Circular Podcast with Ander Zabala - Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Circular Podcast with Ander Zabala

Ahead of Zero Waste Week next week, the fourth episode of Series 01 is a conversation between Katie Treggiden and ‘Zero Waste Warrior’ Ander Zabala (@goxuboys on Instagram), who can fit his weekly household waste into a single jam jar. They talk about how Ander found his calling while still at school, the importance of making waste visible, and how starting small can produce big results.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m Katie Treggiden and this is Circular, a podcast exploring the intersection of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk to the thinkers, doers and makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear take make waste model of production and consumption, and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about waste.

Ander Zabala 

When I used to go to school, I remember being just actually quite shocked at the amount of toxic waste being discharged into the rivers. I’m from Bilbao, northern Spain. And so in the 80s, I think there was not much regulation and I used to go, ‘when I grow up, I’m going to stop this.’

Katie Treggiden 

An early adopter of social media in the fight against waste, Ander Zabala studied Environmental Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, followed by a Masters in Environmental Impact Assessment. He worked for Greenpeace and Waste Watch, before embarking on a 15 year career in waste reduction, prevention and championing the circular economy for the London Borough of Hackney, working across community engagement, data analytics, and infrastructure. But waste reduction is more than just a day job. He practices what he preaches too. He was recently featured as one of the Guardian’s Zero Waste Warriors, and is also an ambassador for Zero Waste Week, which in 2020, is from 7th – 11th September. Tell me a little bit about your childhood and the role that the idea of waste or reuse played when you were growing up.

Ander Zabala 

So I feel like my mom was always the one who was in the house that was trying to reuse and never waste anything. So I feel like it’s part of genetics, because I’m like her. But also, I just think it makes sense in terms of the demands in the environment that I grew up. I kind of felt like when I was growing up, when I was growing up, I saw the news. I remember being eight years old, and I was actually petrified when I saw the ozone layer hole. And that actually got me into reading more about a magazine that I used to read, especially on holidays, and we didn’t have social media back then, so I was always consuming magazines and local newspapers. So a mixture of genetics and environment and just a conscious decision to actually do something about improving the local area that I used to live in. When I used to go to school, I remember being just actually quite shocked at the amount of toxic waste being discharged into the rivers. And I’m from Bilbao, northern Spain. And so in the 80s, I think there was not much regulation, and I used to go ‘when I grow up, I’m going to stop this.’ And obviously I was, I was nine years old and I haven’t stopped that. I’ve done other things in my career, but I haven’t stopped toxic waste discharge. And so I think, I feel like it’s been a mix of genetics and growing up in the 80s when I think there was more environmental things coming into the public agenda. But it is true that when I talk to other people, they didn’t really seem to care, so I kind of felt I was a little bit on my own in that sense. But yeah, so it’s one of the main reasons I actually came to England. I wanted to do environmental science, I couldn’t do that degree in Spain, because it is very complicated points of…it’s a little bit like having A*s and not being able to be selected to uni. And back then in 1988 when I finished my high school, I didn’t really have the grades to get into the Environmental Science degree that I wanted to. And so I basically ended up coming to England, and wanted to do Environmental Science, which is why I came to England. And actually it wasn’t England, it was Wales, Aberystwyth in 1998.

Katie Treggiden 

And you, your career seems very direct, you know, you studied Environmental Science at university, both undergraduate and postgraduate. And you then went to work for Greenpeace, Waste Watch, and then you’ve been at Hackney Council for 15 years working in recycling and waste reduction. So you’ve seemed very clear from a very young age, what it was that you wanted to do?

