Is Plastic-Free the Perfect Option? (Hint: Not Always)

It’s been a long time since I first took the Plastic Free July challenge (all the way back in 2012) and made the decision to make this plastic-free living lark a way of life. What an adventure it has been!

It completely made me re-evaluate the way I think about waste, the types of products I buy, where I source my food, the kinds of products I put on my skin, even the work that I do.

Of course, some of the decisions I made at the start of the journey aren’t the choices I’d make today.

However, I continue to share them, because they were decisions that I made at the time, and I think it is important to explain why I made these choices (along with what I might do differently now, or what the next step might be).

There are people starting out at exactly the point that I started out, and sharing the choices I made can help shine the light on possible alternatives and solutions.

I never share any solution as the perfect solution. I’ve talked about this before: how there’s often compromise, and we need to personally decide on our priorities and make the choices that work best for us in our own circumstances.

However, if the focus is plastic-free (or zero waste) living – which, hopefully it is! –  then there are better choices. Not perfect, but better.

I wanted to talk about a few of the choices I’ve made, why they are not perfect, but why I still think they are “better”.

Lining a Bin with Newspaper

When I went plastic-free back in 2012, one of my first dilemmas was how to line my bin without a plastic bag. I still took the “free” plastic bags from the supermarket and used them to line my bin.

A friend suggested newspaper, and I made the switch.

I wrote a post back in 2013 (it’s one of my most widely shared posts ever) entitled “How to Line Your Rubbish Bin without a Plastic Bag”.

I wanted to share with others how I’d switched from lining my bin with a plastic bag to lining my bin with newspaper. It is what worked for me.

Every year this post resurfaces at Plastic Free July time, and I get the same comments and questions, without fail.

“Who even gets a newspaper these days?”

Actually, quite a lot of people in Perth, which is where I live. There is a free community newspaper delivered to most suburbs. At the time, I had a free community newspaper delivered, and I read it, so it made sense to use it for something else.

A lot of cafes in Perth (there are a bazillion of them, at least) get newspapers for customers to read, as do libraries and workplaces.

There’s no need to buy a newspaper to line the bin. This is about using what I already had. It might not work for everyone, but it does work for some of us.

“Using newspaper is hardly eco-friendly, all those trees.”

I didn’t call that post “the absolutely most eco-friendly way ever to line your bin” for a reason. It is simply a plastic-free solution. (Although, when was the last time you saw a paper bag stuck in a tree, or choking sea life?)

Yes, making paper uses a lot of resources (trees, energy and also water). In fact, paper bags have three times the carbon footprint of a plastic bag.

Whether newspaper is the same I’m not sure, as it tends to have a lot of recycled content (whereas most paper bags do not), but of course, all materials have a footprint. Which leads me to…

“Why not compost and then there is no bin liner required at all?”

Exactly. Great idea and what I do now.

“Now” being the key word.

If you’d said to me at the start of Plastic Free July, “hey, newspaper bin liners have a footprint, you need to set up a compost bin and a worm farm and a bokashi system so you’re not throwing away any of your organic matter” then I would most likely have had a meltdown.

I was busy trying to find solutions to every other thing!

Yes, I did set up a worm farm, and a bokashi system, and I did do away with my newspaper bin liners. But it took 2 years to get to that point!

Buying Plastic Reusables

Something that also comes up often when talking about different types of reusables, is the fact that some are made of plastic.

“How can you say you are plastic-free when you use reusables made of / containing plastic?”

When I first went plastic-free back in 2012, I purchased a plastic KeepCup. Back then, KeepCup were the only brand of reusable barista-standard coffee cup, and they only had plastic cups (they didn’t launch their glass range until 2014).

My goal was to reduce single-use plastic. That is what Plastic Free July is all about. The reusable plastic KeepCup served its purpose – I haven’t drank out of a takeaway coffee cup since.

It’s estimated that a reusable coffee cup needs to be used about 15 times to offset the energy / footprint, versus a single-use disposable cup. Definitely achieved.

In time, I decided that plastic reusables weren’t something I personally wanted to choose in future. I also didn’t love drinking hot drinks out of plastic, so I purchased a glass one.

However reusable plastics still work for some. Whether it’s the portability, resistance to breakage, the need to be collapsible or something else, there are reasons that people still choose plastic reusables, and these reasons are perfectly valid.

There’s another really good reason to purchase reusables made out of plastic in my view, and that is when they are made out of 100% recycled plastic.

As my plastic-free living journey deepened, I decided I wanted to steer clear of ALL plastic. Over time, my view of this has mellowed because I realise that we still have an issue to deal with – legacy plastic.

If we banned plastic water bottles tomorrow, there are still millions already in existence. What do we do with them? Recycling them into something worthwhile and built to last seems like a good idea to me.

Recycled PET shopping bags and produce bags have a much lower carbon footprint than new cotton or cloth bags (cotton requires huge amounts of water to grow and is often exposed to huge amounts of pesticides also).

I think these kinds of reusables definitely have a place in a “plastic-free” world.

Personally, I like a mix. I like to keep my plastic-use to a minimum, but I do find these bags immensely useful and practical.

Shopping at Bulk Bin Stores that Use Plastic Bins (Which is Pretty Much All of Them)

I talk about bulk food shopping on my website and also on Instagram, and more than once I’ve had comments about the materials the bulk containers are made of.

“Isn’t it ironic / hypocritical saying plastic-free when the containers are made of plastic?”

Personally, I think not. My local store in Perth is part of The Source Bulk Foods, who have more than 40 bulk stores in Australia. There are lots of other bulk stores in Perth and across the country. I’ve never seen one with zero plastic storage, and when you think about the cost and practicalities of only using metal, glass or wood, it’s easy to see why it’s not common.

These bulk stores (with their plastic bins) make it possible for thousands of customers to shop packaging-free. They generate packaging themselves, sure, but far less than if we were all buying our individually packaged everything from the supermarket.

Plus, they are working with suppliers to develop ways to reduce packaging further upstream.

Zero waste isn’t perfect, and plastic-free living doesn’t have all the solutions, but we get closer all the time.

If you’re starting out with plastic-free, and are finding the apparent conflict a little tricky to navigate, know that we have all been there. It’s easy to get lost in a minefield of ethical dilemmas when it comes to plastic-free living.

There’s always someone keen to point out why something isn’t perfect. If we are just at the beginning of our journey, there is nothing more deflating than making a choice that we feel is better, only to be told that actually, it isn’t.

The only thing we can do is to make conscious decisions. To make the best choice you can with what you know today. Maybe in the future you’d choose differently, but we can’t make decisions about things we don’t know yet.

Plastic-free living is not about being perfect, it’s about making better choices.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you feel about plastics in your plastic-free life? Do you own and use any plastic reusables, or is it something you steer clear of? Is it something that you’ve changed your mind about along the way? Where are you willing to compromise, and where are you not? I’d love to know what you think so please leave a comment below!

A guide to reusable produce bags

When it comes to tackling single-use plastic bags, it isn’t just plastic shopping bags that we want to be replacing with better, reusable alternatives. Plastic produce bags (the extremely thin, colourless, clear bags we see in the fruit and veg aisles at supermarkets) are just as problematic – difficult to recycle, very difficult to reuse and a huge contributor to litter.

Yet the conversation always seems to be around shopping bags, and the produce bags are left out.

Which is a tragedy! There are just as many solutions for replacing single-use produce bags with reusables as there are for shopping bags. Yet it’s something that isn’t on many people’s radar when they are starting out.

It certainly wasn’t on mine.

Fortunately, it is now. I want to share some of the alternatives to single-use plastic produce bags, the pros and cons of different options, as well as a few things you may like to consider.

This post contains some affiliate links. You can read more about what this means at the end of the post.

