Ilka and I are both the same age. And yet we have completely different lifestyles! Ilka lives in a farmhouse on the countryside 🌳 with her husband and their two adorable children. I, on the other hand, chose to live right in the center of a city that is part of Germany's biggest metropolitan area 🏙, and my husband and I have zero children by choice.
As different as this all sounds - we both live zero waste and vegan!
It is quite the misconception that you have to be a certain "type" of person to be a zero waster (or a vegan). People often tell me: "Well, ok, you can live zero waste because you live in a city where you can get everything you need in bulk, AND you don't have any kids! I'd like to see you trying to live zero waste with children on the countryside!" Well, I'd say Ilka is the living proof that, YES, you can if you really want to 💪! You just need to find your very individual way and what works for you! Nobody is perfect - but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot you can do to come darn close to perfection 😉!
(The two adorable children on the featured image are my sister-in-law’s and not Ilka’s by the way 😉. I took the photo when we went to a bulk store.They were just too cute when they were deciding on the sweets they would get ❤️!)
Living both zero waste and vegan with children - have a peak into our daily life
My name is Ilka, and I live with my husband and our two children on the countryside in northern Germany. My parents have an old farmhouse out here, and we’ve recently remodelled the attic into a cute flat. The farmhouse stands on a big piece of land and my parents are happy that they can share it with us now. We're building our own house on the premises, and the children have a lot of space to play outside. My husband and I are also getting into gardening. There are a lot of old fruit and some nut trees in the garden of my parents. My father himself is a seasoned hobby gardener who is helping us with his expertise. In the summer we harvest a lot of fresh vegetables.
How on earth do we manage to buy in bulk?
Once a week we drive eight minutes to the village next to ours to buy fresh veggies at the small farmers' market there. Once a month we go shopping for grains, flour, legumes and other things in the package-free bulk store Unverpackt-Kiel in Kiel. It takes us one hour to get there by car. Because it does take us so much time to get there we don't want to drive there too frequently. So we plan our visits there in advance and in detail.
Once in a while my husband is in Kiel for work reasons anyway, and then he does the bulk shopping for us.
In our village with approximately 300 to 400 inhabitants only, there is no school, no supermarket, not even a gas station. There is no public transportation except for the school busses. So we do need a car regardless of whether or not we want to. In fact we would need two cars, but we are lucky to live next to my parents who already have two cars. My father shares his car with me so we don't need to have a second car.
We do not plan on moving away in order to have better zero waste shopping options. We love the wonderful nature here, the meadows, the numerous small forests, the fact that it's dark enough at night to see the stars and to enjoy the moon light. In the warmer half of the year we practically live outside. We love our home ❤️.
So are we really living zero waste? I do, yes. But my family - not yet. But join me and have a peak into our daily life!
Our daily routine
This morning my husband and I got up around 5:15 a.m., as usual. First station is the bathroom: In this room of the house, everything is nearly zero waste. The children still don't want to give up their children's shampoo and shower gel as well as their two kinds of toothpastes. We still have two tubes of sunscreen from last summer. I don't really know what to do with these to be honest. Children's skin is generally more sensitive, and so far, I haven't gotten around to do some research to find alternative options. So we will keep them until I know more about this issue.
My husband is very passionate about shaving the traditional oldschool way. So he has a little bit more stuff for his shaving routine and hairstyle than what might be usual, but he has already started to reduce. Apart from that, you'll find soap bars, a double-edge razor for me, another one for him, bamboo toothbrushes, homemade tooth powder and the current result of our experiments for homemade deodorant and body butter. I have some (but little) organic makeup, one deodorant stick and two little flacons of perfume left.
When we're done in the bathroom my husband buys bread and bread rolls at the bakery using one of our thousands of cloth bags.
Back at home he makes the lunchbox for our older son.
The little one gets a little glass container with soymeat, vegan cheese slices and vegan margarine for kindergarten. In the kindergarten, the staff makes them breakfast every morning. They serve bread, plates with cheese, different kinds of meat, jams, fresh fruit, veggies and things like that. As we're the only vegan family, we had a talk with the educators and have agreed on bringing our own breakfast items. So he has something that looks similar to what the others have on their bread. This is the reason why we will continue to buy the vegan versions of cheese and meat slices, even though we can't get them unpackaged anywhere.
When we're in Kiel for our monthly bulk shopping there is a big farmers' market right next to the bulk store. There is one booth which sells vegan meat alternatives and homemade vegan cakes to die for. We can buy some of their products without any packaging, and luckily that does include their wonderful cakes. I have asked them, but they don't want to get into the bulk business. In fact, they don't know if they will even keep their booth, because they plan to open a vegan café in the beginning of 2016. There they won't be able to sell as much vegan food in bulk as before, because they will not have enough space. Even though it's a pity for us, it's great that the vegan lifestyle is expanding this successfully!
Going on with our daily routine: we bring the children to the kindergarten and the bus stop for the school bus. Then my husband comes home again and we do the household chores before he has to go to work. Ever since I read the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson we have pared down our belongings remarkably. Doing the household chores has become very fast and easy. It's become a routine for me to just grab one of our drawers or a single shelf and to empty it completely whenever I have a couple of minutes. I only put back what we really use.
