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Zero Waste

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

by Ilka Elimadi


My Mum’s birthdays were the best. Not only because of the parties that gave my brother and me a hint of adult life – or so we thought when we discovered the aftermath: alcohol, cigarettes and strange messages written on the ceiling with candle soot. But also because the gifts my mum received were wrapped in the nicest wrapping paper, the kind only the fancy stores used: embossed or with metallic print. We would always carefully take off the adhesive tape, unwind bows and iron the paper for future use or – more important to me – so I could use it as crafting material. When we ourselves wrapped gifts it would be in recycled wrapping paper, newspaper or simply fabric – not knowing back than that the later was an art form in Japan and called Furoshiki. I don’t think my mum ever spent money on wrapping paper. Growing up with a single mother and a sister she was used to living frugally.




Vintage wasn’t en vogue

Everything was recycled: old socks – if impossible to mend – turned into rags, all containers were reused and pullovers we had grown out of were unravelled and re-knitted a size larger. I got to wear all my elder cousin’s clothes and the six years age gap between us meant they were always out of fashion when they finally fit me. My grandmother showed me how to alter baggy pants into carrot legs, and as a teenager I finally accepted not to fit in clothes-wise and declared second-hand my style. Back then, vintage wasn’t en vogue and secondhand stores sold by the kilo. We repaired, re-used, recycled.

I remember well when my grandmother, a passionate baker and crafter, and someone who had to watch her spending all her life, declared she would stop making her own Christmas cookies – because the ingredients cost many times more than the cookies itself. These days ready-made is cheap and readily available, but we don’t pay adequately for labour. DIY on the other hand is a business. When I grew up it was a necessity. Food for us was also frugal. Homemade was everything and leftovers needed to be eaten. The green movement and whole foods consciousness in Germany of the late 70s and early 80s led my mother to grind her own flour and bake her own bread – not even a cookie was store-bought. We were low waste without knowing it. And although my parents are pretty well off today, my mum still lives quite frugally. Or is it the other way round: are they well off because of my mum’s frugal habits?


I let convenience take over

When I moved out I realized that she had trained me well. I would never buy paper towels (resources!), aluminum foil (energy!) or cling film (plastic waste!). Vinegar, Indian soap nuts and oxbile soap were my only detergents. Until I moved to France.

Not only did I not find any Indian soap nuts in stores, but I also realized they did not really work well on baby poo and vomit. Paper towels came into my house, because of, well, baby spitting up. Eventually I gave up on washcloth and water only and bought baby wipes. There was no time to grind my flour let alone bake bread. Finally, the worst of all (packaging-wise) entered my house: fruit pouches! I wanted to like the silicon reusable one I had bought. But somehow it was never clean when I needed it, or there was no homemade organic puree to fill it with at hand (surprise!). And frankly the squirting mechanism wasn’t working – there was puree everywhere and you know, the eco-friendly detergent replacing the Indian soap nuts didn’t work on carrot stains either. In all honesty, I went the convenient route. And with two more children it seemed more attractive and less shameful to do so.


Fast forward to the end of August 2018

I was listening to France Inter when Nicolas Hulot announced his resignation as minister for the environment. His sad, mourning voice is still in my head. It shook me up. We are going to mourn so much more if we don’t act now. Why wait for governments to stand up to the industry and lobbyists? I have a choice. What can I do? Get the tissue box off the table. Instead of lecturing my children about climate change and how they should wash their hands and faces instead of grabbing a tissue, I needed to get the tissue box off the table.

Some things are as easy as that: Everyone has a cloth hand towel by their plate now. Some things need a transition period: Indian soap nuts are back – but I still keep some ordinary detergent for nasty stains – after all there are three messy children in this household. But most important, I have my “waste-detecting” glasses back on. There is so much single-use packaging around that I got accustomed to: from sugar at the café to… no wait, when did they actually stop serving coffee in real cups? I am looking for ecofriendly alternatives, monitor what comes into the house and try to avoid purchases altogether.

Baby steps, I know. In the end, it is not what you tell your children that will have an impact, but the example you give. I think I need to spend some time with my mother to get back on track.


