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?

Wishcycling: when good intentions go wrong

wishcycling

Wishcycling is wishful thinking recycling. It’s when we put things in the yellow bin that we hope or assume are recyclable, but aren’t.

Our eagerness to divert from landfill (or inattention) can lead to fouled up machinery at processing facilities and unsafe conditions for workers. Putting the wrong things in the recycling bin also makes it likely the load will end up in landfill. So we achieve nothing and pay twice. This threatens the viability of our recycling infrastructure.

Would it surprise you to know that I’ve been guilty of wishcycling? We sometimes buy same day discounted trays of meat, since I can’t stomach the thought of all those growing resources, plus an animal’s life, wasted. But in spite of the familiar recycling symbol stamped onto the back of the tray, black trays aren’t recyclable at the Material Recycling Facility (MRF). The machinery can’t ‘see’ the black against the black conveyor belt.

What I’ve been doing is jeopardising my council’s kerbside recycling program, with the best of intentions. More examples of wishcycling include plastic bags, takeaway coffee cups, nappies and syringes – none of these by me, I assure you.

coffee cup
This cup is sad because he’s not recyclable at kerbside.

We’re making guesses, and we’re wrong around 10% of the time. which is 9.5% too much of the time for the Chinese markets we’ve relied on to process much of our recycling bin contents.

Why is recycling so confusing?

There are many factors making it difficult for us to get recycling right.

We learn recycling behaviours as children, then move to different council areas or even countries as adults. In Sydney, relatively small council areas with different waste contracts make it hard to keep up if you move suburbs. It’s hard to forget a rule we’ve internalised.

Then of course, many of us live in multi-unit apartment buildings, where anonymity makes it tricky for councils to provide targeted feedback to a household that’s not getting it right.

And then we have manufacturers and packaging designers creating stuff that is just hard to recycle. By creating packaging from more two recyclable materials fused together, or by using materials that can’t be recycled kerbside or even through special alternative streams.

And how about the numbering printed on the bottom of containers? These indicate the resin type, not necessarily that something can be recycled. Recyclability depends on size, composition and cleanliness as well as the technical recyclability of the material. For example: a pizza box both might or might not be recyclable, because it depends whether it’s greasy or not. You can recycle the top, if it’s pristine, but a greasy box – even a tiny amount – should go to the worms or in the red bin. Pizza boxes should have this printed on them. Oh and obviously, if your MRF can’t process the material, it doesn’t matter if your packaging meets all the other requirements.

In Sydney I’ve noticed that commingled recycling is common. Where I grew up in Vancouver, we’ve source separated recycling as far back as I remember. How do the systems compare? Here’s a comparison of contamination rates in cities across Canada and how it relates to whether a city asks residents to commingle or sort. Commingling is intended to increase participation rates in recycling, but at what cost?

But it’s not all bad news.

Why the recycling crisis could be a good thing

There is a silver lining to all of this, as I see it. Wishing for something doesn’t make it true, but our wishes demonstrate desire. As Les Robinson reminds us, people usually want to do the right thing – sometimes it’s just not that clear what the right thing is. Wishcycling tells me that most of us value recycling as a service and wish more materials could be diverted from landfill.

Also, I’m buoyed that we’re starting to pay attention and talk about solutions. Contamination isn’t a new problem, we just didn’t have to pay for it before. The news of the Chinese Sword policy, limiting the level of contamination to a near impossible 0.5%, has rippled into mainstream media. No surprise, since it affects every single Australian. Thailand has made overtures about following suit on some categories of waste. Why is this good news? Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to realise there’s a need for change.

Cleaner recycling streams create opportunities

Recycling really depends on there being a market for a material as a manufacturing input, whether it’s a tire, food scraps or a plastic bottle. The cleaner the stream, the more likely something useful can be made out of it.

Cleaning up our recycling stream opens the door to easier recycled product manufacturing, so we can buy more recycled products.

There are plenty of reasonable things we can do with plastic. For example, Replas makes fenceposts from soft plastics that last longer and need less maintenance than their wood predecessors. Another example: my parents bought two recycled plastic lounge chairs four years ago and they’re in pristine condition. Waste was reused, they were made in Canada, and no trees were harmed.

recycled plastic chairs

Researchers at UNSW are exploring interesting ideas for local recycling, such as micro-factories. These could provide stable employment opportunites in regional areas, while dealing with municipal and other problem wastes (perhaps ocean trash).

