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Is “Zero Waste” Even Real?

For me, living zero waste means trying to create as little waste (and that includes recycling) as possible. Refusing single-use items, avoiding plastic, reducing what I purchase, and choosing items that are well made and designed to last.

For bigger, one-off purchases I try to find what I want second-hand.

For the regular, consumable things that I purchase week-to-week (think groceries, personal care products, cleaning products), I try to buy unpackaged. This means unpackaged fruit and veg from the grocer, bringing my own containers to the deli and a reusable bag to the bakery, and my own jars or reusable produce bags to the bulk store.

This way I can buy what I need without bringing home any unnecessary packaging. It means I’m not sending anything from my weekly shop to landfill: everything I purchase, I consume.

Zero waste. At least at my end.

Or is it?

What Does Zero Waste Actually Mean?

Zero waste is both a lifestyle choice and an industrial design term. Whilst they both have the same philosophy – elimination of waste to landfill / incineration – what that looks like in practical terms is a little different.

Zero waste needs to be a whole systems approach, looking at production of goods in terms of systems and design. It looks at everything, from the materials selected, how they are sourced, how they are processed, how they are transported, how they are used, and how they are re-used.

For zero waste, products need to be created in a way that allows them to be reused, not disposed of. This is the idea of the circular economy.

The circular economy is the goal, but it is not the reality. Yet.

Zero waste as a lifestyle is all about what we can do as individuals. Typically, we aren’t designing our own products. We are the end users. Our power is in choosing the most ethical, sustainable options that we can when we need to make purchases.

Supporting the companies doing the right thing, and boycotting those that do not.

These options aren’t always perfect. But they are better.

So when I say that my weekly shop is zero waste, I mean that none of the products I purchased came in single-use packaging. There is nothing going to landfill. I didn’t create any packaging waste in the process.

That’s not to say that there was no waste anywhere in the process.

That’s not to say the farmers didn’t use plastic when growing, harvesting or packing their crops.

That’s not to say suppliers didn’t use plastic to transport their goods.

There will likely be waste somewhere (and possibly, in many places) in the production and distribution of these goods.

But reducing waste at the end point – the point where we, as concerned citizens and empowered communities, can vote with our dollars about the kind of world we wish to see – that’s a start.

It’s an important start.

The zero waste movement is about doing what we can. A step in the right direction is better than no steps.

How can we take the second step without taking the first?

Zero Waste Progress Comes Before Zero Waste Perfection

It makes me sad that people sometimes dismiss the zero waste movement because they want to see perfection. They cannot see the value in zero waste progress.

Why does it have to be all-or-nothing?

I purchase my groceries packaging free from The Source Bulk Foods, an Australian bulk store which encourages shoppers to bring their own containers and refuse packaging. I describe this way of shopping as zero waste.

More than once, some cheerful soul has popped up in a comment to inform me that it isn’t zero waste because there will be waste created upstream.

I don’t dispute this statement.

I just think it’s the wrong place to be focusing.

I know that, prior to my 2012 plastic “epiphany”, I would go to the supermarket and buy all my groceries packaged in plastic.

I would buy individual pots of yoghurt, and “fun size” chocolate bars, and single serve drinks, and pre-wrapped cereal bars.

Occasionally I would go to the bulk store for spices, and when I did I would take a fresh plastic bag off the shelf, and buy my two teaspoons of spice using that bag.

{Cringe.}

I don’t shop this way any more, and I haven’t since 2012. Bulk stores are what enabled me (and countless others) to change this. They provided a solution by making package-free groceries accessible. Without them, avoiding single-use packaging would be much harder.

I’d like to tell you that the bulk stores receive all their bulk goods in reusable, returnable containers. I’d like to tell you that they don’t generate any waste. But that’s not the case.

Yet.

I mentioned the circular economy earlier. As I said, we’re not there yet. Bulk stores are enabling us (the grocery shoppers) to purchase without waste. They create waste so we don’t have to (and create far less than if each of us purchased these same products in packaging week after week).

Less, but not zero.

Bulk stores now need to work with their suppliers to find ways of receiving goods without single-use packaging.

The good news is, that’s beginning to happen.

As more and more of us support bulk stores, and demand for this kind of shopping grows, there’s more incentive for (and more gentle pressure on) bulk stores to start the conversations and take that next step.

