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Learn skills + share them: how to take action in times of uncertainty

I’ve always been fascinated by skills. Particularly hands-on ones. I’m in awe of people who have skills that I do not – like the shoe man (not a sexist gender assign – the two brothers who run the shoe repair place at my local shopping centre call their business ‘The Shoe Man’), or people who know how to sew, or make things with wood or clay, can fix things, or weave, or, or…

The more turmoil there is in the world, the more I’m drawn to learning skills. Knowing how to do things, even simply understanding how things work, gives me a sense of control (and comfort) in times of uncertainty.

I’m not trying to be completely self-sufficient – in fact, I don’t believe that’s a thing. I know that us humans need each other way more than we’d like to admit. No-one can excel at all the things. Having skills is not about self-sufficiency but self-reliance and community resilience: we need to share the skills we have with others and look after one another.

One of the best things about my zero waste journey has been learning new skills. There are still so many I’d like to tackle (weaving! basket making! grafting!) but I’ve definitely added a few to the toolbox over the years.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity, and comforted that I can draw on them now.

I wanted to share the skills I have not to blow my own trumpet (I can’t play the trumpet! Not a skill I have!) but to get you thinking about the skills you have, and the skills you want to have.

And then, I want to persuade you to share them (but we’ll get to that at the end).

Soap making

This is one of my newer skills (not shared on the blog yet as I’m still at the learning stage) but it’s what inspired me to write this post. With the coronavirus pandemic, a few things have been consistently selling out at the stores – tinned tomatoes, rice, pasta, toilet paper… and soap.

I’ve needed to make a batch for a while, but it takes a few weeks to cure (and harden – which makes it last longer) – and before the making happened, I ran out. So I asked my friend (who is a prolific soap maker) if she had any spare from her previous batch, and she did.

Three bars of soap, no need to go to the shop, no panic rushing around because everywhere was sold out.

Soon I’ll schedule myself a soap making weekend – and one batch will last me most of the year. (If you want some motivation to give it a go, good old-fashioned soap kills coronavirus. Here’s the science.)

DIY skincare

I make a few of my own products from scratch. I’m a big fan of simple, no fuss, easy recipes that require no specialist equipment and ideally use edible ingredients (meaning I can raid my pantry).

I don’t make everything from scratch all of the time. Recently I purchased some toothpaste because I just couldn’t bring myself to make it – even though it’s a two-minute job. (It’s just that there are always a hundred two-minute jobs that need doing, and this one never got higher up the list.)

But if toothpaste runs out at the store, I won’t panic – I’ll make my own.

I you’re interested, these are the things I make and recipes I use:

DIY toothpaste recipe

DIY deodorant recipe

Alternative deodorant recipe (sodium bicarbonate/baking soda free)

Cold cream moisturiser (can also be used as eye make-up remover and cleanser)

DIY zinc cream (used as sunscreen)

I use a shampoo soap bar (which I buy) and a vinegar rinse to wash my hair; prior to this I used bicarb or rye flour in place of shampoo, and it worked well. I’d happily switch back if I couldn’t buy the soap.

If you’re curious, find out how washing your hair with bicarb and vinegar works.

(Oh, and I use white vinegar, which I buy, but I could easily switch to apple cider vinegar, which I make. It’s super easy and you just need apple cores, a bit of sugar and a jar. Link to DIY apple cider vinegar recipe here.)

Learning to cook

I think knowing how to cook is a really underrated skill. I’ve learned to cook over time (because nobody is born with this knowledge!), but going zero waste really next-levelled my cooking game, because I no longer wanted to buy those pre-packaged and convenience foods in plastic – and so I had to learn how to make my own, from scratch.

I don’t think I’d ever cooked a dry lentil or bean before starting out on this zero waste adventure. Turns out, if you can boil water, you can cook lentils. They are cheap, nutritious and delicious. They also expand up to three times when soaked and cooked (both economical and space-saving – a single packet of lentils takes up much less space in the pantry than the equivalent in cans).

Despite knowing how to cook most of the things, there are still days when dinner consists of toast (I’m not proud) or a bowl of pasta with lemon juice, lemon zest, capers, olive oil and parsley. But importantly, the skills to make things are there.

And there’s always more to learn. I’m keen to try making tofu and tempeh. I said that last year. (Oh, and the year before…) Slowly, slowly.

Learning to grow food

I’ve been growing some of my own food for 10+ years (not all of my own food, not even close!) although I had to relearn much of what I knew when I moved from the UK – where I started out – to Perth, which has a completely different climate.

From an allotment to a small balcony, to a bigger balcony, to community gardens and a community orchard, and now my own back yard, there have been lots of lessons.

With the space to now grow fruit trees, I’m excited for the next stage.