Reusable produce bags – some initial things to consider

There are plenty of options with reusable produce bags. Here’s a few things to consider:

Homemade versus purchased

Homemade is always cheaper, and there’s the option to choose the exact size that you need. If you want bags that last and don’t need to be mended continually, an overlocker generally produces better (longer-lasting) results than a regular sewing machine.

The flipside of homemade is needing access to a sewing machine, and knowing how to sew.

If you do know how to sew, produce bags make great gifts.

Second-hand fabrics

Second-hand fabric is an option for making reusable produce bags, and ready-made produce bags that used second-hand fabric are also available. Fabric includes old net curtains, tablecloths, sheets and old bedding. Choose a fabric that is machine washable and can go through a hot wash (rather than the handwash cycle).

Although mosquito netting seems ideal for produce bags, most mosquito nets are impregnated with pesticides, so not desirable for use with food.

Choosing the fabric type

Different fabrics have different properties. Mesh or net bags are lightweight and see-through, but are rarely made of natural fibres. They’re also not suitable for flour and fine powders.

Cotton cloth is natural but not see-through, and is slightly heavier. (Not all stores have the ability to take off the weight of the bag on the scales, so heavy bags will cost more.) Not being transparent will slow down the checkout operators, so be mindful of using too many of these bags on a busy day.

In practice, it can be useful to have different types for different things.

Reusable produce bags – different options

Personally, I have a combination of homemade and purchased reusable produce bags, and made of different materials.

As much as I recommend making do and using what we have where possible, I also know that sometimes we need shortcuts.

If sewing if definitely not your thing (and you don’t have a relative or friend to persuade to do it for you!) then here are some ready-made solutions.

Mesh fabric produce bags

If you haven’t heard of it or used it before, Etsy is an online marketplace where people who know how to make things sell these things to those of us who do not (or do not have the time). There are plenty of sellers on the platform who make reusable produce bags out of old curtains and tablecloths (as well as sellers who use new fabric, if that’s your preference).

If the second-hand approach appeals to you but you just don’t have the time or inclination, I’d recommend looking on Etsy for reusable produce bags made of upcycled fabric.

There’s no one Etsy seller I recommend, instead I’d suggest browsing and finding the seller that is closest to your home to minimise the packaging and transport footprint.

Recycled PET Plastic Mesh Bags

Some people don’t love the idea of going plastic-free and then buying reusables made of plastic. When I first went plastic-free back in 2012 I was the same. But then I looked into it a little more and adjusted my view.

If we stopped using plastic today, and didn’t make anything else made of plastic, there is still a huge amount of plastic already in existence. Legacy plastic, I call it. From a resource perspective, it makes sense to be using this to make resources rather than leaving it somewhere to sit for all eternity.

PET is the plastic that water bottles is made from. It’s hard wearing and durable. The PET plastic bottles can be recycled into a mesh that is used to make reusable produce bags. These bags have a much lower carbon footprint than other “new” bags because they are made from 100% recycled material.

I have a set of Onya bags that I purchased for my first Plastic Free July back in 2012. They may not be as white as they were when I purchased them, but they function as good as new. (Which cannot be said for my biodegradable ones, which have, well, biodegraded and needed some stitching up).

Mesh bags are great for fruit and vegetables, loose salad leaves (the produce can be washed in the bag) and loose bread rolls.

Cotton Produce Bags

Cotton bags are great for all the things that mesh bags aren’t: powders and flours. I have a set made out of an old bed sheet. The advantage of these is that they can be repaired easily, and composted at the end of their life.

It’s possible to buy new cotton reusable produce bags: I’d recommend looking at your local bulk store as they will often stock them.

I’d always recommend supporting a local brick-and-mortar store where you can, but if this isn’t an option, they can easily be found online.

If you’re further afield here’s a list of independent online plastic-free and zero waste stores.

Bulk reusable food bags

These reusable produce bags are a fairly new idea, and are designed for bulk store shopping (as opposed to fruit and veg shopping). Whilst reusable produce bags are very easy to transport, they aren’t ideal for storing food.

Onya Life launched these bulk bags in 2019 (made of recycled PET, which I talked about above) as a lightweight alternative to glass jars. They can be labelled and are suitable for food storage.

They are not something I’ve used, but I think they are a great alternative for those of us who don’t want to carry huge amounts of glass jars on our shopping trips, or have to decant everything into said glass jars when we get home.

Other options: making do

Before rushing out and buying anything new, have a think about what you might already have at home. Many bulk stores accept glass jars for refilling, so consider taking jars rather than bags, if that is practical. A pillowcase makes an excellent cotton bread bag. Laundry bags are a mesh alternative to mesh produce bags – and they are definitely machine washable.

If you do decide to buy something, just be sure that it is something that you will use. Reusables that sit in the back of the cupboard are not a good use of resources!

The best reusables are the ones you use often.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What reusable options do you use? Do you have one preference, or do you use a combination? If you sew, do you have fabric types you recommend and any to avoid? Are there any other alternatives or DIY hacks that you can suggest? Please share you thought in the comments below!

Disclaimer: this post contains some affiliate links which means if you click a link and choose to purchase a product, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I only ever recommend products I have used, companies I trust or those that are regularly recommended to me by you, my readers. Making do and buying second-hand are always my first recommendations.

5 tips to get prepped for Plastic Free July (and living with less plastic)

Plastic Free July comes around on the 1st July and for the entire month of July, millions of people across the globe try to avoid as much single-use, unnecessary and wasteful plastic as they can. It’s a pretty amazing movement, built on the idea that we can all do something, and if we all do something, that can bring about huge positive change.

To say I’m a fan of Plastic Free July is a bit of an understatement. I first took part in 2012 and I’ve written about it every year since. It changed my entire world view and led me down the path to zero waste and working in the waste education space. (And in a wondrous circle of events, led me back to working on the Plastic Free July campaign and being on the Plastic Free July Foundation board.)

Who knew refusing a few plastic bags could have such a considerable life impact?!

To get ready for Plastic Free July this year, I thought I’d share a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

First up – sign up!

If you’re taking part in Plastic Free July this year, sign up to the official campaign! You’ll find the form over at www.plasticfreejuly.org. (If you haven’t done so, head over there and do it now. I’ll wait. Yep, I’m still here. Done? Great!)

Signing up means that you’re counted, and that matters. Plastic Free July works with businesses and government organizations across Australia and beyond, and being able to say “people care about this issue. This is how many people signed up to Plastic Free July this year” is powerful in influencing future policy.

The recent WA plastic bag ban here in Australia came about in part because of the success and interest in Plastic Free July.

We all want positive change, and when we join together we create a movement… and movements drive change.

Don’t stress about the “stuff”

Over the next 31 days there will be lots of plastic-free wares on display, as people share things they find and companies share things they sell. Be careful not to get too overwhelmed in the “stuff”.

If we will use something often and can see the value in owning it, it is a good purchase. If it is shiny and plastic-free and on sale, that isn’t such a great reason to buy the thing.

Of course, reusables are the way we avoid the single-use disposables. I have reusables that I love and carry with my every day. But I didn’t buy them all in the first four weeks.

There is no such thing as a standard plastic-free “kit”. The things I carry around with me won’t be things that everyone needs. There are other things that other people consider a necessity that I don’t.

Pay attention, see what is around, check out different products but don’t feel like you need to buy anything today. (If you’d like to see what’s in my handbag, I’ve shared it – but only to give you ideas. It is not a shopping list!)

The thing about change is that it’s hard, and buying stuff is easy. Yet we buy things and feel like we made progress. It isn’t about the stuff. It’s about new habits.

If you do decide to buy something, ask yourself honestly: do I need it? (This is not the same as want!) Will I use it? Is it worth it?

