Back in January, our LA Senior Editor Michelle wrote about her 30-day zero-waste challenge. For a month, she tried to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost everything she used or bought. Michelle learned so much from the challenge that she decided to keep going with it and make it her lifestyle.
“That’s awesome for her,” you may think. “But here in Australia, we don’t produce that much rubbish.” Er, sorry to break it to you, but Australians actually produce over 18 million tonnes of waste per year. To put that into perspective, that’s the equivalent of three million garbage trucks full of compacted rubbish! Not only that, but new research from the RaboDirect Food and Farming Report 2016 shows that Gen Y are the most wasteful food group, with more than one in four claiming to waste more than 20 % of food each week. The report also showed that those living in capital cities are generally more wasteful than those in regional areas. All up, Aussies are wasting around $10 billion worth of food each year!
It’s frightening stuff, and here’s where it gets even scarier. Australians use enough plastic bags per year that if they were tied together, they would stretch around the world 24 times. On top of that, over 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and birds are killed by plastic rubbish every year. It’s enough to make you want to actually remember to recycle and bring your canvas bag to the supermarket, right? But for some particularly environment-conscious women, it’s simply not enough. Hence, the zero waste lifestyle.
But what compels someone to make such a drastic lifestyle change, in order to do their bit for the environment? And how hard is it really to go zero waste? We spoke to The Rogue Ginger blogger Erin Rhoads to find out. The 32-year-old lives in Melbourne and has been plastic-free for over two years.
The turning point
As cliché as this sounds, it was a documentary called The Clean Bin Project that inspired me to live mindfully. The film highlighted how much unnecessary waste we produce and its negative impact on every living being on this planet. Prior to viewing the film, I was not aware of my impact and definitely not an environmentalist or greenie. But once thae movie finished, I began searching for ways I could reduce my plastic and that’s when I discovered Plastic Free July , a month long challenge where I gave up single use plastics.
While it was a hard challenge, I did see a lot of improvements in my life. I started eating better, I was saving money and I felt more aware of my impact. After Plastic Free July finished, I decided to keep going.
I looked at what plastic waste I was producing – it was mainly food packaging that made up most of my rubbish bin. So I started looking for other places to do my shopping where I could buy my food without the individually plastic wrapped items. I discovered bulk food stores and bulk co-ops, where I could take my own containers and bags to reuse each time. Not only could I collect my food in my own reusable containers, I could also buy cleaning products, shampoo, conditioner andwashing powder. I also built up the courage to visit my butcher and deli with my own containers too. They were more than happy to put my food into my container rather than a plastic bag, then wrapped in paper. Very quickly, my rubbish decreased to pretty much nothing and that was when I decided to subscribe to a zero waste lifestyle.
I think a big misconception about reducing plastic waste is that it means throwing stuff out. Since most of the waste filling up my rubbish bin was food packaging, I swapped out the items as they emptied. It took me a good six months to replace each food item and cleaning product I had.
I still own and use a huge list of items that are plastic… my old plastic containers, utensils, washing basket, food processor. Living plastic free is more about not buying new virgin plastic. Throwing out my current items would not acknowledge the resources that went into making it.
At the start, living this way was more expensive. But that was only because I was navigating a new lifestyle. Previously, I would do a weekly shop at one of the major supermarkets and easily spend $80 on myself (before I lived with my now husband). But now, it’s so much cheaper. Our shopping is broken up into three parts; one part is weekly at the local farmer’s market (vegetables, fruit and bread) and that costs between $40-50 for two people. The other part is every eight weeks at the bulk food store to get things like nuts, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, flour and other items including olive oil, tamari, honey, peanut butter. This shop will cost around $100. Broken up, that’s $20 a week for two people.
I’ll stock up on cleaning products like soap, washing powder, dishwashing powder twice a year. Because I have to take my own jars, bags and other containers, every shopping trip is planned in advance. Because bulk food stores are smaller with less than three aisles, there are fewer opportunities for me to be lured into buying stuff I don’t need!
The biggest challenge was changing my habits. Remembering to take my own cloth bag when I went food shopping instead of using plastic bags or packing my reusable water into my handbag. I had to undo years of old habits and relearn new ones. These days, the new habits are second nature to me. All the solutions already existed, I just had to get used to them.
My daily life has slowed down, and things feel more simple and relaxed. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in a bubble. When I first started reducing my reliance on plastic, I learnt to question what I need vs what I’ve been told I need. Since making my lifestyle change, my money is more likely to go towards creating memories rather than collecting stuff. And because this lifestyle is a money saver, I can give more of my money away to people and organizations that need it.
I’ve also lost weight and my skin and energy levels have improved . Zero waste living eliminated a lot of processed food from my diet since it’s all wrapped in packaging. When it comes to that 3pm slump, I can no longer reach for a processed wrapped treat so I grab a piece of fruit. Over time I really began to value the food that I was putting into my body and where it was coming from.
How much is ‘zero’, really?
I do produce some waste. Our linear economy makes it impossible to not create waste, unless I moved out to the bush and became self-sufficient. The waste I made last year was made up of things that cannot be recycled or reused, like plastic straws, plastic tape, broken sunglasses and receipts. I keep it all in an old coffee jar.
The weird stuff
The easiest change (which I thought would be the hardest) was my pads and tampons. Swapping to reusable cloth pads and a menstrual cup has not only saved on plastic waste, they have saved me over $400 a year! I do still use conventional toilet paper and I dispose of things like condoms and old medication (if needed) in appropriate drop-off locations where they will be incinerated.
Want to reduce your waste? Here are Erin’s top tips:
Take it slow and never compare your journey with anyone else. It’s not about perfection; it’s about giving it a go. Start with the easy stuff: swap plastic bags for a cloth bag, say no to plastic straws, sit in and enjoy your coffee rather than getting a plastic takeaway coffee cup (don’t be fooled into thinking your coffee cup is paper, it’s lined with plastic!) and use a reusable water bottle. These small steps will help make some serious change for the next generation
Upgrade your grooming routine
Make your own toothpaste or look for teeth cleaning products in recyclable materials like Lush tooth tabs. Purchase wooden toothbrushes, which can be composted or reused for cleaning hard to reach places. Buy locally made blocks of soap for washing and shaving, rather than packaged bottle soap. Use washcloths made of natural fibres that can be composted. Swap your dental floss for oil pulling. These are all simple things that will go a long way in reducing your waste!
Become a DIY Queen
Instead of using exfoliating scrubs with microbeads, you can make your own by mixing sugar or bicarb soda with lemon. You can also make your own hair or face masks from ingredients you already have, like yoghurt, honey or olive oil. You can also find tips on making you own makeup here.
Travelling with this lifestyle is actually really easy. You just have to be prepared and ask the locals what they do. I have traveled to South East Asia, where drinking water from a tap is not safe. But I just found out where the locals get their clean water from and went there to fill up my drink bottles. Another tip is to ask the local hotel if they can boil water for you or see if they have a filtered water system.