But even in the days with the smallest balcony, there were a few herbs. Something alive and edible. Even without land of our own, it’s usually possible to grow something. Microgreens are another good place to start.

Learning to forage

Another useful aspect of growing food is learning to recognise plants, as there are a surprising number of edible plants and fruit trees on public land. Within walking distance of my place there’s an almond tree and a pecan tree (although good luck beating the birds to those), a fig tree, and several lilli pillies. There are also several overhanging fruit trees – lemons, macadamias and mangoes.

If there’s a black stain on the pavement, there will be a mulberry tree above your head.

(When I was in the UK, brambles – which grow blackberries – were in hedgerows everywhere. There were some apple trees in the square next to where I worked. And mushroom gathering is a growing pastime – one I sadly didn’t embrace before I left.)

Plus, wherever you are… a lot of edible weeds. Which is a whole other food source – and one that grows rather prolifically! Maybe this is a skill reserved for the zombie apocalypse… but you never know, and it’s good to be prepared ;)

Learning to preserve

I learned to preserve when I first got my allotment, because if you grow food you will grow more than you can eat. Things only last so long in the fridge, and there is only so much space in the freezer. Plus freezing vegetables doesn’t do much for them.

Preserving is a way of making things last much longer – often without the need to refrigerate (although some preserves are better refrigerated). Many preserves will last upwards of a year – right around until the next harvest.

I started out learning how to make jams, pickles and chutneys. When I moved to Australia I learned to ferment (sourdough, yoghurt, vegan cheese and vegetables), and more recently got started with dehydrating.

When my fruit trees are cranking (well my future fruit trees – I don’t have many yet) I plan to get into canning – which requires some specialist equipment.

Learning to mend

I can sew a button back on. I can darn holes in my socks. My mending knowledge is no way near extensive (in fact, I’ve pretty much shared my arsenal of expertise) but I’m keen how to learn more about how to mend. Making things last is an excellent skill to have.

(My friend Erin, who is a marvellous mender, has just published her first book Modern Mending, pictured above. Reading and then trying out some of the techniques in this book is one of my goals for the year.)

Learning to share

I truly believe that this is the most important skill of all. Because setting yourself up for ‘self-sufficiency’ by keeping all your skills (and products of those skills) to yourself, and sitting back smugly whilst the world outside – and your neighbours – are struggling is a false victory indeed.

There’s some stuff I’m never going to make. No-one (or very few at least) has time to make all the things. Plus some stuff I find fun to make, other things I find useful to make, and yet more things I just don’t feel that need.

A week ago I gave my neighbour some eggs. A few day later there’s a knock on my door – she has made fresh pasta and has some for me! Pasta isn’t a thing I’d make, and chickens aren’t a thing she’d keep. Sharing skills (and the product of those skills) helped both of us.

(Oh, and she also made pasta for her neighbours on the other side, and the ones next to them.)

Other friends make kimchi, have DIY skills, own tools, can mend, and the list goes on.

Sharing is a skill I definitely want to work on more. I have some incredible generous friends, and neighbours, who give freely – and who inspire me to do more. It’s something I really want to focus on this year.

You’d think sharing might encourage others to take advantage, but I find the opposite happens. Sharing breeds generosity.

I’m offering this up as a solution because it’s worked for me. It’s something practical (and positive) that we can do with our energy and time. If you’re feeling anxious about the way the world is going, or you’re wondering what to do as we’re advised to stay home more, perhaps learning a new skill is a way to put that nervous energy into something productive.

And sharing (be it knowledge, or physical stuff) is a way to help others benefit from what you’ve learned.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What skills do you have, and what skills do you want to learn? Have you been able to share your skills with family, friends, colleagues or your wider comunity? Do you have any other ideas for building resilience in our communities? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Zero waste gardening: turning lawn into food, starting with compost

This year, I’m turning my attention to transforming my garden from lawn into (a version of a) food forest. Think fruit trees, veggies, herbs and edible natives. If you’re new here, you might not know that I moved house last October: away from my previous place with its shared community garden, to a new space… and my very own backyard.

(And front yard. And verge. So much potential.)

Any old posts you’ve read will be about that previous place. Now, I’m starting again from scratch. Almost literally, as the new garden is about a blank a canvas as you can get.

Well, if that blank canvas was covered in lawn, perhaps.

There’s a few reasons why I want to spend more time in the garden this year. Yes, gardening is fun, and yes, there is nothing tastier than food you grow yourself. But it’s more than that.

You might have heard people talking about ‘resilience’ in the face of the growing climate crisis: growing food is something that we can do to be more resilient.

Even if it’s a few pot plants on a window sill.

Knowing how to grow food is a useful skill to have, and being able to share with your community is a great way to strengthen it. That’s resilience.

