Join me for a January 2021 Zero Waste Challenge!
At the beginning of 2018, I embarked on a 30-day zero waste challenge that forced me to rethink everything. The challenge rules were simple: avoid producing any landfill waste. I could recycle and compost but anything that would end up in a landfill was a no-no. I also opted to ban all plastic products. Although certain plastics can be recycled, it’s a very problematic material, so I wanted to see if I could cut it out
Why zero waste?
In 2017, I kept reading about zero wasters and I wondered if I could do it too. I’ve always cared about the environment. The zero waste challenge taught me that no matter how much I cared for the planet, I’d never thought critically about my waste. The zero waste movement is more than collecting scrap garbage in a mason jar, it’s a way of reimagining personal and household consumption.
After the 30 days were over, I eventually slipped back into a few wasteful habits, but so many changes stayed with me. The vast ways in which I can reduce my waste have influenced how I shop for everything. They have also taught me to do more with less and think outside the box. That’s why I’ve decided to make yearly zero waste challenges my thing. This January I’ll be going zero waste again! Would you like to join me? I have set up a Facebook group for challengers. If you’re on the fence, I’ve listed the impact of the challenge on all different aspects of life. Join our group on Facebook.
How did zero waste challenge influence my life?
Shopping for groceries can be difficult because almost all fruits and vegetables contain some packaging. I opted for Asian or zero waste grocers who tend to use less packaging on fruits and veggies. I bring my own produce bags, or I use no bag at all.
Bulk is the way to go for any dry goods like beans, rice, flour or even candy. Bulk Barns are abundant in Montreal and there are also bulk sections at many local grocery stores – I’ve included a list below. I purchased about 6 small fabric bags (about $3 each) that I use to buy my bulk goods before I transfer them to jars at home. You can usually bring your jars directly but that can get heavy. Shopping in bulk is actually one of the best improvements to my food routine. I buy the exact quantity I need and there is often less spending and a lot less waste. I don’t eat meat and very little cheese but those products can be purchased at deli counters or cheese shops where you can bring your own container. One ingredient that was hard for me was tofu and tempeh. Unfortunately, tofu is difficult to find without plastic packaging. Only specialized zero waste grocery stores had it.
All food scraps were composted so the only waste they produced were the little stickers and elastic bands. I’d keep the elastics for reuse.
Where to grocery shop in Montreal?
- Zero waste grocery stores:
- Loco (Villeray, Verdun )
- Mega Vrac (Rosemont)
- Vrac et Bocaux
- Asian grocery stores
- Atwater Market
- Jean-Talon Market
- Super C, surprisingly!
- Super Marche PA
- Aubut, for large quantities
- Dry goods:
Edit (January 2021): With Covid-19 making it difficult to eat at restaurants, I have been opting for take-out to support our local businesses. Fortunately, most restaurants now offer compostable packaging as the Montreal plastic ban starts to effect.
This was really hard for me. Sometimes I’d bring my own container to a restaurant but it didn’t always work out. I opted to sit down and eat at the restaurant more often than do take out. I’d always have a small container or my Tiffen for leftovers. I didn’t order delivery from home but I figured if I was really desperate, I could order pizza and then compost the box. When my challenge was over, this was the first area to suffer. I went back in my ways and started doing take-out in styrofoam containers again. This is an area which I’d like to work on improving. At the very least, I still always ask them to PLEASE not include a plastic fork or knife. I repeat “no plastic utensils, please!” They never listen and now I have a small collection of unused plastic utensil kits which I will eventually bring back to the restaurant.
Edit (January 2021): Even with Covid-19, reusable mugs are still accepted at some coffee shops. Not all, but many. Make sure your mug is clean!
Always my reusable mug. If milk and cream were served in disposable plastic, I’d ask them if they had milk in a carton. If not, I’d have to drink black coffee. Thankfully most upscale cafes serve milk from a carton and have a selection of plant-based milk so you’re usually safe. I have to admit that when I finished the challenge, I wasn’t as good as always having my mug with me because it didn’t fit it my purse. I just picked up a Stojo mug which is collapsible, making it easier to bring it around.
This area is tricky. You don’t want to be the office weirdo but you can have an impact by just being yourself. I try to reduce paper consumption by printing less and using digital tools. I make my own single-sided notebooks with paper that would have otherwise been recycled. I bring an iPad or iPhone to meetings to follow the agenda. During my challenge, I would collect my own food waste for composting at home. I had a little sealable container in the freezer but sometimes I’d also just bring it back in a Tupperware. Thankfully I work at a university where the students have made sustainability a priority. We now have to compost bins in most buildings!
I got rid of the garbage can and stopped using garbage bags. I recycled everything that I could not give a second life. I composted all food scraps and paper. Unfortunately, my building does not qualify for city compost pick-up but the borough has some sites with shared compost bins. I dropped my waste there. It’s annoying but it’s worth it. Most Montreal boroughs have some type of composting program. If you really can’t compost with the city, you can make your own. It might not be that practical but it’s worth doing a little research. There are lots of composting options for all home styles.