Ander Zabala 

Yes, I mean, it feels like what I’m doing at work at the moment is, it’s almost like I fell into it, but I also wanted to reduce waste. So I think when you want to do something about the environment, you’ve got so much to select from, whether it’s improving water, whether it’s reducing waste, or whether it’s recycling, whether it’s actually solar panels, so I kind of like I had a lot to choose from, in that sense, but I felt waste was actually the easiest thing that I could do in a personal level, and I used to nag my family in 1990 when I was 10, to start using the recycling services that we were offered by local authorities back in Basque Country, so I realised I was actually quite pedantic in that sense. I actually, and my husband says, I should just be a counsellor because you know, you’re quite annoying at what you do. So basically, you end up getting people to do it, so that I agree with you. So, basically, yeah, I ended up being able to promote recycling at Waste Watch, like you said, when I came back after finishing my degree. That’s why I went door knocking in South London. And I remember promoting recycling and telling people not to contaminate the recycling. But back then in 2002, that was, that was…it was more challenging. They thought this was more for European regulations being imposed in Britain. But you know, people have got used to it, now. Recycling is just a law, a social known for, for many people. Yeah, I think I feel like recycling is now treated as ‘something I do,’ so I don’t need to do anything else. Which is why I’m trying to do more than that at the moment with work on a personal level with zero waste.

Katie Treggiden 

So tell me what your job involves on a day-to-day basis now?

Ander Zabala 

Right. So it’s all very much the same in the sense of doing emails, emails, emails, but what I do in these emails is planning communications campaigns and strategies, delivering single-use plastic campaigns at a local level. So we’re trying to deliver a local, low plastic zone in Dalston, with businesses and residents. I’m also doing contracts with different charities, so that they collect furniture, reuse collections from households that they don’t want to throw away good furniture that is in good condition, because if they give it to the council, we will recycle it or we will dispose of it. And we don’t have the means to reuse it ourselves, so that’s why we partner with charities. And so it’s about procuring contracts, campaigns and one of the last things I’m actually quite excited about for delivering is the library of things – it’s another social enterprise in South London, based in Crystal Palace at the moment, where you pay a fee for a small item, such as a drill or a carpet cleaner. And so they have got a business model that works. And so we went to them and we wanted to develop this in Hackney. So just to say, obviously, I work in the council, so we have to deliver the manifesto commitments from the Labour group that are in at the moment in administration. So there’s a strong will from the current administration to the Labour circular economy projects, which is actually fascinating, because recycling is okay, but we need to move on from that at the moment. We need to start reducing and doing more hiring.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? It was always reduce, reuse, recycle, but as you say, everyone seems to have jumped on to recycling and think tick, I’m doing that, I’m off the hook. So why is waste such a problem? And why is it so important that we reduce waste and reuse things before we get to the recycling bit of the three R’s?

Ander Zabala 

I think the three R’s, every kid, It feels like if they were born in the 80s, or 90s, or lived in Spain or England – I’m not sure; I wasn’t here back then – it feels like they memorised it, but they don’t know what it means. Only when people started doing recycling. It’s almost like people should be doing the first three R’s which is reduce, which it does mean stop consumption. And consumption is something in psychology that is so hard to deal with. So people were told to reuse which we do in a sense, but not in the sense that we have to. We need to change the whole system. Kind of a structure of the way we deliver the businesses and consume it. So here to, to that linear economy, we need to start moving to a reuse economy and at the moment we can see like the economy is not really working, how can we make that better? So we need to bring that circular model more into services. So I think people start the recycling, and they just left it there. And in a way we did have to start recycling because it’s an easier form of behaviour change, but we do need to start people reducing and reusing and repairing. But we do obviously now a lot more government advice, and the will to do it at the moment, a lot of it is coming from the bottom up approach. So you get a lot communities, a lot of residents to do this. And that includes businesses as well. Obviously they’re using what they have in order to get a living and because they’ve got a conscience, and I think nationally and internationally, I think the conscience to do this is now ticking…. I think there’s a lot more more in the public mind to do this. So why is it important? We really can’t, we don’t really have much time to do this at the moment. And I think it’s like, it’s a good thing now that people can do it, but they need to start moving onto the first three R’s, which is reduce, reuse and repair.

