How Getting to Know Your Neighbours Helps With Zero Waste Living

It’s easy to reduce the idea of zero waste living to thinking about the products we buy (or don’t buy) and the choices we make as individuals. But zero waste (and living with less waste) is a movement, and movements need people. We can only do so much when we act on our own.

Sure, zero waste living can mean shopping at bulk stores and making our own skincare products. That’s part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Ultimately zero waste about consuming less and buying less, and that means rethinking the way we use resources: reusing, making do, borrowing and repairing.

We think of bulk stores and libraries and Farmer’s Markets as great resources for living with less waste, and they are, but there’s a much less talked about asset almost all of us have access to: our local community.

It’s mentioned far less but is equally (and possibly more) valuable for zero waste living.

One of the most valuable assets for my zero waste journey has been my neighbours. I thought I’d share some of the ways we’ve helped each other reduce our waste, and hopefully give you some ideas for how you might be able to get involved with your own community.

What My Neighbourhood Looks Like

Just as a bit of background, let me tell you a little about where I live. I moved into my current suburb in 2016 from the other side of Perth – so I haven’t lived here for very long. My neighbours from four doors down built the property where I live, and I met them through that process back in 2014. I didn’t know anyone else when I moved in.

There’s 7 properties on my block, some rented and some owned, and residents have come and gone in the two years I’ve lived here. Our suburb is close to the city but not densely populated – there’s about 2,500 residents, with 28,000 in the local government area.

In short, I live in a city but it isn’t an urban metropolis: it has quite a suburban feel.

How I Met My Neighbours

There are probably three ways I met my neighbours. The first (and perhaps most obvious one) is seeing them at their front doors, in the garden, in the street etc, and saying hello.

The second is by neighbours introducing other neighbours they knew and I didn’t. This is both in passing and at various events in the town. Slowly the network spreads.

The third way (oh, how 21st century) is via the internet. One of the best tools has been our local Buy Nothing group, which operates using the Facebook groups function (more on that in a sec).

How My Neighbours Help With Zero Waste Living

Sharing Ideas

Sharing ideas has ranged from the big to the minuscule, and all are important. On the far end of the scale, my neighbour and I hatched a plan to turn the disused patch of land next to my block into a community fruit tree project.

I’d had the idea, and he’d the same idea, and once we got together and realised we both had the shared vision we started to make it happen. (You can read more about how we started our community food tree project here.)

We’ve planted around 24 fruit trees, and they should keep our neighbourhood in plastic-free locally grown produce once they’re a little bit bigger :)

From that, we decided we needed a little help with the tree pruning this spring, and invited the neighbours along so they could benefit from the knowledge.

Lathlain is now sporting the best pruned fruit trees in Perth, not just here but also in all the gardens of the people who came along!

On the other end of the scale, I showed my next-door neighbour how to make mint tea with fresh mint leaves. (It’s super simple – you literally steep fresh mint leaves in hot water. Taste sensation.) Now she does that rather than buy teabags.

She made the most delicious nettle soup I have ever eaten from stinging nettles from her garden. (Not something I’d ever have tried before, but definitely something I’ll try now.)

We’ve also had some good discussions about the in’s and out’s of establishing a functioning worm farm, what actually goes in the recycling bin and some of my neighbours are currently organising a street get-together.

Sometimes it just takes a conversation to spark a new idea or go one step further to changing a habit.

Sharing Resources

A spin-off from the food tree project has been our community composting bank. We share our compost bins with the neighbours, which means lots of food scraps diverted from landfill, and lots of compost we’d otherwise need to purchase. Most of our neighbours have found us through sharewaste.com.

Sharing the Work

The thing about projects led by a single person, is that when that person gets tired, sick, overwhelmed or otherwise occupied, the project tends to fall over.

One of the best things about our Food Tree Project is that there’s multiple people invested, so if one person is too busy, others can step up to keep it going. I’ve taken a step back this year as I’ve had too many other things going on. My neighbour, however, is taking a year off from work and has extra time to keep things going. Consequently the fruit trees look better than ever.

Sharing Stuff

With my closest neighbours, who I know by name, it’s easy enough to knock on the door and ask to borrow something. And I do, regularly. Garden tools, kitchen gadgets, ingredients when I realise I’m out of something mid-way through a recipe and the shops are shut.

Most recently I borrowed a coffee grinder after mine bust, and lent a book to the same neighbour who’d been contemplating buying one and seen (via social media) that I’d already bought it.

I also passed on the magazine to a different neighbour. Things are for sharing!