The rise of non-MRF single stream recycling schemes is more cause for hope. TerraCycle empowers brands with products that can’t be recycled through a MRF to offer recycling schemes directly to customers. I’m talking about toothpaste tubes, contact lens, and makeup containers. Aussie eyewear company Dresden is recycling milk tops and ghost fishing nets into modular frames.

How to counteract wishcycling

First, check your own knowledge base.

  • Get familiar with your council area’s dos and don’ts as a first step. If the info is confusing or has big gaps, don’t be afraid to contact the council to ask for clarification.
  • Some councils will offer recycling workshops or tours of the recycling facility, where you can see how recycling is processed.
  • City or regionally focused Zero Waste groups on Facebook are a fount of local knowledge about alternative recycling schemes.
  • Recyclingnearyou.com.au is a great resource
  • Keep learning in any way you can. I’m deeply engaged in the topic of waste, but still wrong from time to time.

Next, if you notice there’s lots of wishcycling happening in your unit block, you may be able to download signage from your council with the big no-no items, like plastic bags. It won’t solve the problem completely, but may help build knowledge and familiarity for how things are done.

More good news: the Australasian Recycling Label is coming

On the horizon is the launch of the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), the result of a collaboration between Planet Ark and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation. The ARL is a labelling scheme to end confusion by making packaging recycling and disposal options more consistent and clear across the country. Look for the label on everyday products this spring.

Source: https://planetark.org/recyclinglabel/index.cfm
Source: https://planetark.org/recyclinglabel/index.cfm

The program is voluntary, but so far response from industry has been positive. Many brands want to improve recycling outcomes and now they have a tool. Part of the process is a feedback loop to packaging designers. They’ll get a better idea of the impact of their packaging choices and have the opportunity to design for recyclability from the beginning. For example, using a clear rather than black meat tray.

Tell me, what confuses you about recycling?

Does the Cora Ball capture plastic microfibres?

Cora Ball microfibre

A couple of years ago, a Kickstarter project caught my attention. It was shared on social media by someone I know who works for a leading organisation studying marine plastic pollution. I helped crowdfund the project and have been using the Cora Ball for about seven months in my front loading washing machine.

Microfibre pollution happens when agitation in the wash loosens very small fibres from clothing. Out they travel with the waste water into sewer systems and then waterways. If you guessed that there is no filter as small as a plastic microbead or filament, you’d be right. Microplastics are contaminating waterways, and to someone who enjoys eating shellfish and not destroying our special places, it’s sobering news.

Plastic microbeads from personal care products are arguably simpler to tackle. You can use microbead-free alternatives, petition producers to get the microplastics out of their formulations, and support legislative bans. But fibres from textiles are tricky. We can’t simply stop washing our clothes.

So what are we to do in the face of this disaster? The Guppy Friend, a sack to wash clothes in, has emerged as one potential solution. The Cora Ball is another. It’s a ball designed to go into the washing machine with clothing, where the arms are mean to capture plastic fuzz. The design is inspired by the filtering system of coral reefs. The inventor has even participated in studies of microfibre discharge into waterways in the US. The Kickstarter campaign was overwhelmingly successful.

The Coraball’s simplicity of use appealed to me. Toss it into the washing machine and then extract the plastic fluff that collects between the arms. It sounded simpler than stuffing and unstuffing the Guppy Friend. I also figured that once I realise my dream of dog ownership, it’d collect dog hair too. Heck, it would be great if it collected my hair, which mostly balls up on my socks in the wash. In my excitement about this possible solution, I pre-ordered three balls as part of the Kickstarter campaign. One for me and two more for family members who’d expressed interest.

Does the Cora Ball work to capture microfibres? Here’s my experience.

I have been using the Cora Ball for approximately seven months and it doesn’t collect much from any wash, including loads of synthetic clothing. We don’t have any microfleece or loose pile synthetics. Most of our synthetics are bike and yoga garb made of lycra or similar. It doesn’t collect more than a few strands of my long hair, which I still sometimes find balled up on my socks after washing. I don’t have a dog yet either (sob), so I can’t comment on its ability to catch pet hair.