Katie Treggiden 

And you’re, you know, sort of taking this on board and practising what you preach at home, as well as at work, and trying to move to sort of a, what they call a zero waste existence. What prompted that decision? What made you sort of think, right, I’ve got to really take this seriously at home?

Ander Zabala 

So it was two things. The first one was work. So, obviously I’ve been working in the sector for about 15 years. But recently, we in the Hackney Council have brought a proposal that has been put forward, which is we can bring, reduce the waste collections to every fourth night. So two thirds of UK local authorities are already doing this. So we’re kind of behind; London is quite behind in this sense. So that is the main thing. I wanted to check, how long can I go without putting my waste out? I was already good. And you will expect that, I’ll be good at recycling, being a recycling manager for a local authority. I felt, how far can I go without putting my waste? It started with a zero waste week in 2018. I said, how much waste can I create if I really consciously think about what I do every single day, every single minute? So, I did quite well but I realised I could do more as I went, maybe I don’t have to put my waste for a month. And then it basically became two months and the more I was doing things, it became three months. So basically, by 31st December 2018, I decided to speak to my husband and said, ‘We are going to put this challenge, I’m going to have a social media contract with everyone,’ back then obviously had 20 followers in my account. But obviously I call my family and friends that are watching me and I also am doing this in LinkedIn, in my sector, so it’s a lot more pressure for me to do this. And if I do it that means, I will definitely challenge myself to change my behaviour, even though I thought I was quite quite good. So that was the main reason. The main reason was if I’m asking my residents to not have to waste collected every week, but have it collected every two weeks – we keep them recycling weekly, so that’s still fine. It’s just the waste. And if you look at it, there’s hardly anything left that is not recyclable these days. So, that’s the main thing. If I’m asking residents, how far can I go? Can I go more than a month? Can I go a year? If I can do a year I’m pretty sure residents could last two weeks without having their waste collected. So it’s a mix of work and then on a passionate level, because the more I looked into it, I was kind of hungry to see more, to be more transparent about what I do with the things. So I went to a waste plant, which in plain English means the incinerator. The incinerator – it was kind of a shocking experience. You go there, the scale and the magnitude of one single incinerator in London – I think there’s about, don’t quote me, but I think there’s about four or five, just in London – it’s constant. They have tracks going into the incinerator, I was wearing the full body suit, the PPE goggles, it was pretty….when you go to the balcony, and you see the crabbers just collecting all the waste, and you can see, I can see recycling in there, and it was just breaking my heart to see how much of it. And creating some air pollution – even though they are really well filtered – it’s still creating pollution. And these items have just been thrown away, with being most of it, being single use. And you can see furniture, you can see all sorts of things. So it’s kind of a realisation, like I don’t want to be part of this, I need to change the way I do things as well. So it’s almost like, why are vegetarians vegetarians? Why do they not eat meat? Because they don’t want to be part of that industry. So in a sense, I didn’t want to be part of contributing into that linear economy. And I’m by no means perfect. It’s just about the way I saw the waste from the linear economy. Just I need to change this. So it started with work, I ended up being on a personal level.

Katie Treggiden 

Absolutely. I’ve had similar experiences at our local tip, and you just sort of see the things that are being thrown away. And you’re like, that’s a perfectly good bookshelf, what’s going on? But this is my question, because I’m always coming home with kind of crazy eco schemes, how did you get your husband on board?

