Resource Use

A Zero Waste Story: How Zero Waste Week grew from organic shoots

From small things, big things one day come. That is the message and ethos behind Zero Waste Week, an annual awareness campaign, now in its tenth year, taking place from 4-8 September designed to encourage people to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfill.

The woman behind the initiative is Rachelle Strauss, the founder of Zero Waste Week and 2014 Resource Hot 100 winner.

Strauss is a zero waste success story, going from producing around two and a half bins of rubbish every week to handing over just one carrier bag of residual waste to a rather bemused waste collector in 2009.

Strauss’s story began back in 2004, when she was caught up with her family in the Boscastle floodings in Cornwall, persuading her to do something in the face of what she perceived to be the signs of the disastrous effects of climate change.

Strauss set about with a blog,, documenting her journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Despite its humble beginnings, Strauss found there were many more like her keen to reduce their ecological footprint: “To be honest the blog was just for me, to keep myself accountable and keep a note of what did work and what didn’t work. And what we found after two or three months was that we had 80,000 visitors to the blog every month!

A Zero Waste story
Rachelle Strauss came up with Zero Waste Week in 2008 and has never looked back

“In September of 2008, I did my own Zero Waste Week, asking readers to join in. And about 100 people said yes, so we all did our little Zero Waste Week together and kept a comment thread going on the blog, and at the end of the week people said to me that they really enjoyed it, they said they’d had fun – a word I never thought I would hear associated with recycling! – and that they wanted more of the same.”

One of the things that Strauss found made her blog so popular was the honesty expressed throughout. Every step forward and step backward, every resourceful week and wasteful week were documented in the blog, showing her audience that it was okay to make mistakes and it’s all about the small changes: “I kept it very real. I didn’t hide when I’d messed up or put something hideous in the bin, and so I shared all of that in a very raw and honest way, rather than preaching from my soapbox.

“And I’ve always been someone to celebrate the small things, so if someone was doing one small thing they’d get massive pats on the back from me. I was their cheerleader in a way, just to encourage them. It was about showing people it’s about small changes that are not only sustainable for the planet but for ourselves as well.”

It’s not always been easy, but Strauss has been keen to stress to her readers that it’s natural to have setbacks, and all you can do when that happens is pick yourself up and carry on: “The thing I remind people is that when we started our own zero waste journey, we were throwing everything in the bin. I didn’t even recycle the stuff I could recycle at kerbside – your glass bottles, your tin cans, your paper your cardboard – we were putting out two and a half bin bags every week! Incredible. It’s easy to fall off the wagon and not get back on. You have a rubbish week so now there’s no point. But there’s always tomorrow to just start again.”

Sewing seeds

One thing that Strauss asserts makes it easier to stay on the wagon and not give up is knowing your motivation. One might expect, when looking at such movements from afar, that those involved would have fairly universal reasons for getting involved, but one of the strengths of Zero Waste Week is its inclusivity and capacity to something to anyone.

For some people, the draw is the potential to save money, with Strauss estimating that, since her and her family moved to a zero waste lifestyle, she had saved £1,500 in household costs. Others see making changes to consumption and waste habits as something they can do to push back against encroaching and disastrous climate change.

According to Strauss: “I think there’s a really important question for people about to set out on a zero waste journey: what is your motivation? There are lots of reasons and it’s good to know those reasons so that I can pitch at that level.

“It’s really crucial, it’s like going to the gym, you don’t go just because somebody says that you ought to, you have to have a motivation and a long-term goal in mind and you have to keep that at the forefront of all the decisions you make. Otherwise you won’t know why you’re doing something.”

Another of Zero Waste Week’s strengths is its organic feel, with very little organisation or management from within. Almost all information is disseminated online, on the week’s website or through Strauss’ blog as a conversation with readers and participants, who then go on and talk to their friends and colleagues, something that Strauss says is by design: “I look at Zero Waste Week almost as like scattering seeds. I get stats on how much the hashtag has been used, how many people are online, but I know that the reach must be much bigger and it will be stuff I haven’t heard about. I know that even if I stopped running the week, people would carry on doing their thing, because it’s already got its own momentum.”

While Strauss focuses on individual change, Zero Waste Week is being taken out to schools through teachers taking what they’ve learnt into schools. Around forty local authorities have signed up to the mailing list and are co-ordinating roadshows to coincide with the week, and a plethora of businesses have signed up to participate and share ideas on Twitter, with initiatives from previous years including a stationary and uniform amnesty at Northampton General Hospital, and zero waste lunches at environmental consultancy Ricardo-AEA, where staff turn off their printers one day a week to save paper.

Going backwards to go forwards

So, where does Strauss hope to take things from here? Strauss is aiming to see the initiative grow enough to be able to monetise it and employ ambassadors in different countries to be able to adapt the information in Strauss’ newsletters to make it applicable to particular countries and lifestyles: “I’m aware it’s about my English lifestyle and I’m aware that people are reading it in the Solomon Islands and Ethiopia. I can’t imagine what it’s like being in temperatures of 40 degrees and having to manage my vegetable rack. We’ve all got different issues that we face, and I would love to have ambassadors in different countries, in different lifestyles, with different financial means and physical abilities, so it’s inclusive.”

Going forward, we can also learn something from the past, and Strauss feels we shouldn’t be afraid to look back over our shoulders at our grandparents’ more austere lifestyles to see if we can’t learn something from the attitude and methods they employed in their post-war penury: “I always say to people, I’m not telling you anything new, it’s actually getting back to some of the really good values of a few generations ago.

“There are some really sound values and ethics from our grandparents generation that we can bring forward and incorporate into society and get some really good balance and more of an understanding of the value of resources. It break my heart to know we treat food as a disposable commodity when one in nine people go to bed at night hungry – I mean what is that? It’s crazy.”

Despite the stark future that people like Strauss and those within the zero waste movement are trying to fight against, Zero Waste Week has shown that people do want change and they want to do something about the environmental threats currently bearing down on humanity. The initiative has brought together like-minded people to share ideas and essentially restore faith that from small, individual actions, wider change can be achieved. It is a long and winding road, but the goal is clear, so, in the words of Strauss, when you feel like you can’t sustain your zero waste changes, “have another go, get back on the wagon, let’s all do it together and see how long we can sustain these changes for!”

To find out more about Zero Waste Week and to find out how you can get involved, visit the Zero Waste Week website and search the #ZeroWasteWeek hashtag.

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