A Plastic-Free Future? It’s Already Happening (Here’s Proof)

A Plastic-Free Future? It’s Already Happening (Here’s Proof)

When we think about the kind of world we want to live in, and then look around us in the present, the difference can feel worlds apart. It can seem impossible to imagine how we will ever make progress, from where we are to where we want to be.

Yet when we start to look closely, we discover that these new ways of thinking are being acted out, all around us. There are groups, businesses and organizations changing the old story by doing things a different way. They are visions, or “pockets” of the future” except they are happening now, in the present.

These “pockets of the future” remind us that change is possible, and that it is already taking place. These examples provide a framework for others to follow, and take the next steps.

When we talk about plastic-free or zero waste living, and the circular economy, we can see plenty of gaps in the system.

We might take our own bags – but what about all the produce arriving in the store in single use packaging? What about those of us who don’t live near bulk stores? What about convenience?

These are simply missed opportunities, and innovative people are plugging those gaps with solutions. I wanted to share a few ideas to give you hope that momentum is building. Change is coming.

How Stores are Addressing Single-Use Packaging

I’ve had this conversation more times than I care to remember when talking about zero waste or plastic-free living. Someone asks: what about the fact that most bulk stores receive goods in packaging, and that packaging the stores receive isn’t reusable?

Whilst that’s mostly true, a huge amount of waste eliminated when stores buy in bulk and allow customers to use their own containers.

Now, stores and businesses are stepping up to the challenge and trying to implement reusable and returnable options for their suppliers.

The Source Whole Foods Victoria Park (WA) – Kombucha

My local bulk store The Source Whole Foods (in Victoria Park, WA) recently started selling kombucha on tap. I’m not really a kombucha drinker, but I love the story behind this product. They have three flavours, which are delivered in stainless steel drums by a local producer in the south-west. Once empty, the drums and switched with full ones, and the empties are returned for cleaning and refilling. Zero disposable packaging.

Not all items that get delivered to bulk stores come packaging free. Many products get delivered in big 20kg sacks or drums, but these cannot be returned to suppliers for refilling. However, many bulk stores that care about zero waste are now starting to have these conversations with their suppliers, to see what options there are to reduce waste at the level upstream.

It’s beginning to happen.

Dunn & Walton Doubleview (WA) – Milk

Dunn & Walton is an organic store in Doubleview, Perth with an excellent cafe and deli. They receive their milk in bulk from Margaret River, and decant into glass bottles which their baristas use. They have saved more than 5,000 plastic bottles from landfill by doing this.

Coffee culture is a big deal in Australia, but almost every cafe uses plastic bottles and tetra paks. For plant-based milks, there’s the DIY approach which cafes are increasingly adopting. The Raw Kitchen in Fremantle is one of a growing number of cafes here in WA offering homemade non-dairy nut milk instead of the carton tetra-paks which typically end up in landfill.

Dunn & Walton Doubleview (WA) – Takeaway

Dunn & Walton also run a tiffin night on Thursday evenings, with gluten-free, vegan Indian takeaway food made by the supremely talented Arti of Arti’s Traditionals. Tiffins are stainless steel, stackable lunchboxes suitable for transporting hot food, typically Indian food.

At Dunn & Walton, customers can buy a reusable stainless steel tiffin on the night, or they can bring their own reusable containers from home, but there is no single-use disposable packaging available as an alternative.

More and more takeaway shops are willing to let customers bring their own containers, but most customers still have the option. Tiffins are not a new idea – millions of people use them every day in India. But they are not commonly seen in Australia… yet.

Coffee Cups to Go (and Come Back)

Reusable coffee cups aren’t new, although they are definitely becoming more mainstream. However, reusable coffee cups rely on us remembering to bring them – what if we forget? What about those people who like to text their coffee order ahead? Having a reusable cup doesn’t work in that instance.

Well, people are beginning to think about ways to get round that.

The Freiburg Cup (Germany) – Borrow and Return

I first read about the Freiburg (it’s in Germany) reusable coffee cup scheme earlier this year. When a customer buys a coffee from one of the 72 registered outlets, they can choose a reusable cup (made of dishwasher-proof plastic) by paying a small deposit. This reusable cup can be returned to any of the outlets for washing and reusing.

Go2Cup (Perth) – Reusable Coffee Cups to Borrow

When I read about the German scheme, I thought it sounded great. I wondered how we could introduce it here. Then I discovered that somebody (Daniel Grosso of Go2cup) is already getting out there and starting it, right here in Perth :)

Go2cup is slightly different to the Freiburg system, and in my view, slightly better. The Freiburg Cup still has a disposable lid, and the scheme is limited to cafes. Go2cup uses fully reusable cups (the lids are also reusable), and has expanded beyond the cafe market. It is also working with events, Farmers Markets, and businesses.

Cups are provided for patrons to use, and these are returned for washing.

Schemes like this allow people to forget their reusables and still refuse the single-use option. I’m sure these ideas will be adopted more widely in the future.

