From landfill to refill: cleaning products that clean the ocean

This post is a sponsored collaboration with Zero Co.

When I started my waste journey back in 2012, I primarily wanted to reduce my plastic. A few month in I realised that reducing waste isn’t just about the plastic, and so I worked on reducing all my single-use packaging – metals, paper, cardboard, steel and aluminium as well as plastic – and of course, reducing my food waste.

I even went as far as the ‘fitting a year’s waste in a jam jar’ challenge.

And what I realised from that challenge is this: whether or not I can fit my waste into a jam jar or not is not the point. (And frankly, who cares?) If a handful of people can fit their waste into a jam jar, it’s not really game-changing stuff.

It’s definitely not where I want to be focusing my attention.

I’m much more interested in how we can get everybody reducing their waste, whether it’s 90 per cent or 50 per cent or even 10 per cent.

Much better to have everybody doing something rather than a few people doing everything.

And for everybody to be doing something, we need options. There’s no one way to reduce waste. What works for some of us will never work for all of us. The more alternatives, the better.

Zero Co and their mission to untrash the planet

I’m going to confess, the first time I came across Zero Co, it was hard to see past the plastic. Even though my views have changed on plastic since my first plastic-free month challenge back in 2012, I’d still rather see as little plastic as possible.

Zero Co make (palm oil free, greywater safe, plant-based, vegan) cleaning and personal care products. And although it’s plastic, the the packaging that they use to distribute their products is not single-use – the containers are made out of recycled ocean plastic and the pouches are returnable and refillable, to be used and reused over and over.

When I heard about their model, I was intrigued.

As much as I dislike plastic, I dislike single-use even more. Anything that can be used again and again and again is a better use of resources than single-use. For me, it’s about the waste, and how we reduce it.

So yes, I was intrigued, but I had a lot of questions.

(Like, how much ocean plastic? From which ocean? Who collects it? How are the pouches refilled? How many times?)

And so I emailed them, and we had a great back and forth, and then I poured over their website and sent a bunch more questions.

And I’m happy to say that I learned a lot, and I changed my mind.

Zero Co offered to send me a box of their products to try so I could test their products, the packaging and the return system. (And we had an agreement that if I didn’t like the products, there was no expectation to share with you. And if I did share, that I’d be honest and tell it like it is.)

But I think their re-use model is interesting and their transparency is refreshing. That’s how they won me over. It’s one thing to pledge to do things, but quite another to showcase how.

How it works: the Zero Co circular economy (reuse) model

Zero Co have a mission to “untrash the planet” through stopping the production of new single-use plastic, and by cleaning up the plastic already in the oceans.

They do this by distributing cleaning products in reusable, refillable pouches. The dispensers (which you can choose to use with your refills) are made of ocean plastic.

You order the products you want (all packaged in the pouches) and if you need them, you also order the dispensers. They are shipped to your home with no additional plastic packaging.

The box contains a reply-paid (cardboard) envelope for the empty refill pouches. Once you have 15 empty pouches, you send it back for the pouches to be reused.

They describe the model as “like the milkman, reimagined.”

Sounds good so far, but I’m a details person. Luckily, they provided the details.

Ocean plastic

The ocean plastic used in the dispensers is collected from the waters outside Jakarta, Indonesia, via an initiative called Ocean Waste Plastics. Local fishermen collect the plastic, which they sell to Pack Tech, who reprocess the plastic into (amongst other things) the Zero Co dispensers.

These dispensers contain 70% recycled ocean plastic, and 30% non-ocean recycled plastic.

So far, Zero Co have pulled 6,000kg of plastic from the ocean to make their dispensers.

OCEANS 21

One of Zero Co’s newest initiatives is OCEANS21, which has the goal of collecting 21 tons of Australian ocean-bound plastic waste, to turn into Zero Co bottles.

From March until May 2021, Zero Co will invest $5 from every starter box sold to fund their ocean clean-up projects. Their launch event will be in Sydney where they will be making a record-breaking attempt to clean up Sydney Harbour.

From there they will head to Cape York – but they are also working on some more local and grassroots initiatives.

Refillable pouches

The refillable pouches are made of 40% recycled plastic, and are designed to be refilled 100 times. (Yes, it would be great to use 100% recycled plastic, but they found that this compromised how many times the pouches could be refilled – 40% seemed to be the sweet spot.)

Carbon emissions

There’s always going to be a higher footprint with delivery models versus getting refills at a bricks-and-mortar store. It’s worth remembering that not everyone has access to a bulk store that sells cleaning products. To combat this, Zero Co use couriers that carbon-offset their emissions, and ask that empty pouches are not returned until there are 15 of them, to reduce transport emissions and packaging.

They are also looking at how they might get their products into brick-and-mortar stores in the future, whilst maintaining the circular reuse model.

Zero Co Products – a review

The core range of Zero Co products includes air freshener, bathroom and shower cleaner, bodywash, dishwasher tablets, dishwashing liquid, handwash, laundry liquid, stain remover and toilet cleaner.

(They have just finished reformulating the multi-purpose cleaner, which is part of their core range but whose shipping was delayed.)

They also have plans to launch shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and deodorant later in the year, but no firm dates on these yet.

I didn’t try the air freshener, as this is a product I’d never use, and I didn’t try the dishwasher tabs because I don’t have a dishwasher.

And yep, all the products I received worked as they are meant to do – they clean!

(To me, cleaning products are cleaning products are cleaning products – except when they don’t work at all. These worked just as well as any cleaning product I’ve ever bought at the bulk store. But don’t just take my word for it, because since when was cleaning one of my strengths? Zero Co went to the trouble of getting their products tested by an independent lab.)

The one notable feature of all these products is that they are very strongly fragranced. I tend to use unfragranced or lightly fragranced products, and this was quite a shock to my senses. Most of their fragrances are based on essential oils, so it’s not artificial fragrance, it’s just… strong.

(You can read their ingredient lists here.)

This is probably a polarising feature, so it’s worth pointing out.

Someone on my local zero waste Facebook group recently was asking about zero waste laundry detergent with a long-lasting fragrance as she said she was sick of her laundry smelling of “wet clothes”, and a lot of people recommended Zero Co. I actually really like the Zero Co laundry liquid for washing my for towels and linen, particularly when it’s going in the cupboard.

I also found that the strong fragrance of the bodywash and handwash means I use a lot less, which makes the products go further.

But if strong-scented cleaning and personal care products are not your thing, this will be a dealbreaker.

(I wonder in the future if they will launch an unscented range, but for now there isn’t one.)

Could Zero Co products be for you?

As I said at the start, there’s no one zero waste product or idea that works for everybody.

Zero Co probably won’t work for you if:

  • You already buy all your personal and cleaning products at the bulk store, and you’re happy with them;
  • You DIY all of your own personal and cleaning products;
  • You dislike strong fragrances;
  • You live outside Australia (so far they only ship within Australia, but they are looking at overseas options).

Zero Co might be something to consider if:

  • You currently buy products in single-use packaging;
  • You don’t have access to a bulk store (for example, living in regional areas);
  • You don’t have time to get to the bulk store regularly, or you’re not happy with the products on offer at the bulk store;
  • You like the idea of a one-stop shop for all your products;
  • You want to support an Australian start-up on a mission;
  • You like strongly fragranced products.

(If you have any questions, their FAQ page is probably one of the most thorough I’ve ever come across. So be sure to have a read.)

If you’d like to try their products, Zero Co have very kindly offered a discount to my readers. Use the code TREADING10 which will give you $10 off all products (new customers only, one use per customer, minimum purchase $80. Don’t forget you can always go halves with friends or family if you don’t need quite this much, and don’t want to stockpile!).

Visit the Zero Co website here.

How to start a Grow Free Cart (+ share surplus produce with your community)

A Grow Free cart is simply a cart (or a stand, or a table – any surface really) where home-grown produce, preserves, seeds and seedlings are placed and made available to anyone in the community. It’s the ultimate answer to “how can I share my surplus with my neighbours”, or on a more basics level, “what do I do with my courgette/zucchini glut?”

It’s one of a number of awesome neighbourhood community initiatives popping up all over the world. You’ve probably heard of the Little Free Library movement , which is the world’s largest book sharing movement. Books are placed in little free libraries all across the globe, and people are free to take them, and/or add new books.

The Grow Free movement is the fresh-fruit-and-vegetables version of the Little Free Library.

There’s also Little Free Pantries, which are the dry goods/long-life groceries version, and Community Fridges – sometimes called Solidarity Fridges or Freedges depending on where you are in the world.

All three movements help reduce food waste through sharing, and make good food more accessible to those who need it.

Being a vegetable grower, a Grow Free cart seemed like the best fit for me, with a suitable space on my front verge. A fridge requires power, which wouldn’t be easy for me to set up on the verge. There’s already a Community Pantry two streets away from me, so no need for another so close – plus a local church two streets away in the other direction runs a food bank that I make regular donations to (one of my 2021 resolutions).

You don’t have to be a vegetable grower to start one, of course, but it helps knowing that every week I will have things to put on the cart.

I’ll talk you through the steps to get started. If you’re interested in starting a pantry or fridge instead there will be some differences to your setup, but the process will be pretty similar.

How to establish a successful Grow Free cart, in steps

Setting up a Grow Free Cart: what you need

The only thing you really need is a surface on which to place things, so any table or shelving will do. A lot of cart stewards (as people who have carts are called) use baby change tables, because they are a great size, have multiple shelves, tend to be on wheels for easy moving, and have sides to stop babies (and lemons!) rolling off the edge.

Some people go further and rig up a roof for their cart, to protect from the sun and rain, and even paint their carts in bright fun colours. This is the best one I’ve ever seen (in a neighbouring suburb, and how I first heard about Grow Free)…

I’m positioning my cart under a tree, where it has shade, and the one weekend there was a downpour I relocated to underneath my garage door where it was protected from the rain.

I purchased a wooden baby change table second-hand for $15. I spent a long time trying to find a free one, but in the end I decided to pay for one that was exactly what I wanted. Two shelves as well as the top, and unpainted wood, on wheels.

I’ve got a few different baskets that I picked up on the Buy Nothing website. I could use cardboard boxes, but I tend not to have them lying around.

I also got a whiteboard from Buy Nothing that I’ve use to make a sign, and I wrote on a piece of scrap wood for a second sign.

Other people use Eskies/cooler boxes to store more heat sensitive items. I don’t, but I would use a repurposed polystyrene box that chilled products often get delivered in, or track down an unwanted cooler box on Buy Nothing.

My total cost: $15.

