In the ﬁrst year of my daughter’s life, I was also reborn. Before Vivian’s birth, I was the stereotypical Type-A personality with a ﬁve-year plan, a regimented morning routine and a daily schedule that was so tightly packed my assistant had to schedule in toilet breaks...
Yes, this really happened: in my former life as a high-ﬂying corporate engineer, my personal assistant had to schedule in ﬁve minute toilet breaks between back-to-back meetings to give me time to go to the toilet, eat, drink and do all the other essential things a human being requires. But all this fell to pieces when my daughter was born. Babies don’t have a schedule, and they certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about your morning routine. Five-year plans? Pft, you can’t even make a ﬁve-minute plan. This, you can imagine, was a shock to the system for a person like me.
On the outside, I was pretending I was still managing. I thought if I planned it all thoroughly and asked for help when I needed it, then everything would be ﬁne. I was wrong. The pressure I had placed on myself to ‘have it all’, and look good while doing so, had turned my life into a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
This led to the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ incident. I was sitting down at my favourite cafe after a ten-hour day of work in a hospital. After almost a decade as an engineering manager, I had returned to study medicine, and was in the middle of a surgical rotation as a trainee doctor. I hadn’t eaten all day and all I wanted was a green smoothie. Being ‘the zero waste girl’, I said to the waiter, ‘No straw please, I am trying to reduce my waste.’ He nodded and smiled. ‘Of course, we need more people like you.’ I was an eco-warrior, the best-selling author, the happy mother, the diligent medical student. If you looked at the perfectly tiled pictures on my Instagram page, you’d think I really did have it all.
The smoothie arrived . . . and in it was a plastic straw. I immediately burst into tears. It was literally the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was inconsolable. You’d have thought that straw meant the demise of all sea life, that that straw was cause of all the methane in our atmosphere, but really, what that straw represented was overwhelm. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed – by being a full-time medical student, by being a new mother, and by trying to live a perfect, zero waste life.
My tears represented the oppressive feeling in my chest that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t the best medical student, that I wasn’t the best mum, that I wasn’t being the most eco-conscious citizen. I felt like a fraud.
This sense of overwhelm is why I decided to write this book. As parents we are constantly juggling the needs of others, children, work, chores, money. The state of the planet is the last thing on our minds. To make matters worse, plastic pollution, climate change, ecosystem collapse and the extinction of the bees (the bees!) is splashed across the media as if it is an inevitable apocalypse. What can we mere humans do if we are doomed to fail anyway? The writing of the book also overlapped with the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, when emotions were raw and society was trying to grapple with the social and environmental eﬀects of a health crisis. It illustrated even more clearly to me we are all juggling diﬀerent priorities, and sustainable living has to be simple and seamless.
This is a book about how I learned to be a truly zero waste parent. I wrote my ﬁrst book, A Zero Waste Life: In thirty days, about how individual changes can make a big cumulative diﬀerence when it comes to reducing waste. This book is focused on actions you can do as a family. By ‘family’ I mean here – a collective group of people that you love. It can be a biological family, or one that you have created with the people you care about the most.
My deﬁnition of a zero waste life is about more than just a plastic-free diet. It is about not wasting your life away. To me, being a zero waste parent means not wasting time trying to be the ‘perfect’ parent. Instead, zero waste living allows you to focus on the things that matter most – family, community and the environment. This book is a thirty-day guide highlighting the lessons I’ve learned during my ﬁrst year of navigating motherhood while studying medicine and still trying to reduce my waste. It is a guide to how families can reduce their waste and also avoid wasting our lives worrying about things that don’t truly matter. I want to show you that, by applying zero waste and minimalist principles to your life, being an eco-parent doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it can be easy!
As I write this now, my hair is unwashed, the dinner isn’t ready, the baby is crying and I haven’t prepared for the exam I have tomorrow. I am tired. This tiredness is more than just a general fatigue, it is a bone-tiredness that comes from sleepless nights and the guilt of not doing enough. Not enough for your child, not enough at work, not enough for the environment. Enough.
Enough of that. This book is not designed to add to the guilt that we already feel as parents. It is about recognising that everything you do is enough. Instead of just writing about reducing your waste, I wanted to give real solutions aimed at making your life easier. That’s why the book is broken into three sections, organised according the concept of the ‘ripple eﬀect’.
At the centre is Self care, which then expands into Home care and, ﬁnally, to Child care. Self-care is placed at the core of the book, because if we don’t put on our own oxygen masks ﬁrst, how can we be expected to look after others? The ﬁrst ﬁve days focus on putting in place habits that make you the top priority. This is done to improve your life, so you can improve the lives of those in your care.
As any parent can attest, we often place ourselves at the end of a very long list of people we need to take care of, and in doing so we neglect our own needs. As Oprah has said, ‘I consider it a compliment when people say I am full of myself, because only when you’re full – I’m full, I’m overﬂowing, my cup runneth over – can you have so much to oﬀer and so much to give.’ That’s the importance of self care: to make sure your own cup is full, so that we can be more mindful and have more energy to attend to others.
After caring for ourselves, the next ten days are focused on home care and setting up habits designed to minimise your waste. This means minimising waste in all areas, including resources such as time, money and energy, as well as cutting down on plastic and single-use waste.
The ﬁnal ﬁfteen days are dedicated to child care. Using my engineering brain, I’ve created easy and fun life hacks for you and your children so you can all reduce your household waste while also having fun as a family. These hacks are designed to simplify your life and make the boring stuﬀ (like chores) take less time, so that you can spend more time doing the things you love.
“ We should be anxious about climate change, plastic pollution, dying ecosystems and mass extinction, but this anxiety should fuel our ﬁre to want to make a change, no matter how small, rather than overwhelm us ”
Since becoming a parent, I’ve experienced ‘parental guilt’ on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, this guilt has also expanded into other areas of my life, including a newly formed eco-guilt. For the ﬁrst time ever, eco-anxiety has entered the psychiatric lexicon to describe the anxiety that we feel about the future of planet. Eco-anxiety is a real thing, and it is not unfounded. We should be anxious about climate change, plastic pollution, dying ecosystems and mass extinction, but this anxiety should fuel our ﬁre to want to make a change, no matter how small, rather than overwhelm us. We don’t need another thing to add to the guilt of parenthood, but we do need to appreciate that every small act leads to a bigger change – a change in mindset, a change in lifestyle and, eventually, a change in the wellbeing of our planet.
Reducing plastic pollution and lowering our waste is something we can all achieve in our everyday lives. These everyday actions can empower us to have more control over issues that often feel so out of our control. This book is a reminder that the easiest way to tackle overwhelming issues is to start with ourselves. The ripple eﬀect is subtle, yet profound. By changing your everyday habits, you will start to feel that you are setting a positive example for your children. We are leading by example and showing that every person, no matter how small, can make a big impact on the world around them.
Throughout this thirty-day period, I want you to sprinkle some ‘Mama Magic’ in your life. This is the special kind of magic that only parents possess. It involves adding a touch of creativity, enthusiasm and love to all your projects, including how you treat yourself, take care of your home and look after others. It’s a practical magic that will make your home life fun again.
I’ve combined my knowledge from blogging on my Instagram account (@rocket_science), gathered advice from the zero waste community and used my own creative problem-solving skills honed through years of engineering experience to make this book for you. This is more than just a manifesto on how to reduce your waste as a family, it is a guidebook on how to make more time for the important things. Let’s begin!
This is an extract from Anita Vandyke’s new book A Zero Waste Family
A Zero Waste Family by Anita Vandyke