How to 'touch the earth lightly' while at university

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I first heard about the zero waste movement during a vegan Youtube binge last summer and since then have been attempting to apply as many of its principles to my daily life as possible. Despite the name, being ‘zero waste’ does not mean that you have to get down to the amount of waste disposal that would entail moving to a wooden hut on a mountain and foraging for food. It is simply about reusing as much as possible, making more environmentally thoughtful purchases and using as many alternatives to landfill as you can when disposing of waste. Being zero waste is a great way to attempt to ‘touch the earth lightly’ when caught up in this fast-paced Western consumerist society with its mindless attitude to waste and environmental degradation. It enables us as individuals to stop ignoring the damage being inflicted upon our planet and to take responsibility for our own culpability. For me, zero waste is an encouraging way of being a practical environmentalist, especially when the hectic life of Cambridge often pushes activist-related concerns to the bottom of the pile.

There are tons of ways we can reduce our landfill-destined waste, many of which I need to get much better at myself as I have a long way to go, but here are some simple ones to get you started. The most vital aspect in my opinion is to take it one step at a time and incorporate these small things progressively into your routine, in order to make it much more manageable. It is also important to not get sucked in to the hype of very aesthetic-looking matching Kilner jars and pretty minimalism (@ Instagram) because quite frankly, this usually involves more unnecessary buying than it solves!

Swapping disposable products for reusable or recyclable alternatives has never been easier: as well as changing to reusable cotton pads for removing makeup etc., moon cups or cloth sanitary pads are great for sanitary protection, and switching to a stainless steel water bottle and straws prevents buying unnecessary plastic that pollute so many of our oceans. You can also buy bamboo compostable toothbrushes and Lush offer solid, minimally packaged toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and face wash (just remember to tell anyone staying with you which is which so that you don’t end up with an unimpressed younger sister who washed her hair with the latter!). Make sure not to make the mistake of buying these immediately without fully using the products you own now – for example get to the end of the toothpaste you’re using before throwing it out and researching how to make your own!

Before putting more durable products in the recycling bin it also helps to consider how you could reuse it yourself, e.g. plastic/cardboard containers for storage, old clothes as cleaning cloths or glass bottles for some very insta-worthy vases. This is important as wasting less does not just mean disposing of less but also reducing consumption of products we don’t need and the energy and waste they use in their production. Keeping this in mind, it also helps to shop second hand as much as possible. This is especially easy for clothes thanks to Depop, Ebay and CB1’s beautiful selection of charity shops and I would highly recommend watching the documentary The True Cost to see how the textile industry abuses both human rights and the planet and why it’s important to stop being complicit in this.

Of course, abstaining from shopping is impossible but even when food shopping there are small more eco-friendly decisions we can make. If you’re lucky enough to live near stores that sell non-perishable food in bulk without packaging, take full advantage of it. Though Cambridge has none of these zero-plastic, zero-waste shops, there are other options. Buying the largest quantity of items, for example the 2kg bag of rice instead of the 500g, and reducing the amount of individually packaged items we buy are good starting points. It is also possible to choose the option with the least non-recyclable packaging and to shop in places such as fruit and veg markets that use less packaging and often don’t cost any more. To give some random examples, knowing both Aldi and Sainsbury’s porridge oats come in plastic packaging, I buy these at Lidl at home before term starts because they come in paper and I always buy unpackaged bananas.

There are so many more resources that give a far more detailed guide on how to be a fabulous hippy with an iconic bathroom cupboard, just give ‘zero waste’ a quick Google or Youtube search (‘Sustainably Vegan’ is my personal favourite!). Zero waste is definitely an accompaniment to other actions we should be taking to help the environment. Researching the effects of palm oil and animal products in food production or animal testing in toiletries and reducing consumption are just part of the miriad ways we can use our positions as consumers to make real change. Of course movements that work on a larger scale such as Divestment are also great to get involved in, as well as other pressure movements on large corporations and governments. But what is so important about zero waste, apart from its practical impacts of reducing personal environmental damage, is that it puts the care for the environment and compassionate ethical thinking back into seemingly small, everyday decision making, which is something I think we can all benefit from.



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