Plastic free: my working definition

plastic free berries

It’s impossible to live without plastic, many are quick to point out. They’re not wrong. Some respond to this critique with, I’m low waste, not zero waste, I’ll never be zero waste or plastic free.

Consider this: if you can play tennis without being Serena Williams, then you can #plasticfree without being Bea Johnson. The threshold is participation, not perfection. The label isn’t the problem, it’s the expectation and judgement we heap upon ourselves and others for anything less than zero. Let’s keep the word and drop the apologies. Labels are just a way for people to find communities of interest to connect with – i.e. a good servant, but a bad master. I regret that #plasticfree sounds more like an arrival than an intention for the journey. Or that it provokes a comparison that can be demotivating to many who feel they may never ‘achieve’ to the same degree. However, I don’t think the solution is to split hairs, or to beat ourselves up.

The truth about zero waste and plastic free living is that it’s only partly about the individual. Success of these movements won’t hinge upon willpower and motivation, but upon permanently changing defaults. We must change paths, not people by providing the amenities (bike lanes, bulk shops, compost collection, effective recycling) and encouraging social norms that make good individual habits flourish.

What’s possible for me in a place like Sydney may not be to you, yet. A visit to Oahu years ago brought this point home when the vast majority of food at the only grocer near us was imported and over-packaged, and the other option was Costco (I’m crying). Our rental had no recycling or compost facilities either. Devastating. And a reminder that the barriers imposed by our surroundings can stymie even the most motivated.

The areas where I have the most success, are – no surprise – those where I have the most autonomy, choice and ease.

riseaboveplastics

That’s how I got started. I vowed to never ask for a takeaway cup, bottle of water or grocery bag after getting involved with the Surfrider Foundation. Then I eliminated new plastic containers from personal care products when I discovered The Soap Dispensary. I learned about responsible problem waste disposal in my area. I started looking for refill options for food, and now I habitually live with less plastic than a decade ago. I have permanently changed my norms, over a long time, helped by amenities available to me.

Am I plastic free? No.

While I’m constantly curious about ways to further reduce packaging, I don’t stress about what I’m not able to control. Like when I replaced my burnt out oven light. I also don’t stress about the choices I make with eyes wide open. Like when I chose to eat tofu packaged in soft plastic, buy replacement electric toothbrush heads, and donate blood. Plus many other examples.

To me, #plasticfree means any of:

  • Less plastic
  • No new plastic
  • Plastic free, mostly
  • Better managed plastic
  • No single-use plastic
  • No non-essential single use plastic
  • Reducing the impact of plastic on the environment

If you ever feel a pedantic urge to remind yourself that say, the lid of the glass jar you’re reusing may indeed be lined with a thin layer of plastic, take a deep breath and mentally swap #plasticfree to any of these alternative explanations. What we’re aiming for is so much bigger than perfect control over our immediate surroundings.

#plasticfree is about a future free from unnecessary plastic. It’s a shared vision of a future where new plastic is not produced in the quantities it is today, where the default option is unpackaged, and where the material is used only in intelligent, long lasting ways.

Consider too that plastic free living may involve avoiding new plastic, but we can deepen our practice in many other meaningful ways, such as:

  • Reusing and finding creative uses for plastic we already have.
  • Disposing of plastics in the most responsible option available to you where you live.
  • Picking up litter.
  • Learning more about the myriad impacts of plastic on humans, landscapes, and wildlife.
  • Observing how other people shop and live.
  • Supporting plastic reduction initiatives that make it easier for everybody to reduce plastic, like bag bans.
  • Chatting with business owners about reducing or eliminating straws and disposables.
  • Joining or starting initiatives and work or school to reduce plastic use.
  • Starting a business that helps others reduce their plastic.
  • Supporting a business that helps others reduce their plastic.
  • Normalising the attention paid to waste management by chatting with friends and family.

