Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Sarah (known as @sustainable.suburbs on Instagram & check out her blog) lives with her husband and two young boys in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada. On her Instagram account she shares how to reduce waste (with kids) while living in a culture of convenience, steps toward a simplified life, and her many houseplants. Sarah has kindly agreed to interview with The Zero Waste Collective to share her experience of going zero waste with kids.
ZWC: First of all, thank you so much for interviewing with The Zero Waste Collective. A lot of people in The Zero Waste Collective community have kids, and there are so many questions about how to live zero waste with kids. To get started, tell us, how did you end up working towards a zero waste lifestyle?
Sarah: I started bulk shopping and decanting into mason jars about ten years ago when money was very tight. At that time, I just used the plastic bags without thinking about it too much. When I was pregnant with my first son, I couldn’t stomach the thought of disposable diapers and researched cloth diapers instead. We were very fortunate to have a local independent store that was both affordable and extremely knowledgeable.
When it came time for him to use bottles and dishes, I became very concerned with plastic. I read My Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry and found Life Without Plastic through her [check out these books here]. From there I went with plastic free and reusable items where I could. Both boys are still using the stainless steel sippy cups we bought, but now with the spout lid. Choosing reusables for them naturally led into reducing plastic from our own food storage and cooking items.
I fell down the rabbit hole of #zerowaste by clicking on a post from Shia at Wasteland Rebel in my “Explore” feed on Instagram, and knew I had found my tribe. So many things I have been thinking, feeling, and doing over the years suddenly weren’t “weird”, but important.This dovetailed nicely with Bulk Barn’s introduction of their reusable container program and from there I was all in. I invited my IRL friends to follow Sustainable in the Suburbs for education and tips on how to live low waste with kids in the suburbs. It has grown from there and I am delighted by what I have learned and who I have been able to connect with this past year.
ZWC: What does zero waste mean to you?
Being mindful of my impact on our planet and teaching my children the same.
Carefully considering purchases including whether or not it is truly necessary, what the item will be used for and how long, it is durable, is it repairable, what kind of packaging does it have, what will happen to it when I am finished with it.
Doing my best to reduce waste wherever possible, whether it is refusing items, reducing what I purchase, recycling materials properly, contacting companies with questions or suggesting ways to reduce waste in their packaging or at point of sale.
Educating folks on how to cultivate a personal sustainability practice to spread the movement and affect real change.
ZWC: The lifestyle isn't always easy, and there are certainly a lot of critics. With bumps in the road, what motivates you to keep going?
Sarah: I do struggle with “eco-anxiety” and feeling discouraged by the actions of others. I also know that leading by positive example is the best way to get a “buy in” from others and shift our collective habits. This work is critically important and I know that I must persist with living according to my values. Getting messages from friends about a change they have made fills me with so much joy. Being able to lean on my ZW community when I feel like I’m skating uphill reminds me that every day more and more people are shifting their habits.
ZWC: Community is so incredibly important for this lifestyle. In terms of family and friends, what was their reaction? And how do you kids feel about it? Is your husband on board?
Sarah: For the most part, the reaction has been positive. I am asked a lot of questions and advice about alternatives, which I love. The only thing my kids were annoyed about was not having packaged granola bars anymore, but they understand why we do what we do and are actively and engaged in the process.
My husband has been very supportive. From his beginnings as a guy whose girlfriend had a million jars, to washing cloth diapers, to picking up sushi in our containers, he pretty much just goes with it! Even though he is still “secretly” buying shampoo, he is much bolder than I am about asking for things in our containers, which has helped me speak up. He is becoming quite the canner as well! I am very grateful that I not only have his support, but his buy-in in living this lifestyle on daily basis and teaching our children these values with consistency.
ZWC: It sounds like your kids are on board, and your husband is really supportive! This is fantastic. How do you handle family/friends who don't 'get it'?
Sarah: I am grateful that our family has been respectful our wishes, and are making efforts both when they come to our home and small changes within their own homes. I have had the experience of having friends apologize to me for items they are using in front of me, to which I always say “Don’t apologize! You are doing what works for you today. I’m always happy to help you set up next time, or help clean up and sort today.”
