If you’re ever at the Turkish Market in Kreuzberg on a Friday around lunch, you may be able to spot her; a svelte figure, confidently striding down the overcrowded alleyways, stopping at her usual stalls, picking out her goods to be deposited directly into one of her glass jars or stainless steal tins. Her regular vendors know her well and have become accustomed to her particular requests, to which they happily comply.
Susanne Neumer makes zero waste shopping look effortless and stylish. Instead of being overloaded with plastic bags, she’s sporting a couple of cloth bags, in which she fits most of her weekly groceries. We were lucky to be invited along to shadow her on one of her jaunts, to pick up a few tricks — and pick her brain about her transition to zero-waste.
First, what inspired you to start transitioning to a zero waste lifestyle?
I wouldn’t say that it was a single event that did it, and I had already been conscientious about topics related to sustainability for quite some time. For my Bachelor’s thesis in Business Communication Management, for example, I wrote about the environmental impact of planned obsolescence. I stopped using deodorants containing aluminium years ago, and started making my own long before I knew ‘zero-waste’ was even a thing. Same with the menstrual cup. When I first heard about Lauren Singer, I thought what she was doing was really cool, but didn’t immediately make the switch. If I was to pinpoint a specific event, it has to be my trip to Morocco last year, where the trash is so visible wherever you go. Something about that trip made me realise that I wanted to do more to prevent the production of more trash.
Interesting! I had similar experience in Morocco. Most of all it made me think about how we probably produce just as much trash, if not more, in Germany (and other western countries), except our garbage removal systems are so much more developed, we don’t ever see it after throwing it in the bin. In countries like Morocco, it’s all there in your face. In one of the towns we stayed in, a small ravine outside the medina walls was the city’s main garbage dump, and every night, people would burn massive amounts of trash to clear the streets. Sitting on the rooftop patio of our riad, sipping mint tea while inhaling the plastic fumes and smoke from burning garbage was definitely a huge wake up call.
Totally! I’m sure that if I hadn’t been to Morocco at the time, I was already on that path and would have ended up here anyway, but the experience definitely accelerated it for me.
I stopped using deodorants containing aluminium years ago, and started making my own long before I knew ‘zero-waste’ was even a thing.
What were the first steps you made following your decision to go zero-waste?
I immediately started doing research and watched documentaries like The Clean Bin Project and Plastic Planet to get into the mindset. To eliminate plastic from my life, I first started out by asking myself where in my house I had the most plastic products. Not surprisingly, this was in the kitchen. I decluttered my plastic containers and donated the bulk of it. What I kept, I never use for food anymore. My bathroom was next. I had been using baking soda to wash my hair for six months, but it wasn’t for me. After giving up and going back to my regular shampoo, I came upon shampoo bars, which are great. I also started making my own tooth powder, which I’ve been experimenting with until I found the perfect recipe and taste for me. (See the recipe here!).
Going zero-waste can seem like a hurdle if you are to change every aspect of your life immediately. Do you have any advise on how to start small?
I was quite radical when I started, but that’s my personality—whenever I have something new that I’m really into, I always go for it 100% because I want to see immediate results. That’s not always the best way to do it though. If you put too much pressure on yourself and fail, it’s easy to feel disappointed and give up. Taking one step at the time is a good way to go, and you definitely shouldn’t just throw your regular products away, because most of all it’s all about reusing, and using up what you have—and then transitioning to better alternatives as you run out. It’s also about finding solutions that work well for you.
If you’re lucky enough to have a zero-waste or packaging free store close to you, that’s a great place to start. There you’ll find things like conditioner and lotions in bulk that you can fill onto your own bottles. That way you won’t have to give up all of the products you’re accustomed to. Also, if you haven’t done it already, the very first, and easy place to start is to always bring your own cloth bags wherever you go, to eliminate the use of plastic bags.
On that note, from this month on, Germany is placing a restriction on plastic bags, so no free plastic bags will be available in stores anymore anyway.
[…] most of all it’s all about reusing, and using up what you have—and then transitioning to better alternatives as you run out. It’s also about finding solutions that work well for you.
What’s been the most challenging part of going zero-waste for you? Is there anything you miss?
The hardest part for me was doing the research. But there are great alternatives available in Berlin, like the Original Unverpackt store and the Turkish Market. Once I had an overview of what I could get where, it became easier.