Then there’s the fact that the all of the screen time and the news can be overwhelming. I felt it more and more last year, and I need to find more space to truly switch off. Gardens can be that space.

As for writing about it… Well, I think there is always opportunity to talk about gardening from a zero waste perspective: avoiding plastic packaged products and synthetic chemicals, making do, re-using and repurposing, and the best one of all: sharing.

Plus there is rarely (never?) a single right way to do something. I want to share what I do and why, and generate discussion and no doubt more good ideas!

And as I have a blank canvas, I thought it would be a good opportunity to document my progress over the year. Maybe there will be some examples of ‘setting goals and smashing them’ or more likely it will be about troubleshooting and dealing with things when they don’t go to plan. Ahem. (Which option has your vote?)

Here are the ‘before’ pictures (back yard, and front yard):

And… here’s the plan. By December, I’m hoping going to have most of the lawn removed, some fruit trees in, a native verge and vegetables planted. That’s in twelve month’s time. I think that’s doable ;)

(Don’t worry, I’m not suddenly turning this into a gardening blog! I’m going to post an update once a month throughout the year, talking through the choices I’ve made and showing you – I hope! – some progress. There’s plenty of other things on waste, reducing plastic and sustainability that I still want to talk about. It won’t be all plants!)

Creating an edible garden from scratch:

Month 1: starting with the soil

Soil might sound incredibly boring, but that is where I’m beginning. Not with plants, not even with plans, but with soil.

Of course, what I really want to do is go to a garden centre and buy ALL the plants (because that is the fun part of gardening). But without knowing where they are going to go, and without good soil to plant them in, any plants I plant aren’t going to thrive.

I live in Perth, Western Australia. It’s basically a city built on a giant sandpit. The grey gutless sands of the Swan coastal plain (as they are less-than fondly called) are officially among the worst in the world. Possibly even the worst.

They are also extremely old, meaning they are nutrient poor.

This is what lurks just beneath the lawn:

I learnt to garden in the UK. There, you could pop anything in the ground at the right time of year and it would take off. Sadly, do the same in this soil, and your plants get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. (Well, except the local native plants of course – but I want to grow edible Western vegetables like broccoli for the mostpart.)

If I lived somewhere else, soil might not be my priority. Here in Perth, it has to be.

(Thinking about my long term goal of creating an edible garden, it’s not that soil comes ahead of planning, but soil and compost take time to create. Starting to think about soil now means that there’s composting happening whilst the planning of where the compost – and the plants – will go begins.)

First task, set up the compost bins and fill them up.

The very first thing I did when I moved was dig in the compost bin. Before I’d unpacked much more than the kettle. There was no way any of my food scraps were going in the landfill bin!

(If you’d like tips on getting started, I’ve previously written about how to set up a successful compost bin).

The thing about creating good soil is that you need a lot of compost.

How to create better compost, quickly:

Just putting the food scraps of two people in this bin would take forever to fill. And so, I gathered other ‘waste’ from different places to fill my compost bin.

  • I collected some bags of spent coffee grounds from a local cafe (most cafes do this – either proactively by putting ‘free’ compost by the door, or if you ask);
  • I was connected (via a request that came to a local community garden) with a guy making homebrew who has a 20 litre bucket full of spent grain every few weeks;
  • I’ve been given bags of shredded paper from an office (shredded paper gums up the recycling and isn’t meant to go in our kerbside recycling bins);
  • A friend with chickens has filled up some buckets with chicken manure and straw;
  • I persuaded by next-door neighbour’s lawnmower man to leave the grass clippings on my lawn for me to compost;
  • I rescued some tree prunings awaiting the verge green waste collection and shredded them (I invested in a second-hand shredder, so much fun);
  • I spotted another neighbour raking leaves to throw in the bin and gave him a bucket to fill for my compost;
  • I’ve updated my address on sharewaste.com to receive food scraps from neighbours – no takers yet but I’m sure they will come.

One bin quickly filled up, and I’ve now set up four bins. Two at the back, and two at the front. The two at the front are accessible for the neighbours to pop in their excess waste.

(FYI – I got all my compost bins second-hand, and three of them were free. Two were gifts, one was a score from my local Buy Nothing group and one I purchased via Gumtree.)

What’s so great about compost?

Ah, I’m glad you asked!

Good soil is a mix of organic matter, water, minerals, sand, clay, insects and microorganisms all supporting one another and helping plants to grow. Too much clay and the soil gets waterlogged; too much sand and the water drains away too quickly.

My soil is almost entirely sand. There’s next-to-no clay, and very little organic matter. Adding compost increases the organic matter, improves the soil structure and holds water in the soil, allowing nutrients to dissolve. It creates an environment for insects and microorganisms to thrive, and plants to grow.

