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.


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?

A few things

If I’ve been quiet it’s because I’m currently visiting my homeland in the Pacific Northwest, soaking in the endless summer evenings and earthy forest smells. I’ve eaten my body weight in wild berries and gotten to catch up with family and friends, the main point of it all.

So many hikes. So many dog walks.

Secret swimming hole where the water runs deep, crystal clear and not too cold.

I popped in to Nada, the zero waste grocery store in Vancouver’s Fraser hood and scored this fancy jar from the free bin. During my visit, a number of non-zero waste friends brought it up in conversation. Lovely place and staff.

Nada Grocery Vancouver

Skip the drugstore with simple staples for face, body and hair

zero waste DIY body scrub

Cleanliness doesn’t depend on an overstuffed bathroom cabinet. I know that now.

I used to love the drugstore aisles and all the shiny, colourful packages. I’d restock colour specific shampoo before I was even close to running out. Since transitioning to a low waste lifestyle, I still wear deodorant, shampoo my hair, and shave my legs. But differently. I skip the hormone disrupting chemicals, and micro-plastics. Some of the products I used pre-zero waste aren’t important enough to me to find an alternative for. I can say with utter certainty that nail polish added no value to my life.

What I use on my face, body and hair

I ‘need’ fewer products overall, and those that remain have fewer ingredients. Often one or two, from the pantry. Let’s bust that myth that reducing waste is time consuming and difficult. Here’s what I use on a daily or weekly basis:

Deodorant: I make this recipe.

zero waste deodorant

Face cleanser: jojoba or rosehip oils or castile soap (a mild olive oil based soap, in bar or liquid form).

Face scrub: a sprinkle of bi carb + water works wonders. You can read more about other plastic microbead-free exfoliation options in this post.

Makeup remover: jojoba or coconut oil.

Face moisturizer: any of jojoba oil, rosehip oil, piece of aloe vera or I make this lifesaving rosewater serum in the winter.

zero waste skin care rosewater

Acne spot treatment: dab of tea tree oil or green clay + water to form a paste. Leave on 15 min.

Hand soap: unpackaged bar soap or liquid castile soap in a pump dispenser, diluted with water.

Body soap: unpackaged bar soap.

Shave soap: unpackaged bar soap. Not a fancy shave soap either.

Body moisturizer: fresh aloe vera, shea butter or sesame oil with a few drops of lavender essential oil.

Body scrub: white sugar + coconut oil to form a paste (pictured topmost), or a hemp mitt or loofah.

Lip and cuticle balm: I make this recipe.

zero waste lip balm

Shampoo: refilled liquid shampoo or a shampoo bar.

Conditioner: diluted apple cider vinegar rinse – a spray bottle is useful. More about my hair care routine in this post.

Dry shampoo: arrowroot powder (or cornstarch) with a dash of cocoa powder.

Where to find unpackaged DIY ingredients in Sydney

I aim to source all my ingredients unpackaged. In Sydney, most bulk food stores will have the ingredients you need, and selection is getting better all the time. Another option is to buy a larger amount to split between friends. And even if you aren’t able to buy your ingredients in refill, you’re still reducing your chemical burden, becoming more ingredient literate and hopefully spending less time in the drugstore.

My Plastic Free July in review

How was your Plastic Free July? I don’t usually do Zero Waste inventories as such, but Plastic Free July almost seems to demand it, so here goes. Follow along, then tell me how yours went.  

Day 1 – It’s Canada Day and we’re at a Canadian-themed bar in North Sydney. It’s all kinds of plaid, moose heads, and plastic. I pine for a caesar, but have an imported beer in a bottle instead. It’s hard to know if I’ve taken a step forward or back.

Day 2 – I’m sitting on the panel after a screening of The Clean Bin Project alongside Jean Bailliard of Terracycle and Dr. Mark Browne, marine plastics researcher at UNSW. It’s a Plastic Free July themed event and the audience is engaged. Mark points out that in Australia (or did he say NSW?), plastic is already classified as a pollutant, which should work to our advantage in pursuing legislative changes such as a bag ban.

photo credit: @SeasideScavenge

Day 3 – I eat a homemade lunch at work, as usual. Sundays I cook up a bunch of random stuff for easy assembly during the week. No two lunches are exactly the same. I don’t understand why some people don’t embrace leftovers, they are the best thing ever.

Day 4 – I go to a client’s office and to my delight, the name tag printer is not working. I skip the mandatory sticker printout.

Day 5 – I pay $5 for one avocado at a grocer near my work. It’s big, although not even the biggest I’ve ever seen (Panama), but at least it’s not suffocated by cling wrap. This particular business is obsessed with plastic and polystyrene. They will wrap cheese that already comes in plastic in more plastic and on a foam tray. It’s maddening. Obviously I don’t buy anything so grossly over-packaged, and yet I observe that so many people do. We have to set better defaults.

