Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
Today we are going to be looking at why living a local life can help you live a zero waste life. We often see "shop local" campaigns, often around the holidays, but what does that mean when living a zero waste life? Why is it essential in a zero waste life and in what way can supporting our community help us produce less waste?
Eating local produce. Sounds idyllic and easy right? Idyllic maybe, but often not easy. It can be difficult to determine what is the least wasteful way to consume a product. Do you buy local in plastic packaging, or unpackaged from abroad. Also, how local is local? As all produce is different, it's impossible to give hard and fast rules, but we can talk about the principles to help you make these decisions yourself, so they are applicable wherever in the world you are living.
In terms of carbon footprint, usually the more locally food is grown to you, the lower the carbon footprint because of the fuel use of tranporting food from where it was grown, to you. Reduce transportation also means reduced air pollution from vehicles. Especially if the food needs to be transported by plane, which is the most harmful type of transportation. Usually local produce can be sold in a shorter period of time after being harvested due to reduced transportation time. This means that it is less likely that the food will go bad during transportation, and gives the consumer more time to eat it after purchasing potentially meaning less food waste, which has a huge impact on the climate.
If food is grown locally then it often requires less packaging as it doesn't need to be kept fresh during transportation, meaning less waste in the form of packaging. If packaging is used but the supplier is local, then they may be happy to take back and reuse the packaging - like punnets for berries at farmers markets.
The times this is not true is when the food is not a native food to the country, or is grown out of season, which is often true for those of us living in the UK. If you consider tomatoes for example. Growing them out-of-season in the UK reuiqres artifical heating, and the alternative is importation, often from Europe by road. Riverford conducted a study to look which was the more sustainable option, and found that importing by road uses just a tenth of the carbon compared with growing them in the UK using heat.
If you are able to shop very local then you may even be able to get to know the local farmers, which can have an even greater impact than the food you eat alone. In the Drawdown list of possible solutions to climate breakdown, around eight farming practices can have a huge potential impact. Silvopasture (#9) and regenerative agriculture (#11) are really powerful farming practices and being able to support local farmers by buying their produce, and having the opportunity to discuss these practices with them can also enable these farmers to reduce their impact. As farmers also own land, there is even more possibility for environmentally friendly practices with the adoption of renewable energy generation such as wind power and solar power. Supporting local farmers and buying directly from them has all the benefits of locally produced food, whilst having the added benefits of shopping locally that I will discuss below. Generally supporting locally small farmers helps keep these small farms in business, and small farms tend to have less of a harmful impact on their environment and biodiversity than mega-farms.
What about products that aren't food? Like clothes, furniture, or toiletries?
There are two aspects to shopping locally, shopping in local shops, and buying locally made products. Buying products grown or made locally means that there has usually been less carbon emissions in shipping that item to you, meaning the product has a smaller carbon footprint. A local seller offering locally made products has the least carbon footprint, but you may have a lower impact by shopping online from a local producer than buying a product made abroad from a local shop keeper due to the impact of shipping. Shopping online may in fact be the more environmentally friendly option.
So shopping in local shops may not always be the best option for your carbon footprint, but there are many other benefits to shopping locally. The money spent in local stores is much more likely to stay in the local community than if you buy from big national or global brands, and money staying in the community has only beneficial results in comparison to the money going to a billionaire's pocket. "Research on spending by local authorities shows that for every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business 63p stayed in the local economy, compared to 40p with a larger business"(1). Small business owners are more likely to invest that money in local projects that they support and help boost the local economy. Small businesses are also more likely to support other local small businesses and charities, keeping yet more money in the community. More money in local companies means more local jobs being created. This money is also paid back into the community through local taxes - business taxes but also through other taxes such as council tax as business owners are more likely to live near their business. With mega-brands frequently in the news for how little tax they pay, supporting local brands instead is not only more ethical, but also boosts the local and national economy. Also if things are made locally then you are likely to know what the labour and production laws are to decide whether to support them, for example if a product is made in the UK I know that it won't contain microbeads as they have been banned, and I know what it means if a brand offers a living wage.
Local businesses are also more likely to host community events, such as craft shops hosting knitting groups, and if these businesses disappear then so do these community events, meaning that if you support local businesses you are also supporting community events.