If you think about nature, trees and bushes and plants are dropping leaves and small branches all the time. These leaves sit above the roots and break down (compost) in situ. They protect the soil from the sun, and trap moisture when rain falls. Animals come to eat berries and add manure to the tree roots. That’s composting, the way nature does it.

And if you think of most urban gardens, there are very few trees. If any leaves drop, they are usually raked up and not allowed to return to the soil. Lawn might look green – although it takes a lot of water and nutrients to keep it that way – but underneath, there’s not much going on.

Compost bins are replicating and speeding up what happens in nature, and providing that same resource to be added to the soil. With compost that we create ourselves, we get to choose where it goes and how we use it.

Compost does add nutrients to the soil, but it tends not to be nutrient-rich (most bags of compost will have slow-release fertilizer added for this reason). You only get out what you put in – so if your compost is made up of shredded paper, dry leaves and grass clippings, it will be teaming with life (microbes and insects) but won’t be high in nutrients.

This is fine when you’re growing flowers, or plants that don’t need a lot of nutrients, but isn’t so great for ‘hungry’ plants like vegetables – especially if you’d like a good crop.

If you’re composting food scraps, coffee grounds and adding seaweed and manure, it’s going to be better – but with the hungriest crops there may still be a need to add more nutrients (especially in nutrient-poor soils like mine).

For now, I’m not worried about the specifics of the soil. I haven’t planned exactly what I’m planting where, so my compost is for the basics: adding carbon, retaining water, and supporting life.

Up next: planning out the garden (and designing for the climate).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have compost bins, and how do you use your compost? Do you utilize any interesting ‘waste’ when filling up your bins? Do you live in Perth and struggle with overcoming the sandpit? Anything you’d like to know more about? Please share in the comments below!

The Australian Bushfire Crisis and How You Can Help

I’m sure this wasn’t how most of us imagined the new year would begin. There’s been a lot of talk of the climate crisis over the last 12 months, and of a climate emergency about to unfold, but I don’t think many of us expected it to arrive so soon and with so much intensity. Australia is on fire.

This is what the climate emergency looks like. And it’s not pretty.

10.3 million hectares have reportedly already burned (that’s an area bigger than Scotland), an estimated 1 billion animals killed, 25 people have been killed (including three volunteer firefighters, all with young families) and thousands of homes have been destroyed.

The fires may not have reached the cities, but the smoke has. Sydney and Canberra have been suffering for months. For context: air quality index readings over 200 are considered hazardous to health. Canberra’s air quality was reported to hit 7,700. That’s worse than Beijing and Delhi – notoriously polluted cities.

Remember the Amazon fires of 2019? These fires have burned 46% more land than those. And this is the start of a fire season that may continue for another 3 months.

You’re probably thinking that the government should step in and do something about it. You’d expect them to, right? However our Prime Minister has been lacking in any leadership in these issues.

And in the absence of any empathy, support or leadership from government, it has fallen to us to do something about it. Australia might seem far away, but the planet is our collective home. We might not be powerful, but there are many of us who care, who are angry, and who want to do something positive – turn our anger into action.

I put this together to help you choose how.

Let’s turn our heartache and pain and frustration into action.

Donating to the firefighters

The majority of firefighters in Australia are volunteers. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS), which covers 95% of NSW, is the largest volunteer fire service in the world, with more than 70,000 volunteers.

These volunteers are unpaid and they are exhausted. (In most cases they also don’t get paid time off to fight fires and have to use annual leave.)

New South Wales: donate to the NSW Rural Fire Service website (with details for credit card donations, direct deposits and international bank transfers)

The Australian comedian Celeste Barber set up a Facebook fundraising page for the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donation Fund, and has currently raised $48 million in donations (yes, you read that right: forty-eight million dollars). Facebook fundraisers make it easy for those overseas to donate and this one has been super successful, which is great! Just bear in mind that this fundraiser only covers NSW and there are other fire services (Australia has six states and two territories) that also need support.

South Australia: donate to the South Australia (SA) CFA via cfsfoundation.org.au/donate (donations are made by bank or credit card).

Victoria: The Country Fire Authority has options to donate to either specific CFA brigade of your choice, or to the CFA general public fund via their website: payments can be made by bank transfer, or cheques and money orders can be sent by post.

A Facebook fundraiser has also been set up for the CFA Brigades Donation Fund.

The Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) also has a Volunteer Welfare Fund which makes small grants on a needs basis to CFA volunteers and their families – designed to alleviate stresses that can affect an individual’s ability to continue as a volunteer. These donations can be made by credit card via the GiveNow platform (unlike the CFA donations, these are not tax deductible).

Donating to affected communities

South Australia: The State Emergency Relief Fund directs funds directly to those affected by bushfires in South Australia. It’s possible to donate by electronic funds transfer, credit card or cheque via the SA Bushfire Appeal.