Day 6 – A client asks how my Plastic Free July is going so far. Great! At lunch I refill a litre of olive oil in a flip top bottle. You can always find this type of bottle at Vinnie’s or Salvos. There are two places on the same road near my work that offer olive oil refills. I go with the Australian sourced and pay $18.95 for the bottle, which is less than the cost of the same amount in a bottle in the same store.

Day 7 – It’s day three eating the same avocado, because it’s huuuge. We use a bokashi bucket for food scraps at work so that’s where the skin goes. I am reminded that I need to empty it. My boss once remarked on its seemingly magical ability to always take just a little more, even when you thought it was full. It’s because of the scraps starting to pre-digest and pack down. A misguided (a word I will use as a euphemism for the mean word I really want to use…) neighbour forced us get rid of the tumbler composter behind our building, so now we’re back to me taking the bin home to empty. Which is fine, because I have a little dirt patch where I bury bokashi bin contents, and I am one of the lucky buildings with food scrap collection by the council.

I’m craving chocolate and I take risk on a brand I don’t know – will there be plastic inside? I shake it but I’m still not sure… Relief – it’s foil, so I can collect it in the tin at home where all those small bits go. I wish packaging designers would stick to materials that are readily recyclable, rather than the so-called compostable plastic. Recycling infrastructure is doesn’t move quickly (large capital investment) and nowhere can really handle compostable plastic. Plus, recyclability is only one point – the recycled product also needs to have value.

Day 8 – It’s the weekend and we head down the coast to see family and surf my favourite spot. The water is so clear I can see the bright greens and browns of the seaweed on the reef while I’m on a wave. We get a coffee and lunch at the newish spot, Earth Walker & Co, which is half café, half general store. As the name suggests, locally made produce features, and I see a green drink served with a metal straw – nice. They also give $0.30 off your coffee if you BYO cup. It’s packed. Since we’re in the hood I stop in at The Flame Tree Coop to stock up on bulk nori.

Day 9 – There’s a beach clean up in Bondi put on by Responsible Runners and I chat with a council person who is confident of the inevitability of a state-wide bag ban. Afterwards I get groceries at one of the few supermarkets I don’t avoid actively avoid – Harris Farm Markets. I’m as cynical as anyone, but I appreciate the steps they are taking to offer unpackaged foods. You can buy milk in a refillable bottle, plastic free bread, bulk sundries like legumes and flours, and ugly produce in reusable green mesh bags. This doesn’t mean everyone shops this way though. I observe as a fellow shopper uses one plastic bag for one tomato, another for one lemon, and so on.

At home, someone is brewing beer. I take some of the spent grains to dry and blend into a coarse flour to see what I can make of it. The rest goes to a chicken we know.

Day 10 – At the butcher, a sluggish Frenchman helps me, but doesn’t really help you see. He uses a plastic bag to grab the sausages after I specifically describe what I’m trying to accomplish. There is a language barrier, so the other employee sees and comes to my aid, but not really, you see. He and I have discussed my desire for no plastic on many occasions before, with the result that he nearly always says ‘no plastic’ with a thumbs up when he sees me with my own container. But this time, when he sees what’s going on he chimes in to tell me that of course they have to use this plastic bag. He’s completely ignoring the fact that somehow all the other times they didn’t have to. The Frenchman smirks and tells me he has ‘very dirty hands’. I’m irritated at this procedural change and tell them it’s the only reason I come here (not strictly true – it’s the closest, they are independently owned and they sell biodynamic meats). Sigh. I’ll try contacting the owner.

Day 11 – After work I’m helping a friend with a very cool project she’s been hard at work developing.

Day 12 – It’s cold, and we go for ramen. I have a jar with me and I take the leftovers home. Have I told you how much I love leftovers?

Day 13 I stop at five separate grocers on the way home to find basil that isn’t wrapped in plastic. At the last shop, in a fit of frustration, I unsheathe the bunch and buy it naked. I’m not solving the world’s problems by doing this, and it occurs to me that possibly if I’d found the basil unwrapped…it may have come packaged in plastic before I got to it. It’s not always rational, what we do.

Day 14 – I’m celebrating more than the usual TGIF.  Woolworth’s announced their intention to remove bags from checkouts across the country and within hours Coles and Harris Farms have announced firm commitments of their own. Pressure on government is working, and the truth is that once a majority of states have made commitments to bag bans, it’s the path of least resistance for national chains to ban bags everywhere.

I squat down and rip the knee of my jeans. Great.

Day 15 – Halfway point. I enjoy a nice run around Centennial Park. I check on my worms, and distribute the worm castings that have accumulated over the past couple of months.