If demand is there, it will begin to happen more and more.

We take the first step, and they take the next step.

Moving towards a more sustainable future with a circular economy and true zero waste.

That’s the future. Maybe the near future, but maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play my part and support these businesses choosing the better option. Yes, I’ll buy my groceries packaging-free, and I’ll say my shopping is zero waste.

Even though I know that bulk stores do create waste. Suppliers create waste. Farmers create waste.

Am I saying that zero waste isn’t real? If we’re talking about it on a technical level on an economic scale, in terms of definitions and what-not, then it would be fair to say that zero waste isn’t real.

But I don’t want to talk about it like that, because I don’t think about it like that. For me, the meaning of zero waste isn’t how it’s characterized in dictionaries or interpreted by textbooks.

For me, zero waste is about values, ideals and beliefs. It’s a guiding principle for the choices I make. Choices that help create a better, fairer, more sustainable future for people and the planet.

Whether or not it technically exists, zero waste is very real.

Let’s not get bogged down in the minutiae. Technical details don’t matter. What matters is that we do our imperfect best, support those companies taking the next step where we can, and champion better solutions where we see them.

Small steps, in the right direction, together.

Whether we believe in zero waste or not, we all have a part to play. Waste is something we all have control over, and can do something about. So let’s do something about it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does zero waste mean to you? Do you use the term yourself, or steer well clear, and why? Has your understanding and perception of zero waste changed over time? In a good way, or a not so good way? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Behind the Scenes: What ACTUALLY Happens to Recycling

I love a good tour of a recycling facility or a landfill site. Asking the question “where does our rubbish and recycling actually go?” is one thing, but to actually go and have a look? That’s a completely different experience.

Recycling is presented to us as a green, clean solution – but the truth is, it’s stinky, resource-intensive and run by markets. Meaning, if it’s not cost-effective to recycle, then it won’t be recycled. If no-one wants to buy the stuff that we’re collecting for recycling, then it won’t be recycled.

My first visit to a recycling centre (which has the technical name of Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF – pronounced “murf”) was back in 2012. I’d just taken part in Plastic Free July, and was working hard to reduce my plastic and choose glass, paper and cardboard instead.

That MRF visit changed my perspective on waste almost as much as Plastic Free July did.

Because it didn’t look like how recycling looks like in the brochures.

Because it was kinda stinky and gross, and there was so much of it.

Because the guy showing us around was hell-bent on telling us: if we can’t sell it for good money, we send it to landfill.

This was the recycling from just a few suburbs collected in a single afternoon.

Visiting that MRF challenged my perceptions of recycling. It wasn’t green, or clean. It was a business, and it was running for profit. If landfill was a cheaper option than recycling, then the resources were landfilled. The ones that were recycled were baled into containers and shipped overseas for processing.

Everything went overseas for processing. None of that happened in Perth.

The biggest revelation for me was that glass is not recycled at all in Perth. Some MRFs sell glass to be crushed into road base (which I personally don’t consider to be recycling), but at this MRF, all glass was landfilled.

(Five years later and this is still true: glass is still not recycled in Perth, nor it seems, on the east coast of Australia.)

That visit to the MRF changed the way I viewed waste completely. There I was, choosing glass over plastic, only to find out that all that glass was heading to landfill.

That was not what I had expected.

That was my realisation that it wasn’t just plastic I needed to refuse, it was all packaging. I hadn’t heard of “zero waste” back then, but that visit was the start of my zero waste journey.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with waste ever since, and I’ve been to plenty of MRFs and other waste recovery places to find out exactly what goes on. I thought I’d share a few of these insights for those of you who can’t make it to one.

What Goes on at a Materials Recovery Facility (Recycling Centre)?

This is one of several recycling facilities in Perth. This facility services 5 councils. It cost $20 million to build.

The recycling is dumped on the floor by the recycling trucks, and from there is loaded onto a conveyor belt and the various recycling streams are sorted.

First the cardboard and paper is separated by spinning rollers into mixed paper, old corrugated cardboard and old newspaper (the three structures labelled in the picture below).

