Tobi Ade-Odiachi is a Risk Analyst at KPMG. Originally from Nigeria and now living in Bristol (UK), Tobi has kindly shared her insights into how we can all move towards a more ‘zero waste’ life.
We are masters of repurposing: everything definitely has another use. Old newspapers into window wipers, water bottles into vessels for oils, traditional drinks and nuts, tyres into borders or slippers, pure water sachets into make shift windows and even containers for nursing plant seedlings. If it can be carried in it, it will be carried in it, another version of Murphy’s Law. Also, if it can fit, stuff a few more inside. If it’s not bursting at the seams it is virtually empty.
Using this logic, we have got half of the zero waste principles; refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot down.
But since the wide introduction and subsequently the wide adoption of plastics in the 1960s, our repurposing capabilities are steadily being outpaced by the consumption of plastics, so much so that it is clogging up our lives.
So, if like me, you’re tired of the muck, here are a few steps to achieving a fully or more Zero Waste existence.
I’ll begin with the most troubling and annoying of them all.
Put a bottle in it?
In a survey conducted in 2018, plastic bottles were reportedly the most used plastic. In every picture I have of a Lagos wastescape, this is the star feature. They are a blight. So how to cut them out? Well let’s start with the easy one. Rather than consuming soft drinks from PET bottles, buy cans or glass bottles. Or you can be extreme and cut these out completely (this one comes with health benefits). In terms of recycling it is easier and more valuable to recycle cans because aluminium is a more demanded resource than plastic. As for glass, most countries have a deposit return scheme for the bottles. If bought in a crate and returned the beverage refunds a percentage of the price you paid, cleans the bottles and refills them.
However, when it comes to plastic bottles, water is the main culprit (not soft drinks) and this is due to the lack of infrastructure. To use Lagos as an example, Lagos State can only provide 10% of the potable water that is demanded. Despite all this, there are ways to cut out the plastic, if not completely then majorly. Rather than buying bottles of water, a dispenser and a re-usable water bottle could do the trick. This way you’ll be dramatically cutting down on a lot of plastic use. Take an average household like mine that goes through 24 x 50cl bottles a week. When looking at the yearly consumption it adds up. This is the conservative estimate, during the holidays when everyone is around it goes up. 24 (bottles) x 52 (weeks in a year) is a large number!
The dispenser containers come in sizes of up to 20Ltr, which is equivalent to 40 x 50cl water bottles. The best thing about dispensers is that they are collected by the suppliers and refilled. This is one way to cut out the waste (at least from your end) completely.
Another way is to invest in a water fountain with filters, like the ones you find in schools. Thinking about it, these should be in every public space. They would reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bottles heavily. According to London’s Evening Standard newspaper, the public water fountains installed in London have dispensed a total of 77,000 Litres of water potentially saving 155,000 50cl single use plastic water bottles. If you can use one, please do.
But one must acknowledge that there are people who cannot afford plastic bottles and use the cost-effective alternative, water sachets. Public water fountains will be an excellent solution for this, but ultimately the necessary infrastructure needs to be developed.
Bag it up
To be fair, Africa is world-leading when it comes to this, with 19 countries out of 54 having a ban on plastic bags. If you are in one of the countries that doesn’t yet have a ban or acquiring bags from the black market (tsk tsk), then bring your own bag. As well as master repurposers, and I risk many mothers’ glares in saying this, we are master hoarders. Now is a good excuse to bring out all the bags I know fully well you have in your drawers and use them till they are torn and degraded before you acquire any others. When they are done, then you can get a cloth bag or several depending on your needs.
Before you do dispose of the plastic bags, please knot them up several times so that there are no holes an aquatic animal can swim through (a precaution should it end up in the ocean).
Avoid the packaging
Now is a good time to remember the principles I mentioned earlier, especially refuse. The increasing westernisation of Africa has brought on a rise in supermarkets. Due to this more and more goods are coming pre-measured and pre-packaged in plastic. Whilst this makes life easier to a degree, they can’t be reused or recycled and this is where our version of Murphy’s law gets beat. Inevitably, they get tossed and end up in the environment, where they break down into millions of microplastics. Such a peaceful thought.
In the West to combat this, Zero Waste stores have started popping up. These are stores that sell basic foods without packaging and if they are in packaging its biodegradable. But in Africa, we already have these and they are called markets. In markets, largely all the goods are sold loose., and you need not worry about the packaging during transit, because usually the produce comes straight from the farms.
This is where and why bringing your own bags works perfectly. If you consume a great many things, then you can bring a bag for each. It’ll also help you plan effectively and fight any mid-market temptations to acquire anything you don’t need.
We are in a semi fortunate stage where there hasn’t been a wide adoption of supermarkets as the primary place for groceries, largely due to the prices, and we should take advantage of this.
The trick here is to avoid all packaging, so restraint is necessary.
This gets difficult with things that conventionally come in packaging such as cleaning products and snacks. One solution is to make your own, and there are countless tutorials on YouTube. Another is to go straight to the manufacturer. If none of these are possible, then perhaps you could buy in bulk, this will lead to fewer instances of you acquiring packaging and bigger packaging if kept well is easier to use for alternative purposes.
This also applies to take-away containers. Although they make for excellent Tupperware pieces, I’m sure you have a mountain of these already. A lot of these containers come from people giving out packs of food at events. So refuse, that should cut down a huge proportion. But if this still doesn’t help, then reduce the amount you do acquire, perhaps by sitting in the restaurant to eat or choosing a take-out that has more environmentally-friendly packaging.
You can even bring your own Tupperware!
Don’t throw it away
This is one that gets overlooked the most and it constitutes 40% of waste in Sub-Saharan Africa. Can you guess? A few more clues perhaps. When dumped in landfill, it decomposes but releases methane, which is much more potent a climate change gas than CO2. It also stinks and attracts vermin, particularly rats. I think these are enough clues. If you haven’t guessed it, it’s food/organic matter.
But you’re thinking, we don’t waste food. We barely have enough of it to go around as it stands. But there are instances where we do and when that happens, don’t dump it in the bin. Compost it!
Here’s a quick guide:
Composting when done right, turns organic matter into a soil like composite. It’s the perfect circular loop. The most important thing is to have the right proportion of carbon and nitrogen. Here are 2 handy WasteAid guides to get you started!
If you’re a bit more hands-on and thinking, compost is too simple for me, you could always turn it into biogas. Here’s a guide.
I believe if you get these down, then you’re pretty much on your way to living a Zero Waste life and have achieved an utterly commendable feat. Not that this is why you did it, but you’ll always have this to whip out of your sleeve during dinner parties or owambes.
A bit of a welfare announcement. Zero Waste is not at all easy, however simple it might sound. There are some things you might not be able to do and mistakes will be made. Don’t beat yourself up for this, instead just try again. Like most things it’s a process and eventually you’ll find what works for you.