Day 16 – It’s a gorgeous sunny Sunday. Biking is a quick method to get around and it’s also very lovely as I can cut through Centennial Parklands. I pick up some jeans that were in for zipper repair, run a few errands. I travel through a new neighbourhood and come across a shop with gravity bulk bins.

Later I have a few friends over to make DIY deodorant and cocoa butter lotion bars that smell like chocolate and melt into your skin on contact. We then go see other friends for dinner, where I test the friendship by asking to take home the bones from the meal. I like to give my friend James some good stories to tell about me, and I have a feeling this could be one of them.

Day 17 – The bones go in the slow cooker for broth. I vacuum the house with a stick model that was donated to us broken. We bought a new part and now it’s got a a second life. The chamber is full of lint and that goes into my landfill container – electronic dust isn’t something I want in the compost.

Day 18 – Friends send an invite for a housewarming this Friday. There will be food and music and drinks…. and no plastic or else deal with Liz, or so it reads. My reputation precedes me, and I’m not mad at it.

Day 19 – Normally I use a ceramic cup to get my long black from the coffee shop near my work, but today I bring my metal travel cup. The baristas both love it. I get compliments on it wherever I go on this one. It’s insulated so my coffee stays nice and hot. It also matches my refillable pen!

Move over avocado, there’s a new toast in town. I make the tastiest chickpea salad open faced sandwich topped with sprouts I grew. What can’t you do with chickpeas?

Day 20 – Celebration event in Bronte with the local enviro groups. Council is doing a great job of working towards collaboration for impact.

Day 21 – We get our delivery of limited edition toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap for the office bathroom. Sustainability minded folks working in marketing (cough) can have moments of dark self-reflection, but how could it be all wrong when someone has created a toilet paper people can truly love and helps build toilets?

Day 22 – Hungover from a housewarming party the night before. Beer pong can be played just fine in real cups, and more people need to know this. We visit The Cannery for a late breakfast and I opt for laksa in a cardboard bowl, which works pretty well. There are maroon bins for organics instead of garbage and is a garden area out back (probably not where most of the scraps go).  I like the approach.

We venture on to Marrickville where I stop in at Village Wholefoods for some pantry staples and to drop some empty containers in store in the TerraCycle bins. I’m still using up makeup from years ago. Judge me. Terracycle is becoming more common in Australia since coming here from the US about 4 years ago. They specialize in hard to recycle items.

Day 23 – I willingly acquire plastic today, but all for a good cause – I found a library I didn’t know was only a few blocks from my house and I get a library card and eight books for the price of…none. One of the books is a digital copy of The Art of Fermentation, which I had as a hardcover, but left back in Canada with my sister in law. It’s a very handy reference and I am inspired to start a rye sourdough and also make saurkimchi. I also make jackfruit tacos for dinner. They taste a lot better than the last time I tried cooking jackfruit, maybe because I cooked them with a small bit of sausage, shhh. I do not reveal this to A (about the jackfruit that is), and if he has suspicions, he hides it well. I freeze the remaining chipotle peppers into single pepper ice cubes for future use. Freezer = magic.

The giant Moccona coffee container I was using to collect compost cracks, so I recycle the base and keep the top portion – it makes a perfect container for my mending kit.

We spot whales off the headland. They wave. We wave back.

Day 24 – I finish the book Poisoned Planet and mull it over. The book is not just about plastic, but about many forms of pollution (phosphorus, CO2, etc.). Pollution is just stuff out of place, but my holy moly is there a lot of stuff out of place! And according to the author, it’s dropping our society’s average IQ by a couple points every generation through our inevitable intake of harmful manmade chemicals. Outtake: it’s impossible to contain pollution. Personal detox is a myth.

Day 25 – It’s Christmas in July. Nothing eventful happens.

Day 26 – The printer is still broken at my client’s office. Sticker free again!

Day 27 – Normal, no plastic day.

Day 28 Another zipper broke on me, on another pair of jeans. Good thing I’m wearing a long silk shirt (dress?) that I got at the Red Cross Op Shop.

Day 29 – If you need aloe, I can get you some aloe.

Day 30 – I spend most of Sunday hanging out with some girlfriends. It’s peak Bondi. ‘It’s like the last day on Earth or something’ notes my friend. There are humans everywhere, and there is a small mountain of trash on Campbell Parade in front of the McDonald’s, just a few hundred metres from the shoreline.

Day 31 – The end. I don’t remember what happened today, but it didn’t involve plastic.

The Plastic Free July tally:  

  • some produce stickers.
  • some receipts
  • a piece of plastic from the butcher
  • the darn piece of plastic from the basil
  • dental floss
  • vacuum lint

How it go for you?