Choose your opening hours.

Unlike little free pantries and community fridges, most carts have opening hours. This is because the produce is out in the open, exposed to the elements, and often quick-to-perish. Some are run by community centres, and so open Monday-Friday 9am – 5pm. Others (like mine) are run by people outside their homes. I decided to open my cart at weekends, for now.

It goes out on Saturday morning, and stays out until Sunday evening. Then it’s wheeled back inside until the following weekend.

Finding produce for the cart and people to share with.

Of course, for a successful cart you need fruits and vegetables! Seedlings, seeds and homemade produce are also permitted. My garden has a few things growing, and I chatted to my neighbour with a lemon tree beforehand to get some lemons.

But the best way to find surplus fruits and vegetables is to tell others what you’re doing! I posted to the Buy Nothing group and a local Grow Swap Share group (both on Facebook) in advance of the first outing to let people know what I was doing.

There’s also a directory on the Grow Free website which lists all the carts across the world. I emailed them as soon as I was ready, and added my cart. There’s a local Grow Free Western Australia facebook group too, which I use, but without a doubt my other community pages draw the most people.

(I chose to register my cart with Grow Free because I love the movement and what it stands for. Obviously I can give away vegetables to my neighbours with or without official permission of Grow Free, so there is no requirement to ‘join’, but there’s value in being part of a collection of like-minded people like this and helping spread the word. On their website, Grow Free have some great resources, downloadable flyers, a logo etc and it’s helpful to be able to refer new visitors interested in learning more here.)

Start before it’s perfect.

I took way too long to start my cart once I decided this I what I wanted to do. (Like, twelve months too long.) I was worried about finding the right cart. About whether I’d have enough stuff. That I’d end up with too much stuff and create food waste when I was trying to reduce it. That no-one would come. That everyone would come! That it wouldn’t look inviting.

In the end, I just decided that I had to start. Best decision I made. Sure my cart isn’t beautiful or overflowing, but it’s growing each week and in time it will get to a place where I’m happy with it.

Promote, promote, promote.

For a long time before I started my own cart, I followed along on the Grow Free Western Australia Facebook page. And I noticed that the best carts were the ones that posted each week, saying they were open and sharing their offerings. And so I’ve done the same, and it’s been the best thing for getting people to the cart.

Even though it’s officially on the list as ‘open’ at the weekend, people need reminding. And mentioning what is on the cart also helps with visitors. (Tell people there are passionfruit, lemons and fresh figs and they are there!)

So every Saturday morning, once it’s out, I take a picture of the cart and post to the Buy Nothing group, Grow Free Western Australia group and sometimes the Grow Swap Share group, reminding people that the cart is ready for business and telling them what’s available.

Then on Sunday, I edit the post with an update as usually there’s a heap of different things by then. And people can message to check if stuff is still available before they swing by.

Posting every weekend is a bit tedious and part of me can’t be bothered, but I know it’s the single thing that gets people coming, so I grit my teeth and do it.

Dealing with surplus stuff.

At the end of the weekend, there’s usually a few bits and pieces left. Some things can be popped in my fridge until next week (fresh chillies and lemons will last a week). I usually let my immediate neighbours know if there’s anything left so they can come and take it. I haven’t needed to yet, but I can always post to Buy Nothing if there’s too much for me to use.

Setting yourself (as well as your cart) up for success.

Stewarding a cart isn’t a lot of work, but it isn’t no work, either. I have to put it out each weekend, set it up (which means raiding the garden beforehand for things to share), post about it, and then pack it all away at the end of the day – and then repeat the next day.

I started mine in the hottest month of the year, which meant I had to check back often to top things up (rather than just putting out everything at the start of the day and being done with it).

If this sounds like too much work for you, a Little Free Pantry might be a better often, as they are much more ‘set and forget’.

If you decide to set up a cart, consistency is important for success. I’ve committed to weekends, and so I’m making sure that the cart goes out and that I post about it, every weekend. That way people know to drop things off, they know to come and take what they need. And I can decide if it’s too much work, or if I’d like to do more.

There’s no reason why a cart couldn’t be seasonal (from May – September only, for example) or even just once a month.

(Originally I’d thought about doing a midweek day too, but having been going for about 6 weeks now, I’ve found the weekend is more than enough for me.)

I don’t specifically commit to a time, so I don’t have to drag myself out of bed in order to meet a deadline – I just post when it’s ready. That works better for me.

Why set up a Grow Free cart in your neighbourhood?

Really, the answer is, why not?

It’s a great way to share excess produce with neighbours, meet new people, connect with our local community, reduce food waste, and feel good about taking some kind of positive action in a stressful world.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you heard of Little Free Pantries, Grow Free carts or Solidarity fridges before? Is there one in your area? Have you set one up, or are you thinking of doing so? Any questions about getting started? Anything else to add? Please share your thought in the comments below!

5 ways the zero waste / plastic-free conversation is changing in 2021

How we think and feel about and take action with zero waste and plastic-free living has certainly changed over the years, and 2020 was no exception. But despite all the change and uncertainty and distractions of the last 12 months, I do think that the zero waste and plastic-free movements are here to stay – they are just going to look a little different in 2021.

When I started my own ‘less waste’ journey back in 2012, there were very few people talking and writing about reducing plastic or living zero waste, Instagram was barely a platform back then, and #zerowaste was definitely not a hashtag. (In fact, were hashtags even a thing in those days?)

Since then both the plastic-free and in particular the zero waste movements have grown so much. Keeping your annual waste in a jam jar had its moment (although that ‘trend’ has long since passed – and I think that’s a good thing), journalists and magazines began to feature stories about people reducing their waste, blogs and social media channels on the topic exploded, and mainstream TV programmes even began talking about the issues and solutions.

Awareness has exploded – is there anyone who hasn’t seen the video of the turtle with the straw in its nose, or the skeleton of a bird whose stomach was filled with plastic?

But then capitalism caught up. The hashtag #zerowaste became a marketing term to sell things, and businesses lined up to sell plastic-free products and invent reusables that probably didn’t actually need inventing.

At times, it felt less like a movement to reduce waste and more like a movement to own photogenic items and share them on social media.

And then there was Covid-19. Bulk stores closed or were forced to pre-package their items, reusables were discouraged or outright banned, legislation such as bag bans were reversed, and single-use plastic (takeaway packaging, face masks) seemed to be taking off again.

And on top of that, all the chaos and uncertainty and stress made it a lot harder to keep up with sustainable habits and definitely harder to embrace new ones.

If there was a year that was difficult to be zero waste or plastic-free, it was 2020.

Not to mention, there are plenty of other issues facing our society. Waste is like an on-ramp to understanding all of the other things we could be doing. For some people who started out interested in zero waste or plastic-free living, this has meant moving to talking about climate change, challenging corporate culture, pivoting to focus on social and environmental justice, embracing activism or working in other areas.

As our understanding of zero waste and the wider issues broadens, we evolve.

Once we’ve embraced change in our own life, it’s only natural to start looking at what else we can do and where we can invest our energy (if we have any to spare). Sometimes our priorities and focus shifts away from plastic-free and zero waste, but even where they don’t, the conversations around these topics change.

They have to, if we are to continue making progress.

As I said at the start, I don’t think the zero waste or plastic-free movements are going away. But I do think they are changing. Here are my five predictions for 2021.

1. Less talk about zero waste/plastic-free swaps.

Back in 2012, barely anyone had heard of a bamboo toothbrush and plenty of reusables were yet to be invented. Fast-forward to 2021 and businesses are falling over themselves to sell us more ‘sustainable’ stuff, including plenty of things that we never even knew we needed (spoiler alert: most of the time, we don’t).

That’s not to say swaps aren’t a valuable part of living with less waste. They are most definitely useful, and the right ones (what’s ‘right’ of course, if different for everybody, but it generally means things that actually get used, and often) can really help us reduce our waste (and carbon) footprint.

It’s just that there’s so much less need to talk about them now – in part because everybody already has been talking about them for several years. They will always be a part of the conversation, but they’ll no longer be the centre of attention.

In 2021 it’s time for the focus to move away from the things we can buy, and shift to the things we can do.

2. More focus on community and acting local.

We might want to change the world, but in 2021 more than ever, there’s a focus on ‘think global, act local’.

Maybe that’s because most of us can’t travel anywhere. Maybe it’s because being forced to stay at home for the majority of 2020 has made us realise how important it is to have good neighbours, stronger local connections and a resilient community.

Maybe it’s because it’s much easier for us to have a positive impact on our local community through our actions than it is to ‘change the world’.

Whatever our reasons, good community connections are an important (if underrated part) of low waste living. From joining community gardens to neighbourhood network groups to gifting economies like Buy Nothing, and from donating to the local food bank to picking up litter to supporting on-the-ground groups doing good work where we live, there are so many ways we can get involved and make a difference.

We’ll definitely be having a lot more conversations about this in 2021.

3. More diversity in the voices talking about the issues and sharing of perspectives.

For a long time the zero waste movement was dominated by white women (in terms of media coverage and influence). And this isn’t to say anything negative about those voices in themselves – only that there was a extreme lack of diversity (and therefore a lack of differing perspectives, lived experiences and knowledge) in the movement.

And all good movements need diversity and representation in order to thrive.

This began changing significantly in 2020 after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement when both individuals and businesses started paying attention to this lack of diversity, and doing more to amplify other voices.

(It’s not that non-white or non-female voices didn’t exist, only they weren’t being given the same platforms and opportunities to speak out.)

In 2021 there will be a lot more inclusiveness in the zero waste and plastic-free movements, with different voices being heard and non-white people participating fully in – and leading – the conversations. And they will be much better conversations because of it.

If you notice that the people you’re following and listening to only fit a single demographic, 2021 is the time to diversify and add some new perspectives.

4. More greenwashing.

The downside of more people becoming interested in sustainability, low waste living and climate action is that companies are increasingly keen to be seen to be doing the right thing. (And no, being ‘seen’ to do the right thing is not the same as actually doing the right thing.)

Expect plenty more greenwashing in 2021.

Greenwashing includes companies printing misleading claims on their products, using terms that have no clear and defined meaning (like ‘eco-friendly’ or biodegradable – here’s a guide to what biodegradable and compostable actually mean) or even printing green leaves and recycling symbols all over their packaging so we think they are environmentally responsible.

Greenwashing means companies telling us, the user, that we need to ‘recycle our products responsibly’ when they do not pay for or support infrastructure to make it possible to recycle these materials (theoretically recyclable is not the same as a actually recycled). Companies trying to shift the responsibility to us when it is their design choice to create single-use items and waste is greenwashing at its finest.

