Could there be one single, major solution to all the large environmental problems we keep seeing on the news? That was the question that led Otso Sillanaukee, 24, to the zero waste movement 3 years ago. It ended up kicking him off on a journey towards not only zero waste but the even wider zero wastefulness, a concept he calls nollahukka in Finnish. Today, he’s a published author and studying for a master’s in sustainable business.
In March, Spark Sustainability focuses on plastic, both in our articles and our climate-smart wall calendar.
“I grew up in a home where some sustainable habits were just a given part of life: we recycled religiously and mended broken clothes. But my parents were also of a generation experiencing rapid economic growth, which meant more and more consumption. It meant more toys and more travelling for me as a kid.
The recycling system in Finland is based on households sorting their waste, so when I moved to my first own apartment when starting university, it was self-evident that I’d get the 8 different trash-cans I was used to from my childhood. I felt like that was my contribution to the environment, and wasn’t too informed about environmental issues.
Then global sustainability issues began to appear on the news more and more; it was things like the plastic problem, climate change and overuse of resources. I started getting more worried about them. So I started to look for the one solution that would allow me to actually do my part of solving them all. I came across some international zero waste bloggers around the same time when Helsinki announced that they’d start recycling most plastic packaging, not just bottles for the deposit return scheme. I looked in my little kitchen and asked myself where and how I could fit a 9th recycling bin? That’s when I realised that maybe just recycling wasn’t enough.
I had a moment of realisation. I felt like all the big sustainability issues I was worried about condensed into my trash bag. I wanted to learn how to live according to my values. Now looking back at my journey towards zero wastefulness, I’ve also realised how much happier it has made me to live according to what I value.
I started by learning more about zero waste. In the beginning I was very anti-plastic and even mad at people who used plastic. I couldn’t understand what benefits plastic could have, other than saving costs for profit seeking companies. However, over the past couple of years the narrow plastic focus of the zero waste movement has been criticised by many, and I have learned that plastic can also have benefits if used in the right places. The general throwaway culture is the actual problem.
Often when people are encouraged to stop using single use plastics, it ends up being a message to use cardboard instead. That’s not always a good solution, as other materials can have higher environmental footprints than plastic. Instead it should be a question of how we can do without the single-use plastic item altogether. In practice, it’s not possible to get rid of all single use items right away, because most people wouldn’t know how to live without those things. That’s why anyone attempting zero waste should start one step at the time. I personally started just by using a reusable canvas bag, water bottle and coffee cup.
I usually tell people to make the best choice you can with the information you have right now, because no one will be perfect at any point of time. You can make more informed choices as you journey on!
Today I don’t identify as much with the term zero waste anymore, because some people still understand it as being just about plastic. What I focus on is avoiding general wastefulness, both when it comes to physical waste, energy, water and even our time. To do more with less overall! But at the same time, I don’t want to criticize those who are focused on reducing plastics. Trying to get away from a throwaway culture is a good thing, and some research showing that canvas bags have a larger carbon footprint don’t consider that the canvas bags could in fact be made from reused bedlinen. We can get better and repairable versions of reusables like canvas bags and coffee cups. The international zero waste bloggers who focus mostly on not using plastic are still doing something important, and we all have our own ways of trying to act for a common goal.
Generally I really appreciate people who act and not just talk. I personally don’t understand this idea that living more sustainably would mean sacrifice and misery. If you genuinely value something and you start living according to that, it really increases your happiness. I realised that I had valued money too much, and when I stopped consuming so much I was able to save money and spend less time working. This allowed me to spend more time with friends and family. My health is also better now, because I cycle and walk. I eat better as well – because how many candy bars can you really buy if you’re avoiding packaging? There are so many different, practical things everyone can do, practically for free, to help get us away from the culture of overconsumption. Everyone can find the ways of doing this that suit their own lifestyle and increase their feeling of well-being by living according to your values.”
Heating (red): I live on my own an apartment with direct electricity heating which includes water heating, although I do pay for renewable electricity.
Transport (dark green): I walk, cycle and use public transport but about once a month I use my parents car.
Food (yellow): I eat mostly vegan but reducing food waste is my first priority. I follow a plant-based whole foods diet.
Flights: No flights in the past year!
Consumption (pink): Mostly I buy food, then second hand clothes. This year I’ve made some bigger purchases that I couldn’t find second hand, for example a backpack. I buy from companies that I trust focus on quality and repairability.
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