Dobriy den from my new workspace in Kiev, Ukraine, where I’m pondering the question ‘How easy is it to live a zero waste or eco-conscious lifestyle in Ukraine?’ I’d pretty much calibrated my lifestyle in London to being as eco-friendly as possible, made much easier thanks to easy delivery of resuable products from Amazon, a local Lush store for unpackaged toiletries and a great fruit and veg market. However I still felt like I was fighting a losing battle against plastic packaging, even in a city where you can find just about anything. So what about here in Ukraine where ‘trendy’ concepts like minimalism, veganism and eco-conscious living haven’t really arrived yet on a commercial scale?
I’ve been spending the last week checking out the situation to see how much of my London ‘zero waste’ lifestyle I can recreate here, and what I have to totally reinvent. Here are my initial discoveries on new ways to reduce my trash whilst living in a totally different place.
Refill your water bottles
Pretty much rule number one of reducing your plastic waste is always ‘bring your own bottle instead of buying plastic bottles of water’. Well, that kinda goes out the window when you’re in a country where the tap water isn’t drinkable. Even locals don’t drink it. Instead, they buy huge 5-litre plastic bottles. Shock, horror. I was pretty devastated by the idea I was going to have to keep buying my water in plastic. However I’ve now discovered the locals’ secret to saving money on bottled water, and thus avoiding extra trash…
Many supermarkets (in my case the local Velika Kishenya) offer drinking water refill stations, or in some areas there are dedicated little kiosks where you can refill your large bottles with drinkable water and thereby avoid throwing away endless plastic bottles. People are divided on whether or not it’s OK to drink the tap water boiled. I do (in tea and coffee), and will probably continue to do so unless someone tells me otherwise.
Shop bulk (even in the supermarket)!
This was an awesome discovery. Even though I’ve read 100 times about how you’ve gotta get all your groceries from bulk bins, in London it proved to be impossible. For such a big city there was a huge lack of any type of bulk produce store, and in any major supermarket it was impossible to buy anything other than a token banana unpacked. Not so in Ukraine!
In my local supermarket (Velika Kishenya), there’s a pretty reasonable selection of products you can just pour into a bag and weigh. At the moment I’m reusing plastic bags from the store, but I’m hoping to get a few light mesh bags to do it (I didn’t buy them in London because there was literally nowhere to use them). Loads of products such as pasta, oats, beans, fruit and veg, cookies, muffins, nuts and more are available in typical bulk bins. Simply fill up, weigh your bag and put on a price sticker. It’s a really efficient system, much better than anything we had in the UK. Just be sure to remember to weigh everything and press the correct product number before going to the checkout if you don’t want to be shouted at in Ukrainian.
What’s more, they also have loose soap and paper-wrapped toilet paper, and this is just the supermarket we’re talking about here.
As usual, remember to bring your own rucksack or cloth bags instead of taking a plastic bag. Even Ukraine has introduced a small fee for plastic bags now, so there’s no excuse to not bring your own.
Shop local, seasonal and unpackaged
Ukraine is so much better than the UK for local and seasonal vegetables as well as food with much less packaging. Many supermarkets label all the produce very clearly with country of origin so you can be sure to buy Ukrainian veggies in season. Right now that means a lot of white zucchini, cabbage, apples and celeriac. Forget buying ‘exotic’ fruit and veg like sweet potatoes and avocadoes (sadly), as they are seriously expensive due to being imported. In the toss-up between a bag of mushrooms for 8 uah (24p) or a sweet potato for about 80 uah, I know which one I’m going to choose. It really helps you to get back to basics with eating natural, in-season foods.
Recycle (and cross your fingers)
It took me a while to work out how to recycle here. Most of my friends said ‘No one recycles here’. However, there is a metal container outside that’s ostensibly for recycling. Whether or not they recycle what’s in it is another question, but a girl can hope. One interesting thing I’ve learned, though, is that whilst the council might not pick up your bottles, chances are someone else will. Glass is still a relatively valuable commodity here, and you can sell quality glass bottles back to the manufacturers. Hence you will find that if you leave a few glass jars and bottles out, they won’t be there when you come back. I didn’t really believe it at first, but I’ve seen it in action on multiple occasions. People will come and dig through any public bins and take out all the glass and lug it away in a huge sack to sell on. So basically you can recycle glass just by leaving it somewhere fairly visible, and someone will come take it. Neat, right?