Greenwashing also means virtue signalling by companies – the practice of publicly declaring their moral and ethical commitments and concern for people and planet, but they are only surface deep. Scratch further and there is little meaningful action to support these claims.

In short, these businesses are built on unjust and exploitative systems that no amount of tokenism will fix.

An example might be a billionaire-owned clothing company producing billions of fast fashion items every year intended to be worn once or maybe twice, made by people who do not receive a fair wage, and sold in stores by people being paid a minimal wage, with the whole business model built on the idea of shoppers consuming more and more of their products – and then saying that they will help us recycle, which does nothing to stem the flow of clothing into an already saturated market.

(H&M, I’m looking at you. You might not be the only one, but you virtue signal the loudest.)

In 2021 we are going to see a lot more greenwashing, but we are also going to get a lot better at spotting it, and we will see a lot more people calling these practices out.

5. More individual activism, talking about the system failures and trying to hold companies to account.

The more we learn about plastic and waste, the more we realise that our individual swaps and habits will only take us so far. Now I’m the first person to tell you that individual actions matter , but if we want to bring about change we also need to change the systems that cause the problems.

In short, we need both.

It’s not possible for everyone to do both. But there are people that are fossicking through bins and calling out companies and drawing attention to corporations destroying stock or supermarkets binning food rather than donating it, and it is important that we learn these truths and amplify this work.

Big corporations tend to want us as individuals to think that it is solely on our shoulders to reduce our footprints and stop climate change. It’s not. With a simple change in policy these big brands could make a huge difference – but they won’t until the pressure mounts.

In 2021 there will be increasing calls for companies to be held to account for their actions.

So yes, the zero waste and plastic-free movements are changing, and the conversations are shifting.

And (greenwashing aside), this can only be a good thing.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How have you noticed the zero waste and plastic-free movement and conversations shifting over the past twelve months? What are your predictions for 2021? What would you like to see more (and less) of? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

5 simple (and free) things you can do to have a more sustainable 2021

2020, I think we can all agree, has been a year unlike no other. The best-laid plans (no… wait… all the plans) went out of the window, and for many of us it was tumultuous and unsettling and a bit (or a lot) of a struggle. But if you’re reading this, you survived the year that was (hurrah!), and maybe – just maybe – you’re starting to think about the new year ahead, and making plans.

I think the New Year is always a great time for a reset, even if most of us are not making big, bold plans for next year. (If you are, go you! But I’m sitting the big bold plans out for next year. I’m tiptoeing into the new year, in fact.)

Anyways, I think a lot of sustainable habits went out of the window along with those plans in 2020, and I think a lot of us want to at least try to pick a few of them back up again. Honestly, there are probably a million and one great habits that we could adopt for 2021.

But to list a million and one great ideas would be completely overwhelming.

Instead, I spent some time thinking about which habits I’ve adopted over the past few years that have had a big impact in reducing my waste and living more sustainably, have been relatively easy to start and continue to do, and have been free.

If we are going to ease into the new year gently, we don’t need an overwhelming to-do list. We just need a few simple, easy and effective ideas to get started. Here are 5 of my favourite simple (and free) things that you can do, starting today, to have a more sustainable 2021.

Carry a KeepCup with you.

A KeepCup (but you can choose another branded or non-branded reusable travel cup, or even a sturdy jam jar with a silicone band or a few elastic bands around it), is something I recommend to carry in your bag, bike rack or glove box. It is probably the most useful thing in mine.

And I rarely get a takeaway coffee.

Obviously they are great for takeaway coffee (or tea, or other hot drinks). They can be used to dine-in if the place you’re drinking at only has disposables. They also work as a water glass, and to hold food scraps such as apple cores or banana peels that you want to take home and compost. They can be used as a container when bringing a snack from home, or buying small bakery items, or ice-cream, or when you didn’t bring enough BYO containers to the bulk store. And, you can pack a surprising amount of leftovers in them if you eat out and over-order.

In short, they are practical and useful – and easy enough to carry around.

And I think that carrying around reusables (and using them, obviously) is important for shifting the way that society sees disposables. We need to normalise reducing waste if we want more people to do the same.

If we can change the culture, then we are on the way to shifting policy.

These days, there are so many reusable cups about, you probably don’t need to buy one. (Reusables are almost the new disposables, it seems…) Ask friends and family if they have spares, look on giveaway sites, see if there are any abandoned ones at work.

Or you can buy one, if you really want to. But you don’t have to.

(You’ll often find them in second-hand and charity shops, too.)

Whether you rescue or buy, it can be helpful to think about what would be the most useful for you, as there are plenty of different options. And the best reusable is the one you actually use, so choose one that meets your needs.

Glass is more breakable than plastic or stainless steel, but easy to clean and doesn’t absorb flavours.

Some cups are fully leakproof, others leak-resistant, and others not leakproof at all.

You can choose a tall cup, a small cup, a collapsible cup that fits in your pocket, a cup that fits in the drink holder in your car or on your bicycle. Or a jam jar. Whatever it is that will be most practical for you.

The first ‘swap’ I made when I went plastic-free back in 2012 was getting a (plastic) KeepCup. I switched to a glass one when they were launched in 2014, and I still have that same one now. Whilst there are plenty of reusables you can carry around with you (cutlery, a napkin, reusable shopping and produce bags, a water bottle), the KeepCup remains one of my favourite zero waste swaps, ever.

If you switch to one reusable, start here.

Stop throwing away food scraps.

Food waste makes up 40 per cent of the average household bin in the UK, USA and Australia. Stop throwing away food scraps and you’ll reduce your waste by almost half, and you’ll be able to turn those scraps, which are actually nutrients, into compost, to go back into the soil.

And you’ll reduce your carbon emissions, because food waste in landfill creates methane – a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Plus, you’ll no longer have a stinky kitchen bin. Wins all round!

Finding alternatives for your food scraps is not as hard as you think. There are plenty of options.

You might be lucky enough to have a council food scraps collection service (it’s sometimes called FO or FOGO – FO means food organics and GO means garden organics). If you have this option, make sure you’re using it to its full potential. Check what’s accepted and make sure everything that can go in this bin is going in this bin.

If you don’t have this service, there are a few ways you can process your food scraps at home.

You can set up a compost bin. There are two main options – the Dalek-style in-ground bins, that have an open base that you dig into the ground; or the rotary bins that sit on a frame and are great for patios. Sizes vary so you can pick one for a small space or a large family.

Composting is easy and low fuss – if you’re new to composting, this composting guide has more details on how to get started.

You could establish a worm farm. Worm farms can be kept indoors or outdoors: an indoor one is great if you live in a cold climate, as worms will die if they freeze. They are also excellent for apartments. The worms eat your food scraps and make an amazing nutrient rich product called ‘worm castings’ that is fantastic for gardens.

They take a little (but not much) more effort than a compost bin to maintain – mainly because you have to keep the worms alive. Which means feeding occasionally, and keeping them out of extreme temperatures.

Worm farms come in a variety of shapes and sizes: from plastic ‘worm cafes’ to the large capacity bin-shaped ‘Hungry Bin’ to ceramic and wooden designs (I’ve only seen these available in Europe). And there are in-ground versions too, where a tube drilled with holes is dug directly into the ground or a garden bed.

And there’s the option to DIY – in ground worm farms can be made out of old PVC tube, and worm farm ‘cafes’ can be made using two old polystyrene boxes.

You could set up a bokashi system. These are slightly different from composting and worm farming in that they ferment the food scraps rather than breaking them down. The scraps are placed in a sealed bucket with a tap, and a bokashi bran inoculated with microbes is sprinkled on top.

Fill, sprinkle, fill, sprinkle, until the bucket is full.

Eventually the bokashi waste will need to be buried or composted. Some people add to a compost bin, others add to a pot, top with soil and plant it out.

Bokashi systems are popular with apartment dwellers. They don’t smell, and once full the buckets can be stored for months until a place for burying is found. Plus they are a great way to process meat and fish scraps, cooked food and other items not recommended for compost bins.

If you’d like to know more about bokashi systems, this post explains the ‘what’, the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.

And finally, if you really like the idea of not throwing away your food scraps, but you’re not in a place to start composting or setting up a worm farm just yet, you can piggyback off of other people’s food waste systems. For free.

Simply find someone or somewhere convenient to you (maybe a school, or a community garden, or a cafe, or a neighbour), and drop your food scraps to them. Finding them isn’t that hard, either – check out the resources sharewaste.com or makesoil.org.

Download (and start using) the OLIO app

Still on the subject of food waste, but now we are not talking food scraps, we are talking edible food – food that isn’t wanted. Food we bought and didn’t like the taste of, food we bought and then plans changed, food that stores or cafes produced and couldn’t sell, that sort of thing. Well, OLIO is the app that allows people (and businesses) to connect food that isn’t wanted with people that want it. For free.

The OLIO app is free, the food is free. There is no catch, just food to be shared and people who want to help. OLIO has been around in the UK since 2015, and now has over 2 million users in more than 46 countries. Best of all, the app has helped save almost 10 million portions of food since it started.

In fact, because it has been so successful, OLIO has recently expanded into non-food items too.

You can read more about OLIO via their website www.olioex.com, and the app is available on Apple and Android.

Buy less stuff from billionaires (and their companies)

Billionaires really don’t need any more money, and they definitely don’t need their coffers lined further by us. I don’t believe anyone becomes a billionaire ethically and sustainably – but even if you did, hoarding all of that wealth is unethical.

(If you have $999 million dollars, then you are not a billionaire. So we are talking about people who have upwards of this.)

I can’t imagine what you can possibly need all that money for. The biggest houses, private jets, buying up entire islands – surely that’s small change when you’re a billionaire?

Oh, and for context: if you worked every single day, making $5,000 a day, from the year 1500 until the year 2020, you would still not be a billionaire. You’d have to work for 548 years, not spending a penny of what you earned, and earning $5000 a day, every day, to be a billionaire.

And yet billionaires own companies like Amazon and H & M, companies which became notorious during Covid-19 for not protecting their workers (who mostly earn minimum wage – or less), trying to avoid paying suppliers and rent, all in order to maximise profits for themselves and shareholders.

This type of business (and wealth hoarding) only benefits the few.

It’s often argued that poor people and those on tight budgets need to shop at these types of stores, where prices are low, in order to survive. But let’s be totally clear – people on tight budgets shopping for essentials do not create multi-million dollar businesses and billionaires. That comes from the middle and upper classes, and people buying more than they need.