The glass is sorted by a tremel, crushed and used for road base. The steel is separated by a magnet, the plastic is sorted by an optical eye that can differentiate PET, HDPE and mixed plastic, and these are separated. An eddy current is used to separate the aluminium.

The resulting materials are baled and loaded into containers for shipping overseas: China, Malaysia or Indonesia. The recycling facility works on 3-month contracts with these purchasers.

What happens once these materials arrive overseas is a grey area. The companies have standards and agreements to adhere to for recycling and processing the waste, but there are also reports that most of the plastic is burned as a cheap alternative to fossil fuels.

What Happens with Commercial Composting?

Commercial composting can use various different “wastes” but for households, there are two main types of collection – those that use a dedicated food organics and garden organics bin (FOGO – they do love acronyms in the waste industry!) and those which compost the general landfill bin.

This facility composts the landfill bin. This means a much higher level of contamination.

Residents tend to put things in their landfill bin that they are told they cannot recycle. That makes sense, yes? But it means plastic, broken glass, pottery, broken electronics and all kinds of other stuff gets mingled in – and sent here for composting.

The first job is when the landfill waste arrives here is to remove as much of the big contaminants (bicycle wheels, gas bottles, large plastic items) from the waste. This is sorted with a big truck. Then it’s loaded into the composting machines, called digesters. They are 67m long, and there are 4 of them at this facility.

The “waste” is rotated in the digester for 3 days before being deposited in a large warehouse (the size of two soccer fields) to mature. It’s turned every few days by a machine, and cooled using giant fans to circulate air.

To prevent odours, the digesters have these enormous biofilters, made of tanks filled with water and wood chips. There are four of these: one for each digester. The air is sucked out with a vacuum filter.

The compost is then sieved and screened to remove metal, plastic, glass and other pieces, and transported for further processing. Because it still has high levels of contaminants, it is only suitable for agricultural use.

Commercial composting facilities that accept dedicated food and garden organics bins have much lower levels of contamination and produce a higher grade compost.

Is This Typical? Is This What Happens to MY Recycling?

The truth is, every recycling facility is different. Some are much more high-tech than this, and some are much lower tech. Some use hand-pickers (real people who separate rubbish and pick out contaminants) and others rely solely on machinery.

Commercial composters are also different, and processes vary. Some councils don’t utilise these services at all, and simply landfill the contents of the landfill bin.

No two Materials Recovery Facilities are exactly the same. (Even where the machinery is the same, the contractors might be different, the ability to sell resources to markets is different, volumes will differ, and operating costs – meaning profitability -will be different.) If you are even the slightest bit interested in waste and where it goes, I recommend visiting your local one. Many (but not all) are open to the public. Contact your local council or waste contractor, and ask if they run tours.

Even if they don’t, there might still be an opportunity to have a look. Ask the question!

No Recycling Facility has 100% Recycling Rates

Recycling is always subject to contaminants, error and changes in the market. Someone putting the wrong thing in the wrong bin can contaminate a whole load (think asbestos and hazardous waste).

Markets change all the time. The value of plastic fluctuates with the price of oil. If oil prices are low, there’s less incentive for manufacturers to use recycled plastic as new plastic will be cheap. If oil prices are high, it’s more expensive to ship low-cost materials overseas for processing.

Councils often encourage us to put things into our recycling bins to get us into good habits. Or, they might prefer non-recycables to go to a recycling facility for sorting and removal, rather than putting them through a commercial composter (where they can do more damage). Or they think it is just too confusing to go into details, and we’ll get overwhelmed if they don’t make it really simple for us.

Acceptance of a material into a recycling bin is not a confirmation that the material will be recycled. It just means that it is the preferable option: to establish good habits, reduce contamination elsewhere, and give us faith in the recycling system.

Recycling Uses Huge Amounts of Energy

Recycling takes a huge amount of resources. Trucks need to collect those recycling bins from our streets, drive them to sorting facilities (and sometimes they get taken to a transfer station first, meaning two road trips) and then heavy machinery is required to sort the different streams. Then the materials need to be baled, loaded into containers and shipped to their final destination – which is often overseas.

Once overseas, there’s more processing and transportation.

Yes, recycling helps reduce new materials from being mined out of the ground. Yes, it uses less energy overall than making new things. Yes, it definitely keeps things out of landfill and keeps materials in circulation longer.

