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Brianne Miller, centre, opened Vancouver’s first zero waste grocery store, Nada.

Amanda Palmer

If Shakespeare used plastic bags for his weekly groceries in 1602, those same plastic bags would likely be around today.

Estimates are that it takes more than 450 years for petroleum-based plastic to decompose and there is more than 8 million tonnes of it dumped into the oceans every year, according to the United Nations.

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So what can be done about the plastic apocalypse?

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Enter the zero waste movement, comprised of people dedicated to reducing their garbage production through the five Rs: refuse; reduce; reuse (+repair); recycle; rot (i.e. compost).

A former marine biologist, Brianne Miller says her zero waste journey began several years ago when she became despondent about the state of the world’s oceans awash with garbage. She changed her own daily habits to try and reverse the problem. “I made the connection between the health of the ocean and our food system,” she recalls. But this still seemed like an immense project for one person to tackle, so she decided to pick one aspect to focus on: plastic pollution in food waste. Today her yearly garbage fits in a pickle jar.

In June, Ms. Miller opened Vancouver’s first zero waste grocery store, Nada, making it easier for people in the area to shop without packaging because, for Ms. Miller, reducing garbage has to start somewhere.

It’s not just some green-minded individuals who are concerned about the amount of waste we generate, and its environmental consequences. Increasingly, cities are creating plans to cut down on landfill. One example is Vancouver, which has a 2020 target of reducing solid waste going to the landfill or incinerator by 50 per cent from 2008 levels. Calgary is targeting 70-per-cent waste diversion by 2025.

And many large companies have sustainability initiatives. For instance, Coca-Cola recently announced a goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030.

And a number of people are chronicling their zero-waste efforts online.

Ms. Miller’s advice for those who want to start a zero-waste lifestyle:

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  1. Do a waste audit: Take stock of what you throw away on a daily, weekly, even a monthly basis and choose one or two things to eliminate from your waste. For example, use a reusable coffee mug instead of single-use coffee cups for your morning cup of Joe. Or use washable, cloth napkins at your dinner table instead of paper ones.
  2. Ditch the plastic toothbrushes for a bamboo alternative. “I cannot tell you how many tooth brushes I’ve seen on beaches,” says Ms. Miller.  
  3. Create a zero waste kit: Put together a bag with a travel mug, reusable tote, metal cutlery, stainless steel straw and take it wherever you go. It can seem like a hard one, but Ms. Miller says it’s about making it a habit when you’re leaving the house. “How many of us leave the house and remember to grab our phone?”    
  4. Forget about being Instagram pretty. Its okay if you don’t have rows of beautiful glass jars lining your kitchen counters with flours, cereal and pasta. “It’s about trying to shop package free,” says Ms. Miller. “So bring in a yogurt container, or ziplock bag you’re reusing, that’s totally okay.” 

Jordan Hawkswell lives in London, Ont. and last year she started the community group, Zero Waste Forest City, after she realized that many people in her area had never heard of the zero waste movement. “But it’s really not as hard as people think,” she says.

Her advice for beginners:

  1. Embrace the mindset shift: “This might be the biggest change that needs to happen,” explains Ms, Hawksworth. “It’s about changing the way you shop, even if it’s little things like bringing your own bags, shopping the local farmer’s market or refusing disposable items like plastic cutlery.”  
  2. Use what you have: You don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of additional items to start a zero-waste lifestyle:   “I now use the cloth napkins from my grandma, I didn’t go out and buy it.”
  3. Valuing what you have: Instead of running out and buying new, look into the option of repairing damaged or aging items. 

Kate Pepler is set to open her zero-waste grocery store and coffee shop, the Tare Shop, in Halifax this fall, but only a couple of years ago she was ready to give up on the whole idea of saving the planet. “I was overwhelmed with the doom and gloom of it all,” she says. “At one point I thought I would just curl up in my bed and watch Netflix and not do anything, I mean, how could one person make a difference? But then I started looking into the zero waste movement.” Now her total annual trash can be held in her hands.

Her advice to get started:

  1. Look around the bathroom: “I think it’s the main room people forget about.” Put a compost, recycling bin in your bathroom to ensure items aren’t being automatically thrown into the trash for convenience. 
  2. Don’t get discouraged: When you try a zero-waste product and it doesn’t work well for you, keep looking because there are more products hitting the shelves and popping up online every day.  
  3. Read the labels: “A lot of tea bags contain some element of plastic,” says Ms. Pepler, so it’s important to research the products you buy and know what’s truly compostable.   
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