Boycotting billionaire-owned businesses might not be an option for you, and that’s okay. But wherever possible, try to shop at these businesses less. Perhaps by choosing to buy nothing, make do, fix what you have, repurpose something else, borrow something rather than buy it, or shopping second-hand.

Or perhaps by choosing to support a small business or independent retailer instead.

When things are cheap, often the true costs are externalised. We (and definitely not the company) don’t pay for them. Perhaps the resources were taken from land that is being degraded or exploited for profit, perhaps the person who made the item didn’t get paid a fair wage, perhaps the employee who sold or packed the item doesn’t have fair employment conditions or access to healthcare.

We often hear the phrase “when we spend money, we vote with our dollars about the kind of world we want to live in”.

Do we really want to live in a world where a few billionaires hoard wealth at the expense of millions of others?

Join your local Buy Nothing group

Whether you’d like to buy less from billionaires, buy less generally or simply help keep resources in use for longer (and therefore reduce waste), the Buy Nothing project is going to help you – in more ways than you can imagine. It’s a network of hyper-local communities engaging in the true gift economy: giving, sharing, borrowing, lending and placing unwanted and unused items back in circulation for use by others.

The groups operate on Facebook. You can only join one group – the one where you live – and what this means is everyone is close by, so it’s easy to collect an old unwanted table, request a cup of sugar, or ask to borrow some glasses for a party, or a lawnmower, or whatever you need to use (but don’t really need to buy).

The great thing about the group is that generosity breeds generosity. People love to give, people love to receive useful things, and everyone loves to save stuff from landfill.

It also means you get to know your neighbours, and build connections.

My Buy Nothing group is the first place I go if I need something that is the kind of thing someone else might have lying around. It’s the first place I go if I’m wanting to pass on something I no longer need. It makes you realise just how much stuff is already in the world, and how willing others are to share it.

It’s hard to articulate just how great the Buy Nothing project is. If you use Facebook, I’d recommend joining your local Buy Nothing group. And if there is no local Buy Nothing group near you, you can start your own.

The year that has gone has definitely made some sustainable habits harder to keep up with, whether it’s because laws have been changed and legislation brought in, businesses have shifted policy, or life just became too hectic and some things just needed to be dropped.

Whilst we can’t just forget about 2020, and a new year doesn’t magic away all the chaos, there is the chance to reset, even just a little. Hopefully these ideas make your 2021 not only a little more sustainable, but easier and more enjoyable for you too.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you feeling ready to start getting back on track in 2021? Or are you sitting things out a little longer? Are you going big, or keeping things small? What’s the first thing you want to tackle? Any other thoughts? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Where to shop online for sustainable Christmas gifts that isn’t Amazon

Someone on my local zero waste Facebook group recently asked the question, “what are some good zero waste stocking fillers?” and my favourite response was this one: “air”.

When it comes to living zero waste, the less stuff we buy the better.

I’m all for cancelling Christmas altogether, in fact.

But we all like to celebrate Christmas in different ways, and if gifts is your thing, I have some ideas – not on what to buy, but on where to buy it.

If I can’t persuade you to cancel Christmas altogether, then perhaps I can persuade you to spend more of your money with independent small businesses, and less of your money with global mega-corporations, and especially with Amazon.

What’s wrong with Amazon?

Yes it’s cheap, and yes it’s convenient – but we all know that most things that are cheap and convenient are causing issues elsewhere. And that’s definitely the case with Amazon, and its founder, Jeff Bezos.

Bezos is a billionaire, worth around $150 billion US dollars. That’s a lot of money. It’s almost too much money to fathom.

To paraphrase a popular tweet: If you worked every single day, making $5,000 a day, from the year 1500 until the year 2020, you would still not be a billionaire. You’d have to work for 548 years (and not spend a penny of what you earned).

To have as much money as Jeff Bezos has, you’d need to earn $5,000 a day, every single day, for about 77,000 years. (Jeff earns about $150,000 a minute.)

No-one becomes a billionaire ethically and sustainably. And Amazon is notorious for its exploitative practices: from not paying tax, to underpaying workers, to exploiting workers, to destroying small businesses.

(If you’d like to know more, and I hope that you do! – there are two great articles that I recommend you read.

Bezos the billionaire hero? Nope. A really good explanation of what being a billionaire actually means (in the context of greenwashing).

The Ethical Issues with Amazon. A well researched piece with links detailing many of Amazon’s wrongdoings.

Hopefully you’ll give them both a read, but if not, my message is this: this Christmas, if you’re buying gifts, try to give more of your money to business owners that aren’t already billionaires, and are working hard to operate ethically and sustainably.

This post contains some affiliate links. This means if you click a link and choose to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Where to buy ethical Christmas gifts online that isn’t Amazon

Books

So many people tell me that they don’t buy books from Amazon (because boycott), they buy from Book Depository – which is actually (sigh) owned by Amazon. As is Abe Books.

Here are some Amazon-free alternatives.

Bookshop.org. An online US bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. You can choose for the profit from your order to go to a bookstore of your choice, or added to an earnings pool to be distributed among independent bookstores. B-Corp certified. UK Bookshop just launched in 2020.

Booktopia. Australia’s biggest locally owned online bookstore, and one of Amazon’s biggest (Australian) competitors.

Chapters Indigo. Canada’s biggest online bookstore.

Dymocks. Australian bookstore chain. Many Dymocks stores are franchises. One of the better-than-Amazon-but-not-the best-choice options.

Hive. Online UK store connected (and giving a cut to) to hundreds of independent bookshops across the UK, by giving them a chance to sell online through Hive.

Indiebound. Launched by the American Booksellers Association, this is a US site for independent bookstores.

Rabble Books & Games. My local independent bookstore (Perth, Australia) that has an amazing range of books. Champions Indigenous writers and illustrators, LGBTQIA+ fiction, small publishers, and diversity. Made the international news when they announced they were going to remove JK Rowling’s books from the shelves to create a safer space (you can still order them in – profits donated to Trans Folk WA) after outrage from the trans community over the content of her latest novel and other transphobic comments.

Readings. Independent bookstore in Melbourne, Australia which also sells books online. Won Australian Book Retailer of the Year 2020.

Waterstones. Big UK bookstore chain. Owned by a hedge fund so not the most independent and ethical option, but a better choice than Amazon.

Wordery. Has a similar model to Book Depository, with free delivery worldwide, only it isn’t owned by Amazon. A great alternative if you need (free) worldwide shipping.

Zero waste and plastic-free reusables

There are so many online stores selling zero waste alternatives and plastic-free swaps, that it’s possible to find everything you need (and plenty of stuff that you probably don’t!) without using Amazon. These are stores I’ve used, or that come recommended by my readers.

To make it easier, I’ve divided into UK, USA and Australian sites.

Australia:

Biome. One of the best Australian online eco stores (and six physical stores, most in Brisbane), founded in 2003. B-Corp certified business.

Flora & Fauna. 100% vegan, ethical and cruelty-free online store. B-Corp certified.

Nourished Life. Online store selling mainly organic, natural skincare and beauty products. There is a lot of plastic packaging to sift through, but they do have a good range of zero waste products.

Seed & Sprout. An online eco store selling beautiful own-branded zero waste and plastic-free products including reusables, cleaning and skincare products.

Spiral Garden. Natural, ethical and sustainable products (and gardening supplies) from this Tasmanian-based store. Lots of unique items.

Urban Revolution (my local Perth-based store). Garden and zero-waste store with a constantly updated range of items.

Zero Store. Large range of zero waste products, with no plastic in sight. Based in Fremantle, Western Australia.

UK:

&Keep. One of the best UK online eco stores, with a fabulous range of products. (The name, &Keep, comes from the premise that if you buy quality, well made things, you only need to buy them once and you will keep them forever.) Most products are plastic-free.

A Slice of Green. One of the longest-standing online eco stores, operating since 2007. Mostly selling reusables, with a small (but excellent) range of books.

Anything but plastic. Wide range of plastic-free products including skincare.

Boobalou. An eco home store with plenty of zero waste and low waste products.

Ethical Superstore. Not just plastic-free and zero waste products (there is plenty on this site you probably don’t need) but a good one-stop shop of ethical products that isn’t Amazon, including food. Their sister store thenaturalcollection.com has more of a focus on ethical homewares.

Eqo Living. An online eco store selling mostly reusables, with some beauty products.

USA:

Life without plastic. The original plastic-free shop (beginning life in 2006). Many products are completely plastic- and silicone-free, and made entirely of metals and natural materials.

Package free shop. Founded by Lauren Singer of Trash Is For Tossers, with products divided into five categories based on values: ‘circular’, ‘compostable’, ‘organic’, ‘100 % plastic-free’ and ‘vegan’.

Tiny Yellow Bungalow. An adorable zero waste shop of hand-picked products (by the owner, Jessie) with an excellent accompanying blog.

Wild Minimalist. Online store with a great range of products.

Underwear and socks

I had to include a section on underwear because it’s the classic Christmas gift, after all – and probably one of the most useful and usable things you can gift someone (assuming you know their size).

Organic Basics. This is my favourite place to get underwear. And I love their socks. Great quality, and very comfortable. They sell a range of basics, made of organic cotton… which you might have gotten from the name.

Pact. This US brand comes highly recommended by many of my readers. A large range of basics made from organic cotton.

Very Good Bra. The only completely zero waste bra on the market. Stephanie, the founder, is so passionate about zero waste fashion, and it shows. They have just released a range of zero waste sleepwear, and also sell underwear (which I haven’t tried but I’m sure I will love just as much as I do their bra.)

These are my top three, but if you’d like more options for ethical underwear, you might find these posts useful:

A Guide to Ethical + Organic Underwear Brands

A Guide to Ethical + Organic Bras (and Bralettes)

A guide to men’s ethical + organic underwear

And slightly more niche, but still an excellent Christmas gift in my view:

Zero waste periods: the pros and cons of menstrual underwear (+ 6 brands to consider)

Other sites to consider

Etsy. A great online marketplace for finding independent artists and creators making ethical, low waste and upcycled products.

Gumtree. An online classifieds site, where you can find unwanted gifts and lightly-used products, as well as vintage items.

Who Gives A Crap. If there is one thing people need even more than underwear and socks, it’s toilet paper. I’ve given this as a 40th birthday present, and as a wedding gift (more than once). They even make limited edition Christmas toilet paper.

Christmas gifts might not be my thing, but persuading people to look for options away from Amazon and the big box stores most definitely is my thing. Spending a little more (or perhaps, spending the same, or buying a little less) means not lining the coffers of the richest man in the world, sharing the wealth by supporting independent businesses and having a more positive impact on the planet.