Donations to the Kangaroo Island community can be made directly (by bank transfer only, international donations accepted) to the Kangaroo Island Mayoral Relief and Recovery Bushfire Fund.

Victoria: if you heard the stories of 4,000 people in Mallacoota being evacuated to the beach and rescued by the navy, that was East Gippsland. It’s possible to donate to the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund by bank deposit (via any branch of NAB) or via credit card (Paypal) via gerf.com.au/donate.

The Victorian government has partnered with Bendigo Bank and the Salvation Army to establish the Victorian Bushfire Appeal, with 100% of donated funds going directly to communities in need. It is possible to donate from overseas. Due to a glitch in the system it does not allow overseas addresses, so please use the Foundation address –  PO Box 480 BENDIGO VICTORIA 3555 – to override the system and allow your donation to be made. Website: vic.gov.au/bushfireappeal

First Nations Communities: if you would like to donate to fire-affected First Nations communities (including those in Gippsland and the south coast of NSW) , this Fire Relief Fund GoFundMe page has been set up by a Yorta Yorta man. The fundraiser offers culturally sensitive, specific direct support to those affected.

Firesticks Alliance: are delivering an Indigenous led Cultural Fire program to support affected communities and countries to heal after the devastating fire crisis. Currently fundraising via Chuffed (a for-purpose crowdfunding platform.

The Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) make grants to local not-for-profit groups for community-led projects that address the most pressing needs that emerge 12-18 months after a disaster event. Donations can be made to their Disaster Resilience and Recovery Fund (you can find the donation page here).

Donating to humanitarian charities

Australian Red Cross: supporting people in evacuation centres and recovery hubs across Australia. Donations: fundraise.redcross.org.au/drr (donations by credit card)

Salvation Army: providing meals to evacuees and frontline responders, and other support. Donations within Australia: salvationarmy.org.au (donations by bank transfer, credit card or Paypal). Donations from overseas: donate.everydayhero.com

Save the Children: are raising funds to help support children affected by the bushfires crisis. If in Australia, it is possible to donate via their website savethechildren.org.au If outside Australia, you can donate via their Facebook Fundraiser.

St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies): providing bushfire relief efforts across all states. Donations here: donate.vinnies.org.au

Donating to wildlife organisations

Adelaide Koala Rescue (SA): helping koalas affected by the fires in South Australia. Donations can be made via their website: akr.org.au

Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park (SA): raising funds to help koalas and other wildlife via a GoFundMe page.

Koala Hospital Port Macquarie (NSW): rescuing and rehabilitating koalas injured and made homeless by the bushfires. Their website koalahospital.org.au is struggling to deal with the surge in traffic but donations can also be made via their GoFundMe page.

NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES): provide wildlife education, rescue and care for animals in NSW. Donations can be made via their website wires.org.au or via their Facebook Fundraiser page.

The Rescue Collective (Queensland): based in Brisbane but supporting wildlife organisations throughout the east coast. Their bushfire appeal is raising funds to provide food, water and medication to wildlife in need. Donations via the website mkc.org.au.

Wildlife Victoria: a not-for-profit organisation rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming Victorian wildlife. Donations can be made via their website wildlifevictoria.org.au, and they also have a Facebook Fundraiser page and a GoFundMe page.

WWF Australia: are running an appeal to replant trees to restore habitat for extinction-threatened koalas in NSW and southern Queensland. Donations can be made via their website: donate.wwf.org.au

Donating things that aren’t money

Money is really the best thing you can donate, if you’re able. It means organisations can spend the money on exactly what they need in that moment. If you don’t want to give cash, donations of fuel cards or supermarket vouchers are most useful.

A lot of organisations have been overwhelmed with donations and are now respectfully declining offers due to the issues with storage and logistics with distribution. If you’ve been told second-hand about a request by an organisation for items, please check that the request is still current.

If you’re overseas, please also take into account the length of delivery time between sending your items and them arriving – they may no longer be required by then, so check with the organisation before sending.

If you’re not able to donate money, here are some ways to donate.

Donating accommodation: if you have extra space in NSW, you can offer it for free (to people who’ve been impacted by the fires, or to relief workers) via Airbnb’s Open Homes Disaster Relief (click the link and scroll half way down the page).

Other options include registering with findabed.info , which is supporting people across the east coast; or signing up with helpinghomes.com.au (as well as for humans, “room” can also be for pets and livestock).

Giving blood: the Red Cross’s blood donation service Lifeblood says they will need more donations in the coming weeks. You can find out if you’re eligible and find out how and where to give blood via donateblood.com.au.