I’ll share one quick example about my friend Bryce, a low key legend. One day on a hike he saw that park staff were using plastic as a fill material for trail maintenance. He contacted BC Parks to suggest an alternative and explained why he felt plastic was problematic. This led to a productive conversation that resulted in them changing to a better material. Proof that there are many ways to work towards a world with less unnecessary plastic.

I’d love to hear what you think. Do you find that labels, stories and symbols of extreme plastic free living inspire you, or demotivate you?

Does zero waste cost more?

Nada Grocery Vancouver

Is a low waste lifestyle more expensive than life as usual? In this post I’m looking at a few ways ‘zero waste’ can seem to set us financial traps, and I offer some strategies to counter overspending in the name of sustainable living.

In theory it should cost less to use fewer resources, but in reality there are times where doing the right thing can cost more. Here I’m talking mostly about financial costs, though there are, of course, time considerations. To that I’ll just briefly say that while some people may rationally anticipate it’s going to take heaps more time to live low waste, I don’t find it does. Initially, sure, there’s a learning curve. Over time I’ve found living the way I do streamlines my life and improves the quality.

I want to acknowledge that I am a healthy, financial stable, white person with free time and significant autonomy over my choices. I can’t change the fact that I’ve had all the advantages in life, so I’ll speak from my perspective and promise to listen to yours. It’d be a mistake to dismiss voices like mine when there is reason to believe we’re amongst the most wasteful. A study of food waste showed that households earning over $100K a year are one of the most wasteful groups. In Sydney, that income is actually a little lower than the median. My interpretation and theory is that those who feel less pain from wasting resources will waste more resources. And if we’re a wasteful bunch with the time and money to reduce household waste by changing our shopping and consumption habits, let’s do it. It doesn’t preclude us from also working to make zero waste more equitable and accessible to low income communities through support for policies like container deposit schemes and bag bags.

Alright, let’s get into some of the financial challenges of zero waste and strategies to overcome them.

Financial trap #1: Shopping at bulk food stores can be expensive.

There are many flavours of bulk stores – coops, health food shops, regular grocers with a bulk section and discount bulk shops. Here in Sydney, Australia, we have a number of chain and independent bulk stores where you can shop with your own containers, but they are not the discount variety. Most focus on organic, local and specialty foods, or some combination thereof, which can make shopping in bulk more expensive than buying packaged, conventional, far away foods from Coles or Woolies. I’ll admit I’ve had sticker shock on occasional with bulk store purchases, but I’ve learned a few things that help me stick to a reasonable food budget.

zero waste granola
Why not make your own granola?

My tips

  • Look for coops, or buying groups, which are member run and not for profit. These will often offer a discount if you volunteer or become a member.
  • Try farmers markets, which will often have a bulk foods vendor. I’ve found these spots to be better priced.
  • Ethnic food stores were some of my go-to bulk stops when I lived in Vancouver, but sadly, I don’t live near in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have a selection of bulk shops to choose from, take notes on the best pricing for your favourite items.
  • Focus your shopping on low cost and nutritious staple foods, like red lentils and buckwheat. Leave the trendy mermaid powders and mushroom teas alone, or try a scant amount to see if you like it before overbuying.
  • Paying attention to the price per kilo can help you avoid overbuying expensive items. The denser the food and the higher the price per kilo, the more sparingly I buy it.
  • Processed food is always more expensive, whether unpackaged or in bulk. Consider making your own granola rather than buying ready-made.
  • If you will eat 10 kilos of rice and have the space at home, consider buying a 10 kilo bag of rice and recycling the wrapping. It’s not much difference in net waste than shopping in a bulk store, and it’ll be cheaper.
  • Make sure you’re taring your containers properly and check your tally as they’re being rung up, or on the receipt before you leave the store. Mistakes can happen and this is a good way to correct any accidental overcharges before you leave.
  • If you can’t afford bulk shop prices, look for the packaged goods with the best recycling outcomes in your area.
  • My last tip is about reframing. I significantly changed the way I perceive the cost of food since reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma. At the time, I was still food shopping like a uni student (saving my money for drinking, ha) and the book guided me to think about the long term consequences of buying cheap food on my health and the soil. Food is precious, and I buy the best quality I can afford.