If you have any other ethical sites you’d like to recommend, I’d love to hear them. Happy festivities!

How to buy nothing on Black Friday

Every Black Friday, I set myself a challenge. To buy nothing. (I also like to do this challenge in the Boxing Day/January sales. I just discovered this year that Amazon has started a thing called ‘Prime’ day, and whilst I never shop at Amazon, if I did buy stuff from Amazon, I’d do this challenge on that day, too.)

When I Googled ‘Prime Day’ for the purposes of writing this, I found the following explanation: ‘an annual deal event exclusively for Prime members, delivering two days of special savings on tons of items.

‘Special savings on tons of items.’

‘Tons of items.’

Shudder.

If you’ve been reading what I write for more than about five minutes you’ll know that I’m not a fan of stuff. Mostly because I’m not a fan of waste, and 99% of everything we buy becomes waste within 6 months of purchase (according to the Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard).

Stuff uses resources to make, energy to manufacture, fuel to transport and creates carbon emissions at every step of the journey – including the rubbish truck that eventually takes it from the kerb to ‘away’.

That’s not to say that I never buy anything. Of course I do! Some stuff is necessary. Some stuff is not necessary, but we (I?!) buy it anyway.

In my mind, one of the most effective skills to have when it comes to sustainable living, is being able to distinguish between ‘need’ and ‘want’ and resist the constant call of advertising.

And Black Friday is the day (well, one of them!) when I particularly like to test my skills, and resist the siren call of ‘stuff’. Which is the same day that marketers are doing everything in their power to seduce us to buy.

Black Friday, the day after US Thanksgiving, actually has another name – and one that I much prefer. Buy Nothing Day. It’s an international day of protest against consumerism, and it began in Canada in 1992.

And so on this day that is a recognised day of protest against consumerism, and on a day when we are being sold to harder than ever, I pledge to buy nothing.

And if you’d like to join me in buying nothing this Buy Nothing day, I thought I’d help you prepare. Because unless you have a will of steel (and if you do, hats off to you!), you’ll likely find it a little more challenging than you expected.

What Buy Nothing day is and what it isn’t

Buy Nothing day is protesting consumerism, a social and economic order that ‘encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts.’

That’s not to say you’re subscribing to the idea of never buying anything ever again. It’s about standing up to the marketers, not filling your house with more stuff that in reality you don’t actually need and it’s strengthening your resolve to resist the urge to buy stuff on a particular day only.

And if you do genuinely need something, all you need to do is wait until Buy Nothing day is over (which is the following day – but I’d encourage you to wait a full 30 days if you can) before searching and making a purchase.

I know you think you’ll get a better deal on Black Friday, but so many retailers extend their sales to the weekend, and then have Cyber Monday offers, and then do pre-Christmas sales, Boxing Day sales, New Year sales, discontinued sales, fire sales…

You get the picture.

If you need something, you will undoubtedly be able to get a great offer another time.

And if you’ve been waiting all year with your eye on a particular product that you need and hoping for it to reach a price that you can finally afford, and Black Friday is that day, then there’s no need to feel bad about making that purchase. This post (and Buy Nothing day) is not about that.

This is about protesting consumerism, and avoiding going to the shops or browsing online to look for stuff you might like and will probably find useful and buying it all in the name of a ‘bargain’. It’s about not buying stuff that it hadn’t even crossed your mind to buy the previous day.

Buying an essential item that you’ve been looking out for and genuinely need and couldn’t afford any other time is not the same thing at all.

Am I committing to buying absolutely nothing on Buy Nothing day?

That of course, is up to you, but I like to buy nothing at all – even groceries – on Buy Nothing day. Going to the store or a shopping centre or even going online is bound to tempt me to buy stuff I didn’t need.

And so I’d suggest making sure the pantry is stocked, the car is filled with petrol, you have postage stamps, you have laundry powder, and there are emergency snacks in the cupboard (or whatever it is that you might need) in the few days before, so there is no need to head to the shops.

If that’s not going to work for you, have a think about what you might need to buy (you might only get the opportunity to grocery shop on Fridays, for example, or you might be waiting for Thursday payday before you top up the tank with petrol) – and stick to that list.

And of course, if there’s a genuine emergency – you need medicine, or your hot water boiler explodes – of course you can buy these things.

Remember, it’s about protesting consumerism.

How to prepare for Buy Nothing day

Every* single brand you’ve ever shown even the slightest bit of interest in is going to have some kind of offer, and they are going to do their best to make sure you see it – TV adverts, billboards, shop windows, radio, social media feeds, email newsletters, sponsored posts, etc.

(*Actually this isn’t entirely true. Forward-thinking brands are recognising the negative impacts that Black Friday has, and are choosing to opt out themselves, by closing their stores on this day, or pledging to plant trees or donate proceeds they do make – such as via their websites – to charities on this day. It’s sometimes called Black(out) Friday, or Green Friday. But for the most part, brands are still on the let’s-sell-people-more-stuff bandwagon.)

The less adverts you see, the less you’ll want to buy stuff. It is amazing how often a ‘great deal’ makes you consider buying something that just wasn’t on your radar before.

How to reduce your exposure to advertisements, starting now (because most brands are advertising already – getting us warmed up and ready to buy):

  • Avoid the shopping centres as much as possible;
  • Unsubscribe from retail mailing lists (I’d recommend doing this forever, but even if you unsubscribe until after Christmas, you’ll save yourself a lot of temptation);
  • Unfollow those companies on social media that just sell, sell, sell… or at the very least, mute them;
  • Install an ad blocker on your computer or phone to stop advertisements following you around as you browse the web – I use AdBlock Plus which is free to download;
  • Make a plan to do something away from screens on Buy Nothing day.

With sponsored ads appearing everywhere (even in email inboxes) the best way to avoid temptation is to be offline.

Make a plan to do something else on Black Friday – a hike, an outdoor picnic with friends or family, or a swim in the ocean. Or you could read a (borrowed) book, spend the day doing crafts, or start (or finish!) a DIY project.

Fill the time you could be spending browsing the internet with something else.

Resisting temptation on Black Friday

But what if I see an amazing deal on something I’ve been wanting forever?

You might do. You probably will do. It’s very hard to buy nothing on Buy Nothing day. I’ve been doing this for years, and whilst I’m pretty good – I’ve practiced – at not buying stuff, last year I was bombarded with emails and advertisements from software companies and website plugins and other tools I use for my business.

I wasn’t expecting it, the deals were great – and of course I was tempted. I spent the day agonising over whether I should make a purchase, before deciding not to. But it was close.

(Because of course, these were the ‘best deals ever offered’ and ‘for one day only’. Scarcity is a tool marketing companies use very effectively to encourage us to buy.)

For me the goal is to avoid purchasing anything no matter how amazing the deal might be. It’s standing up to consumerism, flexing my ‘no-more-stuff’ muscle, and putting my values where my wallet is. There will be other days to buy stuff, if I really need to.

I find it helpful to ask myself: is it a ‘want’ or a ‘need’? What would happen if I didn’t make the purchase at this price on this day?

What would be the worst that would happen if I didn’t buy it? (We have to answer this based on our unique circumstances.)

I hope you’ll join me in taking part in Buy Nothing day this year. In a society where we are encouraged to shop, shop, shop and that more is good and upgrading is even better, where marketers have even hijacked sustainability and zero waste to persuade us we need to buy (their) things to be eco-friendly, it feels really good to opt-out.

To say ‘no thank you, I have enough stuff and your marketing isn’t going to work on me.’

Embrace the best deal of Black Friday and make the biggest saving you can: save 100% of your money when you buy nothing at all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you a regular participant of Buy Nothing day, or is this your first time? Have you taken part in previous years? Did you succeed or did you end up buying something? Any tips for resisting the siren call of the stores? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How to cancel Christmas (your guide to a truly sustainable festive season)

Yes, I’m talking about Christmas already. But not because I’m planning to spam you with lists of stuff you honestly don’t need. Instead, I wanted to raise the idea of cancelling Christmas – be it the whole thing, or simply the parts that make you stressed, poor and miserable.

The thing about cancelling (or toning down) Christmas – which is why I’m bringing it up now – is that you need to do it early. There will probably be some difficult conversations to have and choices to make, and if you have a plan in your mind and have set your boundaries, you’ll find it a lot easier, I promise.

Now I’m not here to tell you that you should cancel Christmas. I’m here to offer you an alternative to the status quo, and talk you though the steps that I took.

Christmas is a non-event for me. I stopped the gifts, the decorations, the excess food, the waste and the stress of it all at least six years ago. For me, Christmas is a quiet, peaceful (and inexpensive) time of year and I love it.

Every year around this time I like to counter all the ‘sustainable things to buy for him / her / them’ gift guides and ‘zero waste gifts for your boss’s wife / dog / second cousin’s goldfish’ posts by talking about how we can go about December WITHOUT BUYING ALL THE STUFF and working ourselves into a frenzy.

Cancelling Christmas might sound a little extreme, but like most things, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even if you’re not up for cancelling Christmas entirely, there are probably aspects of the holiday that you’d like to let go of (or at the very least, tone down).

This is your permission slip to let the stressful, consumer-driven, wasteful, expensive, unfulfilling and unsustainable parts of Christmas go.

Getting started with ‘cancelling Christmas’

The first thing to do is decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel. It might be the entire thing, or there might just be certain aspects that you dislike. You might like to just do away with the expensive, stressful and wasteful aspects of the festivities.

(For me, cancelling Christmas is not the same as boycotting Christmas. Cancelling is more like opting out, whereas boycotting is actively avoiding Christmas. Boycotting is a lot more work. I might go to Christmas drinks with friends, or eat a mince pie, but more in the spirit of spending time with people whose company I enjoy and indulging in good food than ‘being Christmassy’. I cancel the parts I don’t want to engage in, and I make exceptions.)

To decide which aspects of Christmas you’d like to cancel, take some time to think about what Christmas means to you, which bits bring you joy, and which bits bring anguish.

(You may love Christmas baking or decorating the tree with your family. You may hate going to your cousin’s Christmas party with all the single-use plastic, processed food and your racist uncle, or find the office tradition of buying ‘novelty’ gifts for everyone in your team a little wasteful.)

Action step: write a list of all the Christmas activities and traditions you’re expecting to have this year, and divide them up into ‘things you love’, ‘things you’re ready to cancel’ and ‘undecided’. You can do this alone, or with your family – whichever you think will work best.