Giving ‘stuff’: GIVIT – Goods for Good Causes is coordinating donations of items – you can either browse the list of items required, or submit what you have via the form on their website givit.org.au/give-items

Knitting and sewing pouches for orphaned joeys (baby kangaroos) and other marsupials: Young wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, gliders and possums all need pouches. Different animals need different sizes. WIRES has written an excellent guide if you’re keen to contribute in this way.

The Animal Rescue Collective Craft Guild has an even more comprehensive guide for stitchers, knitters and crocheters with all kinds of patterns for pouches, wraps and other needs. You can find them on Facebook – the pinned post has their current most needed items.

Writing a Letter

If you’ve been meaning to write to your local politician urging action on climate change, now is that time. If you’re in Australia, great, but even if you are overseas, the climate emergency is a worldwide issue.

In Australia I’m told that the most effective way to communicate is by email rather than post.

First, you need to find your local MP and their contact details – just ask the internet. (In Australia you will have both a State and Federal MP and I would suggest writing to both.)

Next, you’ll need to know what you’re going to say.

I came across a letter by Anna Richards (via Instagram) which she sent to her local MP and I think it is a good template (it’s downloadable) if you’d like to write but are at a loss for what to say.

Joining a Protest

Protests are happening across Australia on Friday afternoon (January 10th). You might not be a protester. I’m not a protester, either. The September climate strike of 2019 was my second march ever… and my first was in 2001 (for student tuition fees).

I’m not a protester, but I’ll be there. Because it’s important. And I’m furious that it’s come to this. And I want our government to know. I want to be counted.

Hopefully you’ll be there too.

Sydney: 5.30pm Town Hall

Melbourne: 6pm State Library

Brisbane: 5pm King George Square

Canberra: 530pm Garema Place

Adelaide: 5pm Parliament

Perth: 5.30pm Forrest Place

Newcastle: 5.30pm City Hall

Geelong: Little Mallop Street Mall

Woolongong: 6pm Arts Precinct

If there’s one good* thing (* well, sorta) that has come out of the bushfire crisis, it’s the way that people have banded together, supported one another, donated and volunteered and taken action. Whilst I’d love you to share this, what I’d love you to do even more is to do something on this list. Take action, in whatever way you can. No matter how small. We’re in this together.

Now I’d love to hear from you! If there’s any good fundraising drives, interesting ways to donate or volunteer or anything else you think we need to know about, please share. And if you take an action, let us know what you did. As always, please share any other thoughts in the comments!

Tired of ‘eco-judgement’? Here’s how I’m tackling it

Have you ever made a deliberate choice to do/not do something because of the environmental, ecological and/or social impact, and then mentioned that choice to a friend, shared it on social media, or made a comment to a colleague, only to be told:

That’s not the best* thing you could be doing’ / ‘your actions don’t matter’ / ‘why did it take you so long to start’ / ‘what about doing x instead’ / ‘don’t you know y has a bigger impact’ / ‘it’s not perfect’ / ‘you’re not perfect’ / another equally frustrating and deflating thing?

Oh you have? I had a feeling it wasn’t just me.

I don’t know about you, but I do not find it the least bit motivating to be told all of the gaps in my effort, nor do I get inspired after hearing all the ways I’m doing everything wrong.

And yet… it happens. To all of us.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this (well, one of the reasons) is that I’m currently in the process of redoing my website (it’s long overdue). Part of that means updating my ‘about’ page, which I last touched circa 2015. Not even kidding.

Writing an ‘about’ page isn’t just writing about me. It’s introducing the website and the ideas and topics I cover to new readers, explaining the types of things I write about, and giving a good idea of what to expect.

As you can imagine, over the last four years, things have evolved a little, and I want my updated page to reflect that.

Now I’ve always tried to keep this website reasonably upbeat, and focus on the positive and practical. I also try to be gentle in my approach. I’m not perfect (and really, who is?), plus I still remember the time before I went down this path, when I did all kinds of things and made all kinds of choices that I wouldn’t now.

I’m sure I’ll be able to say the same thing in 10 years time about choices I make today.

But over the years I’ve softened a little more in my approach and outlook. The more I see other perspectives, the more I see that change is a process, it’s not always easy, and everyone has a different capacity to do so.

This website has always been about the choices I make, why I make them, and how I go about doing what I do. It’s a reflection of the way I think and my personal navigation of the issues. My hope of course, is that you find this useful and practical – but there is no expectation that you will be able (or want) to do everything that I do.

I am not the zero waste police. I want people who visit my site to feel supported, without any underlying tone of judgment. Something I’ve been really trying to do in my vocabulary over the past year or so, and in anything I write, is remove the words ‘should’ and ‘should not’. These are judgment words, full of opinion and swayed by the values of the person doing the judging. I don’t find them helpful.

