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?

My favourite non-dairy milk

zero waste hemp milk

Before I tell you about my favourite non-dairy milk, let me clarify that I still consume some dairy milk. Not often. I use it to make yogurt or milk kefir. There is another milk drinker in the house, who drinks it everyday on his morning cereal. We are lucky to be able to refill dairy milk in glass at Harris Farms, but still don’t accomplish this 100% of the time. And sometimes we don’t notice we’re out of milk until the morning, when a trip to the store is out of the question. So this alternative milk helps in a pinch.

Adventures in nut milks

The first time I made almond milk, I couldn’t believe how delicious it tasted. I’d only tried the thin tasteless versions from a Tetrapack before then and wasn’t impressed. I’ll make almond milk now and again. It tastes great in cold brew where I find the nutty flavour pairs well with the coffee.

I’ve since learned to make soy milk, coconut milk, oat milk, macadamia nut milk, and various combinations thereof. They’re all decent to pretty good tasting options. It’s handy to be able to whip up small amounts of coconut milk from dried shreds and spare a tin from the recycling.

I also like nut milks because they help me minimize waste. I can get the whole ingredients from the bulk bins, so there’s minimal end-of-pipe packaging waste. There’s also presumably less land and water use from choosing plant rather than animal products. Usually I’m able to buy Australian grown.

Overall, my gripe about nut milks is the straining step (I already skip the soaking step). It dirties more dishes, and forces me to find uses for the pulp. Soy milk is the worst. It has to be cooked, makes a mess of the pot and creates a shocking amount of okara. Because nut milks only last a few days in the fridge, a constant supply would require small batches every few days, and a new batch of pulp each time. Too much work!

zero waste hemp milk

Which is why I really like hemp milk – a non-dairy milk made from hemp hearts. Hemp hearts have only recently been approved for human consumption in Australia. They have a mild taste and create a nice creaminess when blended with water into a milk – enough to satisfy the palate of someone raised on dairy milk. The best part though? No soaking and no straining.

How to make hemp milk

I eyeballed this recipe until I wrote this post, at which point I measured things for you.

Basic recipe for hemp milk

Use 1 heaping Tablespoon of hemp seeds per cup of water. Blitz until smooth in a high speed blender, and enjoy. No straining required. Stores in the fridge for a couple of days.

zero waste hemp milk

Vanilla hemp milk

To the basic recipe, I add 1/2 a large date per 2 cups water and a sprinkle of vanilla protein powder before blending. This goes nicely over porridge. You could substitute vanilla powder or extract for the protein powder – it’s just what I had on hand.

buckwheat porridge
My favourite buckwheat porridge topped with granola, cinnamon, banana, tahini and vanilla hemp milk.

A tip for cold milk. If you want your hemp milk chilled right out of the blender, substitute ice cubes for half of the water.

To make it creamier. Reduce the proportion of water to hemp seeds.

I’m not qualified to say whether this is better or worse for you nutritionally than dairy milk. And to be totally honest, I’m happy to set food and health politics aside and simply say that it passes my taste test and my waste test.

So hemp milk, I like it. It can be whipped up at a moment’s notice without packaging. My partner will happily drink it, there is no pulp to strain and deal with. It’s so easy to make that even my partner could make it for himself, if he wasn’t so lazy.

I was curious about the affordability, so I calculated the per litre cost. One Tablespoon per cup is 45g of hemp seeds per litre, which works out to $2.70/litre based on the current retail price of $60 AUD per kilo. It’s less than the $3/litre refills of dairy milk, and not much more than the cheaper dairy milk you’d find at the major supermarkets (I’m ignoring the $1 milk because it’s insanity). Financial costs aside, the convenience of not having to leave the house when you’re out of something is priceless.

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 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.