More than just recycling plastic

Esther buys fresh produce weekly and dried foods once a month.
Esther buys fresh produce weekly and dried foods once a month. / G. POZO
  • Esther Lorenzo is one of the people behind the Zero Waste movement in Malaga, a network of consumers whose aim is to live sustainably

  • Zero Waste followers go beyond recycling in their aim to lead more sustainable lifestyles

Cups, straws, cotton buds and other single-use plastics have their days numbered. The European Union and other individual countries are starting to approve laws to ban them because of the harm they are doing to the planet, especially the seas and oceans. The EU ban comes into effect in 2021.

Changing shopping habits is one step towards reducing plastic usage that is already under way. Supermarket chains across Spain have either stopped supplying plastic bags and swapped them for paper or raffia ones, or at least provide the alternatives. Meanwhile a growing number of eco-friendly websites and social media pages are encouraging consumers to take reusable containers when shopping for fresh products. It is also no longer uncommon to see supermarket trolleys with loose fruit and vegetables, instead of customers automatically putting them into plastic bags.

There is growing awareness that we are not going to save the planet just by recycling. Social networks have become the planet's best ally in the fight against plastics and mass consumerism, with videos being shared about the islands of plastic floating in the oceans and heart-wrenching images of animals either found dead because they got caught in a fishing net or with countless pieces of plastic in their stomachs. The Zero Waste Spain Facebook page alone already has well over 11,000 followers and rising. There is even a Malaga branch of the same group (Zero Waste/Desperdicio Cero-Malaga Provincia).

Esther Lorenzo, 31, is one of the people behind this group locally and she explains how she has gradually managed to reduce the amount of plastic she uses. "As human beings we are destroying our world and the deterioration of the environment is something that has always worried me. About a year ago I found out about the Zero Waste group and I decided to change the way I consume," explains Esther.

But just using reusable bags instead of plastic ones to do the shopping is not enough, she says. "Plastic is being demonised and it's true that it is the most damaging material because it isn't biodegradable, but the objective is to reduce the use of all materials. Paper and bamboo, for example, both have a big impact on the environment with tree-felling; and what about the pollution caused by transporting all of these materials?" she says.

Through the Zero Waste group Esther is getting people to think about their use of materials. "Is it really necessary to put every vegetable you buy in a separate plastic bag?" she asks the group's followers.


In order to follow the Zero Waste movement properly, Esther says that as consumers we need to take a good look at how we shop: buy only what we really need; make the most of what we already have at home; take a container and shopping bags from home every time we do the shopping; and use sustainable products to clean the house.

There are already cleaning brands such as Ecover that have been around for years, although these products still come in plastic containers. It is also possible to make homemade cleaning products with ingredients such as bicarbonate of soda, vinegar, lemon juice and adding essential oils. There are plenty of recipes on the internet.

Getting into the habit

While at the beginning it might seem like a daunting task to change habits of a lifetime, Esther insists that "once you get into the habit it's not that difficult to do".

However she agrees it requires "a bit more planning". Esther explains that she buys items such as pasta, pulses, spices and nuts once a month by weight, and that for fruit and vegetables she belongs to a group that delivers a box once a week to a local delivery point. "They are grown organically at an allotment in Alhaurín de la Torre," she explains, adding that she spends roughly 80 euros a month on food, which busts the myth that eating organically is more expensive than going to the supermarket.

In Malaga alone there is a growing number of shops that are selling products by weight, which is really a return to the way that people used to shop, before the onslaught of large supermarkets and convenience food.

Hungarian Greg Both has opened up El Hombre del Bolso (the bag man) in the city's Calle Mármoles and Bulk Shop is doing the same thing in Calle Amadeo Vives, in Huelin. Costa del Sol-based British women Steph and Sarah run, an online store that sells environmentally- friendly kitchen and hygiene products, including bamboo toothbrushes and reusable food containers.

Esther uses bars of soap instead of shower gels and shampoos and makes her own deodorant and toothpaste "with recipes that people share on the internet". For the housework and washing Esther uses detergent made from recycled soap by people in her Zero Waste group.

She admits, however, that her family and partner don't go to the same lengths as she does and said that sometimes it's "frustrating" to maintain a zero waste lifestyle; she says she focuses on what she can do and not on what she can't. She is convinced that little by little more people will start to do what she is doing.

It's become a way of life for Esther and affects almost every thing she does. For example in order to avoid using rubbish bags, she keeps organic waste in a bucket and takes it to the University of Malaga where they make compost. "In summer I put the waste in the freezer until I take it to the university," she adds.

Sustainable consumerism

As far as clothes are concerned, Esther says she much prefers to spend a bit more money on good quality items from a shop with a good policy on sustainability which guarantees the minimum human rights for its workers, rather than buying cheap items from large, high street chains. "What I save from not buying in supermarkets I invest in better quality clothing," she said.

There are also alternatives to disposable sanitary towels and tampons, such as the "moon cup" and organic products. Parents are going back to using towelling nappies instead of disposable ones too. "With this lifestyle I am learning a lot about myself and how the mind works in general, I see the excuses that people give. This translates into greater awareness, freedom and responsibility. It's a never-ending learning process," Esther concludes.