Get one thing, make it a habit and then move onto the next thing. The less money you spend during Plastic Free July, the more you’ll enjoy the challenge. Promise.

Be gentle with yourself

In the same way that we don’t learn to play the guitar overnight or lose 10kg overnight or learn Spanish overnight, we do not go plastic-free overnight! Finding solutions take time. Creating new habits take time.

Allow yourself time… to look, to learn, and to make mistakes. When you go to the supermarket, allow extra time to walk up and down the aisles with new eyes and see what is there that you never noticed before.

Take time to look and find out if there are bulk stores, farmers markets or health food shops locally, and go see what they have to offer.

When you’re leaving home in the morning, take a few extra minutes to check you’ve planned for what you’re doing… will you need a reusable coffee cup? Water bottle? Shopping bag?

f you run out of time, or forget, don’t beat yourself up. Change is a process.

Be gentle, and give yourself time.

Set yourself reminders

We don’t remember everything in the beginning. We haven’t developed those habits. They will come in time – in the same way that you never leave your house without your shoes or keys, eventually you’ll add reusables to the list.

But in the short term, help yourself out! Write yourself little notes and pop them by the front door, or by your shoes, or the keys. Put them on the dashboard of the car. Put reminders in your phone.

Create visual cues whilst your subconscious is still working on memorising your new habits.

See mistakes or problems as opportunities and dilemmas

When we start, we make mistakes. (Hey, 7 years down the track I still make mistakes! Just less, hopefully!) Don’t see this as failing.

See it as an opportunity to learn and do things differently next time.

In the old days of Plastic Free July we used to encourage people to collect all their mistakes and plastic purchases and keep them in a “dilemma” bag. It’s not something we talk about today, but many people still find it useful.

The dilemma bag is a way to keep your plastic during the month, and rather than feeling bad about it, use those items as where to try to implement change.

Keep what you accumulate, and then one thing at a time, begin to look for alternatives. Whether it was because you got caught out unawares (how could you plan differently next time), or a product you couldn’t find plastic-free (are there other shops you could investigate) or it was simply because you had a bad day (and we all have those too!), use these dilemmas as clues for doing things differently next time.

Want more tips?

There’s plenty more about living with less plastic in the blog archives, but to stop you feeling overwhelmed at where to start I’ve put together a brand new free eBook with 9 tips for living with less plastic. I’ll also send you my latest posts (published weekly) with more thoughts on living with less waste.

I’ve talked about reusables a little in there, but I’ve also talked about some other simple swaps you might not have considered.For the last couple of years, I’ve also run a free daily challenge over on social media where I share a tip a day. If you’d like to follow over on instagram or Facebook, I’d love to see you there. Plus if you’d like the tips to keep, I’ve packed them all into a mini PDF eBook.

If it’s your first Plastic Free July then I wish you a fun and enjoyable challenge, and if you’re returning for another year then I hope that this year is your best yet. As always, be sure to share your tips and tricks and wins and a-ha moments with us!

We are in this together! Happy Plastic Free July!

A Guide to Plastic Straw Alternatives (+ Encouraging Venues to go Straw Free)

When it comes to reducing our personal plastic use, and also tackling plastic pollution, it’s not a case of targeting everything at once. For most people that’s overwhelming and a recipe for giving up.

A more realistic approach is choosing one thing to focus on, or maybe a couple of things, and work towards making these changes before embarking on the next thing.

Rethinking single-use plastic items (and particularly plastic packaging) is a great place to start. These kinds of items always feature in the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups and litter pick-ups. They create a litter problem because they are lightweight and easily escape into the environment.

They are also items that are easy to avoid or replace. There are usually multiple solutions.

One of the top 10 items found in litter pick-ups and beach clean-ups is plastic straws. When we are trying to reduce our plastic footprint – and encourage others to do so – tackling plastic straws is an easy first step.

Plastic Straws are Not Recycled

One plastic straw might seem small, but it’s the quantity that is used that causes the issue. It is estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws daily.

Typically plastic straws are made from polypropylene (PP, plastic #5) or less commonly, polystyrene (PS, plastic #6). Polystyrene isn’t always the white, fluffy looking stuff – that’s actually expanded polystyrene. Straws use the non-expanded type, which is also used for coat hangers and bread tags, is coloured (or black) and looks nothing like the white version.

Plastic straws aren’t easily recycled. Partly this is because they are made from a plastic that isn’t commonly recycled. They are also too small and light to be separated successfully with machinery at the Material Recovery Facilities.

Even when polypropylene and polystyrene is recycled, it’s generally mixed with virgin (new) plastic to maintain the quality, so it’s not a closed loop.

Plastic Straws Can Be Refused

The great thing about plastic straws is that they can be refused. It’s literally as simple as ordering a drink and saying “no straw, please”.

Reusable Straw Options Exist

Reusable straw options exist, in glass (toughened glass that is similar to that used in Pyrex), metal (usually stainless steel) and bamboo. Different lengths and widths are available; which one is best is personal choice.

Personally I like the feeling of glass over stainless steel, but I do carry a stainless steel straw in my reusable cutlery set as it fits.

Cleaning brushes are just as readily available to remove debris.

(If you’d like to invest in a reusable straw, you might find my worldwide list of independent ethical online stores useful.)

Increasingly, venues are providing reusable straws for their customers rather than single-use disposables. These tend to be glass or stainless steel which can be sterilized. As with all kitchenware, these will be cleaned thoroughly and sanitized between customers.

Venues Can Provide Single-Use (Plastic-Free) Straws

Banning plastic straws is not the same as banning straws altogether. Banning plastic straws does not mean discriminating against people who need to use straws because they are elderly, frail or have mobility issues.

Banning plastic straws doesn’t mean that those few drinks that really work better with a straw (frozen drinks or fresh drinking coconuts) are off the menu.

Single-use alternatives that are plastic-free include FSC-certified paper straws, bamboo straws and straws that are literally made from straw. (Straw – that’s what straws were made from until plastic took over. Hence the name!)

Some venues provide multiple options: this cafe in Paros, Greece offers both bamboo and stainless steel reusables for its customers, as well as single-use straw straws.

Single-Use Straws by Request Only

Many venues are beginning to recognize the waste and litter created by straws, replace their plastic straws with non-plastic alternatives, and/or offer straws by request only. Venues deal with hundreds or thousands of customers every day, so one venue deciding to go straw free can have a real impact.

As individuals, we can change our own personal habits, but we can also try to encourage our local cafes, restaurants and food vendors to join the movement. Consider approaching your favourites and asking if they’d consider removing plastic-straws.

There are a number of groups working to encourage more businesses to get on board. Three that map out participating vendors are:

The Last Plastic Straw (USA)

The Last Straw (Australia)

Straw Wars (UK)

Tackling Plastic Straws is a Conversation Starter to the Wider Issues of Plastic

The thing I love about the plastic straw problem is that solving it really requires very little effort on our part. It doesn’t require changing habits or even remembering to bring reusables. It starts with saying “no thanks”.

But at the same time, it’s a powerful way to begin the conversation with people who might not know about the plastic pollution issue, or who haven’t given much thought to the burden of single-use plastic.

Every time we say “no thanks”, we have an opportunity to talk about why. We can talk about why we are avoiding single-use plastics – whether it’s to use less resources, to reduce litter, to protect the oceans, for health reasons, or because we simply love a challenge. We can talk about the alternatives to single-use plastics. We can share success stories and examples.

We have the power to change our own habits, and we have the power to influence others. We can influence by leading by example, and we can influence by beginning conversations. That’s how we spread ideas; that’s how ideas become movements; and that’s how we bring about change.

Plastic straws are just the beginning. That is exactly where we need to start.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you use a reusable straw, or simply go without? If you prefer reusables, do you have a favourite type? Are there any cafes near you that offer straws only on request, or offer reusables for customers? Have you noticed the awareness rising over the last few months? Please share your thoughts below!