Make do and mend
This is yet another thing I love about the Ukrainian mindset. People here don’t chuck away a pair of boots with a hole, an old shirt or a cracked phone. They take it to the local remont and get it fixed! Zero waste isn’t just about recycling and mason jars. It’s really about making use of what you already have and reusing, rather than buying new and throwing away. Ukrainians are champions at making something last for years rather than throwing it away as most British people would do. I had a pair of sandals where the straps had snapped and I was considering throwing them away. In fact, though, I took them to a remont in Lviv and they fixed the strap for £2. They’re still going strong 2 years later. My partner took a horribly ripped shirt, a totally destroyed pair of jeans and a worn out pair of shoes in and they’re all as good as new now. It’s crazy, but we in the UK have just lost this art of repairing things, and become addicted to the quick fix of just getting a new one. Repair shops still exist everywhere though, so maybe it’s time to rediscover them!
Carry your zero-waste kit
This applies everywhere, not just Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine isn’t quite as bad as Western Europe yet in terms of serving you everything in six layers of plastic with your drink in a plastic-lined paper cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw. However, unfortunately they’re doing their best to catch up. Sometimes you can get street food snacks on just a little paper tray and coffee in a lidless paper cup, but fairly often you’ll see Starbucks-style coffee cups, plastic cutlery and throwaway napkins creeping in.
As I recommend everyone to do everywhere, come prepared with some handy essentials in your bag:
- Reusable coffee mug
- Water bottle
- Foldable or bamboo set of cutlery
- A couple of cloth bags
- A reusable napkin
I try to go everywhere with at least my cutlery and napkin. Whilst you can’t always avoid being given napkins and straws, you can at least avoid the need to take them by bringing along a spork or similar, and a lovely washable napkin. I’m obsessed with these and bring them everywhere, then just throw them in the wash after a couple of uses.
Don’t forget your reusable bathroom essentials!
I always prefer to use bar products in the bathroom, not bottled liquid products, as it saves so many resources, and you can often buy them totally unpacked. Here you can certainly buy unpacked bar soap which is a great start. There are also a couple of Lush stores, so I should be able to pick up new shampoo, conditioner and deodorant bars when needed.
As for other hygiene essentials, I obviously took all my reusable essentials with me:
- Cotton pads for makeup removal
- Jar of coconut oil
- Washable sanitary pads
- Stainless steel safety razor
I can’t live without these handful of bathroom products any more, and luckily I already had them all, although I’m sure they’re all available here too. All the above save huge amounts of waste in the bathroom and I really recommend them all.
I’m not totally ‘zero waste’ yet and probably never will be. I’m never going to get to the point of freaking out about toilet paper and floss, although I would ideally like my non-recyclable waste to be down to about 1 carrier bag a month between the 2 of us. At the moment it’s around 1 every 1-2 weeks mainly due to food scraps, tetra paks from milk and plastic lids/wrap.
My next things to explore here are:
- Composting. I wasn’t able to compost in London due to having zero access to outdoor space. I won’t have a garden or anything like that here, but I do have a small (interior) balcony, so I’m hoping to experiment with a small box for composting tea leaves/coffee grounds and some fruit and veg peels and see how it goes.
- Mesh bags for bulk shopping
- Growing some plants
- Making my own oat milk!
I actually thought it was going to be really really hard to be eco-friendly here due to the general lack of interest in things like recycling and eco-conscious products. However a lot of things here are what I’d call accidentally eco-friendly, as some products are unpackaged or in bulk because it saves the company money. The average Ukrainian still thinks about saving money by reusing what they have, shopping locally and making their own food from scratch, all of which ties in really well with my values. I’m still in an experimental phase with my lifestyle here, but I’m quite optimistic about reaching a more sustainable balance here than I did in London.
Do you have any more tips about a zero waste or environmentally-friendly lifestyle? How do you manage to reduce waste in your country? Let me know in the comments! I’m also really happy to answer any questions at all about what I do or how you can reduce waste!