Financial trap #2: Eco consumables can be expensive

Biodegradable and refillable dental floss is expensive you guys. There is no denying it. Some products like this probably cost more to produce, and others might simply be mining a niche because we’ll pay more. For example, I’ve spent too much money on dish scrubbers that have either turned out to be greenwash, or conversely, a little too biodegradable, falling apart mere days after I started using them.

zero waste dental floss
Refillable, biodegradable floss exists, but at what cost?

My tips:

  • Don’t feel you need to go all or nothing. I wrote about participation> perfectionism as it relates to dental floss, but the same thinking applies to other products. Be mindful of your own financial limits and wellbeing.
  • Ask yourself whether something is truly better, or more sustainable. Often it’s not, but marketed to be. Most single-use ‘eco’ plastics designed to replace petroleum plastics fall under this category.
  • Calculate your actual costs. When I wondered how affordable it really was to buy Who Gives A Crap toilet paper, the brand that builds toilets for those who need them, I tracked how long it lasted. Turns out 48 rolls lasts over 18 months at my house, so I’m paying an affordable $32/year to buy TP. I googled some Woolworth’s brands for comparison and found 12 packs for $9, which comes to $36 for 48 rolls.
  • If a product claim sounds too good to be true, it might be. Don’t be afraid to inquire with sellers to check that they understand the materials used in their products. You’d be surprised how often goods are mass produced overseas and then white-labelled under various brand names, giving the seller limited control over the production process or insight into materials being used.
  • Can you make the thing instead of buying pre-made? We don’t usually need separate surface, bathroom and kitchen cleaners, and buying eco-cleaners can be pricey. Simple unbranded ingredients like castile soap and vinegar are cost-effective multi-taskers. I don’t buy things like reusable makeup remover pads or special cleaning rags because I can make my own for no cost. I also make a few DIY products, like mascara, deodorant, lip balm, and the best hydrating serum I’ve ever used. It’s a cheap and convenient practice for me that honestly takes less time than shopping for these things. If you’re buying, use every last drop in the container.
  • Consider what products you can skip buying altogether. I have vastly simplified my face and body routine over the last ten years to my financial benefit. I use less volume of product, and fewer products, I am more accepting of myself and ‘need’ less gunk to face the world (I’m keeping concealer though…).

Financial trap #3: Zero waste food storage containers are pricey

Blame picture perfect Instagram pantries for stoking our collective desire for perfectly matching sets of glass jars. I’ve bought a few new containers over the years, but the majority of what I use are from the recycling bin, salvaged plastic containers or containers I’ve scored from secondhand shops. I.e cheap.

Free glass jar from the recycling.

My tips:

  • Make the op shop your first stop. It’s a great place to find glass Pyrex containers and flip top jars.
  • If you want to invest in new containers, consider your needs specifically, rather than focusing how it will look on your shelf. If I had my time again I would skip Weck jars, which I’ve broken too easily and have too many parts and fussy clips. I favour Mason jars because I can make sprouts, ferment veggies, store food, and travel with them without leaks. All practices that save me money. I cherish my stainless steel Onyx containers because they are leakproof and lightweight, two essentials for biking to work with lunch and my laptop on my back. I didn’t run out and buy these items all at once, I really thought about what purpose they’d be for, and I only bought them when my other solutions (op shop finds and recycled jars) didn’t work as well.

Financial trap #4: Reusables require an upfront investment

Affordability is relative, and I feel frustrated for anyone who is not able to make investments in reusables. I wish there were instant government rebates on reusables. How cool would that be? Or at the very least, end of year tax rebates. Because the return on investment can be significant.

Let’s take menstrual products for example. Without completely knowing they would work for me, I spent almost $100 on reusables: $60 for the cup and $38 for three reusable pads. However, over five years, I will save $400 that I used to spend on tampons.