And so, I am declaring this space a ‘should’ and ‘should not’ free zone. That’s not to say I’ve never used those words in the past, but I am trying not to use them now. My place is to tell you what I do, not tell you what you should do.

Removing judgment words from your vocabulary – you should think about doing this, too. (See what I did there?! There is absolutely no ‘should’ about it. You might like to think about it. I found it helpful. That’s what I really mean.)

One of the reasons I wanted to do this, is because more and more I see and hear about eco-judgment and eco-oneupmanship in the sustainability space – and it makes me sad (or is that mad… maybe both).

Aren’t we all meant to be on the same side – team planet?

Yes, if you have the capacity to do more, then do more. No need to gloat, however! And it isn’t realistic or fair to expect that everyone will be able to make those same choices.

Nor is it realistic to expect everyone to be at the same point in the journey. I know that so often these critiques are given with the best of intentions; but at the start of the journey, when everything is already so new and overwhelming, being bombarded with a whole other set of ethics/morals/values/opinions that weren’t even on the radar a minute ago isn’t usually that helpful.

I feel lucky that when I started out with living with less waste, back in 2012, there really weren’t that many people ahead of me in the journey. So by default, I had the space to find my own way, discover things I could change and make progress at a pace that worked for me.

Now I feel like it’s a little more tricky.

Just today I read an article published by the BBC (no less) declaring that asthma sufferers had as a big a carbon footprint as people who eat meat. But the article was not about reducing air pollution. Instead, it seemed to be entirely the fault of asthma sufferers, for having asthma. Apparently some could switch to ‘greener’ medication.

I don’t know why this ‘eco-guilt’ and ‘eco-shaming’ is on the rise. In the case of asthma sufferers (and is this reflective of these issues in general?), maybe it is simply easier to blame individuals than address the systems that need changing.

Anyways, in my own small way, and in the spaces I hold, I am taking a stand.

There is no room for eco-guilt, eco-shaming, eco-oneupmanship and generally feeling bad whilst trying to do good over here. We’ve got to keep that room available for creating positive change and motivating others, not dragging them down!

When other corners of the internet start to get a little shouty, know that this is my pledge to you.

That’s not to say I don’t want to hear your opinions, especially if they are different to mine! Now I love the comments section of this website. It easily doubles (triples!) the value of anything I write when others share their perspectives, experiences, and yes – opinions. You’ll notice that at the end of almost every post, I invite people to share their thoughts and leave a comment.

Yes, I want to hear from you!

Comments are great. Opinions are welcome. Alternative experiences being shared is encouraged. There’s plenty of room to disagree and offer alternative viewpoints. And I’ve no plans to change this. It creates a richer experience for everyone, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments that you all leave.

This isn’t the same as judgment. That’s when people rock up and start telling others (often people they’ve never met) what they ‘should’ do. I don’t really even need to say this, because we already have such a positive and judgment-free space, but when addressing others, I’m going to encourage you to leave your ‘should’s and ‘should not’s at the door.

Change can be difficult. Eco choices aren’t always straightforward. People have different energy levels, priorities, budgets, commitments, accessibility and skill levels. Everyone is at a different stage of the journey.

Personally, I think we can get a lot more done – and have a much nicer time doing it – if we spend less time looking out for failings, and more time being supportive of where people are at.

Others make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves, but that doesn’t make them wrong. We’re all just imperfect humans in an imperfect world, living in a system where sustainable solutions aren’t always within reach. We are all doing what we can. That’s not a reason to feel guilty. That’s a reason to feel good.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you ever feel guilty about when it comes to trying to be more eco-friendly or live with less waste? Do the opinions of others add to that guilt? Any tips for dealing with negativity? How have your views changed over time? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

Zero Waste Optimism (4 Tips for Staying Positive When The Planet Seems Doomed)

A question I’ve been asked a lot recently is “how do you stay positive?” It’s a fair question. After all, there are plenty of reasons we might despair. Pollution or litter or carbon emissions; the attitudes of governments and political leaders; or the lack of awareness, interest or action on the parts of businesses, organizations and even our friends and family.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Probably the most frustrating thing is not in seeing the problems, but in knowing that there are solutions and yet not seeing change being adopted on the scale it needs to be.

Despite this, I stay positive. That’s not to say I never have moments of doubt or despair, but on the whole, I’d say I’m an optimist. Here’s how I do it.

1. Optimism… or What?

I consider there to be three options. Optimism, indifference, or pessimism. Which translate as: we think that everything will be okay in the end, we simply don’t care, or we think that everything is doomed.

I’m not even sure that I consider this to be a choice. I do care: about the planet, about wildlife, about people, about fairness and equality and doing the right thing.

And if I do care, I can either think that everything will be okay, or that we’re doomed. I can either think that the planet is worth fighting for, that change is worth pursuing, that working towards making the world a better place is a goal worthy of my time and effort… or I can just give up.

