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How to Live a Zero-Waste Lifestyle during a Pandemic

Kitchen with Zero Waste
Kitchen with Zero Waste

Tara McKenna

Founder, The Zero Waste Collective

Mediaplanet spoke with Tara McKenna, Founder of The Zero Waste Collective, about living a lifestyle committed to zero waste and energy efficiency not only day to day, but during a pandemic.

Aside from cutting down on energy consumption, what’s your view on renewable sources of energy? 

The one thing that I can say is that it’s definitely important and I think there’s not enough conversation around the life cycle of the products that create renewable energy. For example, I’ve travelled, seen abandoned windmills, and asked myself, “Is this just new waste?” However, from a purely energy perspective, it makes sense to move forward with energy this way. Renewable energy is definitely the way of the future, but how we go about it will determine how good it really is.

What lesser-known environmental issues can be caused by waste?

With waste comes more waste — and energy management. One of the ways it’s dealt with is actually by burning the waste and, unfortunately, this creates a lot of toxic air pollution which deeply impacts the environment in the vicinity of those incinerators. Burning waste impacts local nearby agriculture as well.

Waste not only ends up in our oceans and landfills, but it also creates waste management problems in places that just don’t have the capacity to deal with waste. There are so many communities and cities that don’t offer organic waste removal and tons of that organic waste goes straight to landfills where it’s incredibly toxic for surrounding humans and nature. So, the waste management issue is really important because it impacts more than just our plastic-filled oceans.

What inspired you to begin your zero-waste lifestyle? 

There was one specific moment when I was in Bali a few years ago and I was snorkeling in an area that I thought would be very pristine. This was before people were really honing in on the conversation about pollution. Seeing trash intermingling with fish in the ocean first-hand, I knew that something had to change. From there, I went down a rabbit hole of learning so much about waste management and issues around waste that have really inspired me to reduce my waste. Sustainable living in general is also related to my career and background in urban and regional planning. All these experiences ultimately inspired me to reduce my waste.

How do you personally reduce greenhouse gas emissions in your day-to-day life?

I look at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from a full lifestyle perspective. For example, when possible, I try to find alternative travel options like choosing a train over a plane. I’m also a huge fan of carbon offsets, although this can be a controversial topic. However, I still think that if you’re planning on travelling anyways, you might as well be supporting projects that help to offset carbon like tree planting. Overall, reduced consumption is so important. If you think about the full life cycle of products, their production can be very energy intensive. By reducing your overall consumption, that, in effect, also reduces your carbon footprint. In our household, my husband and I always try to consider: “What are we eating? Where are we going? What are we doing? How can we reduce our footprint through this?” Moral of the story: consume less.

What are some tips and tricks for those new to the zero-waste lifestyle during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

I think people automatically associate zero-waste living with a fancy mason jar that you fill up at the bulk store. Yeah, reducing packaging is definitely a component of the lifestyle, but in the time of COVID-19, it’s a bit harder to take your reusables places due to concerns about germs. This is totally understandable, but what’s great is that there are still places that have now managed to figure out how to ensure the utmost cleanliness.

  1. For people that might not have access to these places, the zero-waste lifestyle is then really about using what you have first. It’s easy for us to go out to the grocery store and think we need something, but it’s incredibly important to ask yourself, “Do you actually need this?” Taking stock of what you have at home and using what you have first will allow you to reduce your overall consumption of things.
  2. Shopping second-hand lessens the demand to create new products. There are so many different resources, apps, and websites where you can even find free stuff and trade and swap with others. There are so many different ways to join this alternative economy and reduce your environmental impact.
  3. Participating in local agriculture is also great — if possible, buy from your local farmers market.
  4. Composting is also huge. We need to keep our food waste and organic waste out of the landfills because this does create unnecessary waste in landfills, and creates toxins as well.
  5. During the pandemic, a lot of people have geared towards takeout which is unfortunate because we’re building up a lot of single-use trash. Finding a balance where you can still support local businesses but also try to reduce takeout or takeout packaging is great. Make your own tea and coffee at home and wear a reusable mask when possible. If you’re using disposable masks, it’s important to dispose of them properly — we need to be very careful where those products are ending up once they’re used.

For those working from home, using more electricity is hard to avoid. What are your suggestions to reduce the amount of electricity used at home during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Simple things like hanging your laundry to dry, turning your electronics off when they’re not in use, and swapping your current products out for more energy efficient ones. For example, once your incandescent bulb burns out, switching it to an LED bulb is a great way to reduce the amount of electricity that is used in your home.

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