Those things on your ‘ready to cancel’ list are your starting point.

Start making alternative festive plans now

Hoping Christmas will go away by ignoring it until Christmas eve (when you realise it hasn’t gone away, and panic purchase a bunch of things) is not a good strategy. Instead, you need to be thinking about this stuff early. The sooner the better.

The first part of making alternative plans is thinking about what it is you don’t like about the existing plans. From there you can decide if there are alternatives that might work better or be a compromise. (I’m not saying you have to compromise, but you might prefer to ease in gradually, especially if your family is less than convinced.)

I also found it helpful to distinguish between what I actually liked and wanted to do, and what I felt obligated to do. If I’m going to celebrate Christmas, I want to come from a place of joy and not a place of obligation or guilt.

Action step: have a think about the following categories, and decide what aspects of each you like and what you don’t like, and how you could make them better (or whether you can do without).

  • Decorations;
  • Food;
  • Gift wrapping;
  • Gifts.

If you’d like some ideas for low waste options for Christmas, you’ll find this post helpful.

Make your rules and set your boundaries

The next step is to make some rules around your Christmas celebrations this year. They might be rules just for you, but more likely there will be rules (let’s call them requests, it sounds less forceful) that you need others to hear.

You might decide that you’re only giving gifts to children this year, and not adults; you might decide that you’re cooking a vegetarian Christmas dinner rather than trying to cater for everyone else; you might decide to only buy second-hand gifts and nothing new; you might decide something else entirely.

Action step: when you’re thinking about your rules, it’s really helpful to think about your ‘why’. What is it about the current situation that you find stressful and why do you want to change? You might have spiritual reasons, environmental reasons, mental health reasons, financial reasons, a mix of a few different things or something else entirely. But knowing why you want to create change will enable you to have better conversations, and also keep you motivated to stick to your rules.

Have some awkward conversations

When it comes to gifts especially, you’ll need to speak to those people you are expecting to give to you (or members of your family). But there might be other things you need to speak about, too. The sooner, the better.

It will probably be an uncomfortable conversation, and can go two ways. On one hand, they might be relieved and pleased to know there’s less expectation, pressure and expense. On the other hand, they might be outraged.

There will probably be a bit of confusion too – why not? What changed? It can be helpful to explain your ‘why’ – that stuff/waste/running around/ spending all your money/trying to do it all makes you anxious, you already have what you need, you’d rather they save their money, Christmas isn’t about the stuff…

If there is a lot of resistance, you might want to discuss compromises. (Then again, you might not!) Compromise a a good way to ease into the shifting of ‘tradition’ and expectation. If ‘no gifts’ is too brutal, maybe a secret Santa arrangement (where a pool of people only buy one gift for one person, rather than for everyone) or some rules around certain types of gifts (no plastic! only second-hand! etc) or choosing experiences instead.

Action step: have any difficult conversations that you need to, but try to make them two-way conversations and not one-way lists of demands. Express your wants and needs but listen to concerns too and try to find a joint place of understanding.

Expect resistance (change never comes in a straight line)

Just because you’ve set some rules, it doesn’t mean that others will follow or respect them. It can be helpful to have a back-up plan – what you’ll say and what you’ll do if people disregard your choices.

Shaking up Christmas can be a big deal for some people, and they may resist. It is my experience that it takes a few years to bring everyone to the party. What helps is sticking to your principles.

For example, you ask for no gifts, and you receive a bunch of stuff you don’t need and know you won’t use. I’m not sure you need to be overly gracious (although you don’t need to be rude). If you have clearly stated your rules and set your boundaries (no gifts, thanks) and someone has just stomped all over them, that’s on them, not you.

You can be polite, and say that you appreciate the gesture but you did clearly ask for no gifts. If that’s too hard (it’s very hard!) you can be polite, say nothing, and make a plan to gift them or donate them as soon as possible.

(I am wary of keeping things when I’ve specifically asked for nothing, as I don’t want to undermine my own rules and reinforce to the other person that they were in fact right. It might be easier in that moment, but it’s not helping in the long-term – and there are a lot more Christmases to come. Here’s a guide to donating unwanted Christmas gifts.)

You might only mention that you donated those unwanted gifts a few months later, when there’s less pressure. It might be that you don’t bring it up until the following Christmas, but these conversations need to happen, and to keep on happening, if you want to create change.

Action step: without overthinking things too much, give some thought to some of the stumbling blocks and how you might be able to deal with them. Having a back-up plan can be helpful.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Don’t be afraid to try things. It’s okay to give things a go and change your mind. If you cancel Christmas and decide it’s no fun at all, you can ensure next year is the funnest yet. You can go strong this year and soften things up a little next year, if need be.

Sometimes breaking the traditions you’ve held for years can be helpful in deciding which bits you actually do enjoy (and miss).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Which bits of Christmas do you love, and which bits are you ready to cancel? Have you already started cancelling Christmas – what did you do and how did it go? How have you adapted over time? Any advice to add? We’d love to hear your thoughts so please share in the comments below!

Zero waste periods: the pros and cons of menstrual underwear (+ 6 brands to consider)

There are three main product types when it comes to having a zero waste period: menstrual cups, reusable pads, and period underwear. I’ve tried all three. I was a very early adopter of the menstrual cup, buying my first one back in 2003, but I was a definite latecomer to the period pants idea – I only got my first pair a couple of years ago.

Today I wanted to answer some questions about period underwear: do they work, how do you look after them, and what are the pros and cons compared to other products.

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

If you’re just after a recommendation, I use and am very happy with Modibodi (this is an Australian site, or try Modibodi UK).

I’ve listed some good alternative brands at the end of the post, if you like to shop around.

Period underwear: how does it work

Period pants are reusable and leak-proof underwear which replaces the need for single-use period products (as well as incontinence products).

The gusset is made of layers of materials that resist stains, wick moisture and absorb liquid. It’s built into the underwear in a way that isn’t particularly noticeable – period underwear looks like regular underwear. You might be able to feel that the fabric is slightly thicker when holding a pair, but when you’re wearing them, you truly can’t feel a thing.

Most brands have products with varying absorbency to accommodate different flows. In the Modibodi range, I have light-moderate (absorbancy is 10ml which is 1-2 tampons or 2 teaspoons), moderate-heavy (absorbancy is 15ml, the equivalent of 2-3 tampons or 3 teaspoons) and the heavy-overnight (absorbancy is 20ml, the equivalent of 3-4 tampons or 4 teaspoons) range.

Other brands make even more absorbent options.

Compared to my overnight pad, the overnight pants are much thinner and far more comfortable.

How long you can wear them will depend on your flow, but in most cases they can last 8-10 hours and up to 24 hours (should you want to wear the same underwear for that long).

What does menstrual underwear feel like to wear?

The thing that really got me over the line to being a fan is how comfortable they are. I can only talk about Modibodi as its the only brand that I’ve ever worn, but they are super comfortable. The fabric is soft, the elastic doesn’t dig in, there’s no weird plastic crackling noises or awkward pad sensation – and there’s nothing to slip out of place.

They absorb moisture really well, and don’t feel wet or sticky. Because the gussets are black (even if you choose a light fabric or pattern) they don’t look much different when used to when they were clean, and they don’t stain.

(In comparison a lot of pads are white. Black is a good design choice, in my opinion.)

How do you look after period underwear?

Easy! They are machine washable, and you just pop them in the washing machine. Most brands suggest using a cold cycle. (I’ve also on occasion put my Modibodi pairs in the 30°C cycle and they were fine, but fabrics do tend to last longer when you follow the instructions.)

Prior to washing (and ideally as soon as possible after you’ve finished wearing them) just rinse them with cold water until the water runs clear. No need to soak, hurrah!

I tend to rinse and then pop in the washing machine ready to go (which is how sometimes they end up on a 30°C cycle.) I always line dry everything, so they go on the line. Dryers shorten the lifespan of your clothing.

How long does period underwear last?

You can expect your period underwear – if looked after properly – to last two to three years. I’m always one to push these things as far as possible, and two years in my original pairs are still fine and working well.

How many pairs do I need?

That depends if you’d like to use them on their own, or in conjunction with pads or a menstrual cup. I use a menstrual cup, so I use the menstrual underwear for when I’m expecting my period to start and I’m going to be far from home, for nights and for exercise (in conjunction with my cup – I have a heavy flow and it can fill up and leak) and on the last day or two.

I started out with two pairs along with my cup, and it did mean needing to launder them mid-cycle. If you’d like to use in conjunction with a cup, you can manage with two pairs but three or four would be better.

If you’d like to use them on their own, it’s going to depend on how often you’d like to launder them. I think you could get buy with five pairs if you’re organised, but you might prefer more. You can always use a pad if you get caught out with no clean laundry.

Pros and cons to menstrual underwear

Things I love about period underwear:

  • Compared with menstrual cups and pads, period underwear is the most fuss-free and straightforward option. Super easy to use, no skills required, and there’s nothing to go wrong.
  • There’s no special maintenance either – no boiling or soaking. Anything that can go in the washing machine is a win with me.
  • Reusable menstrual products are much cheaper over their lifetime than buying disposable products every month. For extra savings, I like that period underwear is a 2-in-1 option – a period product and underwear, too. With pads and cups you still need to provide your own underwear.

Things I like less about period underwear:

  • If you’re a dedicated minimalist, you might prefer the simplicity of a single menstrual cup rather than more stuff in your underwear drawer. This was why I originally resisted buying more pairs of menstrual underwear. But they are just so comfortable, I’ve decided they can have space in my drawer.
  • They are not plastic-free: all brands have polyester and/or other plastics in the gusset lining to make them waterproof. Because it’s a reusable product that I find useful I’m happy to compromise, but if you’re strictly plastic-free these might not be for you.
  • A silicone menstrual cup can last 5 to 10 years, whereas menstrual underwear lasts 2 to 3 years. So you’ll have to replace it more frequently.

Different period pants brands (and why you might choose one over another):

Period pants are a product that are becoming increasingly more mainstream, and I’m sure there will be more companies popping up over the years. I’ve not listed every company, but those with a notable point of difference to other brands.

AWWA (New Zealand) – A small range of undies with a couple of organic cotton options, and period proof swimwear. Sizes from XXS – 6XL. Ships worldwide.

W: awwathelabel.com

Flux Undies (UK) – A few different styles made from Tencel fabric (all in black). Ships worldwide.

W: fluxundies.com

Knix (Canada) – a good range of colours (with some patterned fabric) and styles. Fabric is polyester. Ships worldwide.

