Book Review: A Zero Waste Life in Thirty Days, by Anita Vandyke

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The author was born in China and had seemingly achieved the success that many migrants to Australia expect of their children – to become an engineer and manager. At the tender age of 26 she had an epiphany, wondering as she sat in a meeting, would she be still sitting in the same meeting in ten years’ time. She quit her job.

Anita Vandyke argues she was not motivated to reduce waste for environmental reasons but rather financial ones – two people but only one income. None the less, she says her journey has changed her into an everyday activist – someone who considers the impact on the planet of the food and products she buys.

The book is designed to be a guide, a workbook for the reader to use over a month. An early question is to consider why you want a zero waste life. Next do a bin audit, which sounds odd but can be very revealing. The author describes her bin audit as like opening Pandora’s Box. It sounds like she had little idea even about recyclable materials.

I already follow many of the ideas Vandyke suggests, separating out rubbish and recyclables. For instance, under my kitchen sink I have 4 containers – rubbish to landfill, recycling bin material, compost and plastic bags for recycling plus a container on the kitchen counter for foil so I can make a ball of foil to go in the recycling bin.

I applaud the suggestion to review one’s wardrobe as many of us have heaps of clothes we don’t wear yet we still buy new stuff. The author is right: throw-away fashion is bad for the workers, often underpaid in developing countries, and bad for the environment when one considers the real cost of production – inputs such as water and chemicals, and outputs such as pollution.

Where I take issue with the book is Vandyke’s failure to acknowledge her position of privilege which makes a zero waste life possible. She writes about shopping at farmers’ markets, bulk or health shops, getting an organic produce box delivered and taking your own containers when shopping, even to the butchers.

Several unstated assumptions are made by the author: first and foremost is that you have sufficient income to be able to afford the cost of food at farmers’ markets, bulk and health food stores or to get organic produce delivered. For example, loose bran flakes at my local health food shop are almost twice the price of a 1kg plastic bag of the same quality flakes at a discount supermarket. While buying in bulk may well be cheaper in the long run, you need sufficient funds to be able to do so, not forgetting that many people also don’t have room to store bulk foods. Secondly, Vandyke also assumes you will be travelling by car to your selected shops, otherwise how will you transport all your own containers, let alone get them home when you have filled them?

While there are many good ideas and tips to reduce your environmental footprint in the book, I found the smug tone to be somewhat irritating. I think it’s wonderful that Vandyke feels she is now living ‘an authentic life’ – whatever that means. She has gone back to university to study medicine and splits her time between Sydney and San Francisco where her husband lives.

However, I really cannot believe that ‘none of this could have happened if I didn’t change my habits’ (page 172). Personally I would be quite concerned if the way I shopped and dealt with waste had such a profound impact on my life. I’d like to think I’m not that shallow.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10: 7

Distributed by: Penguin Random House Australia
Released: July 2018
RRP: $19.99

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The book is designed to be a guide, a workbook for the reader to use over a month. While there are many good ideas and tips to reduce your environmental footprint in the book, I found the smug tone to be somewhat irritating.

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