Recycling is definitely preferable to not recycling.

But recycling is not a perfect solution. 

Recycling is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse and repair – they all come before recycling.

Much as I’d love to live completely waste free, we don’t live in a circular economy. Many things are not designed for reuse. I still produce recycling – everyone does. I still receive letters in the mail, purchase the odd thing in paper or cardboard, buy wine in glass bottles on occasion, and  find plastic packaging entering my home.

But I try to keep my recyclables to a minimum. If I can refuse something, then I will.

I pop those things I can’t (or choose not to) avoid in my recycling bin and I hope for the best.

Before I embarked on my zero waste lifestyle, I would see my full recycling bin as a badge of honour for being the responsible eco-citizen. Now I see anything that enters my recycling bin as a waste of resources, a failure of my imagination, a flaw in the system.

Most importantly, I see these things as something to work at improving for next time.

It is fantastic that recycling exists. It saves all those resources from landfill, and gives them the opportunity for reuse. We will always need recycling, but we mustn’t rely on it, or think of it as the solution.

Recycling is a great place to start. But it’s a terrible place to stop. We can do so much better.

War on Waste: How Food Rescue Charities Are Fighting Food Waste

The recent ABC television series War on Waste aired last month, and suddenly everyone is talking about waste. Which, in my view, is a good thing. A great thing! As it should be ;) The more conversations we have around waste, the better.

I watched the series myself and thought it was well made, informative and motivational. It did a great job of addressing the problems. The problems need talking about, definitely. But I felt it only touched on the solutions. Which, maybe, was a missed opportunity. In my view, there are plenty of solutions, and we need to talk about these as much as (or more than!) the problems!

No doubt there wasn’t time for everything. (It was only 3 episodes, after all!)

So I thought I’d explore some of the solutions here. Today, I’m going to talk about food waste, and more specifically, what people are doing about.

Food waste is a huge issue in Australia, with around 40% of food being discarded before it leaves farms, and shoppers throwing away 20% of everything they buy (the equivalent of 1 bag of shopping in 5). The UK reported similar statistics with their Hugh’s War on Waste series last year, saying 1/3 of food produced is never eaten. The figure is similar in the U.S.

The supermarkets are linked to a lot of this waste. With their strict cosmetic standards, unbalanced supplier contracts in favour of the retailer, pre-packaging loose items (where they control the portion sizes), and promotional 3-for-2 offers that encourage us to buy more than we need, they encourage waste at every stage in the process.

Arguably, it’s a broken system. But within this system, organizations are doing what they can to reduce this food waste by distributing some of the surplus to others who need it via charity partners.

Here in Perth there are a number of organisations working to fight food waste by “rescuing” food.

Food Bank: are the largest food relief organisation in Australia. They deal with large quantities and collect food on a massive scale. They don’t go to individual supermarkets to collect discards, but rather collect pallets of food from warehouses for redistribution.

Oz Harvest: with their quirky yellow vans, Oz Harvest collect surplus food from all types of food providers, including fruit and vegetable markets, farmers, supermarkets, wholesalers, stadiums, corporate events, catering companies, hotels, shopping centres, cafes, delis, restaurants, film and TV shoots and boardrooms. They collect both fresh food and dry goods and distribute as is to charitable partners.

Food Rescue WA: a WA initiative of UnitingCare West, Food Rescue WA collects surplus fresh produce (no dry goods) from cafes, supermarkets and farmers and repacks into “veg boxes” which are distributed to charitable partners.

Case Study: Food Rescue WA

This week I had the opportunity to visit Food Rescue WA in Belmont (a suburb of Perth). I was amazed, humbled and heartened by what I saw and learned. They haven’t stood by in despair at what can seem an overwhelming situation; they’ve got to work righting some of the wrongs.

Food Rescue WA have just two full time staff, with 4 casual drivers and 100 regular volunteers. Powered by this volunteer army, and with 4 vans that have been donated, they collect food from 49 supermarkets, sort and re-pack, and redistribute to 78 different charitable organisations.

In addition, they have two food carts which collect food from 37 cafes in the CBD, and redistribute directly to homeless people in the city who have no access to kitchens.

Between them, they supply food to organisations who feed more than 11,000 people every week.

