5 million reasons to get outside (and 17 Zero Waste hacks for your next camping trip)

Australia is as fabulous a country as they come for a road trip. Here you can find sunshine, small towns, and expansive beaches just an hour or two out of town. 


It’s easy to get caught up in the bright lights of the city, but nothing feels quite as good as leaving Sydney (and those five million other people) in the rearview.

Without too much effort, you might find yourself on a 7 mile beach, alone but for the dolphins. It’s bliss to have nothing to do but make a fire, read, surf, hang out with friends and take in the Milky Way (or debate which constellation is actually the Southern Cross).

And yet, have you ever noticed how a camping trip can quickly escalate into an environmental disaster? It’s usually food related. Processed foods, disposable everything, bottles of water, wasted food and constant trips to overloaded garbage bins after every meal. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are a few things I do to keep waste to a minimum while car camping:

  1. Make block ice ahead of time. This is where an old plastic container can actually be your friend. The ice will melt over the course of your travels, but don’t drain the cold water, and keep the lid of the esky closed.
  2. Freeze some food. If you have food you’re planning to bring along, freeze it overnight and pack it just before you head out so it performs the dual function of keeping your cooler cold, and later, feeding you.
  3. Stock up on whole fruit and veg. Although tip #1 is all about keeping your esky cool, #3 is about keeping food out of it to begin with (thus saving room for chilling beer). Whole fruit and veg don’t need to be refrigerated or bagged since they come in their own handy biodegradable wrappers.
  4. Take road snacks. Avoid fast food pit stops and their chemical laden wrappers by eating before you leave the house and packing a few snacks. It can be simple, like some fruit and nuts, or fancy, like chia pudding with luscious ripe figs and passionfruit. Your call. 
  5. Embrace the miraculous sealing powers of the mason jar. The two part lid system creates a trustworthy seal so it can be chucked into the cool ice melt water without waterlog. Excellent for those times when you’ve over-catered and need to store leftovers. It doubles as a spare cup! Just please don’t pour boiling hot liquid into a very cold mason jar – while made for canning, they don’t handle dramatic temperature changes any better than regular glass jars (just ask me how I know).
  6. Say no to disposable plates and cutlery. It’s the first thing and the worst thing many an infrequent camper thinks to buy. So unnecessary. Instead, score some lightweight plates, bowls and utensils from your local op shop and do a quick wash up afterwards.
  7. Wash your dishes with less water. Camping is a great context for figuring out smarter ways to do everyday tasks. You don’t need heaps of wash water or to let the water run the whole time.
  8. Check if where you’re going will have potable water. If it won’t, bring your own so you aren’t put in that awkward position of having to buy water from a store. A good water filter could do, but I don’t have one.
  9. Trade paper towels for tea towels. Too easy.
  10. Think ‘quick cooking’ to conserve fuel. Brown rice may be more nutritious, but it takes a long time and lots of fuel to cook (just ask me how I know this). Couscous is a quick choice. And when cooking veggies, cut them into small pieces.
  11. Drink beer from cans instead of bottles. Crack a tinny – aluminium cans are lightweight, readily recyclable, and easy to pack in and out. And you might have to pack it all the way back home, as many campsites still only offer garbage bins. 
  12. Use a thermos to keep hot water hot. If you boil water or stop at a highway reviver station, don’t waste that heat energy. Capture it in an insulated thermos in case you want some tea later, like even the next day. True story. Thermoses are also really good for keeping cold stuff cold. They are also one of the most common items you can find at any op shop.
  13. Recycle your metal bits. Foil bunched into a fist sized ball and empty gas cylinders are all recyclable in curbside collections in my council and many others councils in Sydney.
  14. Pack out your organics. I take a jar because I can’t, won’t, and don’t stop composting.
  15. Pack out your soft plastics. I try my best to avoid soft plastics, but sometimes bad plastics happen to good people. Take those chip and marshmallow bags to Coles or Woolworths and recycle them at the RedCycle bins at the front of the store.
  16. Shampoo less. Try a freshwater rinse and forgo the shampoo. Especially if you’re going to be in and out of the water. What is camping if not a chance to relax your routine a little.
  17. #Take3forthesea. The hiker’s playbook says pack it in, pack it out, but these days, with so many wild landscapes succumbing to pollution from single use litter, it’s more important than ever to take out more than you brought in.

How it’s your turn – what’s your favourite tip for Zero Waste camping, car-based or otherwise?

Eating on the go without making trash: yes we can

juice-with-metal-straw

Ten easy ways I avoid waste when eating on the go. Plus, what I do when I end up with trash I didn’t want. 


Too often, eating on the go can result in a mountain of trash.

If you’ve ever done a waste audit, you’ll probably quickly realize that waste generated from feeding ourselves is 80 – 90% of the issue. And for once I’m not talking about compost. I’m talking about plastic forks, straws, toothpicks, parchment, styrofoam, little umbrellas in your drink, etc.