It’s really cool that there’s a growing community of people who are into this lifestyle and sharing information online. That’s one of the reasons why I started my blog—to share challenges and information on how to find the right products. When I started, I wasn’t able to find unpackaged mozzarella anywhere, and as much as I love it, I was ready to give it up. But my boyfriend is a huge mozzarella fan, and didn’t feel the same way, so when I found it at a stand at the market and could get it directly in my glass jar, it was a huge victory.
Chocolate and sweets are another challenge. I’m not a huge sweet tooth, but when my boyfriend goes to the Späti (corner shop) to get an ice cream, it can be hard to refuse. Getting things on-the-go can be difficult, and it takes a bit more planning. I’m getting used to saying no, as well as just asking for everything packaging free. It becomes a habit.
One of the hardest things is to refuse is straws, because it sometimes doesn’t even cross your mind that they’ll put a straw in your drink, and once they bring it to you with a straw, it’s too late. You have to make it a conscious effort to remember to mention it every time you order a drink; “In case you plan to put a straw in that, please don’t!”.
Have you had any set-backs?
I was at a concert recently and didn’t have a chance to plan properly ahead of time. I haven’t found a good stainless steel cup yet and knew I wouldn’t be allowed into the venue with a glass jar, so I came empty handed. When I got there I found that they even poured glass bottled beers into plastic cups. There was so much waste and it made me feel really weird.
Living without waste is easy if you stay at home all the time, but the moment you go into the world and do stuff, it gets more challenging. The key is to be organised and plan ahead, which isn’t always possible, and I’m naturally a very spontaneous person…
I’m getting used to saying no, as well as just asking for everything packaging free. It becomes a habit.
Do you have a little ‘kit’ that you bring everywhere.
I do, it contains a stainless steel water bottle, straw, fork and spoon, a cloth napkin, a reusable coffee-to-go cup, some cloth handkerchiefs and a cotton bag. But on normal work days I don’t even need to bring it with me, because I hardly ever get things to go. Instead I take the time to sit down and enjoy my coffee or snack at a café…
From what I understand, an important aspect of living zero-waste is to also reduce the amount of trash we recycle as well, because so much of what we put in the recycling bin doesn’t actually get recycled. Not to mentioned, the process of recycling uses a lot of resources as well. I used to think that everything I put in my recycling bin was cool, but I’ve become a lot more aware of this lately after paying more attention to how much I actually put in there, and not always being completely clear on whether or not I was putting the right stuff in there.
Yes, the recycling bin is deceiving, and sometimes even worse than the regular garbage, just because we perceive it as ‘ok’. Being aware of where your trash comes from is one of the first places to start. I don’t normally put my waste in a jar, but I did in May just to get a better overview of where it came from, and it ended up being exclusively straws that were given to me before I had a chance to refuse, packaging from a couple of ice creams I wasn’t able to resist, and a couple of fruit stickers.
Plastic waste is in my opinion the most important reason to go zero-waste. And though it’s a bit better, wrapping everything in paper isn’t the solution either.
I hardly ever get things to go. Instead I take the time to sit down and enjoy my coffee or snack at a café…
When did you start your blog, freeofwaste and why?
I started last November. I’d been looking for a creative outlet outside of my regular job. Zero-waste was something I was passionate about and spent a lot of time and energy on anyway, and it made sense to channel that into something positive that could also help and inspire others. I don’t have the time to work on it as much as I’d like to, but for now, I love having it as a side project and it makes me happy to share something I really care about and to see that people appreciate it. I also really like using Instagram because it’s so much faster and easier to share content than through the blog. It’s inspiring!
What are your goals? Do you work with a one year or five year plan?
Zero-waste is still a process for me, and I’m constantly learning. Every time I receive a straw that I didn’t want, or I’m unable to get something 100% free of waste, I’m motivated to do even better next time. It gives me a sense of thrill to find new places or items I can get directly into my metal tin or cloth bag. I don’t have any lofty goals, other than getting even better at and more serious about what I do. I also hope to persuade others to join me in this effort as well. Besides that, I’m excited to work more on my blog—and of course to contribute to SemiDomesticated and be part of a larger community!
Every time I receive a straw that I didn’t want, or I’m unable to get something 100% free of waste, I’m motivated to do even better next time. It gives me a sense of thrill to find new places or items I can get directly into my metal tin or cloth bag.