But when you don’t actually know someone, it’s a little bit harder to borrow something – and possibly a little bit weird to just bang on the door.

Thankfully, the internet can help us out.

There are plenty of online groups and platforms that allow neighbours to connect with each other, firstly on line, and then perhaps in person. The two groups that I use are my local Buy Nothing Group, and my local Swap Share group.

The Buy Nothing Project is a network of hyper-local community groups where people can give, borrow and accept items ,but no money changes hands. People are only allowed to join one group: the one where they live. Consequently the members are all neighbours.

The Buy Nothing group has been a great way to find second-hand items. I tend to give more than I take because I generally don’t need much stuff, but I have scored a few useful items. My two best finds: a pair of almost new trainers in my size, and a computer monitor to use with my (tiny screen) laptop.

Another great win via the Buy Nothing Group was borrowing a screwdriver to enable me to change the damaged/worn seal on my coffee machine. The guy I borrowed the screwdriver from was also kind enough to help me take it apart and gave it a good clean with an air pressure thing.

I purchased a new seal, and the machine is as good as new. The screwdriver was duly returned.

There’s plenty of other donating and lending/borrowing of things via the group. It means resources are much better used (things languishing in cupboards are being wasted) and it means people not buying new stuff.

If you’re not a member of your local buy Nothing group I’d suggest joining, and if you don’t have one, I’d recommend beginning your own!

The Swap Share group meets once a month, and is for people to donate and swap excess garden produce. There’s also been a great deal of swapping recipes and other goods: pickles, preserves, DIY cleaning products and more.

I had no idea pickled radishes were so delicious until I picked some up from a Swap Share get-together!

Without my neighbourhood network there’s no doubt I’d have purchased a lot more things and wasted far more time looking for solutions. Worst of all, I’d have missed the opportunity to get to know and help out the great people who live in my suburb.

Local solutions are almost always the lowest waste solutions. If we’re passionate about reducing our waste, getting to know our neighbours and exploring our neighbourhoods is definitely something to embrace.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you embraced any neighbourhood community groups or hyper-local networks? What have been your experiences? How have you met your neighbours and the people in your suburb – or do you not know them? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

My (Not So) Zero Waste Camino

Back in April, I headed off to Europe to walk across Spain along the Camino Frances, from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west corner of Spain. Over 35 days I walked 800km. I talked about what I packed before I left; now I’m back and the memory of those sore, sore feet is a little more distant, I thought I’d tell you how it went.

There’s so much I could say about the meaning of the experience, the people I met along the way and the community we grew, and my inner reflections… but this space is about zero waste and plastic-free living, minimalism and treading lightly.

Whilst my experience was a lot greater than learning about different recycling systems and wrestling in Spanish about not wanting a plastic straw, this is where I’m going to keep the focus. Plus, surely you all want to see some holiday recycling bin snapshots?!

Minimalism on the Camino

Packing light is something I’ve got pretty good at over the years, and all up my pack and everything I took (including the clothes I wore, but not my hiking boots) weighed less than 6kg.

Many of the people I met packed more than they needed, and ending up posting stuff ahead to collect later – or got their bags sent ahead as the weight was too much. I wanted to be able to carry my own bag.

I had intended to post ahead anything I didn’t need, but in the end, there wasn’t anything.

That’s not to say my packing was perfect. I definitely did not realise it was going to be so cold! There was snow on the second day, and I only had one long-sleeved top as well as my jacket. Not only that but when I hit sunnier climes, I wanted to wear long sleeves in the sun to stop my arms burning. Black wasn’t ideal for the hot sun.

After wearing said top for 8 hours, it needed washing (clearly). I could make it last a couple of days, but eventually it had to come off!

On day 3 I found an abandoned scarf (yes, it was abandoned, I promise) which probably saved me from freezing to death. Around day 20 I went and purchased some cycling sleeves (literally arm covers) – they can be worn with t-shirts to protect against the sun and are white, not black.

Did I pack anything I didn’t need? I could have got away with one pair of shorts, rather than two. I didn’t wear my vest top much. But these things were so light that it wasn’t the end of the world carrying them.

Plastic-Free on the Camino

I’m sure you know that I don’t buy things packaged in plastic. But when these things are offered to me, it turns out that the Camino had some different rules to everyday life.

I don’t believe in changing rules when you go on holiday. For me it is important to do what I can all the time. But there’s something different about being kilometres from the nearest town, exhausted and hungry, with sore shoulders and aching feet and the beginnings of blisters, and someone offering up chocolate packaged in plastic.

It should be noted that chocolate is my go-to comfort food. I ate that chocolate. Oh yes.

