The other night I woke at 3am in a panic about my recycling and agonised over my irresponsibility when it comes to the planet. It’s not that I don’t recycle, it’s that my 240-litre mixed recycling bin is always filled to the top when I take it to the curb for collection every two weeks. And, much as I want to believe that my recycling mountain is an indication that I am doing the right thing for the environment, more and more information indicates that this is not the case.

For a few years now, I have been reading up on zero waste living and trying to figure out how to implement some of the practises into my own life, with varying degrees of success. But I, like so many others, live a busy family life and often, just to stay on top of all the demands on my time and attention, need my grocery shopping to be quick and easy. At times like these, I tuck away my thoughts of zero waste and put my faith back in the recycling system, as I have been doing recently. Then I read a Medium article by the always engaging and insightful UNEP Champion of the Earth Leyla Acaroglu on the topic of “wishcycling” — placing non-recyclables in the recycling bin in hopes they will be recycled — and soon after found myself in the aforementioned 3am panic.

In the article, Acaroglu describes the confusion surrounding recycling, how few items are actually recyclable, and how putting non-recyclables in the recycling bin contaminates the load, leading to the whole batch being sent to landfill or incineration. She points out that some materials, such as paper and metal, have more reliable recycling facilities whereas plastics, due to the vast number of types and composites, are in many cases not recyclable at all.

A Greenpeace report from May 2021 details that plastic waste in the UK is overwhelming not only the UK recycling system but that of other countries, where it is damaging the health of the people and the environment. Highlighting the scale of the problem, it reads: “Globally, almost 370 million tonnes of plastic are created every year. By 2015, approximately 6.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic had been produced, of which only 9% had been recycled; the rest was burned in incinerators or dumped, either in landfill or in the environment.”

Of course the plastic waste problem is much bigger than just our grocery shopping, but if we look at our own household’s recycling each week and imagine that quantity multiplied by the number of people in the country in which we live, we can get a glimpse into the impact of our weekly food shop. It is clear that something needs to be done to curb the tide of needless packaging passing through our homes.

There are, of course, businesses trying to address this issue. There are farm-to-door produce deliveries in cardboard boxes and great zero-waste stores offering bulk food and toiletries in reusable containers and even some offering home delivery in returnable, reusable packaging, or paper packaging, delivered with electric vans. The problem is that these zero-waste stores, even as they are becoming more common, are still few and far between and their offerings tend to be small. Shopping at them certainly limits your waste and recycling, and is of course worth the effort, but still requires you to shop elsewhere to get the rest of your weekly shop — somewhere that inevitably offers the goods in plastic containers.

And yes, we should be prioritising the planet, we should make the extra trip to the independent zero-waste shop to get the items we can, and every effort in this direction makes an impact, especially when multiplied across households. But “should” doesn’t hold up well under pressure. It caves to demands like caring for the home or loved ones, quality family time, exercise and work demands. The onus shouldn’t be on the end consumer to go out of their way to do the right thing. Even those with the best intentions, who make the greatest effort, live through the unexpected twists and turns of life. When life gets complicated, as it tends to do, and we find ourselves caring for the physical or mental health of a loved one, or working long hours, or moving house, or managing any of the myriad other challenges that life throws at us, we tend to deprioritise special shopping trips and just aim to get the job done in the simplest possible way.

Why not make it easy to shop zero-waste, so that even those overwhelmed by life or those who don't care at all about the environment shop this way simply because that is how shopping works? If we make it easy for people to do the right thing, if we make it desirable, if we make it so people don’t even have to think about it, we can collectively have a big impact. It is not enough to rely on the subset of people who are willing to go out of their way; we need everyone onboard. We need the mainstream grocery stores to start taking zero waste seriously. 

In 2019, here in the UK, Waitrose, a large chain grocery store, introduced refill stations at select stores, encouraging people to bring their own containers to measure out items like grains, beans, frozen fruit, detergent, and beverages, and started selling inexpensive reusable containers for those who need them. At the moment, the initiative, named “Waitrose Unpacked”, is available in only four locations, but the company is hoping to add more locations as well as a zero-waste online shopping option. In the meantime, they are working on their own-brand products, aiming to make their packaging “reusable, widely recyclable or home compostable by 2023,” according to their website. 

Waitrose has set a great example for chain grocery stores, and others would do well to follow their lead. But it is deeply frustrating how slow the progress is on this issue — even Waitrose, with all of their efforts and best intentions, have only rolled out “Unpacked” to 4 locations in 3 years. So the service is still not accessible to most UK residents. 

What will it take for zero waste to become the norm at mainstream grocery stores? Stores need to take the initiative and start providing refill stations and demand that their suppliers provide products in plastic-free packaging. The government needs to implement legislation that demands it. And yes, consumers need to adjust to a new way of doing things, but we may be surprised by just how many are willing to get onboard. Especially when it becomes part of the one-stop weekly shop and when online ordering is still possible. Disposable packaging does not offer us value and weighs heavily on our shoulders as a further environmental responsibility, so many would be happy to be free of it. And who wouldn’t prefer cupboards lined with glass mason jars of food rather than an assortment of plastic tubs and cartons? 

Realistically, convenience will remain an important issue in our complex, demanding lives. We can have the best intentions but, ultimately, we have a long list of things that require our attention and groceries are not going to be at the centre of that. When life gets complex, our grocery shopping has to be easy. So we need to stop insisting that a ‘good’ person will make the extra time to do the right thing and start catering to people’s inherent ways of doing things — we need to get everyone shopping zero-waste by making it convenient and normal.

The environment can’t wait for every individual to choose to shop zero-waste. We need the systems in place to normalise this way of shopping, to make it mainstream, so we can make a real impact, so we can stop wishcycling and start shopping and living in a way that is aligned with the current state of the world and resources available.