Zero hero

Many of us are fully committed to the concept of zero waste, but few of us have done so much to make it a reality as Rachelle Strauss, blogger at Resource catches up with Mrs Green herself to find out more

Rachelle Strauss, along with her husband and daughter, are known as Britain’s one-bin family, having generated only one carrier bag of residual waste in 2009. But, go back a mere 10 years, and things were very different indeed. “I didn’t have any background in the area, and that was part of the reason why I started this, because every week we were putting out two and a half bins of stuff and I didn’t recycle anything at all”, she explains, to my great surprise. “Even simple stuff like newspapers and wine bottles – it just all ended up in the bin.”

But then, first-hand experience of the 2004 flooding in Boscastle changed everything. Along with about 100 others, the Strausses, who were on holiday in the area, had to be airlifted to safety following the flash flooding, and the experience had a lasting effect: “We came home from the holiday and I was still thinking about these people who had lost everything in the course of a few hours. And I was thinking, ‘What can I do?’ I suddenly wanted to be part of the solution, and I didn’t have money to donate to the area, I couldn’t go down and physically help, so I looked at the bigger picture.” 

And so, Strauss set up a local Gloucestershire Freecycle group, a network that allowed people to donate items to others in the area or receive them for free. The group proved so popular that, within a year, she’d split it into five different groups. Things still weren’t progressing on the traditional recycling front, though, and so on New Year’s Day 2008, Strauss resolved to start recycling. But even then, the household really didn’t take to it: “By day four, as with every other New Year’s resolution, I’d completely given up”, Strauss admits, adding: “My husband wasn’t on board. His attitude was ‘What difference can we make, we’re just one family?’… So, I felt a bit bad, but I left it.” But, a few months later, an image of a turtle choking on a plastic carrier bag proved to be the wake-up call needed for Strauss’s husband: “It was a moment of massive realisation for him. He sat there with his head in his hands saying, ‘That could have been my carrier bag.’”

With the whole household on board, Strauss began blogging about the experience of trying to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible. And so, was born. Strauss says she started the blog in large part as an accountability tool that allowed her to “look back over [her] progress”, but it clearly struck a chord with the greater public: by the end of the year, it had attracted global interest. The commitment required in the early years was immense, with Strauss blogging nearly every day for the first three years. She says that, to date, she’s written between 1,500 and 2,000 posts, to a monthly audience of between 40,000 and 50,000 people.

Strauss’s own journey saw her go from creating roughly 130 bins full of rubbish a year to less than one, but she cautions that other would-be zero-wasters must realise it didn’t happen overnight. “It’s really important for people to remember that it took us 18 months to get down from throwing away two and a half bins a week to one bin for the year by 2009. It’s really like any other goal in that we take baby steps and don’t overwhelm ourselves.” Following on from the simple step of banning disposable carrier bags, Strauss “dusted off the kerbside box”, for newspapers, glass bottles and tin cans, and then used the Recycle Now website to find that things like milk bottles, cartons and cardboard could be recycled at local bring banks. 

With most of the major streams removed from her rubbish bin, Strauss began tackling the final bits of waste – through finding alternatives to getting curry in plastic trays, for instance, and making more things from scratch. I ask her what the last things in her bin were, and she says: “Yoghurt pots was one, because I really tried to make my own yoghurt and it was just vile, I never managed to do that. I wasn’t very good at making bread either… And then there were things that we really couldn’t do anything with because either there was just not an alternative, or there were some things you’re not prepared to give up. So, for me, it’s Ryvita, and razors as well, because I’m not ready to be a cavewoman just yet.”

Clearly, she does her best as a householder, but what does she think manufacturers and government should do? She explains that she “did return some things to manufacturers with a covering letter saying ‘You shouldn’t be producing this if you can’t recycle it’” (though she suspects her letters were predominantly filed in the bin), and that she’d “like to see more from government”, but, on the whole, she seems refreshingly unwilling to point the finger. Noting that “we live a bit in a blame culture”, she says she’s “very much in favour of separating the ‘us and them mentality’” and that “it’s really important that we work together”.

With that in mind, her blog has clearly inspired others to not only watch her family’s journey to zero waste, but also to join in themselves. This is in no small part due to Zero Waste Week, which started shortly after the site launched when fellow blogger Karen Cannard (at Rubbish Diet) challenged Strauss to create zero waste for a week. Strauss asked readers to join in, and more than 100 people took part in the first challenge, a figure that grew to 1,700 last year. This year, the week will run from 1-7 September, and will ask participants to do ‘One More Thing’ to reduce waste going to landfill.

“I think people like it because although it’s got a serious message, I’m quite fun with it”, she notes. “People understand we have a bit of a laugh wherever we can. I’m not preaching at people because we’re in this together and I’ve got some bad habits and Zero Waste Week helps me rein things back in.”

Yes, even Mrs Green herself struggles to do exactly the right thing sometimes. When she started the blog, she spent most of her time homeschooling her daughter, but Strauss now runs her own social media business and admits that a busy work day can make things difficult: “I’m tired at the end of the day, and I’m relying on a table of convenience food, so we’ve got the plastic trays back in the bin. And I’m also creating food waste because I know some things should be used up and I can’t be bothered. I face all the things that everybody faces, really.”

Strauss’s candidness clearly strikes a cord with people, and she suggests that tone is key to effectively communicating with householders, whether as a blogger or a council officer: “It’s so important that people feel that you’re another householder dealing with the same issues. I think it’s really important to speak to them in their language, not in the kind of official language – people don’t like it, they don’t want to be preached at, they want somebody to go with them on this journey.”

This article was taken from Issue 77

Of course, as we all know, rubbish can be a rather contentious issue, and not everyone agrees with Strauss. In addition to the many, many letters and emails giving and looking for support, Strauss tells me there are some people out there who hold her responsible for the increasing popularity of alternate weekly collections (which she is firmly in favour of): “I’ve had people – only one or two – who have written to me saying I am personally responsible for taking away their right to a weekly bin collection!” 

And then there was also an incident when, having successfully produced only one bin of waste for 2009, Strauss says she was the target of a rather malicious instance of fly-tipping: “We had the BBC come to film the bin because it was going to be emptied for the first time in a year… Just before the BBC were coming, we had six black bags of rubbish dumped on our driveway – somebody must have driven up in a van in the middle of the night to do that.” Strauss says that the council immediately sent round someone to pick it up, and so the dramatic emptying of the bin could proceed as planned.

Still, the vast majority of those who come across Strauss and her blog find her very inspiring indeed, as evidenced by comments from those voting for her in our annual Hot 100 competition. This year, she shot up to number 11 on our list of influential players in the resources sector, with fans citing her as an ‘untiring inspiration’, and an ‘eco-Womble par excellence’, who’s ‘dragging us lesser beings behind her’, amongst many other supportive words. One thing’s for certain: she’s proving that one family can make a very large difference indeed.