The other thing that I used was those individual plastic jam portions. Those ones I cringe about. In Spain, most places open fairly late in the morning, and there might only be one place open early in the morning to cater for peregrinos (people walking the camino). These places, almost without exception, offered dry (stale?) bread, or occasionally toast, and jam portions.

I don’t even like jam very much. But when this is the only opportunity for breakfast, stale bread alone just won’t cut it, and the next town is 8km away, you suck it up and use the damn jam portions.

Okay, maybe you don’t. But I did.

A couple of times there actually wasn’t anywhere open for breakfast, and I did have to walk 8km to find somewhere. Walking that far on an empty stomach (when you walked 20km the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that) isn’t much fun.

Sometimes it’s not obvious that nowhere will be open until that morning, so there’s no chance to buy snacks in advance. One thing you learn on the Camino, is that when there’s the opportunity to eat (and likewise, use the bathroom) take it because you don’t always know when the next opportunity will come.

In hindsight, what I’d do next time to avoid the jam is buy avocados along the way. They aren’t available in every town, but frequent enough, I think. I did this sometimes (and you have no idea how much avocado envy I’d get from fellow peregrinos when I whipped out my fresh avocado) but if I went back, I’d ensure I was always carrying one. (I’d use half, then carry the other half and use it the next day. They lasted fine.)

One other plastic-packaged thing I bought: medical supplies. Blister plasters (oh Compeed, thank you for everything you did for me) and ibuprofen, specifically. It was a matter of purchasing them and finishing the walk, or not purchasing them and not.

Zero Waste on the Camino

I took my reusables (water bottle, cup, container and spork, and an Onya bag) and all of them were very useful. The container was great for bulk snacks, leftovers, and water on the really hot days (it’s leakproof). The Onya bag was brilliant for buying snacks – fruit, nuts, potato chips (Spain sells bulk potato chips! Heaven!).

There wasn’t much food waste because cooking options are limited and it is easier (and fairly cheap) to eat the peregrino menus. Food waste was limited to peels, skins and rinds.

Composting was next to impossible. Going from place to place meant there was no time to figure out if there were composting options. The odd banana peel or piece avocado skin could be thrown into the undergrowth well off the path, but if there was no undergrowth, just dumping on the path wasn’t an option. As much as it pains me to put anything in the bin, it happened.

Recycling was fairly easy, and even the small villages had central recycling banks for paper, plastic and metal. Sometimes I’d have to carry things for a day or two, but eventually I’d find somewhere.

Plant-Based Eating on the Camino

If you want to walk the Camino as a vegan, it requires some serious forward planning, the commitment to cooking most of your own food – and bringing your own utensils – and (I’d guess) the ability to speak a little Spanish.

Even as a vegetarian, it is tricky. And you have to LOVE eggs.

I’d already decided that I was happy to eat eggs on the Camino before I left (tortilla de patatas, a potato omelette, is pretty much a Spanish staple) but by day 3 I’d decided to eat fish if there were no vegetarian options. When you’re walking that many kilometres every single day, asking the waiter to remove the tuna and egg from a salad and being left with only the lettuce, tomato and raw onion just isn’t going to cut it.

If you’re prepared you can cook beans and lentils and these are fairly easy to find dry in bulk. I wasn’t prepared. Lots of vegans take huge amounts of pre-packaged vegan food with them – and that wasn’t an option for me, either. Nut/soy milk is virtually non-existent.

Saying that, there are vegetarian and vegan options, particularly in the bigger cities. The Vegetarian Way has some details of vegetarian options, but some listings were permanently closed or only offered dinner for residents (not so helpful at lunchtime). I became a little obsessed with hunting down falafels (!) and found a caravan selling the best vegan burgers in the middle of a woodland, so there were definitely some highlights.

My (Not So) Zero Waste Camino: Lessons Learned

I don’t know really these are lessons learned, or whether they are simply things I already knew that were reinforced.

1. Zero waste and plastic-free living takes prior planning.

At home, we develop habits and incorporate this way of living into our daily routine. When we are away, there is no daily routine and so we have to research and plan ahead. Sure, I could have taken the time before I left to research composting options, or look up much more thoroughly the plant-based meal options.

In the end, I ran out of time, and I did the best I could. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, but it wasn’t possible for me, this time.

2. Everyone has limits to their time and energy.

I’ve talked about limits to time and energy before, but nothing drains you like walking 20km a day for 14 days in a row without stopping (it was 2 weeks before I took my first rest day). By the end of the day, climbing the stairs to get to my bed was hard enough (why oh why do they give the ground floor rooms to people who arrive first? They are fitter – make them climb the stairs!!!).