Reusable Bags (to Borrow and Bring Back)

People forget their reusable bags sometimes. Or they pick up more than they intended, and don’t have enough reusables to manage. Rather than resort to picking up plastic bags, there’s another solution – borrowing bags.

Boomerang Bags and Morsbags (Worldwide)

Boomerang bags are reusable shopping bags made by members of local communities, using donated and second-hand materials. Once a stash has been sewn, these are deposited outside stores for anyone to borrow, and bring back.

Forgotten your reusable bags? No problem!

Boomerang Bags started in Queensland, Australia, but have spread across the globe. Morsbags is another reusable bag initiative, founded by Claire Morsman (hence the name) with a similar ethos, in the UK. Before I moved from the UK to Perth in 2011, I worked in a building that had Morsbags hanging in the hallway for anyone to borrow at lunchtime.

Returnable and Refillable Packaging from Online Sellers

There are countless companies out there selling products in recyclable packaging. What is better than recyclable, though, is reusable. That’s where the zero waste movement wants us to head.

Obviously, taking our own containers to bulk stores means refillables. But not everyone lives close to bulk stores. And not all bulk stores sell the whole range of products.

Plaine Products (US)

Plaine products are a US company doing things a little differently. They sell shampoo, conditioner and body wash in recyclable aluminium bottles. Better than simply offering recyclable bottles, they offer a full ‘return and refill’ scheme.

Other companies allow customers to return bottles for recycling. But returning them for refilling is pretty new.

When you receive your order you also receive a return shipping label. When the product’s empty, the pumped is switched with a refill cap, the label is placed on the original box and the product is shipped back – and Plaine Products covers the shipping fee.

I’m lucky enough to have access to plenty of bulk stores, and I prefer to shop local over shopping online. But I do live in a city with plenty of options. For those people who rely on online shopping, this is a much more sustainable option than single-use packaging.

We don’t have a zero waste or circular economy – yet. But innovation is happening all the time, and good ideas are being spread. Schemes like this give me hope for a world without waste.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Were any of these new to you? Do have experiences with using any of these – good or bad? Do you know of any other innovative ideas tackling waste upstream? Any other initiatives you’d love to see happening? Any other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

39 Responses to A Plastic-Free Future? It’s Already Happening (Here’s Proof)

  1. Great blog post, so cool to see some of the initiatives in action. There’s so many awesome companies & organizations out there that I find it hard to keep track!

  2. Inspirational! I’ve just signed up for my first Plastic-Free July and am curious to see how difficult the challenge is here in Devon (UK). I know there is a zero waste shop fairly close in Totnes so that will be a start.

  3. This is great news! Seeing all the waste that humans generate, and seemingly not much being done about it, can be so overwhelming. I’ve recently discovered that one of our local Harris Farm Markets store has put in a milk bar that allows customers to fill glass bottles (& return them for recycling) as well as green mesh bags (for imperfect fruit & veg) that you fill up & take to the checkout where they are emptied & returned for others to use. They actually now offer 3 choices to customers for imperfect produce, the green mesh bags, green plastic bags OR loose with no bag at all. They also encourage their customers to use cardboard boxes & reusable bags instead of plastic ones. Have to say I’m very impressed with their efforts.

    • Totally agree HF is making good progress. I use my Onya bags for everything and just let the cashier know what is ‘imperfect’ at the checkout. Love that they are donating $0.05 to Clean up Australia for each transaction where plastic bags are not used.

      • I’ll have to ask my store if I can do the same thing. The cashier did say that having to take the items out of the mesh bags took longer and was a bit inconvenient. If I can take my own & leave them in, they should be happy with that.

    • So many great ideas all in the one place, Peta! That’s great, thanks for sharing. In my view, it’s important to focus on solutions rather than dwell on the problems – it’s much more motivating. Apparently milk bars and returnable milk bottles is quite common in NZ but I’ve never seen one here. hopefully they will begin to catch on.

      Doesn’t it make you feel so good to support places like this?!

      • You’re right about focusing on the solutions Lindsay :D I was very surprised and pleased that our local HF is implementing these changes. It shows me that they do care about the impact plastic has on the environment and are doing something about it. I’m very happy to support businesses like this!

  4. Hi, it’s worth a mention I think, this company in Budapest delivers online ordered food in glass jars (and they say it’s becoming trendy in Europe): http://www.jarfood.eu/

    Also I’ve heard about a few who delivers in compostable cardboard instead of plastic. And this catering company is a truly vegan one, they use seasonal vegetables from local sources, in compostable boxes, by bike: http://elixirbudapest.hu/wp/

    What is great that price wise they are not more expensive than any other food delivery.

