Reduce, reuse, recycle: Why this is the perfect time to adapt to a zero-waste, eco-friendly lifestyle

With people stuck at home, experts say turning over a green new leaf has never been easier

Going green: RK Bishnoi grows plants in waste bottles and cans. 
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Think about all the little things you do that are not good for the planet – ordering a takeaway coffee, the cup for which will be disposed of as soon as it is empty, or buying individual fruits wrapped in plastic. Most wasteful consumer habits are based on convenience for when we are short of time.

But with people spending more time at home, the natural environment is changing for the better. In Abu Dhabi, nitrogen levels have dropped by half. In South Africa, lions have been spotted napping on roads and, in India, the Himalayas are visible for more than 160 kilometres.

Geeta Pahlajani, founder of The Goodness Company. 

Meanwhile, being at home for a longer period of time gives people a clearer picture of the waste they accumulate over a day  and the opportunity to incorporate eco-friendly systems into their daily routines, says Doua Benhida, founder of the Zero Waste Collective. "Being home all day can be annoying and difficult, but it's actually a blessing in disguise – it's a way to revaluate the way we live," she says.

It also gives people time to incorporate small changes in their homes. As Geeta Pahlajani, the founder of conscious lifestyle brand The Goodness Company, puts it: “A zero-waste lifestyle is a journey and, with busy modern lifestyles, a difficult one. Therefore, rather than trying to be perfect, we can all collectively make small positive changes, starting from tackling excessive throwaway culture.”

Here are simple measures to introduce within your home:

Say no to throwaway culture

This is probably one of the easiest changes to adopt. Plastic water bottles, plates and straws are obvious culprits that are unnecessary when you are at home. Request restaurants not to send plastic cutlery when delivering and, since grocery shops send items in plastic bags, find ways to return or reuse them. Avoid wasteful products like clingfilm wherever possible.

“Everything from shopping bags to takeaway containers and even garbage bags have an eco-friendly option available,” says Pahlajani. "The upfront cost in investing in a sustainable choice will be more, but this will be a long-term investment with repeated usage and more durability. Better for yourself and the environment."

Those wanting to cut down on waste can opt for eco-friendly bamboo toothbrushes over the plastic variety. Courtesy The Goodness Company 

It might also be time to rethink your toothbrush. “It’s an item you use first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and most people don’t really think about it,” says Benhida. “But they lead to plastic waste. You can easily switch to a bamboo toothbrush, which, when you are done using it, naturally decomposes.” Pahlajani recommends the Middle Eastern favourite miswak sticks as another eco-friendly alternative to toothbrushes.

Keep experimenting

If you are serious about trying natural alternatives to chemical products, Benhida says now is the best time to do it. “Want to try making that natural deodorant or hair mask? Do it now – even if it goes wrong, it’s not like you have to leave the house or meet anyone,” she says.

It's possible to make natural floor cleaner at home. Courtesy The Zero Waste Collective

Another product she encourages women to try as they are spending time at home are menstrual cups, which are gaining popularity for their environmental benefits. “Use this time to find out what works best for you and your body, then incorporate it over the long term. Try, learn, fail if you have to and then repeat,” she says.

Rethink your vanity kit

Other than the obvious switch to cruelty-free beauty products, this might be a good time to give up on face wipes and sheet masks, which Pahlajani describes as one of the most wasteful items out there.

“Their usage only lasts 15 to 20 minutes and then the sheets are not recyclable due to the combination of plastic and aluminium. A simpler alternative would be to create fresh, nourishing face masks using natural ingredients such as milk, honey and banana.”

Handmade soaps eliminate the need for wasteful packaging. Courtesy The Zero Waste Collective

And while you're making your own face masks, why not go the extra mile and look at DIY-ing other self-care products? Soaps, shampoos, hand sanitisers and even toothpaste can be made at home, says Benhida, who adds that soap bars were a bestselling item on her online shop last month.

“The best part about making these products from scratch? It also eliminates unwanted plastic packaging.”

Sort through your trash

Those looking to embrace a no-waste lifestyle can start by taking a look at their bins and separating dry and wet waste. RK Bishnoi, environmentalist and founder of the Facebook group Green Ghaf Gardening Group, says that it is our duty to educate ourselves on what we are throwing out. “There is a huge amount of cost and time involved in collecting and transporting waste to landfills. Instead of throwing out organic waste, it can be recycled and converted into useful natural fertiliser for plants. Composting not only protects the environment, it saves money and produces healthy vegetables and fruits. It’s a win-win.”

Environmentalists are advocating for the use of reusable products and the adoption of zero-waste lifestyles as people spend more time at home. Courtesy The Goodness Company

Vegetable, fruit and coffee waste can be collected within a composting bin, with several cost-effective options available. Bishnoi conducts free composting classes and is happy to share tips on different methods that can be done using materials and tools easily found at home.

Even if you do not have a garden, Pahlajani believes that it’s still worth using up scraps. “Vegetable peels, skins and stalks and meat bones, which often end up in the waste, can actually be simmered on the stove to make a good stock that can be stored in the refrigerator or frozen for soups, gravies and bakes,” she says. 

Shop local wherever possible

Amid the pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about supporting homegrown brands to help boost the local economy. Shopping from these companies also has an advantage for the planet; it reduces your carbon footprint since the product does not have to be imported.

Doua Benhida, founder The Zero Waste Collective.

Benhida says: “Look for brands that create ethical, sustainable products – not only will your money help a family instead of a big corporation, it will also be better for the Earth."

Educate yourself

The pandemic has also given us a reason to pause and environmentalists the world over are encouraging people to use this time to reflect on their consumption patterns. Pahlajani, for instance, is encouraging UAE residents to educate themselves on palm oil, an ingredient in products that drives deforestation, or look into the carbon footprint of activities such as binge watching TV.

“A lot of us, myself included, have been so caught up with our busy lifestyles, we never have the time to reflect on consumption patterns. However, in the current scenario, we need to ensure our decisions are mindful and thought out with purpose and intent.”