Anyway, it feels like we still have a lot of stuff. Visitors think it's become uncomfortably empty in our flat. I on the other hand think we should declutter a lot more, but of course there are mostly things left that we actually need. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we are four persons living in a small space. So some of the spaces where our things are kept just have to look a little bit overstuffed.
Between eleven and twelve o'clock I start the lunch preparations. Right now I'm in the process of getting used to a new weekly route though. I try to cook our children's favourite dishes zero waste - but sometimes that's easier said than done. Very often they just don't like my zero waste dishes. It's hard to find something that they both really like.
Every Sunday I cook a big meal with potatoes, three kinds of veggies, homemade lentil or bean patties and a lot of white gravy. We usually live off the left-overs for the next one to two days. I use the leftovers to prepare different soups, make stir fry or fried potatoes.
And as a rule of thumb we always eat pasta when we have finished everything. This seems to work out really good.
We still use disposable diapers for our youngest family member. On the one hand they are very expensive. On the other hand they are one of the worst pollutions ever. And of course there are all these chemical substances in them that harm the child. But in my opinion the only wise alternative to disposable diapers is a diaper free education. You'll find excellent literature on this topic for everybody who is interested.
I don't think that cloth diapers are a good alternative because our children just grow so fast. I'd have to buy new diapers constantly. Who will reuse the old ones then? Even cloth diapers have chemicals in them that really don't belong there. And who is supposed to wash all these diapers, adding to the laundry that we already have. I think the effort of washing all these diapers is too high compared to their use.
I know that this is a really difficult topic. I can completely understand why parents decide to use cloth diapers. But we will not use them.
So we have disposable diapers, but we are conscious of our responsibility for the environment. We motivate the youngest one a lot more then before to go completely without diapers. Our diaper use has decreased since then.
I usually wash our laundry every Wednesday and Thursday. We have two big cotton bags that we use instead of laundry baskets. And that's actually enough for the four of us. When they're full it is about three loads. Four loads if you count the laundry from the bathroom and all of our shopping bags. Everything is back in the closets by Friday. Sometimes I have to wash outside of this routine, when the kids have had too much fun playing in the dirt outside. But that's how it is with small children. It's a relief that we have minimalistic wardrobes. That very much helps to keep the laundry to a minimum.
What does this lifestyle cost us?
You're probably interested in how much money we spend on this lifestyle as a family. To be honest, I'm not able to give you a definite answer right now. It's a process and we are not there yet. There are still some packaged products that we're still buying - like diapers, juice (we can return the bottles and they are reused), sweets for the children and the vegan meat alternatives I've mentioned before. Apart from these, there are a lot of products for which we haven't been able to find a zero waste option so far, like dish soap, frying oil and Fairtrade organic coffee.
Right now, I'd say everything between 200 and 500 EUR is possible. We do, however, have some numbers for our bulk store trips. We usually spend between 80 and 90 EUR in the zero waste bulk store Unverpackt-Kiel. On the farmers market we always spend nearly 50 EUR. If we only shopped at these two places we would spend 280 EUR on food per month. Most families I know spend at least as much as we do on their non-organic, non-vegan, and packaged groceries. I only know a few who spend less.
So how much trash do we actually have? We fill our 120 litre (27 gallon) can only up to a third of it, and we have one so-called "yellow bag"(German: "der gelbe Sack") every two weeks. The "yellow bag" is a big yellow trash bag where you are supposed to collect all the packaging with a certain sign on it - mostly plastic, but also cans or Tetra Paks like milk cartons.
That is not much for a family of four. In February 2015, almost a year ago, we couldn't fit all of our garbage into our trash can and we filled four yellow bags with plastic trash.
I myself have completely adapted the zero waste lifestyle and I collect my own trash in a jar.
Every day new things happen in our family. Ever since I started blogging about zero waste, my husband has become more and more conscious of it. He has started to be very careful to avoid buying packaged things. He only buys tangerines without the extra paper wrapping for example. The children like my zero waste recipes better and better, and they have also come to like to buy new toys secondhand, because the secondhand toys are less expensive and they can even save a part of their pocket money this way.
I wrote the first version of this article two weeks ago. Back then I thought I could never make them fall for this lifestyle. However, now I think they might even go further still!
We are now ten months in. It took us approximately two and a half months to know how much of what we needed to get at the farmers' market. We had to get used to buying seasonal. It took us seven months to optimise our shopping routine at the zero waste bulk store in Kiel, and we are still trying to even out some details.
To live such a life with children can be stressful at times. We didn't start to live vegan for ethical reasons. My children and I developed different intolerances against different animal products. So we were forced to change our eating habits. I've been living this way for the last three and a half years, my husband for two and a half years, and the children for two years.
Since then I have been reading so many articles about industrial livestock farming, pollution, lifestyle diseases and exploitation of workers in poor countries, that today I can say that the four of us are vegans for ethical reasons.
We live very close to the coast. I was reading Zero Waste Home by Béa Johnson when we went to the shore like we had many times before. However, the night before was very stormy, so when we arrived, we weren't able to walk down to the water. The waves had washed up so much trash from the ocean that we literally couldn't get close to where the water was. It made us really sad.
My children will probably still be living on this planet eighty years from now. It is my earnest wish that this world will still be a place worth living in in the future.
Are you curious how other zero waste families handle the daily challenges? Visit