5 Ways to Line a Bin without Plastic Bags

With plastic bag bans increasing, and the awareness around the issue of plastic pollution growing, it seems that plastic bags are on the decline. Which is great news, except it begs the question… what is a good alternative to use to line the rubbish bin?

How to line a rubbish bin without a plastic bag is one of the questions I’m most frequently asked.

As with many of these plastic-free dilemmas, there is more than one solution.

How To Line a Rubbish Bin Without a Plastic Bag

1. Use No Liner At All

This might not work for everybody, and it usually isn’t the first step, but have you considered not using a liner at all, and simply rinsing out the bin between uses?

The first question to ask is: what is actually going into my bin? Is there food scraps and stinky stuff? Or is it just dry, clean non-recyclables like plastic packaging and mixed-material products?

Typically the average household bin is made up of 40% food waste. That’s the wet, gross bit that makes our bin icky. If you can separate your food scraps and dispose of them separately, there might be no need for a bin liner.

If you’re not ready to set up a compost bin, find out if there’s anyone in your area who already has, and who is willing to accept their neighbours (i.e. your) food scraps. There’s a free directory at sharewaste.com.

If you’d like to set up a worm farm (these are great for small spaces and can be kept on balconies or indoors) you can DIY your own with old polystyrene boxes or invest in a purpose-built version like the Hungry Bin.

If you already compost or worm farm, but still produce meat and fish products that you don’t want to compost, you can actually bokashi them (here’s some info about how bokashi bins work). The resulting fermented bokashi contents can go in the compost.

Whilst you’re getting a food waste recycling system set up – or if you just don’t have the energy for this at the moment – and you have space, consider using a large yoghurt tub with a lid / lidded bucket to collect food scraps and keep in the fridge or freezer until bin day, and empty these directly into the external bin.

2. Line Your Bin with Newspaper

When I first went plastic-free in 2012, I switched from using plastic bags to line my bin to using newspaper. I received a free community newspaper in the letterbox every week. If you don’t get the newspaper yourself, ask friends and family, neighbours, workplaces or cafes.

This is how I did it:

Using old newspaper means repurposing something already in existence, and no new plastic is consumed.

(This is how I started; next I focused on how to recycle my food waste to reduce the wet stuff, and then I went liner free.)

3. Line Your Bin with Other Repurposed Materials

If you have large paper bags, old cardboard boxes or other packaging, consider using these to line your bin (or to replace your bin). You might find it possible to empty the contents into an external bin and reuse the vessel again.

With all paper and cardboard, it is better to recycle than to compost, and to compost rather than to landfill. However, repurposing something that has already been used is better than buying something new.

4. Line Your Bin with Certified Compostable Bio-Based Bags

Something I often wonder about purchasing brand new bin liners: why would I buy something brand new with the sole purpose of putting it in the bin?

But I did it myself in the past, and we all start our journey somewhere. If you’re not ready to compost your food scraps, don’t think the newspaper method will work for you, and really want to use a purpose-designed liner, then certified compostable bio-based bags are worth considering as a transition step.

The labels “certified compostable” and “bio-based” are important. Plenty of products exist that say “eco friendly” and “green” but don’t (or can’t) back up their claims. If you want a better option than fossil-fuel based plastic, look for these two terms:

Bio-based means made from plants, not fossil fuels. Sometimes they are called plant-based, cornstarch or PLA. They are still plastic, but not made from fossil fuels.

Certified compostable means that the product has been tested and is proven to break down in hot composting conditions. Certified home compostable means the product will break down in a home compost bin.

To ensure the bags you pick are certified compostable, look for these logos:

However, certified compostable does not mean they will break down in the environment, or in landfills, and no compostable plastic has been shown to break down in the marine environment. They are just as capable of creating litter and harming wildlife as regular bags. As with all single-use items, they use a lot of resources to manufacture versus their useful life. Their main advantage is that they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Avoid oxo-degradable and oxo-biodegradable bags, as these are plastic bags made with fossil fuels that have an additive which means they break down more quickly than regular plastic bags – into microplastic. These are considered by many to be worse for the environment than regular plastic bags.

5. Line Your Bin with Recycled Plastic Bin Liners

If you really need to use plastic, then consider using recycled plastic. The higher the recycled content, the better.

There is so much plastic already in the world, and only 10% of it has ever been recycled. The more we can do to re-use what exists, and stop producing new plastic, the lower the environmental burden will be.

Plastic bags were only actually invented in the 1960s. We managed before, and we can manage again.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you use to line your bin, and how has that changed along the years? Do you have any other tips to add? Or another challenge you’d like some tips dealing with? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

When Is A Plastic-Free Aisle Not Plastic-Free?

A supermarket aisle in the Netherlands made headlines last month, because it was the “world’s first plastic-free aisle”. I saw the headline, but I didn’t bother to read much further, expecting to see the kind of thing so many times before – neatly laid out rows of bulk bins, where customers can use paper bags or fill their own containers and thus avoid plastic packaging.

It was only when a reader shared one of the articles with me and asked for my thoughts that I actually looked at what was behind the headlines.

What I saw was not what I thought I’d see.

This is what the “plastic-free aisle” looked like:

No. Not what I was expecting either.

If there’s one thing that makes me mad, it’s misleading claims and incorrect science. (Okay, that’s two things, but close enough.) Seeing this aisle set alarm bells ringing in my curious mind.

Let’s look at the details.

The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle: What Does It Really Mean?

The “plastic-free aisle” is more correctly called the PLASTIC FREE™ aisle. Specifically, it is a collaboration between Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza (who own 74 organic supermarkets in the Netherlands) and an environmental campaign group called A Plastic Planet. The clever branding was designed by London graphic design studio Made Thought.

The PLASTIC FREE™ name is a figurative trademark, meaning the stylisation and graphic design of the logo are protected. There is no scientific meaning attached to the name or trademark; it’s more like a brand name.

On their website, A Plastic Planet describes the two groups of materials they call PLASTIC FREE™:

“Bio-Materials: Materials include wood pulp, plant cellulose, food waste, grass, algae, and mushrooms. These materials can be made into trays, punnets and clear, flexible films that look and behave like conventional plastic but can be composted into biomass. A Plastic Planet supports compostable plastics that comply with the necessary certification standards: EN 13432 or OK Home Compostable.”

“Other Materials: Metal, paper, carton board and glass are also plastic free.”

In short, the PLASTIC FREE™ logo does not include uncertified biodegradable plastic, but does include certified compostable plastic.

Often companies who use compostable plastics try to distance themselves from conventional plastics by referencing their plant-based origins (using terms like cornstarch or sugar-based). Or they describe themselves as plastic-like, rather than saying they are plastic. However, compostable plastic is classified as plastic #7 on the ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System (RIC), which is used to identify plastic resins.

Find out more about compostable plastics here.

The Issues That The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle Doesn’t Address

Certified compostable plastic is different to fossil-fuel based plastic in some ways, but not all. It is not without issues, either.

1. The Language is Confusing (and Potentially Misleading)

The language of plastics, bioplastics and compostable plastics is confusing for many. A Plastic Planet do a good job of outlining what they mean and don’t mean by PLASTIC FREE™ on their website.

But most people glimpsing the headline or even heading to the store won’t be visiting the website.

Even on the website, there’s some confusing inormation. For example, they feature a video with a supplier holding a green meat tray and saying that in 12 weeks, the tray will disappear. That’s impossible science. Compost, degrade, dissolve, evaporate – call it what it is. Nothing disappears.

The stories about the first PLASTIC FREE™ aisle in the media are not always accurate, either, as different meanings and interpretations are made.

