Eco-anxiety and the World as a giant rubbish bin

My brain tells me, “the world is running out of space,” because when I think about (and I do it too often) the sheer volume of waste produced around the world daily, what I can’t understand is how every inch of the world isn’t already covered with rubbish. Of course, as a family, we contribute waste to landfill because #livingzerowaste is hard work and often, very unrealistic. But when my anxious brain starts to consider not only household waste, supermarket waste (#supermarketsdirtysecrets), waste from schools, shops, restaurants, leisure facilities, flights, public bins, fast fashion items that go out of season and can no longer sell, and multiply this for every country in the world, I honestly do sit and wonder where it all goes. Landfill, yes, but what does that look like? Where are they? How many of them are there? What impact does the breakdown, or not, of all that waste do to the Earth and its natural systems? What will happen if we do run out of space? And if instead the waste is burnt, surely that must mean the air is full of toxins and plastics? (It is).

I know that the Earth is big, really big in fact, and I know that even a population of 7 billion people takes up a fraction of the actual space the Earth offers. But when we, the human species, have been generating waste for centuries and that this waste is only increasing in volume due to our consumerist habits, reliance on convenience and disconnect from Mother Nature, in my head, it feels as if the world by this point in time should be overflowing with rubbish and waste. My body feels a sense of panic, a constriction, a fear that we are fast running out of room and that pretty soon, someone will ask if it’s OK to use my back garden as a landfill site because yes, in fact, it’s the last place left to fill. It sounds crazy, right? But this is the reality of my eco-anxiety and experiencing a hypersensitivity to seeing a single piece of litter on the footpath or an overflowing dustbin at the back of a shop even though, I myself throw things in the bin every day.

So how then to combat this feeling of suffocation? How can I feel confident that the Earth is not, in fact, one giant rubbish bin (my brain is already wanting to say, “but it IS a giant rubbish bin, isn’t it?) and that there is an abundance of space left, clean air to breathe and thriving habitats all around the world? How, in the wake of the Australian bush fire crisis can I be sure that the air outside my house is safe and that all that smoke hasn’t made it’s way to the UK?

Today, the antidote to these feelings was simply to go and spend time outside, to find a place where I could see the trees and hear the birds and where I could see, even to a small degree, the expanse of space that there really is. I could breathe a sigh of relief at feeling small, seeing green grass and only encountering the odd piece of litter. (Breathe, it’s OK). Another, and this is and will be an ongoing practice for me, is to try and turn my feelings of stress and anxiety into direct action and know that once again, the systems at play are far bigger than my individual contribution to this mess. Finally, I’m choosing to focus on finding good news stories and deepening my own mindfulness and meditation practices which today included spending time visualising large, expansive areas of nature that go on and on and on with not a single piece of rubbish to be seen. Do you feel better? I certainly do.

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A plastic free birthday party

Two weeks ago we hosted a party for Jasmine’s 3rd birthday. It was small, her first solo party, with her closest and most familiar friends which seemed the right decision for a child who can be highly sensitive. I’ll be honest, the thought of her bursting into tears during “happy birthday” was a daily worry for me for weeks in advance! Planning a birthday party for a sensitive child is one thing but planning a “low waste” and “plastic free” party is quite another. Before I dive in to how we pulled this off, I need to put the usual disclaimer. This is not a judgement call on anyone who has hosted a party done differently because I firmly believe that all kid’s parties are planned in love and until a few months ago, I wouldn’t have even considered the waste implications that a party could have.

We make billions of products that last 5 minutes out of materials that last for a lifetime.” – unknown.

Single use plastics are just that, designed for a single use, simply to then be thrown away, realistically not recycled and existing in landfill more or less forever. Plastic cups, straws, balloons, party bag fillers, table confetti….they bring a smile to a child’s face for a few minutes but once that excitement has worn off, they are thrown away, except that as I’m learning more and more, “away” is not a place that really exists at all.

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Jasmine enjoying a vegan chocolate cupcake!

My journey to reducing waste and living a “low waste” life is a long and hard one. It is full of complexities and challenges and I’m often left feeling more disheartened and sad than I am hopeful and uplifted. Then I’m reminded that we as individuals need to be the change we want to see in the world and also be a role model for this change for our children. I’ve already started teaching Jasmine about plastic because her generation are going to need to be change makers too. I want her (and Summer) to know that looking after the planet we live on should be a priority but that it is also a joy. I want her to know that her actions can make a difference and that change starts at home.