Ander Zabala 

So I did do a blog about it. And he says, while I have no choice, I think we obviously have different values. So we have a similar values but in a sense, we brought our values together. So he’s always been the vegetarian and now vegan person in the relationship. So I slowly, slowly adapted my eating and my diet. So I became about 95% plant based at home after we did the Veganuary about two years ago. So I kind of said, ‘Well, do you mind if we just do this?’ Obviously I didn’t properly tell him exactly what I was doing. I said, ‘I will buy all the food.’ And he’s the cook. And say, ‘You know what, as long as you do it, I’m fine.’ But obviously, it did mean that if he ever bought something through the 365 days, that I will be checking his bags. So yes, it did become a bit stressful at times when I will tell him off about a plastic bag or a single use material. But he did see that there was benefits to it. So, he loves cooking. He comes from a mixed race, ethnicity group. So he’s Kashmir and also Irish. He also love cooking, also international diet, cuisine, so he wanted to always do two chapatties and naan bread from scratch. And he never really had that kind of push. So in a way, you could say that the zero waste journey helped him become a better cook. He was already a better cook. I’m not sure whether he’s listening, or he will listen to this. But he definitely he saw the benefits to it. But that’s not to say there weren’t stressful moments when I will tell him off about a plastic bag. And you said too, this is quite a middle class thing to be shouting about. But obviously, I have laughed a lot more since then.

Katie Treggiden 

No, I’m trying to go plastic free in my bathroom at the moment and my husband’s getting so exasperated by sort of those solid soaps that aren’t so solid and just fall apart. That’s the debate in our house at the moment. You mentioned Veganuary and Zero Waste week. Do you think these sort of national weeks where we ask people to try these things are a good way to bring about behaviour change rather than sort of saying to someone right, commit to this for the rest of your life? Just sort of saying do it for January or do it for a week?

Ander Zabala 

Absolutely. It’s not for everyone, it won’t work for everyone. But if it worked for a certain number of residents – I call them residents, but I mean people – it definitely works. I think you can see the mindset in terms of diets have changed a lot over the last two to three years. And obviously Veganuary has been for more than that and that has helped push that mindset. I think a lot people do want some challenges and that challenge to see whether you will eat less meat or you will stop eating meat completely – that has worked. And this is why I’m now a zero waste weekend ambassador for this year. I want to make sure that residents and people, our neighbours and friends actually just take a moment to change their behaviour. Behaviour change is so in-built in what we do everyday, so I always compare a change in your behaviour, like if it was you going to the gym, it hurts at the beginning, you will have cramps, and your brain is exactly the same; the way we think is exactly as going to the gym. It hurts at the beginning, but once you get into the habit, it becomes automatic behaviour, and you don’t even think about it. So you need a push. And whether it’s a structural systematic change, or at a personal level, a combination of both…We do obviously need legislation from government, but we can start all from our own personal lifestyles and change it that way. And then maybe we can start promoting and campaigning and voting the right political parties in order to get that change at the government level.

Katie Treggiden 

Absolutely. So if you’re a Zero Waste Week ambassador, shall we give it a shout out and see if we can recruit some of our listeners? When is it happening? And what do people need to do?

Ander Zabala 

So Zero Waste Week 2020 will start on 7th September and it will end on 11th of that month. Obviously you can carry on doing it for longer. This year’s theme is about food waste. People don’t see food waste as an issue because it’s organic, it’s natural, it will become paste. So there’s two things to that. If you leave it in landfill, it will produce methane, which is about 20 times worse than carbon dioxide. And we all know the problems with carbon dioxide. But the amount of food that we throw away is shocking because we don’t value it. In a way I think food is too cheap. Some people will disagree with that and I think we need to help those that don’t have food on the plates, but those that have it which is majority in the UK, we don’t value it as much and so we need to reduce food waste as much as we can. So this is about food waste but the main thing about Zero Waste Week is about checking what you have the week before Zero Waste, see how much food or recycling waste you throw away. Make a note of it. So you can have it like a diary. If you live on your own, it’s easier. If you don’t live on your own and you live with your flatmates, you can just keep a bin for yourself and only take into account what you throw away. And then the actual week of the Zero Waste week, you make conscious decisions to not get that coffee cup, or you don’t throw the salad that’s about to go off. You can cook the salad as a spinach, you can go online and see what can you cook with the food that is about to go off. Or if their use by date is just about to get close, and you don’t want to eat it, put in a freezer. Start being more fridge and freezer portion control. So there’s a lot of things you can do for food waste, but the main thing about Zero Waste is the week before, check what you’re throwing away and then after that, make sure that you have looked into the main waste items and see how you can avoid them being in your waste bin after that. So some people will say a week is not enough and it’s more about whether you can carry on doing it. I did it and I feel like I didn’t have massive changes because of that. A week is enough for a lot of people to start looking at what they produce, and what can they stop using.