  5. Sorry it will be long, I just want to vent out my fustration I think :)

    I guess it never went out of tradition, but in Hungary, all markets have dairy where you can buy milk, sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, sheep cheese in your own containers. In fact, everyone gets everything in plastic bags or cups except the milk, but you just have to ask for it. In some cases, I really have to insist, plastic is more convenient for them, and they touch the cheese with a plastic bag to put it in my container, which then they reuse, since they wouldn’t want to touch it by hand. So the problem is that it’s not intentional zero waste bulk thing, and people are not aware, and the sellers don’t care.

    Also, we have throughout the country so called milk vans, they go around the country and sell dairy products in bulk. Milk always goes everywhere from the producers in reusable metal buckets. Another options is the milk automate machines, where you can fill your bottle 24/7, looks like a coke machine :D

    Of course most people in the country buys milk in the shops, in tetra-pack or plastic bottles, and in reality we have a shitty and crazy health agency and there is a strange law which in fact can be seen as you cannot use your containers anywhere, not even in restaurants or big shops (there is a Auchan where there is like hundreds of products, even freezed ones in bulk, but they say you can only use the provided plastic bags), and they say it’s because of hygienic reasons. In our zero waste community we checked the wording, and well, the thing is that it actually forbids the seller to take your container behind the counter but doesn’t prohibit the usage.. but if there is a problem afterwards (contamination, outbreak because your container was dirty), the seller takes the responsibility. So deli counters in supermarkets for example refuse, or I couldn’t buy citric acid from a chemical shop because of this, even though they sell everything in bulk.

    So all in all, every zero waster in Hungary is breaking the law in a way.. we need a legislation, or at least an attitude change, but you know how it is in a former socialist country..

  6. Last week I was dicussing waste with a young Barista from a local cafe here in Wynnum. (SEQ).they aregiving away the 2 litre milk bottles in favor of a fridge system. the milk is delivered in bulk.and considering they usually use 600 litres+a week thats a lot of plastic saved.

  7. I love the idea of Boomerang bags (great name!) I will look up Morsbags and see if I can either get them implemented locally, or start a similar scheme. Perhaps I also need to be more proactive about asking if I can use my own containers, on the rare occasion I get a takeaway.

    • I think so much of this is about asking questions, and challenging our assumptions. We often assume things are too hard / people will say no – but we forget to have the conversation to check! Good luck – and do let me know how you get on with the bags!

  8. What an uplifting blog. Thank you for brightening my day, Lindsay. I was feeling a bit down after reading about the plastic PET bottles on the Guardian website this morning.

  9. Since watching Ep 3 of War on Waste I have started mentioning to our local cafes here in the South West about purchasing or being gifted coffee cups from Salvos stores. These often 70’s styled cups can then be used instead of ‘disposable’ coffee cups (which are lined with plastic and not disposable at all!) and returned back to the cafe for reuse. Maybe a $1 deposit could be put on them. It reminds me of the Boomerang Bags – these could be Boomerang Cups!

  10. I can remember, going back to the early 1990’s, when Body Shop used to refill your containers. Anita Rodick was so ahead of her time

    • Oh me too Alison, and all of those awesome graphics about saving the whale and protecting the environment. You could return the bottles to a deposit bank thing by the till. As a kid, I used to find that store so inspiring. Today it’s owned by L’Oreal… :(

  11. Thank you for such inspirational ideas. Over the last month I have start d to be more “plastic ” aware. One thing I am finding difficult is not using plastic Freezer bags as I do freeze a lot of uncooked meat and chicken.
    Have you found a good substitute?
    Keep up the great blog.

    • Hi Jan, I would freeze in glass jars – I have been experimenting with dog food and have been portioning up into jars and freezing that way. If you use a big Pyrex, you can put paper between the layers. Or even wrap in paper and then foil if you’re worried about freezer burn. Hope that helps!

  12. Great blog! I have been trying to change my habits for a few years now and slowly getting there. I’ve just started my ‘buy nothing new’ journey and hope to achieve at least 6 months of not adding to the consumer lifestyle of the western world. Your blog has given me some great ideas to follow.

    • Hi Janette, thank you so much! :) I think “Buy Nothing New” is such a great challenge to get us rethinking our habits and slowing down on the buying of stuff. It definitely helps us reconsider what we actually need, and make more thoughtful purchases. Good luck and do keep me updated with how you get on :)

  13. loved the tiffin idea and we are using the boomerang bags here in Thames, NZ after a huge sewing bee – but buying shampoo in aluminum bottles sounds a bit dodgy aluminum is a precursor to diseases of the brain such as Parkinsons . Keep up your good ideas !

    • Hi Victoria! I think the concern with aluminium is more when pans are used with acidic substances or sugar which removes the protective aluminium oxide coating. Drinks are sold in aluminium cans and people ingest those! I guess glass would be much more expensive to transport, not to mention very breakable. Always something to weigh up!

      Great job on the Boomerang Bags :)

  14. So encouraging to see local businesses start to implement minimal waste and plastic-free solutions to their practises! I hadn’t heard of Dunn & Walton before- keen to check them out in the near future!

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