My zero-waste childhood

Recently I’ve been having many conversations about waste management. It’s especially relevant here on the Hawai’i island where most of the solid waste goes to landfill. Since China no longer accepts recycled materials from the US, the county stopped recycling paper and plastic. Shopping at local supermarkets has become a torture. I look at all this packaging and know that putting it into a trash bin is almost the same as throwing it out of the window.

Packaging waste constitutes the majority of the solid waste and is the main source of plastic pollution.

Plastic containers and packaging waste management 1960-2017, United States Environmental Protection Agency

But is there really no other way? The plot above shows that plastic pollution in the US started in the 60th of the 20th century (the US is currently the world leader in generating plastic waste per capita). In other countries this process started much later.

I was born in an industrial megapolis (St. Petersburg, Russia), and during my childhood the households were almost zero-waste, except for the food waste. Milk or yogurt were sold in glass bottles, bread and veggies without any packaging. Shoppers brought their own jars, boxes, and bags for things like grain or sour cream. The only packaging we knew was paper, metal, and glass and it was carefully recycled. I was spending my summers on a farm with my grandparents. There we literally had no such thing as a trash bin. Food waste went into the compost on our property, even old clothes that we couldn’t fix were further used as cleaning cloth. Can you guess when it was it? In the 90th, less than 30 years ago!

Packaging examples for diary and eggs from my childhood.

I clearly remember how packaging started to arrive together with the supermarkets. It was such a novelty! Plastic bags were expensive and families washed, dried, and reused them. My grandma kept little plastic yogurt jars because they were so useful in the household. It all changed very quickly though. Within a couple of years the amount of waste we were producing was comparable to an average European or American family.

When I’m talking about zero packaging, I often get the response that it’s unrealistic. I cannot stop wondering – why? Why something that was so natural and simple in my childhood seems so impossible now? Luckily, there are people sharing my hopes. For example, a new zero packaging shop just opened on the street where I live in Heidelberg, Germany.

Annas Unverpacktes shop in Ladenburger Str., Heidelberg, Germany

At the moment such initiatives are still rather small-scale, but with the governmental support zero packaging could easily become a norm. For 60 years we’ve been filling our planet with plastic waste. How long will it take us to stop doing it?


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