Nothing really changed for me in this area. I already walk, bike and take public transport. If I need to drive, I usually use Communautos car sharing service which offers fully electric and hybrid cars. We also have Teo Taxi which with electric taxis which are so cool. My partner has a car and we do drive occasionally but in general, we try to walk take the metro as much as possible. I did travel by plane during my challenge, more below.
During my 2018 Zero Waste Challenge, I travelled to Europe by plane with Wow Air. I brought my own water bottle, coffee mug, reusable sandwich bag and a tote bag for the full trip. Unfortunately composting was not possible and some waste was almost unavoidable especially if you are travelling for a long time and need to buy food. Drinking water in Europe is good so once I arrived, I could continue my challenge successfully.
Cosmetics, soap and body products:
Everything from toothpaste to deodorant can be purchased at zero-waste or eco-friendly grocery stores all around Montreal.
I get my shampoo, conditioner and soap in bulk from Loco or Olive Branch. Toothpaste in bulk is harder to find but they have it at Chez Robin. I get face moisturizer, face masks and body lotion from Lush because they have a container recycling program. As for make-up, I still haven’t found a solution for that. Thankfully I don’t buy a lot of make-up so it lasts me forever.
I also got into making my own cosmetics as well. I use olive oil as a makeup remover and I made my own toner from water, essential oils and apple cider vinegar. I also make a simple shea body butter for our super dry winters. Most DIY recipes can easily be found online.
Oh, this is a fun one! I use the Diva Cup and reusable pads. I can honestly say that switching to these products has been great. I save loads of money and feel much more comfortable. The Diva Cup is my primary protector against spills on heavy days and the reusable pads are a backup. I’m in love with the Thinx line of leak-proof undies but haven’t spent the money on them yet. These would be fab holiday gifts for a zero waste lady.
Okay, so here is an area where I did not find a solution. Cat food can be purchased in bulk but not the good stuff. As for cat litter, you can’t compost it so you’re stuck sending it to the landfill. Other than training my cat to use the toilet, I haven’t found a solution but I’m open to suggestions.
I still use toilet paper. I read about opting for a bidet but that’s just not an option for us. We do have a low-flow toilet but that’s about it. Toilet waste or sewage gets sent to a wastewater treatment facility. A good exercise is to educate yourself on what happens to the waste you flush. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Where I shopped
I’m usually around the Sud-Ouest/Downtown area so here is how I shopped.
- Super Marche PA
- Greens (Kale, spinach, herbs)
- Canned goods (Cans would be recycled)
- Atwater Market
- Berries (Hard to find anywhere else without packaging – buy a bunch and freeze!)
- Cheese counter – BYOContainer
- Meat/fish counter (not applicable to me ) – BYOContainer
- Dry goods in bulk at Vrac du Marche
- Carrots, spinach & mushrooms – Hard to find anywhere else
- Tofu without packaging
- Dish soap and laundry soap – refill your bottles
- Shampoo – refill your bottles
- Conditioner – refill your bottles
- Toothpaste in bulk
- Chez Robin
- Toothpaste in bulk
- Organic bulk products
- Baby greens (Baby spinach, spring mix, arugula – hard to find anywhere else in bulk)
- Super C
- Big selection of package free veggies
- Citrus fruit
- Tropical fruit (Freeze batches for smoothies)
Wine in glass bottles (recyclable)
- Face and body lotion in recyclable containers
Many people think that shopping zero waste is more expensive but that’s not the case with a plant-based diet. You’ll often buy the exact amount of the product you need and end up with less waste and more savings. When you shop in bulk, you tend to think it’s more expensive because food packaging tricks you into thinking you’re getting more for less. Just compare the weight of the product you buy in a box with the weight of your bulk product to get a real comparison. I’ve noticed that the price point is about the same for most things. In some cases, it’s less.
If you aren’t following a plant-based diet then it may be more expensive for meat, fish and cheese because deli counters sell higher quality. But do you really want to be cheaping out of these items?
You may notice that zero-waste stores will have more organic options and the organic choices will definitely be more expensive. If you want to save then opt for non-organic.
Body products are one area where things can be a bit more expensive. Package-free soaps and deodorants are usually handmade so you’re paying for the labour. Lush is definitely 20 – 40% more expensive than low-end pharmacy brands. That said, you’ll generally have a better product. Dish and laundry soaps are about the same but it depends on what brands you buy.
The real cost of a zero waste challenge is measured in time, not dollars. It takes time, lots of time. You may need to go out of your way to find your favourite ingredients, carry bulk bags around with you, hand wash your reusable products. I really can’t fault people for simply trying to make their lives more convenient with disposables. I grew up in a single-family household where we ate Lunchables every day. Processed pre-packaged food is easier and makes up for our busy schedules.
I think most sensible people care about the environment but to eat and act differently takes commitment. That’s why a challenge is nice. You don’t need to commit for life, just try it out. In the end, you may walk away with new habits that can impact your daily life and influence others.