Coffee cups are another example of a one time investment generating a yield over time. You can save up to $0.50 on a coffee at Responsible Cafes on each visit. If your reusable cup cost $20, it’ll have paid for itself after 40 uses, and everything from there on is pure savings.

My money saving reusable coffee cup.

My tips:

  • Consider the total lifespan of the reusables to get a sense of how much you’re saving longer term. This can help you decide if something is worth it. In many cases, I’ve found significant financial advantages to reusables.
  • Make investments as you’re able to. Don’t feel pressure to do everything right away and take your time to research the best solution for you.
  • When in doubt, try the op shop. You won’t find menstrual products, but you can often find inexpensive reusable cups, thermos flasks, and pieces of cutlery for your on-the-go kit.

Financial trap #5: Repairing things can be costly

Repairing goods to keep them in use is a great way to avoid the impacts of new manufacturing, like mining, chemical discharge and transportation emissions. But it also saves money to put off new purchases as long as possible. Sometimes repair costs can seem high compared to the cost to buying new. The solution is partially to change our mindset, but also to uncover community resources available to help you repair something.

Before
shoe repair after
after

My tips:

  • Consider the value of your time. If I have a pair of shoes that fit me well, and I like, why would I want to waste time searching for a new pair then breaking them in (UGH) when I could just have my favourite back? Browsing a shopping centre, physical or online, is my nightmare. Repairing my cherished items saves me time and mental effort.
  • Consider also who is benefiting from your spending choices – is it a small family business who will probably recirculate the money locally, or is it an overseas company that will take the money into a different economy?
  • Recognise when mental accounting is convincing you to overspend to have ‘new’. I took a broken stick vacuum that a friend was giving away and paid $150 to replace the broken handheld unit. I could frame it as spending $150 on a repair, or as getting a like new vacuum worth $300 for half price.
  • Learn to repair at least some stuff yourself. I sew buttons, mend holes and do basic maintenance on my clothing. If it’s beyond my skills, I’ll take it to a tailor. Little hole-in-the-wall tailors are always cheaper than mall tailors.
  • Take advantage of free repair services offered by companies like Nudie and Patagonia.
  • Check for repair cafes and bike maintenance workshops in your area. These are often free and supported by councils.
  • Do you have a friend, neighbour or someone in your network with the skills to help? My boss’ son enjoys taking electronics apart, and was excited to fix my broken hair dryer.
  • Does your town have a local exchange network? These are networks that operate with alternative currencies, usually based on community contributions. Try Sydney LETS if you’re local.

Not only do I believe zero waste living doesn’t have to cost more overall, I know that it’s equipped me with the skills to save money. The best way to save money while living zero waste is to slow the new and/or unnecessary inputs, in whatever way makes most sense to you. Use less, use what you have for longer, find value in the secondhand and buy the best quality you can afford. Don’t sweat it if your bandaids aren’t biodegradable!

My usual response to anyone who’s concerned about the cost of zero waste is stay out of the shops. The more time more you spend browsing retail, even the lovely eco stores with the natural fibres, the more likely you are to buy something you don’t need. I’m not against buying new goods, but I know if I spent more time at the mall, I would spend more, simple as that. I’ve cut unnecessary purchases by considering what I actually need before going into environments where it’s the seller’s job to persuade me to buy. This is why I don’t link to products on this site – encouraging anyone to shop is the opposite of what I’m trying to do.

How can you tell if something is a need or a want? My rule is that if I buy something new (even secondhand), I need to start using the crap out of it right away. If I can’t see myself doing that, it’s probably a passing want, not a need.

What’s your biggest financial concern about zero waste and low waste living? If you have any other tips and tricks to add, I’d love to hear in the comments.

Delayed influence and the power of consistent persistence

If helping others to adopt more sustainable lifestyles isn’t working out that well for you, maybe behavioural psychology can help.


