Skip to main content

This is a blog post to accompany our November 2023 release of the 16-minute short film The Rubbish Trip.

Anyone here in Aotearoa who has attended a workshop by Hannah and Liam on transitioning to zero waste will know it can set you on a life-changing path. There’s no way we could include in the film the depth of knowledge and information they incorporate in their workshops, but we do want to share their key tips for starting out on the zero waste journey. This post is drawn from the workshop Hannah and Liam gave as part of our film shoot.

The 6Rs
In order to reduce waste, Hannah and Liam apply the 6Rs to every single purchasing decision they make. The trick, they say, is to follow it in the set order, so you can be most effective at reducing waste.

“The number one thing we do before anything else is we refuse what we do not need. Then we seek to replace things we do need that are wasteful with a non-wasteful alternative. Whatever we cannot refuse or replace, we reduce our consumption of. We reuse whatever we possibly can. Only then do we start to think about recycling, and what we are left with we should be able to rot in a home compost.”

So what does that look like in practise? Before we elaborate on each of the Rs, here are a couple of starter tips:

• You don’t have to go cold turkey. Many people are likely to feel overwhelmed trying to transition to zero waste overnight. One step at a time! Make a plan and hold yourself accountable to following it – always in the gentlest and most compassionate of ways: be kind to yourself! If you can rope in a family member or friend to join you on the journey, that will be a great help. Join a local zero waste group, access online groups, chat to your family, friends, and neighbours, and work towards forming a community of people around you who are on a similar journey toward zero waste.

• Start with the low-hanging fruit. Which items in your rubbish bins feel like the easiest to refuse or reduce? Start by assessing what rubbish you’re dealing with. What is in your bins at home and at work? And then choose the easiest things you could stop buying that end up being thrown out. By picking the easy ones, you’ll feel you’re really making an impact on how much goes into your bin right from the get-go. Take it one or two items at a time as you learn how to replace the item, remove it from your life altogether, or, for organics, get it into the compost bin.

Reducing the number of rubbish bins in your home and workplace is a great start too: if there’s not a bin easily to hand you’ll be forced to think, “Now what do I do with this?” and “How can I avoid this piece of rubbish in future?” Retrain your brain!

Using the 6Rs to transition to zero waste

1. Refuse: An uncountable number of things we buy over the course of our lives end up in landfill, and in the case of plastics they survive for ever and ever, pollute our bodies and the environment with toxic chemicals, and survive as billions of pieces of microplastics long after we’ve forgotten they even existed in our lives. That makes learning to refuse to bring certain things into our lives really important. Refusing can have unexpected benefits (like saving money or learning new life skills). It’s also really challenging! So don’t forget the go-slow tip above – but don’t underestimate what you can achieve!

Before every purchasing decision, ask yourself this question: Do I really need this in my life? It will take time, and in many cases even some courage, to learn when you can say No and when to say Yes.As you’ll see as you read on, there are lots of ways to respond when the answer is Yes: If I do, can I replace it with a non-wasteful alternative? Or can I reduce it? Can I get it in reusable or recyclable packaging? Will I be able to compost it?

There will be some items for which the answer to Do I really need this? will simply always be Yes. For Hannah and Liam, medicine is a Yes. They create waste when they buy necessary medicine and they don’t feel guilty about it. You’ll define your own Yes and No responses as you go, and perhaps you’ll find that sometimes a Yes can become a No over time. The important thing is to enjoy the journey!

2. Replace: There are items we need to keep buying that, happily, some businesses are beginning to make or package using better materials. For instance, currently one of the easy areas where we can employ Replace is toiletries. Replace your plastic toothbrush – which will never break down, ever! – with a bamboo one, which will! Ditto your plastic razors can be replaced with a stainless steel one that will last your whole lifetime.

Same with finding better packaging materials for your soap, shampoo, conditioner, creams and potions. Or no packaging at all if you have access to a refillery or can make your own products. 

Check out Hannah and Liam’s website for some great toxin-free recipes that will reduce your packaging, won’t harm your body and won’t harm our waterways, and search the web for thousands more.

Happily, Replace is becoming easier and easier as businesses respond to the demand from customers for better product stewardship. Your purchasing choices will contribute to that important change!

3. Reduce: Thankfully, we have the option of Reduce for those items we’re really struggling to say No to! If your favourite chocolate biscuits, for example, are only available wrapped up in layers of toxic forever-plastics, can you work towards refusing them in your life by first reducing them? Instead of buying them once a week, buy them once a month.

There are many ways to employ Reduce in our purchasing decisions and they can lead to some fantastic creative thinking about how to keep the joy and remove the waste. Maybe you’ll discover a love of baking biscuits that surpass the taste of your old favourites from the supermarket!

4. Reuse: Instead of purchasing disposable items, purchase reusable ones (or things in reusable/refillable packaging). This includes shopping bags, of course, cups and containers for takeaways, jars/containers for bulk bins, and reusable/refillable beverage bottles. Even when you’re eating or drinking in a place that uses compostable cups, plates and cutlery, make sure to bring your own – a lot of energy and oftentimes dubious materials go into making compostables. 

To help you feel organised about this, keep a bag in your bike pannier or car that has all your reusables in it, and take it with you everywhere!

Other ways to use Reuse include buying secondhand and repairing clothing, shoes, appliances and furniture. And sharing – just like joining a book library, you can join a tool library, and if you have kids you can join a toy library. If you don’t have these options close to you, consider starting one up or putting a proposal forward that your local council starts one. And don’t forget, using public transport is part of the sharing economy!

5. Recycle: There are lots of myths around recycling. The two biggest myths sit at different ends of the spectrum. 1: That if everything were recycled our waste problems would be solved and 2. That there’s no point in recycling because it’s all shipped offshore and burned. The truth is in the middle somewhere.

Recycling is certainly important, but, as zero waste guru Bea Johnson says, “Zero waste isn’t about recycling more, but about recycling less” – because we didn’t buy the product in the first place.

We all hope to see a day when products aren’t made with either trashing or recycling in mind, but meanwhile, we can do our best to reduce the items that we bring into our lives that required energy to create and will require energy to recycle.

6. Rot: Anything we’re left with after all the previous Rs have been covered should be able to rot in a home compost. This includes all food scraps, grass clippings and other yard waste – from both home and work if you can! On average, at least here in Aotearoa, 30% to 50% of household rubbish bins are made up of organic materials. But it’s the nature of landfills to be anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) so none of these materials decompose like they do in a correctly managed compost bin. Instead, as they break down they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, the moisture in food waste sucks out toxic chemicals from the landfill, producing a leachate problem in the surrounding land and waterways. There are so many good reasons for avoiding landfill by composting your organic waste!

Don’t forget to take your leftovers home when you eat out too – very few eateries compost their scraps (yet!).If you don’t have much space at home, try a Bokashi bin. And if composting at home is not an option, ask a neighbour if they’ll take your scraps, look for a local community garden, or see if there’s an app in your region like Share Waste, which hooks you up with people nearby who will accept your scraps – Liam and Hannah call this “Tinder for food scraps” 🤣

Let us know by adding a Comment below if you have a zero waste experience or insight you’d like to add to this info. We’d love to hear it!

Wishing you joy on your own zero waste journey.