So with that in mind, I set myself a task to try and plan and pull off a birthday party for Jasmine that avoided (as far as possible) disposable and single use plastics, with an effort to reduce waste and rise to the challenge of being more environmentally aware. I really do believe that every little helps and one less bag of rubbish sitting in a landfill site is indeed a job well done.

Here are the steps we took to reduce our party waste:

I banned balloons: call me a party pooper and maybe I am one but balloons, despite them being a favourite of Jasmine’s did not make an appearance at her party. Balloons are a party classic, of course, a symbol of the birthday celebration and an item guaranteed to entertain a bunch of 3 year olds too. Balloons however, are in essence a single use plastic. They are sold in a plastic bag (straight to landfill) and when the balloons eventually pop and are thrown away, that’s it too. Balloon scraps are very harmful to wildlife and although biodegradable balloons are available, we just did without entirely! I was worried, unnecessarily, that Jasmine would ask for balloons or that the party would be lacking without them but I don’t think it made one bit of difference…other than to the Earth!

So how did we decorate instead?

Decorations were made from reusable materials such as card or cloth as to avoid the plastic wrapped foil banners I’d bought in previous years. We borrowed birthday party banners from friends and also bought fresh Spring flowers (in brown paper) to decorate the tables. The village hall came fitted with loads of fairy lights and we laid the tables with party food. Again, I worried it wouldn’t be atmospheric enough or that the room would look bare but it didn’t. The people made the atmosphere more than any set of decorations would and we now have a set of party banners we can use at any occasion…no need to buy single use ones ever again.

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Fairtrade, cloth party banners from Plastic Free Party Bags

The party food was where we struck our biggest challenge for sure. We all know how difficult it is to buy food plastic free in the UK but we did take some steps to minimise the waste as best we could, aiming for progress not perfection. Firstly, we tried not to over cater in an effort to minimise food waste and knowing that most toddlers only nibble anyway before diving into the cake. We planned a few savoury bites such as wraps, sandwiches, vegan sausage rolls and some crisps. Then we had veggie sticks with hummus (not home made admittedly…maybe next year), fruit and vegan chocolate cake. I bought plastic free fruit and veggies such as carrots, peppers, watermelon, oranges and pineapple rather than being tempted by strawberries and grapes in plastic boxes. For drinks we offered apple juice (one large recyclable carton) or water for the kids and glass bottled soft drinks and tea/coffee for parents. We took along some compostable food waste bags for any throw away food and packed up left overs to take home too.

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Plastic free fruit ‘n’ veg options and fresh spring flowers

Plastic cups and plates were a no no for me but this did present a challenge. Kids party plates and cups are certainly a convenience item and also a safe one, with nothing at risk of being broken but unless paper plates are cleaned before being recycled, they are likely to end up in landfill too. Whats more, even when I did find paper plates for sale, they were of course wrapped in single use plastic which is exactly what I wanted to avoid. I came across several blogs that suggested borrowing tableware from friends but we ended up just braving the “real” plates and glasses that the venue provided and hoping that with a little parental help, the kids would manage not to break anything. I’m so pleased this worked because it really was zero waste and saved me a lot of money forking out for reusable bamboo plates.

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No plastic cups or paper plates!

What about party bags?  Ah, the party bag. We found a brilliant company called, “plastic free party bags” who offer and delivered a fantastic service. In an effort to avoid the millions of throw away items and plastic party bags given out every single weekend across the UK they offer sustainable, fairtrade, vegan and plastic free alternatives. We ordered a few bits for each child including some vegan chocolate buttons, a pan-pipe whistle, some wildflower seeds and an animal mask to colour in. We received some lovely compliments from our guests about these bags and would use this company again in a heartbeat! We did pay substantially more than we would have done going for supermarket party bag fillers but the zero waste element and being able to support a small business was well worth it for us. Please do check them out!

Plastic free party bags

And that’s just about it! We did of course create some waste…mostly napkins, some crisp packets, cupcake cases and paper towels from the bathroom but overall, I’m so pleased with what we achieved and definitely feel that we significantly reduced our waste and avoided a huge amount of plastic. I also showed myself that with a lot of hard work, determination and a little creativity, that I could pull off a lovely and successful birthday party for Jasmine that didn’t in any way feel lacking in celebratory spirit and for that, I am pretty proud of myself.