Katie Treggiden 

After a short break, we’ll be back to find out why Ander keeps his waste in a glass jar, how starting small can produce big results, and why we need to move from recycling to reusing and refilling.

Katie Treggiden 

I might have mentioned I’ve got a new book coming out. Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure, published by Ludion, is available to pre order on Amazon now and in local bookshops from 8th October.

Katie Treggiden 

And one of the things that you did was to put all your waste in a glass jar. How does that help? Why is that a good thing to do?

Ander Zabala 

I didn’t start with a glass jar at the beginning. So, when I was doing Zero Waste Week in 2018, I had a normal Tesco or Sainsbury’s carry size bag, and I will put all the waste in there, so don’t start with something that it may be unachievable. If you produce more waste than a jar. Start with something and if eventually you notice that you’re not producing much waste, you can downsize it to a jar. And I finished Zero Waste last year. And we’re still following some, but we have relaxed in other ways. But we still keep the jar. And that’s because I want to make sure that the waste that we produce is visible. So in the council, we get a lot property developers that come and they ask me, we cannot pay you for the council to give you a new track so they can collect from this underground storage facilities. I have an issue about making waste not visible. And the developer said people don’t want to see the waste, they just want to bury it and the council comes and collects it, and no one wants to see it. And I think I have a problem with that. Because what they’re trying to say is out of sight out of mind. I kind of want people to see it. Because if you don’t see it, you don’t change your behaviour. It’s a bit like with air pollution, we don’t really see it and I think that’s been quite hard for a lot of people to grasp it. And obviously, there’s more in the political agenda at the moment, so that things have changed, but if you were to put visible particles of nitrogen, nitrogen oxides, in the air, people will be a lot more concerned. So it plays around with waste. So we made a conscious decision to keep the jar on the kitchen counter because I want a reminder of how much waste we produce.

Katie Treggiden 

and how did friends and family react when they came over and saw that jar of waste on your kitchen counter?

Ander Zabala 

They’ve been very supportive. I think they could see that this is a subject that I work on, on a day-to-day basis. So I don’t think they were that surprised at all. I didn’t really ask them, ‘What do you think of me having a glass jar there?’ But I could see their reactions. Then one of the things I remember was a key thing was when I did a barbecue with about 20 people, and I have to invite friends. But I did tell them, ‘I am doing a zero waste year, so could you not bring anything that is not recyclable’ and list ‘that will include these items.’ They were all so on board. It was quite an amazing thing to see the amount of waste that is just for a single BBQ. I didn’t keep it to just for the month, but it was one tiny jar for one day. And that included 20 people barbecuing. So we did put in the recycling, but I did ask them also to bring refillable bottles of beer and wine, which we did on that day. So they were very supportive. I didn’t notice that because I had another account that was promoting on zero waste, they were following me on that account. And because I didn’t tell them, they should do this and that – the way they should lead their lives, I noticed that they were doing it by themselves afterwards. So I did influence a number of friends in that sense. So in that sense, yeah, they were very supportive.

Katie Treggiden 

Brilliant and that’s an Instagram account. Do you want to share the handle so that anybody listening could follow you on there as well?

Ander Zabala 

Yeah, so it’s @goxyboys and it’s spelt GOXUBOYS and goxu means tasty. It’s a play on words. The taste in men for the cooking my husband does, and I think he might want to open a restaurant in future. So it’ll be the tasty boys.