W: knix.com

Modibodi (Australia) – a large range of styles and colours, including a range of activewear, maternity wear and swimwear. Their range is made from bamboo fabric. Most of their underwear uses merino wool in the gusset layer, but they have a smaller vegan range.

W: modibodi.com

Modibodi (UK) – a large range of styles and colours, including a range of activewear, maternity wear and swimwear. Their range is made from bamboo fabric. Most of their underwear uses merino wool in the gusset layer, but they have a small vegan range.

W: modibodi.co.uk

Thinx (USA) – a very popular American brand with a great range of styles and colours. Thinx offers a large vegan range; they also have some organic cotton products. Ships worldwide.

W: shethinx.com

WUKA (UK) – have a small range made using sustainable fabrics. Their low flow and heavy flow underwear (only available in black) uses carbon neutral Lenzing modal fabric, and their medium flow underwear (in black and grey) is certified organic cotton. Ships worldwide.

W: wuka.co.uk

Now I’d love to hear from you! If you have any experiences – good or bad – with particular brands or products we’d love for you to share. Any great brands I’ve missed off the list? Any questions about how they work? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

This post contains some affiliate links. What this means is, if you click through a link and choose to make a purchase, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products and brands who are committed to sustainability and quality, because my priority is always you, the reader.

What to do with old plastic when you’re new to zero waste

The scenario: you’ve decided to change your relationship with plastic. Whether you’re cutting out the single-use plastic, choosing to refuse all the plastic you can, or full-on going zero waste, chances are, you already have plenty of plastic in your home.

(I call this plastic ‘legacy plastic’. The stuff you accumulated before you knew any better or gave much thought to where things end up once we are done with them.)

So… what do we do with all this plastic?

I rarely think there is one answer to these questions. As with most things, it depends – on what it is, what it does (even where you live). Here’s a guide to dealing with legacy plastic.

First of all, do nothing

Don’t follow any decision to cut out plastic or go zero waste by immediately throwing every single piece of plastic you own in the bin. Don’t give it all away yet, either.

When we decide to make a lifestyle change, we want to take action immediately – but chucking stuff out is not the action to take (at least not yet).

Instead, you’re better off just noticing what plastic you have in your home, and how you use it. Paying attention to your current habits might not feel as action-oriented as dramatically discarding stuff, but it’s more useful in the long run.

This way, you’ll notice which things you still need and use, and which things are probably ready to be passed on to new owners.

What to do with single-use disposable plastic

Look at all the single-use plastic you’re currently using in your home. (If you find it helpful, make a list to keep track.) This is anything you’re using once before it gets thrown away or recycled.

Some of this will be packaging with products inside: coffee pods, sachets of sauce, shampoo or moisturiser, potato chips/crisps wrappers.

Some of this will simply be single-use plastic: bin liners, gladwrap/clingfilm, plastic straws, zip lock bags, disposable dish cloths.

With the products, you can start to look for alternatives for future purchases that don’t come in packaging. In the meantime, decide whether you’d like to use these products up, or whether you’d prefer to donate them.

When I decided to reduce my plastic use, I used up all the food that I had in plastic packaging because it was ingredients and products I had purchased for eating. It also meant I could slowly replace items and look for alternatives as things ran out, one at a time, rather than trying to do it all at once.

In my bathroom, I had a box full of sachets and free samples I’d collected over the years that I really couldn’t see myself using. I gave these away (I’d recommend Facebook Marketplace, the Buy Nothing project, Freecycle or Freegle to find a new home for these types of things).

With the non-product single-use plastic, the same choice applies – would you prefer to use it up, or give it away?

Deciding to reduce your plastic use and using up what you already have are not contradictory. There’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about continuing to use plastic after you’ve made the decision to use less. You’ll have plenty of future shopping decisions where you can make better choices.

If you feel weird about using plastic now that you’ve decided to give up plastic, there’s no harm in giving things away.

Rather than seeing yourself as an enabler of someone else’s bad plastic habit, think of it as reducing plastic – because if they are going to buy it anyway, better to use up yours than buy a brand new one.

Also, see it as the chance to plant a seed. When you gift the item you can tell them why you’ve made this choice (no need to be judgemental, simply say something like ‘I’ve decided to reduce my plastic use, and I’m choosing to stop using gladwrap now’). It might spark a conversation, and it might not, but explaining your ‘why’ to people can help people join the dots and think about your actions.

What to do with reusable plastic

You’ve probably got various reusable plastic containers, and other household items made out of plastic: hairbrushes, laundry baskets, coat hangers, even furniture.

It is incredibly expensive (not to mention, wasteful!) to ditch all the plastic for non-plastic equivalents. The best option (from a waste standpoint) is to continue using what you have.

But what if you don’t want to continue using what you have?

Firstly, ask yourself why.

Is it because you’ve been reading about the chemical additives in plastic, and you no longer want to store food in it from a health perspective?

Or is it because you think glass storage jars will make for much better Pinterest photos?

It’s your zero waste life and you can do whatever you like to make it work for you. But the fundamental truth is that it is more eco-friendly to use existing resources than buy new ones.

I’m not telling you to keep stuff you won’t use, or telling you that replacing stuff is wrong. But if we don’t want stuff, we can pass it on to others so that they can use it.

And we can try to find our replacements second-hand, to reduce the impact of our ‘new’ stuff.

  • If you no longer want to use something for its original purpose (for example, plastic containers for food storage) ask yourself if you can repurpose within your home. Perhaps they can be used to store non-food items such as laundry powder, or sewing supplies, or stationery.
  • If you don’t have a use for something, find someone who does. Try online classifieds like Gumtree or Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace or other social media platforms.
  • If something is in good condition, you could try donating to the charity shop/second-hand store – but check that this is an item they actually take before you pop it in a collection box.
  • If you’re looking for something to replace it, try those same places you offloaded the stuff you didn’t want: online classifieds, social media platforms and charity shops or second-hand stores. You might not be successful, but it’s important to try.

What to do with broken plastic

One of the major design flaws with this ‘material that lasts forever’ is that it also tends to break. It becomes brittle over time, bits snap off other bits, and eventually it ends up being irreparable.

If you’re truly committed to reducing your waste, the first thing to do is see if the item is fixable. If only a small part is broken, better to try and fix it and keep it in use rather than toss the whole item.

If something isn’t repairable and is most definitely broken, you have a few options.

Can it be reused? You’d be amazed what people can do with broken stuff. From growing mushrooms out of broken laundry baskets, to turning old electrical appliances into lamps, to salvaging parts, your broken items might still have value to someone else.

List your items on the sites mentioned above, being clear about the fact they are broken, and see if anyone is interested. You never know.

Can it be recycled? First, check if your item can go in kerbside recycling (if you have this service).

Next, check all of your other local recycling options.

(Australia) Recycle Near You – a website run by Planet Ark (a not-for-profit environmental organisation), which allows anyone to search for what can and can’t be recycled in their household recycling services, as well as search for drop-off locations to recycle a wide range of items including electronic waste, batteries, printer cartridges, white goods, furniture and more.

(UK) Recycle Now – operated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRP) with information on where and how to recycle in England, with links to sister sites Recycle for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Recycle for Wales.

(USA) Earth911 – one of North America’s most extensive recycling databases, with over 350 materials and 100,0000 listings included.

Can I go zero waste and throw my old plastic away?

The goal of zero waste is to keep things out of landfill, so throwing everything away to go zero waste isn’t zero waste. But the reality is, *some* plastic will probably end up in the bin.

If you’ve exhausted the other options – it’s not reusable or repairable, no-one else is willing to take it off your hands and it’s definitely not recyclable, then there really isn’t much choice but to throw it away.

Waste is a product of our current system, and it’s not something we can completely avoid.

(I mean, you could store it in a jam jar for prosperity so you don’t throw it in the bin, but really, it’s still waste – and hanging on to stuff like this tends to keep us feeling guilty. Let it go.)

Don’t feel bad about having to toss stuff you acquired when you really had no idea about the problems with plastic, and before you had any knowledge about what is and isn’t recycable where you live.

The thing about deciding to go zero waste, or reduce your plastic use, is that it’s a decision made now to guide your actions and choices in the future. But of course we made less-than-ideal choices in the past. Sure we have to deal with these, but it’s not a reason to feel guilty.

As tempting as it might be to toss all our bad decisions away and start with a clean slate, the real challenge of the low waste lifestyle is making the most of resources – by keeping products in circulation and in use.

When it comes to legacy plastic, if we are trying to reduce our waste footprint, we have a responsibility not to add to the landfill problem if it can be avoided. It’s not always easy and we won’t be perfect. But all the things we can continue to use, gift to others if we know we won’t use them, repurpose, repair and eventually recycle, help keep new resources in the ground.

Try your best, and do what you can.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Struggling with legacy plastic and wondering what to do with it? Got some great tips for passing on unwanted plastic to people who need and will use it? Any plastic dilemmas or lessons learned you’d like to share? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Zero waste and the circular economy (and what it has to do with us)

Expressions like ‘zero waste’ and ‘circular economy’ get bandied about a lot. You might call them buzzwords. But the thing about buzzwords is that, as they become more popular, they often lose some of their meaning or get used outside of the correct context.

Which is why people distrust the expression ‘zero waste’ (because on a literal level, it is impossible to waste nothing, ever) and why people often think that ‘the circular economy’ simply means ‘better recycling’.

Wrong!

I thought I’d put together a post explaining what the circular economy is, what the concept really means, how it relates to zero waste, and why it’s about so much more than recycling. In short: the circular economy, and what it has to do with you.

What is ‘zero waste’?

I’ve talked about the meaning of ‘zero waste’ before, but to summarise quickly: it was first coined as a manufacturing term in the 1970s by the chemist Paul Palmer who was interested in reducing the amount of useful chemicals going to waste in industrial processes.

‘Zero waste’ was later adopted as a lifestyle movement in the 2000s: people who live a zero waste lifestyle aim to throw nothing away (nothing to landfill or incinerators) and recycle as little as possible.

By following a set of principles – refuse, reduce, re-use, repurpose and repair – and buying less, the goal is to reduce the amount of waste produced.

Of course, the world isn’t really set up for zero waste living (yet) and almost every person working towards living a zero waste lifestyle will still create waste (if not in their own homes, then it is guaranteed there was waste created upstream).

The way the world works right now, zero waste is more like a philosophy or a set of values than a literal translation. (And because the ‘zero’ part can be misleading or seem unattainable, more people are now choosing to say ‘less’ waste or ‘low’ waste rather than zero.)