And it’s not just plastic either – even if we replace these materials with those that have a better afterlife, like bamboo cutlery and paper bags, there are still significant impacts in land use, manufacturing and transportation. Plus, how much of that ‘earth friendly’ packaging ends up anywhere but landfill anyway, hmm? Given the choice of plastic or paper, yes I’d choose paper, but my favourite choice of all is no packaging.

Ten ways to minimize waste when eating out

A little forethought and a couple of reusables are all that I need to avoid the common types of food related landfill fodder.


1. Eat in

Enjoying our food makes it more nutritious for us. Usually it also means less garbage. Usually.

Australia's cafe culture is still dine in friendly.
Australia’s cafe culture is still dine in friendly.

2. Bring a kit

I carry reusables in my handbag. They are light and don’t take up much space. Plan according to what you think you might need. Strolling along the coastal walk might mean a reusable cup, hiking might mean a beeswax wrap for cookies, and grocery shopping means a lightweight reusable bag.

Mt. Kozzie cookie
Beeswax wraps are lightweight and perfect for hikes.

3. Take it naked

When life hands you a croissant, just take it.

croissant


4. No cuppy, no coffee

If I don’t have a cup, I don’t get a coffee – simple. Or I dine in (point #1).

reusable cup
I work less than a block away from the nearest cafe, so I take an office mug.

5. Pack snacks 

When I’m hungry, I’m more Godzilla than Ghandi so I pack snacks to avoid the temptation of packaged items or unrelenting hangriness. My boyfriend appreciates this.

BLISSBALLS3
These bliss balls are made from leftover pulp from making nut milk. Search the site for the recipe.

6. Ask for ‘no straw please’

Think ahead when ordering something typically served with a straw, like a juice, smoothie, bubble tea or anything on ice. In North America, even a simple glass of water is likely to be served with a straw (or two!!). If you can’t live without one, bring your own metal or glass straw.

coffee with straw take 2


7. Take home leftovers

I bring my own container to restaurants to avoid food waste without creating any new container waste. Bonus: lunch is made for the next day.

ramen
I will never understand how anyone can eat an entire bowl of ramen in one sitting.             It’s. Too. Much.

8. BYO container

If I get takeout, I just bring my own container. It’s not weird.

Zero Waste takeaway
Wecking the reusable angle

9. Bring home compost

Very few restaurants in Sydney recycle their food scraps. I take mine home to my own compost.

leftover lemons
#camposting

10. Refill from the tap

Sydney’s tap water is fresh tasting and clean. Single use bottled water is completely unnecessary.

Departures area refills.
Departures area refills.

What to do when you’re given trash you didn’t want

Sometimes, even when we are ultra clear about asking for no single use packaging (and it’s not even busy, and we give them our reusable cup, and we smile nicely, and, and, and….) it happens – we’re served with packaging we didn’t need or want.

URGH.

Don’t let it ruin things.

SadCup
One disposable cup does not a complete failure make. A lifetime of dependence on single use cups is the real issue.

 

If I end up with wrapping or trash, I recycle or compost everything that I can. For example:

  • Greasy or food contaminated brown paper can be composted.
  • Unsullied brown paper packaging can be reused for groceries or bulk food shopping, then recycled.
  • Paper napkins can be composted.
  • Wooden chopsticks, toothpicks or cutlery can be reused in the garden, composted, or used as kindling for lighting a fire.
  • Foil can be recycled.
  • Plastic coffee cup lids can be recycled in Sydney’s commingled kerbside recycling (the cups can’t be recycled though – you could use them to start seedlings for your garden).
  • Soft plastics can be recycled through the Redcycle drop boxes at the front of Coles stores.

Be nice (and clear)

I also try to impart why I’ve asked in the first place. As frustrating as it can be to be given trash I didn’t want, ranting won’t help. I try to make it a connection and teaching moment to build allies behind the counter. If we want others to join us in practicing living a low waste lifestyle, we have to show that it’s fun, doable, and ultimately about empathy. We are over-served packaging because that’s what ‘good service’ currently means to most cafes. Asking for less waste helps to communicate that no trash is how customers want to dine. They’ll adapt.

Living low waste is the way of the future

There is no reason eating a meal should result in any material waste other than a few food scraps for the compost, at home or when we’re out.

One day our restaurants and cafes will be closed loop masterpieces that embrace Zero Waste operating principles. Visionaries like Joost Bakker have already proven it possible. The rest of the industry just needs to catch up.

But for right now, the idea of living without making trash is new to most people on all sides of the delivery counter. The good news is, usually once they understand the reason behind it, they’re into it and will want to help. That’s been my experience here in Sydney. By packing reusables and taking a firm, but polite, stand on unnecessary single-use packaging, I’m demonstrating that it is possible and it’s not actually that difficult.