Some reporting claims that all the plastic packaging is 100% compostable. Technically, products certified to EN13432 and Ok Home Composting standards are required to break down by a minimum of 90%, not necessarily 100% (the remainder is “residue”).

This matters, because people believe we have a perfect solution, which is not the case.

2. Plant-Based Compostable Plastic Still Creates Litter

One of the big issues with certified compostable plastic is that it is certified compostable under composting conditions. That is not the same as out in the open environment.

Certified compostable packaging is just as capable of causing litter, blocking a drain, suffocating an animal or being mistaken for food as a regular plastic packaging.

3. Compostable Plastic Doesn’t Break Down in the Oceans

No compostable plastic to date has been shown to break down in the marine environment.

As plastic packaging is lightweight, floats, blows in the wind and can be carried by animals, it ends up in the ocean. Compostable plastic is no different to regular plastic in these properties.

4. Compostable Plastic Needs to Be Composted

Compostable plastic needs to be composted to break down, but consumers are often not aware of this. Landfills do not have composting conditions.

Additionally, some commercial composting facilities do not permit compostable plastics, because they do not run their cycles long enough to actually break down the plastic.

As an example, if a green meat tray takes 12 weeks to break down, but the composting cycle only runs for 10 days, the resulting compost will still have green meat tray plastic pieces throughout.

Unless there are systems in place for consumers to compost their own packaging, or companies to accept this packaging for commercial composting, there’s limited value in selling products in compostable plastic.

5. It Doesn’t Reduce Resource Consumption

Whatever it’s made from, single-use packaging is still single-use packaging. On this scale, single-use packaging is a huge waste of resources.

Growing huge amounts of food (sugar, corn, tapioca) with the sole purpose of synthesizing it into packets so that food items can be neatly displayed with predetermined portions in perfect rows in the supermarket? The land, energy and carbon footprint of that is huge.

When there’s so many people in the world who don’t have enough to eat, there’s also an ethical question around using land and food on this scale to create packaging.

What A Plastic-Free Aisle Should Really Look Like

The answer to the problems of too much packaging, plastic in the ocean, litter and carbon emissions isn’t a different type of single-use packaging.

The answer is moving away from single-use packaging.

The answer is in the return of return-and-refill schemes, container deposits, bulk stores… and just not wrapping every single thing in a package regardless of whether it is actually necessary.

Plastic-free aisles already exist. Bulk stores around the world are demonstrating that real plastic-free aisles are possible. Milk is being sold from dispensers and bottles refilled. Fruit and veg shops are stocking produce without plastic.

The Source Bulk Foods has pioneered the plastic-free aisle in Australia, with more than 40 stores, and have recently expanded into New Zealand and the UK.

Plenty of fruit and veg stores (such as my local Swansea St Markets) have shown that it’s perfectly possible to sell fruit and vegetables without needing to package them.

Even my local (Coles) supermarket has a bulk aisle. Okay, so they haven’t ditched the plastic bags just yet, but it’s progress.

The answer isn’t trying to tweak the current system. The answer is in changing the system. Recognising that single-use packaging in any form is a waste, and trying to find solutions that mean no packaging at all.

The question then, is how do we make bulk stores and return-and-refill systems more accessible (location, practicality, affordability) to the masses?

Solutions already exist. Real solutions that focus on rethinking, reducing and reusing.

That’s where the focus needs to be. The more that these kinds of stores and practices are supported, the more they will grow, the more people they will reach, and the more change will happen.

If we really want to tackle the plastic pollution problem, this is what we need to be working on.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does a plastic-free aisle look like to you? How do you feel about compostable plastic packaging? Do you have access to commercial composting facilities in your area? Where would you like to see change? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

Is there plastic in your teabag?

When I first heard that there was plastic in tea bags, I was shocked. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. The subsequent blog post I wrote about it (back in 2014) is my most popular post to date, having been shared more than 44,000 times. (Yes, 44 thousand. That’s a lot of shocked tea drinkers, right there.)

You can still read the original teabag post here, but I thought it was about time to write an update.

After all, there’s still a lot of misinformation and confusion around which teabags contain plastic, and what the plastic-free options are.

There’s plastic in your teabags

Can it be that every time we made a brew, we are stewing plastic in our cup alongside our tea leaves?

I do so hate to be the bearer of bad news, but yes.

If you’re a teabag-using tea drinker, it is more than likely that there’s plastic in your teabags.

Wait! I hear you say. Not all teabags are equal! True. When it comes to teabags, there are different types. Those different types use different types of plastic, and use it in different ways, but the majority still contain plastic.

There’s the regular pressed paper teabags (the ones with the crimped edges) and yes, these contain plastic. The main reason is that these crimped teabags are pressed shut using heat, and the plastic melts to seal them together. Typically the paper in these teabags contain 20 – 30% plastic.

Then there’s the premium ‘silken’ type, which are always made from plastic (not silk, like the name suggests).

The only teabag type that might be plastic-free is the string-and-tag variety: these can be folded shut and secured with a knot or a staple. But many suppliers of these teabags still choose to use paper with plastic fibres for added strength.

(If the teabag was just paper, and you left it to steep too long, the paper might break down and – imagine the catastrophe – there could be a loose tea leaf floating in your cuppa.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that organic teabags would be plastic-free, but in fact, the majority of those contain plastic too.

Confusing? This graphic should help simplify things a bit:

The main types of teabag – and what they’re made of

Pressed (heat-sealed) teabags

These are the standard square, rectangular or occasionally round teabags that have crimped/pressed edges on all sides, and they always contain plastic. The two separate layers of paper need to stick together to keep the lea leaves in, and paper does not stick to paper by itself. Glue would dissolve in your tea – yuck!

Plastic (usually polypropylene, or less commonly a mix of polyethylene and a polyethylene co-polymer) is woven in between the paper fibres, and melts upon heating to seal the teabag shut. Typically these teabags contain 20-30% polypropylene.

In addition, some companies choose to treat their paper teabags with a chemical called epichlorohydrin to help prevent tears. This chemical is deemed a probable human carcinogen. It is also known to react in water to form another chemical, 3-MCPD, another possible human carcinogen.

Silken teabags

Despite the name, silken teabags are made from plastic, not silk. Usually found in a pyramid shape, the fibres of silken teabags are woven to make them look like fabric.

These teabags are either made from fossil-fuel based plastic (usually nylon or PET – the same plastic that drinks bottles are made from: plastic #1), or plant-based plastic (PLA or poly-lactic acid, usually derived from corn or other plant starch: plastic #7).

When a company says their tea bags are made with cornstarch, they mean plant-based plastic.

Silken teabags are often spruiked as an eco-friendly choice, but teabags made from fossil-fuel based nylon or PET will last forever – clearly not eco-friendly at all. Plant-based plastic teabags are labelled “eco-friendly” as plants are a renewable resource.

Plant-based plastic is sometimes labelled biodegradable, or compostable. However, just because a silken teabag is made of plant-based plastic, that does not automatically mean it is biodegradable. It is more complicated than that.

Biodegradable means broken down by microorganisms over time. There is no stipulation for avoiding toxic residue, nor a requirement that the plastic breaks down into constituent parts, just that it is no longer visible.

Compostable means something different: that the product undergoes biological decomposition at a compost site, and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, leaving no toxic residue.

A product making either claim should quote the standards used in testing to determine this label. Without this, the claim is meaningless. (You can find out more about certification standards here.)

String-and-tag teabags

The filter paper used to produce teabags with a string and tag attached does not need to contain plastic polymer fibres: these teabags close by folding, and are secured by stitching or stapling, rather than by heat sealing.

However, many teabag producers (including organic brands) still choose to use paper with plastic (polypropylene) fibres to add strength to their teabags.

