Gemma (@nearlyzerowastelondon) is a London based architectural graduate working towards becoming an architect with the intention of one day being able to help design sustainable cities. In her everyday life, she is conscious that each decision she makes is a vote for the world she wants to live in, and the world we are leaving to our children, so has been working towards a low waste lifestyle with the hope that other people will be inspired to reduce their environmental impact through her sharing the ups and downs of her journey.
What first started you on your ethical journey?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been concerned with recycling. I’m not sure how that started, I must have heard something at school, but I would nag my parents to make sure they put their recycling in the right bin. It wasn’t until I was older and went to University to study architecture, with an environmental focus, that my tutors began to help me understand the climate crisis in its entirety and how we can begin to tackle this horrible situation we’ve managed to get ourselves into.
Social media has been a huge inspiration. @trashisfortossers was one of the first accounts I followed, her zero waste lifestyle is aspirational. Then there’s @robgreenfield, who is growing and foraging all his food this year – definitely worth checking out if you don’t already follow him. I could list hundreds of people here but as you begin to look you will find your own people who motivate you. The zero waste / eco-community on Instagram is such a friendly and inclusive place. There’s always someone who’s happy to answer your questions on a particular problem, to congratulate you when you make a new switch and no-one judges you when you’re not quite perfect, because who really is anyway.
What’s your number one tip for how people can start to help the planet?
You hear a lot of people talking about re-useable bottles, cotton rounds and bulk shops and these really are very important in reducing your impact but I feel the most important thing to do in order to reduce your footprint is to only buy things you truly need. Our society is currently based on excessive consumerism, we are bombarded with adverts for new trainers or that miracle cream and it makes us think that we need more and more to make us happy and when you stop and think about it, do any of those things really make you happy? Our rate of consumption and materialism is increasing at a terrifying rate, especially in developed countries. As the demand for goods increases, the need to produce these goods also increases, this leads to more pollutant emissions, increased land-use and eventually a greater contribution to landfill.
It’s nothing new, our grandparents used to live in a similar way. Make do and mend. Instead of buying a new dress, they would repair the button that had fallen off. Instead of filling their home with bottles and bottles of toxic chemicals they used vinegar and lemons to clean. There were no packets of wipes that end up in the bin, no ready chopped onions in a plastic bag. Purchases were made consciously and items were purchased to last – not to be replaced a couple of months down the line.
When making a purchase I first put it on hold. If I still want it after 10 days, avoiding impulse purchasing, I then try to find it second hand. If this isn’t possible I purchase from a company that I agree with their ethical and environmental practices and I buy quality that will last, so hopefully, I won’t need to buy it again.
Do you have any recommendations that would help people just getting started on their own journey?
I believe that the only way we can truly begin to tackle an issue head-on is to learn as much about it as we can.
The first book I read in regard to environmentalism was Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ which gave me a clear idea of the problems we are facing. Then ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by Michael Braungart and William McDonough and ‘The Story of Stuff’ by Annie Leonard broadened my knowledge. ‘Garbology’ by Edward Humes really made how wasteful we are clear to me and then more recently ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ by Marie Condo, although not technically environmentally focused, really made me think about how many things I had in my life that I really didn’t need, and instigated some big changes in my home.
Today I am reading ‘This Is Not A Drill’ by Extinction Rebellion and I have found myself crying on public transport more than once. What we are doing to the world is breaking my heart and it has re-invigorated my motivation to stand up and make our voices heard to those in power to make big changes from the top before it is too late.
Do you have anything you’ll never leave the house without?
I’m a little bit of a pack animal when I’m out and about. I always have my re-fillable bottle and coffee cup, some re-useable cutlery and a napkin, as well as a couple of cotton totes, in case I need to pick something up on the way home. I also carry around an old glass jar so that I can collect all my apple cores and other compostables to take home and pop in the compost bin. Making my lunch and breakfast to take to work every day really helps me avoid packaged salad and sandwiches too. It feels like a lot to carry when you first start but when I accidentally forget something I feel completely lost without it.
Re-useable can also save you a bunch of money. I haven’t brought a plastic bottled drink in years or a packaged sandwich and lots of coffee shops give you money off when you bring your own cup to be filled.
Tell us more about the zero waste movement
The very first thing I changed a number of years ago was to refuse plastic bags and use my cotton tote instead. It felt good knowing some poor turtle wouldn’t end up wrapped up in something I’ve only used for 10 minutes to carry home a couple of items. That made me think – do I really want other things I’ve used for mere moments to be hanging around 400+ years after I’ve died, languishing in landfill, their valuable resources never to be recovered?
Zero waste really doesn’t mean ‘zero’, in fact, although I use the team myself, for those just starting out – and even those who are much further down their journey – I don’t think it’s always helpful. Because of the way our society is built, it’s really difficult to avoid all waste but there are some really easy changes you can make to reduce it dramatically. I’ve mentioned some of the things that will help when your out and about, but when you’re at home how about giving up tissues in exchange for re-useable handkerchiefs? You could even go one step further and make them yourself out of old sheets. Give up those horrid plastic face wipes and instead use a flannel, your favourite face soap and water. Ban those plastic wrapped biscuits and have some fun baking your own at home. The list is endless.
The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to change everything you do straight away in order to have a positive impact, you just have to do the best you can in your own circumstances. Zero waste isn’t about going out and buying brand new re-usable, its about making do with what you already have, its about choosing those loose peppers in the supermarket instead of the ones wrapped in plastic or grabbing a bar of soap instead of your usual plastic pump handwash. Each little decision multiplied by everyone making one better choice really amounts to a big impact overall.
We only have one earth, she puts food in our bellies and air in our lungs. For years we have taken her for granted and shes buckling under our take take take attitude. Its time we began to treat her as our home, a home we want to stay on and not as a disposable item like those plastic bags we’re currently choking her with. We hear almost every day now about the high pollution levels in cities shortening the lives of our children, about plastic waste killing marine life. Just today the UN reported that climate crisis disasters are happening at the rate of one a week. The time to act is now, so grab that re-useable water bottle and carry it with pride because we can all do something, however small, to leave this planet in a better state than the direction we are currently heading for future generations to enjoy.