ZWC: Many people think that zero waste living isn't possible with kids. You have kids, do you agree with this statement?
Sarah: It isn’t impossible, but may be more challenging for sure. We are conditioned by marketers to think that kids need a lot of stuff, special foods, tons of toys, etc. This simply isn’t true. It isn’t easy to shift from a conventional lifestyle into zero waste with kids, but it is very doable.
It does take a little more time at first, but the work pays dividends in the future. Work on one thing at a time until it become the new normal, and then on to the next thing. Do a waste audit to see what is creating the most trash and focus on that first. Work on reducing waste where you can, if “zero” seems daunting at first.
For us, it was school lunches. For example, making my own yogurt isn’t sustainable from a time perspective, so I buy the biggest possible container and refill their containers each day. This creates far less overall packaging for the recycling bin, while still being familiar, fast, and easy. It’s not perfect, but our efforts have to be sustainable in terms of our time as well.
ZWC: How do you engage your kids in zero waste living? How do you inspire them to understand the importance of this lifestyle?
Sarah: We involve the boys in daily tasks with us, such as cooking and cleaning. As such, they have an understanding what goes where - garbage, recycling, or compost - and what happens to each bin when it leaves our house. I take them bulk shopping with me and let them pick out snacks for the week and fill the container. They put bulk bakery items in the bag or we decide what to bake for the week, etc. I want to normalize this way of living so that they carry these habits with them throughout their day and their lives.
ZWC: How do you deal with societal norms that don't align well with the zero waste lifestyle? For example, milestone events like birthdays can create a lot of trash. How do you handle those types of events?
Sarah: We lean toward minimalism in our home, so our kids are used to subdued holidays and birthdays. They have been exposed to how other people celebrate prior to me learning about the “Refuse” tenet of ZW, so that bell can’t be unrung. I have found other kids’ birthday parties a bit tricky. Right now, they take their own water bottle and we give an experience or a plant as a gift. I could be sending them with their own plate, fork and napkin, but we honestly aren’t quite there yet. I am also not entirely comfortable with telling the kids they must decline the goody bag - I let them decide. I cannot control the trash at the party and also want my child to feel comfortable. I have faith that in the future, they will take their resuables with them.
We recently hosted my son’s birthday party at our house to keep it low waste, using our own cutlery, dishes, and cloth napkins. Clean up took about the same amount of time, with no trash. The only decoration was a fabric bunting I bought years ago.
For “goody bags” my son chose candy from the bulk store and we packed it into jam jars together. That’s it! I heard from one mum that she appreciated no plastic crap and a free jar! He was happy with his party, so we are happy.
ZWC: Have you had a positive experience overall with zero waste living?
Sarah: It sounds so cliche, but I have had such an amazing experience since joining the ZW Community. I have learned so much, made so many changes, and met so many wonderful people. It has pushed me out of my comfort zone and I have grown so much.
ZWC: How do you approach your lifestyle with other parents who might think it's a bit strange?
Sarah: I prefer to just do what we do, and answer questions when asked.
ZWC: Any other advice you can offer?
Sarah: Be kind to yourself. Go at your own pace. Make the changes that are appropriate to your lifestyle and circumstances. Believe that every person making a change makes a difference!
ZWC: Thanks for sharing your journey on Instagram through your account @sustainable.suburbs. What do you hope to achieve with this outlet, and beyond?
Sarah: I started a public Instagram account as a way of connecting with other zero waste folks, learning from them and sharing what zero waste means for me and my family. As a trained teacher, I would love to find a way to make a humble career from educating folks about reducing waste, with an aim for creating access to reusable items for folks for whom cost is a barrier.
Thanks so much to Sarah form @sustainable.suburbs for sharing her experience with the zero waste lifestyle, and sharing the challenges and joys of zero waste living with kids. Follow Sarah on Instagram for more advice and to share along in her journey. She's honest with her experiences, which makes her incredibly relatable, and she's witty (Sophi from @yourecofriend agrees with that statement!), so it's really a joy to follow her Insta.