Supporting small business also means that you are more likely to have the power to influence culture, like encouraging them to stop using single use plastic etc. When you shop at a small business you are often able to meet the owner, or at least someone closer to the owner than most big brands, so explaining why you are passionate about certain topics and asking for the shop to support them is more likely to have a successful result! Local businesses are likely to have a smaller customer base so your opinions are more valued than in a global company, and as a result you are also likely to get a better customer service experience, meaning they may be more accommodating when you ask to do things like bring your own coffee cup, refill your water bottle, or use your own container.
The alternative depends on where you are shopping and what you are buying, and there is some nuance about what would be the next best option. If you were only considering one aspect such as carbon footprint it may be possible to work out but when considering other benefits such as mentioned above, it becomes tricky. However, a national company with a local store would likely still be better than an international company with a local store, and both would likely be better than an online international company with no local presence.
When we shop locally we can build a strong local community so that people do not need to drive further away to get what they need, that supports local people and reduces the reliance on big global companies who may not be ethical or transparent about the waste they create.
Things to support in your local community:
- Independent coffee shops instead of big chains
- Buy direct from farmers or at a farmers market
- Independent stores, florists, breweries, bakeries, butchers and fishmongers
- Craft markets, often more common in the run up to Christmas
- Local craft producers - this can be online too
- Local libraries
- Charity shops that support local charities.
- Independent arts centres, theatres or cinemas
There are so many ways to support local businesses or producers:
- Buy from them
- Support crowd funding campaigns
- Volunteer with them
- Do a shout out on social media about them
- Like and comment on their social media posts
- Tell your friends, colleagues and family about them
- Show up to their events
- Suggest that other shops you buy from stock that product
This is really the next step on from eating and shopping locally because often it includes both of those things. When on a local holiday, either a staycation somewhere you already live or a holiday in your own country, you can put money into that local economy with all the benefits talked about above. Try to stay in accommodation owned by local people. If you eat out, try to support local independent restaurants who may be more likely to support local farmers and highlight local produce. If you are someone who buys souvenirs, try to look for locally made items that really celebrate and support the local community. The best thing however about a local holiday is that you do not need to travel a long distance to get there and so you are dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of your holiday. We will be talking more about this in coming weeks but plane travel is something that contributes significantly to the climate crisis and our personal carbon footprints. By finding ways to avoid planes, often by choosing more local holidays, we are able to avoid the pollution that would be caused by that plane. Obviously that plane will still fly initially but like everything, it is about supply and demand, if demand falls, so will supply. Try to find a holiday where you can get there on public transport, a bus, coach or train. If you must drive, consider car sharing or taking the fewest cars possible.
If you haven't realised by now, I don't believe that zero waste living is just about what's in your rubbish bin. It's more encompassing than that. It's about doing what we can to reduce any kind of waste, visible and invisible, up-stream and down-stream of us, in our lives and in the lives of others. We can help reduce waste in other people's lives by campaigning and acting for projects and policy changes that help other every-day people avoid waste and make businesses be less wasteful and polluting, but this is done by activism. Local activism is especially powerful as it links up small groups of local, like-minded individuals to make directed positive small scale change in their communities. Group activism is easier and more effective than trying to do it alone! Local activism is taking a big global or national problem and breaking it up into small, more manageable chunks! Most people wouldn't try to eat a whole load of bread without cutting it up into smaller pieces first (although I admire anyone who just goes for a whole loaf!). If you think of the recent global climate strikes in the UK, there are many people who were unable to travel to the London for the biggest protest, but because there were local protests, more people were able to get involved and make a larger overall impact.
There are so many ways to get involved with local activism and I have lots of ideas here. You could also join in with a local divestment group near you (if you're not sure what divestment is, check this out) or share your views with a local politician.
Shopping and eating locally, supporting local businesses, joining local libraries, going on local holidays and joining in with local campaign groups are amazing ways to further your zero waste life. As we always talk about, zero waste isn't just about what's in your bin! If we want a global society that is able to move away from capitalism and its intrinsic link to climate breakdown, then we need to be willing to support local enterprises for a more sustainable future.