“Waste” products that have arrived and are waiting to be sorted and repacked.

Food arrives here at the Food Rescue WA warehouse in various ways and for various reasons. The black boxes at the front are assorted rejects from the supermarkets. The oranges are an overstock. The yellow container at the back (a cubic metre) comes directly from a farmer, with carrots that don’t meet the cosmetic/size standards.

Food Rescue WA only deal with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also receive eggs for redistribution, and occasionally chilled products.

This second yellow container is filled with cosmetically imperfect but completely edible carrots donated by a farmer. The dimensions of the container are 1m x 1m x 1m (a cubic meter).

The food is then sorted by volunteers and distributed into boxes (old banana boxes). The food is distributed so that each box has variety and colour, and looks visually appealing.

Sorting food and packing into boxes..

A partially packed veg box…

Boxes of colourful, edible food saved from the bin and ready to be distributed by the Food Rescue WA vans to people in need.

Food Rescue WA currently operates from Monday to Friday, but they may expand into weekends. The volunteers arrive at 7am and sorting and packing is generally completed by 10am. The boxes are then delivered, with all charities in receipt of their food by 11.30am.

What happens next is up to the charities. Some cook meals using the ingredients; others allow people to take the boxes home to cook for their families.

This operation provides 11,000 meals a week. That’s impressive in itself, but there’s more. Food Rescue WA don’t just fight food waste, though. They fight other waste too.

Plastic

Firstly, they sort and recycle all of their packaging. They have a plastics recycling system where plastics are separated into their different types (numbers) and then this is collected by CLAW Environmental for recycling.

They even go one step further and remove all the plastic packaging from the boxes they are donating to the charities. They realise that the charities won’t have the time or capacity to recycle the soft plastic, and may not have the knowledge to sort it correctly either.

By removing the plastic before it is distributed, it saves the charity workers a job and also the disposal costs, and ensures it gets recycled properly.

Food Rescue WA currently recycles 4 cubic meters of soft plastic a week.

Cardboard

The food received by charities is packed into banana boxes which can be returned for re-use. Typically a driver will deliver new boxes, collect old empty ones and they will be re-used for packing. Each box can be used several times before it begins to wear out. The cardboard is then recycled.

Food Waste

Food Rescue WA have an innovative composting machine called the Orca that aerobically digests unusable food waste rapidly, and produces a liquid effluent that can be safely discharged into the municipal sewerage system.

The jar of apple sauce on top of the machine is in fact the liquid effluent which comes out of the machine after the contents are aerobically digested, and have passed through a grease trap and filter system.

These fresh veggies were added…

…and 15 minutes later they were well on their way to breaking down. The food waste has no smell, or if anything, it smells like a fresh green salad!

Food Rescue WA did secure backing to fund a composter in the past, but unfortunately could not get council approval to install it.

Fighting Food Waste: What Can I Do?

There’s plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce our food waste at home. We can reduce what we buy, learn to understand the different ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By ‘codes, and also learn how to tell if something is good or bad without relying on the packaging telling us. We can learn new ways to cook things, embrace home composting and get more organized so there are no longer unidentified objects that used to be food lurking at the back of our fridges. (For more ideas, here’s 12 tips to reducing food waste.)

But we can go one step further. We can support these organisations working to reduce food waste. Here’s three ideas:

Volunteer for a few hours at a Food Rescue service such as Food Rescue WA and donate your time to help collect, sort and redistribute food that’s headed to landfill to people who need it. Or if you have a specialised skill that you think may be of use, offer these services!

Donate to the cause. These organisations run on volunteer hours and donated food, but still need to pay for utilities, fuel and maintenance to keep the operation running. Donating money directly to these organizations is better than buying food from supermarkets to donate. There’s already plenty of food out there that needs rescuing, and supermarkets really don’t need our money – the charities do!

Share their story! Tell your local cafe, restaurant, workplace, supermarket, greengrocer or farmer about these services, and encourage them to use them and support the work that they do.

If you’d like to get involved with or support Food Rescue WA, you can find more information here.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What solutions do you have for reducing food waste – at home, at work or in your local community? What organisations are doing great things in your local community and how could you support their work? Any thoughts on the story I’ve shared? Anything else you’d like to add? Please leave a comment below!