In spite of good intentions, our efforts to influence others can easily go awry. The passionate among us are prone to argue, spew facts, feel rejected, become dejected, and even give up in the face of resistance by those who don’t share our enthusiasm. With the exception of the giving up part, this has been me at one point or another.

One reason that we have trouble influencing others is that people react differently to the same information. To understand why, we’ll need a primer in identity constructs.

Identities > facts

Facts served cold are unlikely to change behaviour. More often, when we receive new information, it is simply processed through our existing world view, explains Niki Harré in her book Psychology for a Better World. The book is aimed at those of us who want to encourage others to adopt more responsible lifestyle habits in our home, work or social groups.

You see, we humans also have a propensity to seek out information that validates our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore the rest, and this means identities are reinforced rather than routinely challenged.

Acknowledging differences in identities is undoubtably a better place to start than dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a crackpot. If you don’t understand what someone believes themselves to be, you’ll be overlooking the barriers they face to change.

First, a mindset shift.

Perhaps the most important thing to do before attempting to influence others is to change your own mindset. Harré emphasizes that it’s crucial not to expect quick wins in situations where we need to reach people with different and conflicting identities.

Instead, persistence and consistency are key, because initial resistance by others to an idea is less about the validity of the proposed idea, and more about the identity of the person making the suggestion. The medium is the message.

How to influence someone’s behaviour

There are a number of persuasion strategies we can use without attempting to directly change someone else’s identity.

Find or create a new common identity. An example is when people of all stripes come together for the conservation of a special place, like a local beach.

Choose a messenger the audience can relate to. We react to the same information differently depending on the source. I.e. if Sea Shepherd announced that whaling was no longer an issue, I would be more likely to consider it to be true than if the statement had come from the Japanese government because of the historic positions of both. If you are a sustainability program manager, this trojan horse method is worth considering when picking the right ambassador to achieve your campaign goals.

Create the conditions for delayed influence. If you’re trying to get your workplace to stop using single use coffee pods in the staff room, or to convince your roommate to start recycling, chances are you’ve already blown your cover as and they think of you as an eco-warrier type. It’s an identity clash – what to do? In this case, Harré suggests the following:

  • Persist. Negative initial reactions from others are inevitable, but studies show that resistance weakens over time once the brain takes time to process new ideas. In advertising, the saying goes ‘familiarity breeds trust’. If you accept the likelihood of initial friction, you might be better mentally prepared to keep going.
  • Be consistent. Inconsistency in your message over time makes it easier for others to dismiss your point of view. It’s never a bad idea to live in alignment with the beliefs you espouse, and especially so when you’re trying to influence a group with different views to yours.
  • Focus on the facts, not opinion. If you can show someone that sea levels are objectively rising, you are focusing on something more less challenging to their existing identity than the causes behind sea level rise. As chapter chair for Surfrider, volunteers who were comfortable turning up to meetings or beach cleanups still felt compelled to clarify for me that they weren’t ‘an activist’.  While the label was a siren call for those already dedicated to the cause, it was limiting reach to those just beyond, whom we needed to grow the reach of the group. So instead of inviting someone to ‘become an activist’, chapter comms focused on communicating shared love of coastal places, and the very tangible fact of beach pollution.
  • Be a role model, find allies. By being consistent, factual and persistent in your goal for sustainability, you build a bridge for others to ally with you. Your actions are a beacon to others who may not feel comfortable starting , but would readily join in.

When we understand how identities shape behaviour, and some strategies for working with instead of against them, we are better equipped to win someone over to a sustainable behaviour.

Psychology for a Better World is full of useful insights into how we can better communicate messages of sustainability. If you’d like to read the full book, it’s available for free online download here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

fail to prepare

Living low waste might seem to be, from the outside, all about going without, exercising iron clad willpower, and generally living a spartan lifestyle.

Willpower is contextual, and changing a habit with brute force just doesn’t work for me. Which is a fancy way of saying, I don’t have a special amount of willpower. I just try to structure my day to day decisions to reinforce my overarching intentions for life.