I know at the start of the trip I wouldn’t have been able to stand and cook a meal, let alone go to the shops and buy all the things I needed first. We can only do the best we can, and nothing tested my limits and showed me the absolute truth in this more than this walk.

3. Doing what we can is better than doing nothing.

I may have used plastic jam portions more than I care to remember, but I also refused plastic bags and straws, and purchased most of my snacks in bulk (except chocolate, but I made sure that was plastic-free).

I may have eaten fish and eggs, but I also tried to support every vegan/vegetarian cafe that I came across – and told my various vegetarian friends I met along the way about them, too.

To the purists, that may not be enough. But I’m not a purist. As much as I’d like to be perfect, I’m imperfect. I’m passionate about two many things to single-mindedly pursue the perfection of one. I do the best I can. I may have let a few things slide on the trip, but I didn’t let everything slide. It was a great learning experience, and I’m willing to admit my faults.

If I ever do a trip like this again, I promise I’ll come up with a plan to avoid those damn individual jam portions.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any questions about how I dealt with certain scenarios? Do you have insights from your own experience with a similar trip? Do you have any comments, ideas or anything else about any aspect of the trip? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please share below!

Recipe: How To Make (Plastic Free + Zero Waste) Seed Crackers

If there’s one thing that is next to impossible to find without plastic, it’s crackers. Before I went plastic-free, I’d buy packet upon packet of crackers – usually with the plastic tray, then wrapped in plastic and with a final plastic or cardboard outer. Packaging overload!

These days I do things very differently. I either skip the crackers entirely, and make crudites (fancy term for vegetable sticks – carrot, cucumber and capsicum/pepper) or use bread; or I make my own crackers.

I’ve shared in the past how I make sourdough crackers and carrot pulp flatbreads, and today I’ve got another recipe for you: 4 seed crackers.

I actually found the recipe via my local Source Bulk Foods store, who sell the ingredients ready-weighed in a little pack. I bought all the ingredients separately in bulk as I wanted to avoid the packaging but if you were short on time or didn’t want random amounts of seeds left in the pantry, the pack would be a shortcut.

Being made almost entirely of seeds, these crackers and gluten-free, dairy free and vegan.

The magic ingredient binding the seeds together is psyllium husk: it’s the husk of a seed that’s high in soluble fibre, and binds with water to form a slippery gel. It’s often used in raw and vegan recipes for its binding properties.  It’s pretty readily available at bulk stores. If that’s not an option, chia seeds might be an alternative to experiment with but it’s not something I’ve yet tried.

Recipe: Zero Waste 4 Seed Crackers

I chose raw seeds rather than roasted ones, as the crackers are baked in the oven. If raw seeds aren’t an option, try with roasted ones but bear in mind you might need to add a little more water to the mix.

Preheat the oven to 160°C, line three trays with baking paper or use silicone baking mats.

Ingredients:

490ml water
200g sunflower seeds
100g sesame seeds
60g pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
60g linseed (flax seed)
15g psyllium husk
5g salt

Method:

Mix all the seeds, husks and salt together in a bowl and pour in the water. Leave to stand for 30 minutes until the mixture has a gloopy consistency.

Empty a third of the mix on each baking tray and spread out thinly and evenly using the back of a spoon. Try to make the mixture as thin as possible. (but be careful of creating holes).

Bake in the oven for 1 hour, then remove from the oven and using a knife, score the cracker lines in the mix. Once they are fully baked they will not cut without shattering, so the lines need to be marked whilst the mixture is still soft.

Return to the oven for 30 minutes. Check the crackers and remove any that are cooked (the middle will take longer than the edges). If possible, separate the crackers and return to the baking tray to speed up final cooking.

Return any uncooked crackers to the oven. Cook for another 30 minutes or until the crackers are completely dry, crisp and crunchy. To dry out further, the crackers can be left in the warm oven once it is turned off. Remove from oven and cook completely on a rack.

Store in an airtight tin. They will keep for at least a week.

Possible Variations

There are plenty of other seeds to experiment with: hemp seeds, poppy seeds, chia seeds, or even chopped nuts. You could try adding cumin, nigella or fennel seeds; or herbs and spices such rosemary or thyme, paprika or ground coriander. Recipes are there to be played with!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do make your own crackers? Has it been on the to-do list since forever but you’re yet to get round to it? Or is it something you’ve put in the too-hard basket for now? I’m always interested in hearing new cracker recipe ideas so if you have any favourites – or favourite flavour combinations – share below, along with anything else you’d like to add!