And beware – a few companies crimp their teabags into this shape and attach the string. The crimping is the tell-tale sign that this bag contains plastic. The string is usually stuck on, rather than sewn in.

The string is usually made from cotton. If you do find a plastic-free variety, these teabags are completely compostable.

Teabags made entirely of paper will rip more easily, and will disintegrate if left to stew in a cuppa. If your teabag seems remarkably resilient, the likelihood is that it contains some plastic fibres.

(If you want to see how teabags are made, this short clip from a BBC2 documentary will certainly open your eyes a little!)

Plastic-free tea: What are the solutions?

There are two solutions for truly plastic-free tea.

Option one: look for paper teabags that do not use plastic as reinforcement.

These will be the string-and-tag teabags, but check with the manufacturer as many brands still contain plastic.

Brands that have confirmed that they do not use plastic in their string-and-tag teabags include Tea Tonic, Pukka teas (although their envelopes are plastic) and Clipper (string-and-tag only: their pressed teabags contain plastic).

Bioplastic is still plastic (even if it’s labelled as biodegradable or compostable) so if you really want to choose a plastic-free teabag, steer clear of anything labelled bioplastic, plant-based plastic, or cornstarch.

Option two: choose loose leaf tea

My absolute favourite option is to choose loose leaf tea. The lowest waste option is to buy from the bulk store. If that’s not practical, loose leaf tea can be purchased in tins and cardboard boxes that are fully recyclable.

Loose leaf tea is not as expensive as it appears. Loose leaf tea is often priced per kilo, whereas teabags are priced per bag, which makes it hard to compare.

Actually, it only takes a couple of grams of loose leaf tea to make a cuppa.

The other great thing for cheapskates like me (or rather, people who prefer weak tea) is that it’s much easier to brew a second cup reusing loose leaves than it is with a teabag.

If teapot-washing isn’t your thing, tea steepers are a great way to make a single cup without the hassle of extra washing up.

If you aren’t ready to give up the teabags, there are refillable cotton bags out there, too.

Finally, if you’re a herbal tea drinker, ditch the dried stuff altogether and use fresh leaves. Mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow and there’s nothing like a cup of fresh mint tea.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Did you know that most teabags contain plastic? If you did know, have you made the switch? Have you found a brand of plastic-free tea? Have you given up the teabags and embraced the loose leaf? Have you found a different solution? Please share in the comments below!

Is There a “Best” Kind of Reusable Bag?

With more and more councils, states and countries around the world introducing plastic bag bans, the conversation is finally moving towards reusable bag options. Not a moment too soon, either!

Yet as with all things, there’s plenty of different options out there, and the choice can be overwhelming.

Different people have different opinions about what’s best. Whether that’s upcycled or Fair Trade, recycled, organic or vegan, or what the energy footprint is, we all have different priorities in our quest to live a little lighter.

So no, I don”t think there’s one “best” option. But I do think there are lots of “good” and “better” options when it comes to ditching the single-use disposables with something a little more environmentally friendly.

Reusable Shopping Bags: Zero Waste and Plastic-Free Alternatives to the Plastic Shopping Bag

I’ve highlighted some of my favourite options below, along with a couple more I think are best avoided.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Using What We Have

It goes without saying that the most environmentally friendly option is using the thing that we already have. Most of us have reusable shopping bags.

If we don’t, we’ve probably got old plastic bags from previous shopping trips. Don’t forget about backpacks, holdalls or other bags we might own.

Reusable shopping bags do not need to have been purpose-designed for that specific task. If it has handles and a compartment for shopping, it’s likely good enough.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Borrowing (Boomerang Bags and Mors Bags)

You know those times when we find ourselves at the shops unexpectedly? Or we arrive with a list and then remember we need a few more things? Those times when we either don’t have a reusable bag, or don’t have enough?

Schemes like Boomerang Bags and Mors bags tackle exactly that problem. They recognise that most of us have reusable bags, but we also forget them sometimes. So they provide bags for us to borrow.

These schemes run on the power of community: to source second-hand fabric, sew into bags and leave in strategic locations where shoppers might need to borrow bags. The idea is that shoppers borrow bags, use them, and then return them ready for the next person.

No money is exchanged for the borrowing, although bags can sometimes be purchased to help cover expenses (such as screen-printing labels and providing cups of tea to volunteers).

(If sewing is your thing and you’ve been wondering how you can increase your impact, these groups are always on the look out for enthusiastic new volunteers!)

Reusable Shopping Bags – Upcycled Options

Shopping bags made out of repurposed fabric (think tablecloths, sheets, coffee sacks) is a great low-waste option that makes something good out of something that already exists.

Local markets are a great place to find creative craftspeople in your local area who make and sell reusable bags. If this isn’t an option for you, online marketplace Etsy is a great way to connect with sellers a little further afield. There’s plenty of options in terms of material, shape and size.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Recycled PET

Buying shopping bags made out of plastic can seem a little contradictory for anyone pursuing the plastic-free lifestyle. However, there’s a big difference between making bags with brand new virgin plastic and making bags with recycled PET plastic.

PET is the plastic that drinks bottles are made of. Even if we stopped making plastic drinks bottles tomorrow, there’s a heck of a lot of those plastic bottles already in existence in the world.

Recycling this plastic into a usable (and reusable) product seems a better solution that letting it languish in stockpiles all over the world. PET is also the most recyclable plastic there is.

From a lifecycle analysis point of view, these plastic bags have the lowest footprint of all reusable bags. They don’t demand new resources. Being plastic, they are also lightweight, hard-wearing and incredibly strong.

This (extremely well used and hence rather crumpled) recycled PET Onya bag is over 5 years old. It fits into a tiny stuff sack (you can see what it looks like packed down on the left – that’s a second bag).

From a waste perspective, yes they are still plastic. They can’t be composted at the end of their lives.

As much as I’m a fan of natural materials, I also know that our plastic legacy is something we need to deal with. Recycling PET plastic into reusable bags seems to be a good way to make good of a material already in existence.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But alas, the world isn’t perfect. The road to zero waste is full of compromise.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Cotton/Calico, Hemp and Jute

Natural fibres are a popular choice for reusable bags. They are typically hard-wearing and can be composted at the end of their useful lives. You’ll never see a reusable cotton shopping bag stuck up a tree as you might a plastic bag.

Of the three commonly used natural fibres, cotton is the most water- and chemical-intensive crop to grow. Organic cotton has a smaller eco footprint than regular cotton. For a lightweight, fold-up bag that fits in a handbag, cotton bags tend to be the most practical.

Jute and hemp are both considered more environmentally friendly than cotton, but the bags tend to be bulkier.

There’s a billion places to buy these kinds of bags. The supermarket would be my last choice. I’d much rather support a charity doing great work with my purchase. Or a small business. Or an independent chain. We vote with our dollars, so choose well.

(If you’d like to support independent eco-conscious businesses, here’s my list of worldwide online stores.)

Reusable Shopping Bags – The Ones to Avoid

With so many great options out there, there are a number of less-than-great options that are better avoided. Sometimes we end up with these things before we realise there are better options. Emergencies happen. If that’s you, don’t despair.

Use what you have, and next time, you can choose better.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Thicker Plastic Bags

Some stores are replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable thicker plastic bags (usually polyethylene), often for a small charge.

These bags are made either partly or wholly of brand new, virgin plastic. They may contain some recycled material – if so, the bag should specify the amount.

These are heavier duty, but despite often being called “Bags for Life” they are estimated to be used an average of 5 times. Not single-use, but not much of an improvement. They are prone to splitting, and the handles also stretch when the contents are heavy.

These bags still present a litter problem when they inevitably end up in the environment.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Non-Woven Plastic “Green” Bags

These bags are commonly sold in supermarkets and are called “green” bags more because they tend to be the colour green rather than because there is anything environmentally friendly about them. Although they appear to be made of fabric, they are actually made of plastic. Polypropylene (plastic number 5), to be specific.