Restructure your decisions ahead of time

One of my favourite ways to teach myself a habit is to look at ways I am repeatedly making the same decision (and struggling every time) to see if I can restructure and automate it with a healthy default.

We only have so many decisions in us in a day before we get decision fatigue.

This is the insight behind a work uniform. But here’s another example:

I sometimes go for a run in the morning before work. I want the endorphins and I love the energy it gives me through the day. But left to my own devices, I will often vacillate between getting up and going, and just lazing in bed until I don’t have enough time.

My simple automation is to set out my running clothes the night before – right down to my socks and undies. In doing so, I am committing, even in a small way, to following through with my run. This also makes the morning an overall smooth operation. No rummaging through my drawers to track down my sports bra or a pair of socks. There is nothing to derail me.

Rather than deciding whether or not to run, I’m deciding how far and in which direction.

A simple change to my surroundings helps me make the decision my higher self actually wants.

It’s the same thing with Zero Waste living. In the preparation, I am setting an intention and a commitment to a future behaviour. It’s a Zero Waste asana. It’s also creating an environment that supports my intention and sets me up for success.

Normalize low waste living.

Since the trash we produce has so much to do with our eating habits here are a few examples of how I set myself up for Zero Waste in the kitchen:

I make real food, at home // Making my own food is empowering and my absolute favourite way to practice creativity. Michael Pollan tells us to eat whatever we want, as long as we make it ourselves, which I take as permission to make and eat pie. He says this in the context of nutrition and eating habits (I can only make so much pie), but it’s also relevant to reducing household waste. In my own kitchen, I reduce, reuse, compost, recycle, etc. This means that if I made it, I know how it was made, and what was wasted (or not) in the process.

blackberry pie

I shop in bulk // To automate cooking at home as my normal, I shop in bulk at any of the bulk whole food stores where I live. I stock up on seeds, nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients that can be made into a wide variety of dishes. I don’t have to channel my energy into avoiding processed foods or not eating out. Instead I cultivate joy in cooking and eating food that I make myself.

I hide my trash bin // A typical kitchen has a large garbage bin front and centre. Sometimes these are even battery operated, freeing us from the burden of lifting the lid ourselves. This teaches us to use it as the first choice. What if it was the last choice? What would happen if you gave more physical space and prominence to your compost and recycling bins? You’d remember to use them first, I guarantee it. By creating an environment where it is physically more difficult to throw things away, I throw less away.

I surround myself with fresh, local, organic fruit and veg // I order a weekly box from a fellow who is running a small business delivering farm-direct local organic produce, or I hit the farmers markets. This means I’m choosing from seasonal bounty by default. Bonus – no fruit stickers to deal with. Second bonus, I don’t waste time at the supermarket looking for organic or Australian grown produce from amongst it all. The less I shop at supermarkets, the less I expose myself to packaged foods. Since produce comes in its own biodegradable and usually edible packaging, the more of it I keep on hand the less often I turn to packaged foods and the less packaging waste I make.
trio-of-veg I follow plant-based foodies online // Say what you will about the authenticity of social media, I still find that visual inspiration keeps me hungry for healthy, fresh food. I purposely seek out veggie Instagrammers to inspire me in exploring meat-free meals and thinking about new flavour combos.

I keep a ‘to eat’ list // I’m prone to overbuying, which can lead to food waste. So I write down a list of things I have on hand as a reminder of what I should plan my meals around.

Willpower is overrated.

If you want to reshape your life, reimagine your environment.

Living low waste can be so much more about abundance of the good than deprivation or extreme willpower. The good crowds out the bad, and becomes normal. What you’ll end up giving up will ultimately become irrelevant to your lifestyle anyway. Living without making so much trash will start to feel effortless.

If you are looking to start living low waste, start by creating environments that inspire instead of restrict. You’ll be more likely to succeed and more likely to enjoy the process.