Waste in 8 Weeks. However, I also want to tell you how the first year has ended, with the news that my publisher experienced a shake-up just before Christmas, and therefore will no longer be in a position to publish the book. But with the advance winging its way over, and my agent busy looking for a new home for the book, I am still feeling upbeat because this is not the end of the story or indeed my journey. There's no doubt for me The Rubbish Diet is only the beginning of the most wonderful lifestyle makeover that my family could hope to experience. But, there'll be more on that later this week. Come back tomorrow and enjoy some words of wisdom from a whole host of people I've met on the way, including folk who I regard as new friends, and read their inspirational messages.