Cora Ball microfibre

In the entire time I have used the Cora Ball, I’ve cleaned out fuzz twice. One load produced a noticeable amount of white fluff. I couldn’t figure out what garment was responsible. I was reassuring in a way to know that it could work. The fluff took a few minutes to remove with tweezers.

Cora Ball microfibre

Just before writing this, I removed this second pile of fluff. This is the accumulated amount of fibres since the earlier white fluff batch.

So in seven months, I’ve diverted two small fluff balls of microfibres from being discharged. Is this enough? What did I expect anyway?

Cora Ball microfibre

In truth, I’m having a hard time justifying the production of the ball (at least it’s made of recycled plastic) plus the shipping to get it from the USA, when I reconcile with how infrequently I’m removing fibres from the wash. The breakeven point is many years away, if ever, and it’s only spec’d to last five years. One of the circle end bits has already broken off.

I asked one of the people I’d given a ball to if they’ve had much success. He told me they’re not even using it. I don’t know what that tells me except that ease is relative.

Based on my own experience so far, I don’t recommend the Cora Ball as a solution for catching microfibres. I on the fence about the net benefit, and whether this is the best available solution. It captures some fuzz, but of course, my testing has no control. What if the friction of the ball creates more microfibre release? I would appreciate if the data from tests carried out by the company were made public, as I find the responses on their website to be vague in response to concerns like these.

One ultra low tech idea I’ve had is to wrap a nut milk bag (made of tight nylon mesh) around the end of the washing machine discharge hose to capture fibres on their way out. A similar idea to those nets on the ends of storm sewers that capture plastic bottles before they get out into the ocean. If I get around to trying this, I’ll let you know if it works. In the meantime, I’ll keep using the Cora Ball, if only to contribute to the knowledge base around this device and to see how long it will really last.

I’m interested to hear from any of you who’ve used the Cora Ball with different results to mine. Maybe you’ve had a completely different outcome with a top loading machine, plenty of fleece wear or pets, all factors I’d expect to increase the fuzz accumulation. I’m also interested to hear from any of you who have tried the Guppy Friend. Let me know in the comments.

In pursuit of zero waste dental floss

zero waste dental floss

I floss my way through some zero waste dental floss brands, and then I get on my soapbox.

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a while. It feels…unimportant. Dental floss quite literally operates in dark crevasses.

And yet, I can recall feeling so strongly about floss at one point that I seriously considered developing a biodegradable option myself. I also bothered to buy and test these zero waste floss options, so…let’s not dismiss it. Let’s talk about it.

A ‘hot’ need is so powerful it catches you up and makes you consider doing crazy things, like online shopping, or buying laundry balls. I once bought a laundry ball at a green living expo, then realized I was totally duped by my own desire never to use laundry detergent again. I did it again more recently with the CoraBall to catch microfibres from my washing machine. In hindsight wished I’d analyzed the ‘research’  more closely. It’s not that these items don’t work (well, jury’s out on the CoraBall), it’s that I didn’t need a CoraBall as much as I thought I did when the crowdfunding campaign appeared in my Facebook feed. Don’t dismiss these hot needs in yourself, or others, but try to identify them for what they are. For these are the circumstances where greenwash and unsubstantiated claims prey on our good intentions. So my caveat to this post is this: if you’re looking for a zero waste floss brand, please read all the way to the end. Onward. 

Zero Waste dental floss brands I’ve tested

This isn’t a place about products and brands, but it is about sharing useful information, which may include items I’ve tried and liked (or not). And although I’m all for minimizing the scope of toiletries to save time, money and packaging, I’ll never give up dental floss. Floss is more than a spinach remover. It helps prevent gum disease caused by bacteria accumulating below the gum line, which can eventually cause bone loss (eek).

I’m always on the lookout for lower waste floss, with recyclable or compostable packaging and product. Until recently, nothing much was worth recommending.   

I have normally spaced teeth plus a permanent retainer (just a metal bar) on the inside lower front teeth, under which I need to be able to shimmy the floss. Here are some options I’ve bought with my own funds and personally tested over the past year.  It would be impossible for me to meaningfully compare production methods, so that’s not evaluated here.

