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Lerato Bokako

May 3, 2023

Going zero-waste helped me realise I had a junk food addiction

I still remember the heavy feeling of anxiety I felt back in March when President Cyril Ramaphosa gave his first address to South Africa regarding COVID-19. I was watching the news on my laptop and nursing a mug of lukewarm chamomile (which was not doing its job!) as the president read out the parameters of the then 21-day lockdown.

I was resolved to the fact that I probably wouldn’t be leaving my house for a little while and would have to start being creative with how I got my groceries. That was the first phase. The first of a long journey that I was not yet aware I had begun.

Phase 1 – Ordering in

The number one tip I always refer to when you’re trying to reduce your waste is to take a tally of how much waste you produce on a regular week. When lockdown began I, like a lot of people, started out feeling optimistic about the prospect of staying at home. I thought, “Oh, you mean to tell me that not only is it now socially acceptable but actually government-mandated for me to stay at home?”. My strategy was to order in everything that I needed. Pantry staples came from online stores while fresh produce was delivered to me by my local farmers’ market. I was very fortunate to have that as my basic food set-up during that time. Through doing this, I organically reduced my waste. I was buying food less often and therefore being more creative with what I had. “There’s rice at home” became my mantra. My options for what I would buy and when drastically reduced. I went to get a plastic bag for my bin and I just…didn’t have any left. I felt pretty impressed with myself and thought, “Ah! I can just keep doing this, no problem.”

Phase 2 – Eating out

The first sign of trouble came when fast-food restaurants were permitted to open again. When I realised I could hop in my car and go to a drive-through, I became a little too happy and excited. Through my fear of stepping outside the house, I had simply stifled the need to buy any “luxury food”. I had been in survival mode for a month and had convinced myself that I was fine with how things were. All it took was for a certain burger joint to open up and I unravelled. Not good. I felt I had done so well with eating healthily for a month. And I had enjoyed it. But truth be told, it was not sustainable. I grew tired of having to cook every meal. It felt like my days were spent cooking then washing up then cooking again. I was exhausted! And I wanted a burger.

But then I remembered the promise I had made to myself to reduce my waste. Takeaway packaging is pretty much all single-use. I would have to think of something else. I could go to a local butchery and order burger patties from them – less waste and I still get my burger. Solved!

Phase 3 – Grocery run

In May I went grocery shopping for the first time in almost two months and I was a new woman! I decided I would shop at zero-waste stores and buy local as much as possible. As a surprise to no one, shopping at the zero-waste store was easy and, dare I say it, fun! I was able to get pantry staples like oatmeal and olive oil for slightly cheaper because I was controlling the quantity of what I was buying.

Next came the “regular store” which posed a very interesting challenge for me. Feeling more conscious about how much waste I would produce through the groceries I bought made me a more mindful shopper. I became more aware of the chip packets, single-use cookie boxes, and candy wrappers. At the coffee shop, I brought a cup from home but couldn’t get the accompanying cookie I would have gotten otherwise. I felt myself feeling disappointed at different points of my grocery run. It was then that I thought I might have a problem. My eating habits were all the way messed up. I was relying too much on junk food to carry me throughout different parts of my day. And that had to stop

Phase 4 – So, maybe my body is a temple?

Along my journey to reduce waste, I realised that how I treat the environment has directly reflected how I treat my own body. The various lifestyle changes it takes to be kinder to mother earth happen to benefit me too. I’ve become less of a consumer. Meaning, I’m not going out and buy food from the shops every other day like I used to. I have since strayed and bought a packet of chips but now I buy a small packet. And less often. I mostly make my coffee at home and when I do go out to buy it, I take my own cup. I am no longer buying the accompanying cookie. I’ve been baking a lot more so there’s no packaging from the bakery or shop. Making my own food takes so much time and effort that when I do finally get to eat it, I savour it all so much more. I’ve made an effort to buy local and support small grocers more than I used to. It’s been fun and I’ve been feeling so much better in my body because of this.

By now we’ve all heard the saying “we don’t need a small group of people doing zero-waste perfectly, we need a big group of people doing it imperfectly”. I am proud to say that I have since joined that big group. It took a pandemic! But I got here.

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