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development which is designed to benefit businesses, society and the environment.

This is in contrast to our current model, which is linear, and operates as ‘take-make-‘waste’.

A circular economy is regenerative by design – resources aren’t ‘used up’ but are kept in circulation, and are eventually remade, repurposed, refitted or recycled.

This illustration is an excellent simple summary of the linear, recycling and circular economies. (Source: Plan C – Empowering circular futures.)

The circular economy is based on three principles:

  • Designing out waste and pollution;
  • Keeping products and materials in use;
  • Regenerating natural systems.

You may have heard about Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity uses up all of the resources that can be renewed in a year.

In a sustainable world, we’d be reaching this day on 31st December, and in a regenerative world we’d still have resources left on 31st December.

In our current world, we’re reaching this date on 22nd August. In nine months, we are using up all the resources we have, and taking from future years (and future generations) for the rest of the year.

You can read all about Earth Overshoot Day here.

But of course, different countries use resources differently, and so the people behind Earth Overshoot Day have gone further, and calculated on what day Earth Overshoot Day would be if everyone in the world lived as the people of a particular country.

For the US it’s 14th March and for Australia it’s 30th March. That’s when all the resources for the year are used up.

When you hear the phrase “if everyone lived like Americans/Australians, we’d need four planets – and we’ve only got one” it’s another way of saying this.

But waste and pollution are not accidents. They are design choices. By embracing the circular economy, viewing waste as a design flaw and keeping materials in use (rather than sticking to our current take-make-waste model, we can make better use of resources, and create an economy that is regenerative.

The role of individuals (us!) in embracing the circular economy

Let me guess – you’re not a product designer, and you don’t advise government on economic policy? It’s easy to think that the circular economy is an abstract concept that has little to do with everyday people like us. And it’s easy to think that we, as individuals, have little influence to create change on something so big and all-encompassing.

But both of these ideas are wrong.

The circular economy recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for big and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally.

We might not design products or write policy, but our individual choices are an important part in creating change.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation do a lot of important work on the circular economy (I’d recommend looking at their website if you’d like to know more) and have created this diagram to illustrate the circular economy system- it’s sometimes called the butterfly diagram.

That’s us (individuals), in the middle, split into two behaviours – ‘consumer’ and ‘user’.

We consume things (like energy). But we also use things – and the less things we use up, the better (and more circular).

If you’re thinking this diagram looks complicated, focus only on the blue section, and forget about the rest. This blue part is where individuals have an influence. The loops show all the actions we can take to keep resources in use, and contribute to the circular economy.

Share, maintain and prolong:

Keeping products and materials in use by prolonging their lifespan for as long as possible.

For product designers and manufacturers, this means designing for durability, and making sure it is simple an straightforward to repair an item.

For us as individuals, this means passing on things we no longer use or need to those who will use them, servicing the things we own that need servicing so that they continue to work properly, and fixing stuff when it breaks.

Sharing stuff:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy (the real sharing economy, where people genuinely share stuff). The idea of everyone owning everything they might ever want to use, and most of things languishing on shelves and in cupboards for most of the time, is a complete waste of resources.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the library. (And hopefully, you are all members of your local library!) Mine lends out books (obviously), DVDs, CDs, board games and magazines, as well as ebooks, e-magazines and even online movies and documentaries.

Then there are toy libraries, tool libraries (the Auckland Library of Tools is particularly inspiring, and there’s a new Tools and Things library coming to Perth very soon), libraries of things…

They vary in scale from registered charities to informal community initiatives. The Community Dishes library I set up a couple of years ago is an example of an informal arrangement.

(And of course, then there’s hiring, which is still a form of sharing. Hiring furniture, tools, flatware and glasses, vehicles – it all maximises the use of those resources.)

Fixing stuff:

Whether we fix stuff ourselves or take it to a place to be fixed, mending our possessions keeps them in circulation longer and stops us using resources to make new stuff.

I learned how to sew buttons back on and darn holes many years ago, but that’s pretty much where my mending skills end. However, I am the proud owner of this book, Modern Mending, written by my friend and talented mender Erin Lewis-fitzgerald, which will make me a master mender, I have no doubt.

If you’d like to learn to mend clothes, I’d recommend reading this book.

Longer term, we can start thinking about the longevity of a product when we buy it, rather than realising too late that it can’t be repaired. We can pay attention to quality, and buy things from companies who supply spare parts and provide assistance to fix things (rather than those companies who deliberately make it difficult, so we have to go buy a whole new one).

This (second-hand) coffee machine was easily fixed simply by ordering a replacement seal, and borrowing a short screwdriver to swap it with the worn one.

There is a great free resource called ifixit which provides free repair guides for, in their words, ‘everything’. They believe in the right to repair, and help people fix their stuff.

Reuse and redistribute:

Products and materials can be reused multiple times and redistributed to new users in their original form, or with little enhancement or change.

Reuse:

‘Reuse’ is the part that all zero wasters (and everyone who cares about reducing their rubbish) love. Whether we are talking about the reusables we buy (KeepCups, water bottles, lunchboxes), or the hoarding of glass jars for *all the things*, choosing to reuse is a big part of zero waste living.

But the problem with this individual reuse model is that it’s up to us, the individuals. We have to remember our stuff and we have to seek out the places that will accept it for use.

It relies on us not forgetting, being prepared and planning ahead. It helps if we know our neighbourhoods well. It requires us to have the disposable income to invest in owning these things (and then the organization skills not to lose them).

Imagine if, rather than the onus being on individuals, the system was actually designed this way.

Thinking about reusables like coffee cup and lunchboxes, companies are starting to offer an alternative reuse model – one where the customer doesn’t need to buy or own the reusable, or even hire it – they can simply borrow it.

These schemes are popping up all over the world. Renome is a coffee cup scheme based in Perth – you pay a $3 deposit for the cup and $2 for the lid. The cups can be returned to any participating outlet and either the deposit is refunded, or the cup is swapped for a fresh one.

Returnr is a Melbourne-base business that has lunchboxes as well as coffee cups, and can even be used with the food delivery app Deliveroo. They have a similar deposit scheme – pay $6 to borrow the container, and receive a refund when it is returned.

You might have heard of Loop, the reusable scheme currently being trialled around the world with some of the big-name brands in the big supermarkets in partnership with Terracycle. They supply products in reusable containers, which customers pay a small deposit for, and these containers can be returned and refilled.

The Loop UK trialed launched with Tesco in July 2020, and the Loop Australia trial will start with Woolworths in mid-2021.

If you’re interested in finding out more, Ander Zabala (a UK zero waster) recently wrote about his experience with Loop UK.

(There’s lots I could say about the merits and drawbacks of the Loop scheme, but I’ll spare you – for now. Whether you think this is a great idea or a marketing scam, it is interesting that big companies are looking into this and potentially making the idea of reusable packaging and circular systems a more mainstream and more accessible one.)

Redistribute:

If you own something you don’t use, there’s really no reason to keep it. Give it to someone who needs it and will use it. You can sell stuff or you can donate it – online platforms such as eBay, Gumtree and Craigslist have made it so much easier to find people who want our old things.

My absolute favourite platform is the Buy Nothing project, which is a network of neighbourhood groups dedicated to sharing things (you can only join one group – the one where you live), and runs on Facebook.

I’ve talked about it a million times before, but if you haven’t heard of it, head to the Buy Nothing Project website.

If you’re looking for more options, I’ve written about alternative places to give away stuff you no longer need here, and all the different ways to share excess food here.

Refurbish and remanufacture:

Refurbishment: a largely cosmetic process, where a product is repaired as much as possible, usually without disassembly and. replacement of components.

Remanufacturing: a product is disassembled into components and rebuilt (replacing components as required) to as-new condition with the same warranty as a new product.

The best example I can think of for this is the electronics companies that sell refurbished phones, tablets, mp3 players, laptops and desktop computers that are approved for resale and come with a manufacturer warranty.

Rather than buying new, we can seek out refurbished items. Outside the electronics sector it might not be something we see often, but it’s something to keep an eye out for.

Recycle:

Reducing a product all the way back to its basic material level, which allows these materials (or a portion of them) to be remade into new products.

Recycling is part of the circular economy, but it’s the lowest value of all the processes because of the energy used and material losses that happen when something is recycled.

Recycling something into a lower quality product that then cannot be recycled and has to be landfilled is not the aim of the circular economy.

Plastic recycling in particular barely reduces consumption. Take soft plastics (often used in packaging: crisp/potato chip wrappers, crackers, bread bags, etc). They can be dropped off for recycling at local supermarkets…

They are recycled into traffic bollards and plastic benches.

Whether this is a useful way to use plastic is arguable (it seems there is less of a need for benches to be made out of recycled plastic and more a need to do something with all this plastic), but the issue is, this recycling is doing nothing to reduce the need to use new plastic to create more crisp/potato chip wrappers, bread bags, and so on.

It’s an almost linear system, not a circular system.

Recycling is better than not recycling, of course. And recycling still needs to be encouraged. But as a society, we need to move towards recoginsing that recycling is the last option, not the first.

It’s true, in many places, recycling is our best and perhaps only option. Which is why we need the engineers and material scientists and policy makers embracing the circular economy – they need to design out this kind of waste.

The circular economy needs the involvement of everyone, on all levels. As policies change, systems are redesigned and schemes are introduced, we can support these changes and help them thrive. We all have a part to play.

Manufacturers and big companies sometimes like to make us feel like it’s up to us. All the responsibility lies on our shoulders, and we should feel guilty if we do anything less than.

Have you ever seen the label ‘please recycle responsibly’ on some packaging – and discovered it’s not recyclable where you live? It’s as if, by writing this on the packaging, the company is passing the onus onto us.

But the real question is, why aren’t companies ensuring there is infrastructure to recycle the packaging they produce? Why are they even allowed to contribute to waste and pollution through poor design choices?

As individuals, we mustn’t bear all of the guilt for trying to live a sustainable life when the system often makes it difficult and even encourages waste. But we also have to be careful not to give our power away. To think that we have to wait for companies and governments to act before we can do anything.

We have power in our actions and choices. We can write to companies. We can petition governments. We can support the businesses trying to do the right thing. Where we have the option, can spend our hard-earned money wisely. We can tell our friends and family about good ideas and innovative solutions.

We might not be product designers or policy writers, but work on the circular economy is well underway, and as individuals/shoppers/users/responsible citizens, we have plenty of opportunity to support it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Anything about the circular economy you find confusing? Any good examples of circular systems you’d like to share? Have you used the Loop system, and what was your experience? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!