The control: any drugstore floss

Floss you buy in any drugstore is cheap, functional and made of nylon coated in who-knows-what kind of Teflon family chemicals (remember this story?). The plastic outer is technically recyclable, but in practise I bet it’s not often. It costs about $3 AUD/100m.

Radius silk floss individual sachets

Radius offers compostable silk floss embedded in single use paper sheets that you tear to open. The floss breaks if you pull too hard and it doesn’t work well under my permanent retainer. Twenty sachets come in a slim cardboard box. I think it was $4.20 CAD for 20 sachets? I bought these a long time ago in a country far, far away. This is $0.21/day option. I think. Radius also sells  silk floss in a more traditional container. That container is plastic and not refillable, so I’m not really sure of the point. 

Noosa Basics dental floss with charcoal

Noose Basics makes a waxed bamboo thread. UPDATE: their website now indicates that the floss includes polyester threads. This isn’t the strongest floss and it sometimes breaks, although I’ve learned to be more gentle. Thumbs up to this Aussie company for trying something innovative with packaging. The cardboard point of sale packaging holds the spool, there is no additional container within. The spool still uses a small plastic ring and sometimes the floss gets tangled, but overall I like it and I can use it easily under my permanent retainer. I hope the producer can find economies of scale to the cost down, because only zero waste obsessives would pay a ransom of $12.95 for 35m. I’d also like to see more floss in each container. As it stands, we really need to compare three packages of Noosa Basics floss to one drugstore floss- the latter packs significantly more into the one unit, and is effectively ‘concentrate’. I can see why Noosa Basics doesn’t, as it would make the bamboo floss seem shockingly expensive (more on that below), I’m just saying, using more of other resources to avoid plastic is an unintended, yet common, outcome to watch out for. 

Dental Lace

Dental Lace offers a thick silk thread coated with candelilla wax. The floss is compostable and the glass and metal container is refillable with spools that come in plant-based plastic sachets. The thread has no inner spool which eliminates that small bit of plastic – smart. My only critique is that there is a purely decorative plastic sticker on the outside of the package whose only destination is landfill once you peel it off, as I did. Also, the price. This was expensive at $8.75 for 60m plus shipping.

Dental floss, opportunity cost, and what it takes for zero waste

You’re not failing at zero waste if you use conventional floss for ease or financial reasons. I’d be more annoyed if you sacrificed future dental health to save this small amount of plastic. A single takeout container probably uses the same volume of plastic as a packet of floss that’ll last 6 months*. Not to mention, we sometimes create more waste by shopping ‘low waste’ when we buy online. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask for and seek out better options, supporting upstart businesses along the way. I’m asking that we keep things in perspective and question what we think we have to do to participate in the zero waste movement. It’s not all or nothing. 

It’s also good to interrogate the overall product design and volume of materials used. Most of the time, product packaging isn’t created with the  environment or practicality in mind, but to meet a demonstrated, and ideally hot consumer need. Packaging is shaped in response to the way a consumer perceives a product. And of course, you know I would say we’re an irrational species that respond to stimuli then make up a story to explain our choices, not the other way around.  

That said, if you do want to make the switch, Dental Lace and Noosa Basics are the best I’ve tried to date. UPDATE: I no longer recommend Noosa Basics, as it contains polyester thread. Apples to oranges though, they cost way more than conventional. Per 100m, you’re paying $37 for Noosa Basics and $14 for Dental Lace, compared to $3 for your basic drugstore variety. With my curiosity satisfied, I’ll floss my way through my stockpile of Dental Lace refills before I decide if it’s a priority for me to reorder. 

I can’t see most people going out of their way and paying more to reduce this part of their waste stream, unless extremely motivated, like I have been on occasion. If it’s challenging to find low waste floss easily and locally, I’d suggest we’re better off focusing on reducing waste in other areas of life until it is. We work to zero waste, we don’t never make waste. Big difference.

What do you think – is reducing dental floss waste worth it, or destined to be just another scapegoat for the inaccessibility of a ‘zero waste lifestyle’?

*20cm used per floss means five flosses per metre, so Noosa Basics should last me 175 days if I floss once a day.