Zero Waste and how to start

Zero Waste is talked about everywhere now. There are bloggers telling their stories, Pinterest boards collecting ideas and Instagram threads picturing what you need to achieve zero waste. But the thing is: you need very little for a waste-free lifestyle. It is about reducing your imprint, not styling your intentions. So ignore the “10 things you need to go zero waste” lists (with affiliate shopping links) unless you say you are ready to abstain from Nespresso capsules (bravo!). Then still ignore the shopping lists and search for “stainless steel reusable coffee capsules” or “French press” right away.



Start with small steps – especially when your guilt level is high. It’s like with New Year’s Resolutions: the more drastic a change you seek the more likely you are going to give in. Don’t shame yourself for all the plastic straws or cotton pads you’ve used during your life. Shame will only make you want to avoid the subject. Pick something that is easy for you to change and pat yourself on the back once you’ve succeeded. Then choose another goal.

Don’t tell others what to do, start with your own waste first. Seeing you succeed will make it easier for your children and spouse to go along. Pick a challenge , if that’s your thing, one week, one month without coffee to go (unless you bring a re-usable cup), single serving packaging, bottled water (again unless you use a re-usable bottle), disposable cutlery at the take-away (bring your own), paper towels… shopping!


A few ideas to reduce waste right now:


Reusable bags

While single use plastic bags are banned in the EU, there are still a lot of (paper) bags that get used only once. Better keep one or more small re-usable bags in your purse. Preferably made from canvas or recycled plastic. And reuse all paper and plastic bags you still own. But that’s obvious, isn’t it?


Reusable Water Bottles

Plastic bottles take an estimated 450 years until they are gone to decompose. Add production energy and transport and gasp! I know I said no shame, but I needed those 450 years to remind myself to carry my water bottle until it became a habit. You are having takeout lunches and the beverage is part of the formule? If you bring your own water and refuse theirs you are not likely to pay more than the formule. Plus you can tell yourself that you donated 1.50 Euros to the environment!


Reusable Coffee Mugs

Of course, we can embrace slow food, ditch all on-the-go habits and feel like an angel. But angelic state is not achieved overnight. Think of it as a work in process and allow yourself the to-go in a reusable bamboo cup. Or glass. Or stainless steel unless there is a plastic lining/lid.


Cloth Paper Towels and Tissues

This replacement is not only environment friendly, but saves a lot of money! Any fabric will do, so you can easily re-cycle sheets and shirts you already have. Just cut them into squares and keep them in a drawer. Or, if more convenient for you, in a wooden tissue box.


Buy in bulk

When I say bulk, I don’t mean buy lots and so much that you end up with more than you need. But whenever appropriate, avoid small serving packages. Big quantities don’t go stale when you transfer them to glass or metal containers. If your child just needs one cookie for gôuter, you can carry it in a reusable snack pouch (tutorials and ready-mades online) or another durable alternative to ziplock bags and plastic containers.


Go loose

Even better than bulk! Seek out the épicerie en vrac (loose goods) at your grocery or organic food store. For zero waste experts: use cloth produce bags with drawstrings. For beginners: re-use the paper bags they offer. Leave teabags and coffee capsules aside and buy loose. It has the advantage of leaving less plastic residue in your beverages. Even teabags are often made of plastic fiber – especially the pricey ones. Plus all those little paper tags and staples. Coffee grounds and tea leaves can also be left to compost – win, win, win!


No foil, no wrap

If you want to be crafty, search “bees wax and tissue” cling film alternatives to cling film. If you are lazy, just cover bowls with plates and plates with bowls. Fill those left-overs in glass containers or jam jars. The latter make a perfect serving size for take-out lunches.


Beauty products

Remember those 450 years? For shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes it’s estimated evenmore than that. And if the product contains glitter or an exfoliating agent, this microplastic will be drained right into the ocean. I know, no guilt for past habits. But now go and find good solid alternatives. Zero waste toothpaste with baking soda and essential oils on my list for when the last store-bought tube is empty. Because throwing away what you already own to replace with something better is also not zero waste.



About the Author: Ilka lives with her husband and three sons Ayoub, Zyan, and Sami in Orsay.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Message. Message cannot be held responsible for any information contained in or omitted from this article.

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