They are much thicker than single-use plastic bags, and consequently need to be used many more times to be beneficial to the environment. In fact, a study suggested they need to be used 104 times to be environmentally positive. Truthfully, they tend to fall apart long before they are used that much. They are also bulky and cumbersome.

If you already have these bags, use them as long as you can. When they reach the end of their life, consider replacing with something better.

There’s plenty of reusable options when it comes to shopping bags, but the main consideration is whether it will work for you. There’s never one right choice. Sometimes, it’s different choices for different situations.

Regardless of material, the best reusable is always the one that actually gets reused.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What is your favourite type of reusable bag? Do you have a preference for different materials? Is there an product or brand not mentioned that you’d recommend? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

(Disclaimer – I’m an affiliate for Onya, which means if you click the link and choose to make a purchase, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I have been using their products since 2012: I’d only ever recommend something I have tried myself or that has been recommended to me by you, my readers. As always, my first suggestion is to use what you have or choose second-hand before buying anything new.)

Biodegradable Plastic: Is It REALLY Eco-Friendly?

If there’s one environmental claim that makes me nervous when I see it printed on plastic-like products and packaging, it’s “biodegradable”. Why? Because without context, this label is vague and potentially misleading.

A one-word label like this tells us nothing about the true biodegradability of a product. What does it biodegrade into? Toxic or non-toxic? How long does the process actually take?

Yet companies plaster it on their products in an effort to make us believe they are more eco-friendly. As customers, we gravitate towards these products, as we want to make better choices.

Of course, some companies are diligent and can back up their biodegradability claims with real evidence. But others are not.

For the average shopper, it’s hard to pick out the good claims from the bad ones.

This post will help make some sense of it all.

What Does “Biodegradable” Mean?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass by microorganisms. Depending on the material, toxic residues may remain.

The process of biodegradation is influenced by a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, presence of bacteria and time.

But what does “biodegradable” mean when it’s printed on packaging, or on the label of a product?

There is actually no single common understanding or definition of “biodegradable”, so different companies will mean different things when they use this label. That makes it pretty confusing for us.

We might assume that if a product is labelled “biodegradable”, it will be non-toxic, it will break down in home compost bins, and / or it will break down quickly.

But this isn’t necessarily the case.

The good news is, if a product is truly biodegradable, the company should be able to provide details supporting this claim.

And by details, I mean scientific evidence. Not anecdotal claims by the company CEO that they put it in their home compost bin and it “disappeared”.

Real data, based on actual laboratory tests.

Biodegradable Standards: What They Are and What They Mean

Because there are no defined understanding around what “biodegradability” means, certification schemes have been developed based on scientific standards and testing.

Certification is a way for companies to back up the claims they make about the biodegradability of their packaging and/or their products with scientific data.

Whilst voluntary, these schemes are attractive to companies wanting to demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety of their products.

As consumers, knowing that the packaging / product is certified gives us piece of mind, and helps us make better purchasing decisions.

These are the standards to look out for.

Standards for Biodegradable Plastics:

There are a number of different standards for biodegradable plastics, with different certification schemes established by different certification bodies. There is currently no standard with a clear pass/fail criteria for the degradation of plastics in sea water.

Standards for home composting:

These standards are awarded to products that will break down in home composting systems.

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

Australian AS 5810 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”.

Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the “OK compost” home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature.

Labels proving home compostability are Vinçotte’s OK Compost Home, the DIN-Geprüft Home Compostable Mark and the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) Home Compostable logo.

Standards for industrial composting and anaerobic digestion:

These standards apply to products that will break down in industrial composting facilities or anaerobic digesters within a stated timeframe. (This is not the same as home composting, and these products may not break down in home compost bins.)

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

European Standards EN 13432 / 14995 (13432 applies to packaging only, 14995 applies to plastics generally);

The Australian standard AS 4736 which additionally includes an earthworm test;

ASTM D6400 is the US standard with clear pass/fail criteria;

Japan has no accepted standard, but certification scheme GreenPla is widely used.

Labels proving compostability in industrial facilities are the ABA Compostable Seedling logo, the Vinçotte OK Compost logo, the DIN-Geprüft Industrial Compostable Mark, and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Compostable logo.

The catch with these products is that not everybody has access to industrial composting facilities. Even when they do, the timeframes required to break down these products (typically 90 days) are often much longer than the timeframes these facilities use per composting cycle. In short, these products may not biodegrade at these facilities and some facilities will not accept them.

Biodegradable Products Aren’t Perfect

Even where a product is certified as biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it is 100% biodegradable.

For example, for a product to comply with EN 13432 / EN 14995 standards, at least 90% of the organic material must convert into CO2 within 6 months in controlled composting conditions; and after 3 months’ composting and subsequent sifting through a 2mm sieve, no more than 10% residue may remain (as compared to the original mass).

The Japanese certification scheme GreenPla specifies the minimum level as only 60%.

“Biodegradable” doesn’t mean there are no heavy metals or toxic chemicals present. Each certification standard has its own permitted levels of metals including copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic: US standard ASTM D6400 has the highest permitted levels.

And if there’s no commercial composting facility in your area, it will likely end up in the bin.

Where possible, it’s always better to avoid packaging altogether.

Is “Biodegradable” Labeling Regulated by Law?

With no mandatory standards on biodegradability: however, there are guidelines about how the term “biodegradable” (and other environmental labels) can be represented so that they do not mislead consumers.

In Australia, the Trade Practices Act (1974) requires businesses to provide consumers with accurate information about goods and services. Businesses that make claims such as biodegradable on their packaging must ensure these claims can be substantiated. It’s the law.

Being able to substantiate claims is particularly important if the claim predict future outcomes, such as whether plastics will biodegrade or within a certain timeframe and under certain conditions.

Claims about biodegradability must:

  • Be honest and truthful;
  • Detail the specific part of the product or process referred to by the claim;
  • Use language the average member of the public can understand;
  • Explain the significance of the benefit but not overstate it;
  • Be able to be substantiated.

In Australia, the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has taken action against a number of companies making misleading claims about biodegradability, including supermarket chain Woolworths.

Biodegradable Plastics: A Summary

Companies make unsubstantiated claims about biodegradable products all the time, sometimes deliberately but sometimes because they have a limited understanding of what it really means. Certification schemes are one way for us as consumers to pick out the good guys from the shady ones.

A product saying it’s “biodegradable” should specify what percentage the biodegradable content is, how long it take to break down, what it will break down into, and what conditions it needs to do so. (That’s what the certification labels are telling us.)

Look for products labelled “Home Compostable” first.

Bear in mind that even products that can be composted industrially may still end up in landfills, and  biodegradable plastics do not break down in the marine environment. A plastic bag will still look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle, whether it’s certified biodegradable or not – and biodegradable does not mean digestible.

If biodegradable packaging ends up as litter, it can be just as destructive and harmful as conventional packaging.

Certified biodegradable plastics are better than non-biodegradable ones, but they are not the perfect solution. Refusing, reducing and reusing are always better options, where we can.

What I *Actually* Mean By Living “Plastic Free”

What if I told you that “living plastic-free” doesn’t actually mean living plastic free at all?

Let me explain.

A reader of this blog, Stephanie, recently contacted me to share an online article that she had read, and had found rather discouraging. The article opened with the statement “I’m suspicious of people who claim to live plastic-free” and the title of the article was “I tried to give up plastic for a month and realised it’s impossible.”

Woah.

I like to look towards the positives, the solutions, the next steps. Any article that begins by declaring defeat is unlikely to inspire and motivate (how can it?!) and I tend to avoid reading them. Give me a good news story any day!