Katie Treggiden 

Brilliant. I’ll pop that in there in the notes as well so that people get the spelling. So your friends and family have been very supportive. How do you think opinions towards waste and reuse are changing more broadly across Hackney, across London, across the country?

Ander Zabala 

I think people are ready to move from recycling. Some people have not recycled, will not recycle. And those people will have to deal in a different way. But the majority of people are now ready to move on from recycling. And I have noticed. So when I used to go out and do events and do outdoor roadshows, and explain to people that recycling services, we still have queues of people saying I don’t understand how to do I’m so confused. Now we don’t get anyone talking about recycling, they’re telling us about how can they reduce the recycling and the waste. So I think the shift is changing. You can see internationally. I think that obviously, the Blue Planet has been discussed numerous lengthy times, but it has had an impact. And I think it’s a combination of the climate breakdown in Greta and having that kind of national political agenda on environmental consciousness. So I can see circular economy playing a big part in future, not only because it’s literally we don’t have the raw materials to keep extracting, we don’t have that much land in the Amazon, in Brazil, where we extract aluminium. We need to start changing the way we do things, otherwise, we are heading towards that for four degrees extra for the climate breakdown. And obviously, there’s many studies to show that it’s not a good future to have. Some people might think, well, there’s nothing I can do about it. And that might be true, it might feel like you’re helpless, but if you start from small things, you must start developing that motivation that will perhaps increase into campaigning at local level, and hopefully to the Government. So I can see that recycling is moving away from what it used to be into that reuse, and the feeling in shops, and especially in whether we look at furniture as well, because at the moment furniture’s being treated as disposable. Over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve noticed that it used to be packaging that was single use; it’s now clothes, textiles, and furniture are treated like single use. So we have quite a lot of mindset to change. And I think because the problem is so big people are noticing that we need to do something about it.

Katie Treggiden 

Is there hope? Do you think that we can move to a fully circular economy and prevent the sort of climate catastrophe that, that four degree increase will bring about?

Ander Zabala 

That’s the big 1 million pound question. I think because I feel like I get good days and I get bad days. I’m not going to lie, I feel quite pessimistic about it sometimes. But having read The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres, it does give you hope. There’s a difference between optimism and hope. And I think we should push in a way both. I think if we do nothing it’s worse. And the last 30 years of the emissions that we’ve been pumping into the air will have an impact, not just on our grandchildren, but on the generations from here to the next 5000 years. So I think doing nothing is not an option. And we need to keep doing something about it. Even if it doesn’t impact your personally that much. I think it’s just… it can be quite shocking. And I think because at the moment, the circular economy is only 9%. Even if increased it to actually 20 to 30%. There’s a lot to do. And that amount translates into bigger changes and I think once you get into that kind of threshold of 20 to 30% circular economy, people start to get used to that behaviour change, like I said before. So I think there is a lot to do, but we all need to push to do it. And we all need to basically vote for the right Parties.

Katie Treggiden 

And as you say, I think it’s a huge, huge undertaking, but people can start really small and I think something like Zero Waste Week from 7th – 11th September this year would be a really good place to start. So thank you Ander. It’s been really fascinating to talk to you.

Ander Zabala 

Thank you, Katie.

Katie Treggiden 

If you enjoyed this episode of Circular with Katie Treggiden, can I ask you to leave a review and perhaps even hit the subscribe button? Those two actions really help other people to find the podcast, so I would be very grateful. Thank you. Thank you to Ander Zabala, Gordon Barker for the edit, October Communications for marketing support, Sound Compound for the music and to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to Circular with Katie Treggiden.

P.S. I am recording Season Two of the podcast now and the theme this time is repair. I really believe that people who make and mend with their hands hold the keys to helping us move from a linear ‘take-make-waste’ model to a more sustainable ‘circular’ economy. If you do too, I am looking for likeminded brands to help bring the meaningful conversations I know I’m going to have on this season of the podcast to a larger audience. Email me and I’ll send you more info on how you could get involved as a brand partner.