But I read this one.

I came across some arguments I hear surprisingly often. What about laptops, and mobile phones, and credit cards? True, I use all these things. I also came across some thoughts that had never crossed my mind before in the context of plastic-free living: using plastic furniture in public spaces; answering the (plastic) telephone at work, or taking public transport (yes, buses and the London Tube both use plastic as a construction material).

I feel that the idea of “plastic-free living” is perhaps sometimes taken more literally than it is often meant.

In my view, there is nothing suspicious about claiming to live a plastic-free life. No-one is out to fool anybody. In my experience, anyone who says they live plastic-free is trying to be as transparent as possible about the things they do and don’t do, the choices they make… and the mishaps they have along the way.

I can’t speak for everyone who claims to live plastic-free, but I can speak for myself. I’d like to explain what I mean when I say that I live a plastic-free life, what I don’t mean, and when plastic-free doesn’t actually mean plastic-free.

Here’s my thoughts.

What Living Plastic Free Actually Means (To Me)

I always say that plastic-free living is a journey. Like any journey, things change along the way. What I mean when I say “plastic-free” today isn’t necessarily what I thought it meant when I began.

My plastic-free journey began in 2012 when I signed up to Plastic Free July and saw the documentary Bag It. Both the challenge and the documentary opened my eyes to the issues, but also my own habits, and made me realise just how much of the plastic I bought was avoidable.

It made me feel embarrassed that I’d never realised before, and determined to do what I could to make a difference and refuse all future plastic.

My first challenge was to reduce all the single-use plastic from my life. By single-use I meant anything that was designed to be used once. Not just things like plastic bags and takeaway coffee cups, but also things like plastic bottles of shampoo. Whilst the container might last a few months, it is not designed to be refilled and is therefore single-use.

With single-use plastic the main thing on my radar, other types of plastic hadn’t yet reached my awareness.

One of the first purchases I made when I embraced this plastic-free life was a reusable plastic KeepCup. I remember my husband (who has been with me on this journey since the beginning) posting a picture of them on Facebook, and one of his old school friends came back with the comment “but it’s plastic!”

We rolled our eyes and shook our heads at this lack of understanding. In our minds, it made total sense!

Of course, now I can see why there was a lack of understanding. Clearly, buying a plastic cup for Plastic Free July is not actually plastic-free in itself. It made sense at the time because it was reducing all the single-use plastic.

(5 years on, this cup is still going. My husband uses it at work. Would I make the same purchase today? No. But that’s part of the journey.)

Six months into my plastic-free living journey, and I’d found plastic-free solutions to a lot of the products that I’d previously bought regularly in plastic. I’d also stopped buying so much stuff generally (my minimalism journey had also begun) which gave me the space to think more carefully about the things that I did buy.

My single-use plastic avoidance became all plastic… where there was a reasonable alternative.

I started out as an idealist, but I soon realised that reason had a part to play. What does “a reasonable alternative” mean? For me, reasonable means practical, affordable (and I am happy to pay more for plastic-free items) and suitable.

It is possible to find plastic-free alternatives to most items. But not all.

Sometimes, plastic items have their place. I avoid new plastic as much as possible, but I’m happy to reuse plastic items to save them from landfill. If I think something is well made, built to last and serves a purpose, and I cannot think of (or find) a better alternative, then I consider plastic.

This includes the plastic olive barrels that I’ve upcycled into veggie beds in my garden, the clothing with plastic fibres that I’ve purchased second-hand from the charity shop, and the empty plastic yoghurt tubs I’m currently collecting via the Buy Nothing Group for mushroom growing.

What do I mean when I say I live “plastic-free”? Well, I mean no single use plastic packaging. I mean that I don’t buy brand new plastic things, unless there is absolutely no alternative, I consider that item to be necessary, and it is not not available second-hand. I minimize my second-hand plastic purchases, but I don’t avoid them completely.

For me, plastic-free is not an absolute. I make exceptions. I’m also very transparent about the exceptions that I make. Plastic-free living is an ideal, a goal to work towards, and a journey. I’m doing what I can, and always striving to do better.

What Living Plastic Free Doesn’t Mean (To Me)

At the start, I was determined to eliminate plastic completely from my life. Over time, I’ve taken a more moderate approach to what’s practical and possible for me.

I still use a mobile phone and a laptop. I have plastic travel cards (a Smartrider and an Oyster card). I have plastic bank cards, and I use plastic money (Australian bank notes are made of plastic). Plastic still sneaks into my life in other ways.

Plastic-free does not mean living in a house that I built myself from tree branches. (Natural building is a thing, so it’s not out of the question that I could live in a plastic-free house. But I don’t.) Maybe one day I’ll get the skills and the space to do it. Or maybe not. For now, I live in a house with recycled plastic/stone kitchen benches, plastic guttering, a plastic bathroom bench, a plastic rainwater tank, plastic doors, windows and frames.

Plastic-free does not mean avoiding touching anything plastic. The pipes that bring water to our house the cables that bring electricity and the internet to our house, every kind of transport (public or private) – it all features plastic.

Plastic-free does not mean refusing medical treatment. I take painkillers in packaging on the rare occasion I need to, I have a plastic filling (I wasn’t choosing mercury as the alternative option).

Plastic-free has never meant (and never will mean) throwing existing plastic away. In my home, plastic that is perfectly usable will never be replaced it with something that is plastic-free for asthetic reasons.

If I need to buy something in plastic so that I can avoid plastic in the future then I do. I buy seeds that come in plastic bags, but I am saving my seeds so in future I can use my own. I bought a second-hand plastic compost bin so that I can make my own compost and not need to buy plastic-packaged soil amendments for the garden.

Plastic-free living, for me, is not about taking things to extremes. It’s about finding alternatives, solutions and better ways of doing things. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists. If I can reduce my plastic by 95%, that’s a lot of plastic refused.

Does it really matter that I use a small amount of plastic to reduce my impact in other areas? To me, no.

When Is Plastic-Free not Plastic-Free?

I am passionate about living with less waste (you might have noticed). For me there are three branches to this, and they are all slightly different. There’s zero waste, which is about sending nothing to landfill. There’s plastic-free, which is about using no plastic. Then there’s the broader aspect of sustainability, using what already exists.

The way I live is the result of these three elements (plastic-free and zero waste and reducing waste) colliding. My ultimate goal is reducing landfill and making the best use of resources. So sometimes I choose second-hand polyester over brand new organic Fairtrade cotton. Or upcycled plastic buckets rescued from landfill over French oak wine barrels.

It’s not that one option is better than the others. There’s rarely a perfect choice. I just do what feels right to me and my values.

I say I live plastic-free because it’s a label that people can understand. It’s certainly a lot less of a mouthful than “I live single-use-plastic-free-and-new-plastic-free-but-occasionally-I-buy-second-hand-things-made-of-plastic-but-mostly-I’m-plastic-free”. It starts conversations, encourages new ideas and provokes dialogue.

Plus, it’s a way of doing something good for the planet, and for ourselves and our community.

I’m not one to dwell on the negatives. I could lament all of the things that I can’t change, and the things that hold me back from perfection. I could give up before I start, because I’ll never make 100%. But plastic-free living is not about perfection. It’s about making better choices. 

There’s so much opportunity to make change to reduce our collective plastic habit. To refuse single use items, make simple switches, avoid plastic packing. Living plastic-free is 95% possible. But even 1% plastic-free is better than nothing. Let’s not get bogged down with the things we can’t change. We can all change something. Let’s do what we can.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you agree that saying plastic-free or zero waste is misleading? Or do you find labels a useful way to strike up conservation and convey ideas simply? Do you use these labels, or do you prefer not to? If you live plastic-free, what plastic compromises do you make? Share your thoughts in the comments below!