And if I give up, if I turn my back on all the things that I care about: well, I don’t actually want to think about what that looks like. It’s not an option I want to entertain.

That’s not to say that I think I’m some kind of superhero or that the future of the planet is in my hands. I know I’m not the only one who cares, I’m not the only one trying to do what they can. It’s not to say that without me the planet is actually doomed (!).

But if there are two choices – one being we ‘win’, and start living sustainably on this one planet that we have – and the other being we ‘lose’, sea levels rise, the oceans fill with plastic and we make ourselves extinct – well, I know which team I want to be on.

Whatever happens, I need to be able to say, hand on heart, that I did something. Knowing that the only way to be on the winning team is to be a part of it keeps me optimistic.

2. Taking Action and Working on Projects

I find projects that get the message out into the community are the best way to keep myself motivated.

For the first six months that I went plastic-free I was very much focused on my own journey, learning skills and creating new habits for myself. After that, I was keen to figure out how to share my knowledge, get involved with the wider community… and I haven’t stopped since.

Over the next seven years, I started this blog and I started giving talks and running workshops. I got involved with my local council running a waste-free event, I worked on the Plastic Free July campaign. I co-started a community fruit tree project and community composting hub, and I set up a community dishes library.

None of these things are ground-breaking or world-changing, but they all contribute to bringing about change nonetheless. Connecting with others, sharing ideas, creating opportunity.

Even by sharing one blog post, or giving a talk to a handful of people, or starting a small project; you never know who you’re going to reach and what influence you’re going to have.

Ideas are like ripples and they spread. I share these things in the hope that others will adopt them, share them, make them better and together we will increase our impact.

Knowing that I’m contributing to something bigger than me and my personal waste or footprint helps keep me optimistic. And always having a project on the go, no matter how small, keeps my fire burning.

3. Remembering Where I Started

When it comes to staying positive, another thing that helps me is remembering where I started.

I’ve always considered myself to be someone who cared about the planet, but I know there was a time when:

  • I asked for an extra plastic straw in my drink;
  • I purchased fast fashion;
  • I snaffled all the freebies regardless of whether I’d use them or not or how pointless they were or how much packaging they came wrapped in;
  • I chucked every bit of food waste in the bin;
  • I was in love with recycling (and saw that chasing arrows symbol on any packaging as a ‘get out of jail free’ card absolving me of any personal responsibility);
  • I felt almost smug about the fact that I owned reusable shopping bags and only took a plastic bag when I needed something to line my bin.

(I’m sure there’s plenty more examples.)

I cared but I was totally disconnected to the impact my personal actions were having, and embarrassingly unaware that actually, my personal actions and my voice are exactly where my power comes from.

I thought it was up to others to change: governments, businesses, organisations. I didn’t realise that I have the power to influence, to champion, to hold to account, to share, and to take a better path every single day through the choices I make.

I believe that when you know better, you do better. If you don’t realise something is a problem, why would you do things differently?

I hold onto these memories of myself and know that if I can change, other people can change too. I like to believe the best of people, and I think that most people want to do the right thing. They just aren’t aware of the impact that their actions have, sometimes.

4. Looking back as well as forward

Lastly, I think it’s important not to focus on the task ahead so much that we forget to look back at what we have achieved and how far we have come. There’s been so much change in the last 7 years and when I think at how much perceptions have shifted, it feels incredibly humbling.

When I first took part in Plastic Free July in 2012, I was one of 400 participants. Last year 120 million people took part in 177 different countries.

Governments across the world are legislating to ban plastic bags, plastic cutlery, styrofoam, food waste to landfill and more.

Change is happening. I know that sometimes it doesn’t feel fast enough, but actually, it’s kind of incredible that we’ve done so much already.

When I think about how far we’ve come, I can only feel optimistic about what will happen in the future.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you consider yourself to be a pessimist or an optimist? What do you struggle with most? What tips do you have for staying positive? How has your outlook shifted over time? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts below!

3 Things to Do (Instead of Feeling Guilty) When You “Fail” at Zero Waste

Let me tell you a story about a butternut squash that I found in the fridge. Well, I didn’t find it exactly, because I knew it was there, underneath the silverbeet in the crisper drawer.

Before you tell me that butternut – and other varieties of – squash/pumpkin shouldn’t actually be stored in the fridge, but at room temperature, I’m going to put my hand up and say, yep, I know this.

But it was in the fridge nonetheless.

I suspect what happened was, the veg box arrived, it sat on the side glowering at me for a few hours, and then I decided I’d had enough and piled everything in the crisper/fridge as quickly as possible.

Just because we know what it the best or correct thing to do, doesn’t mean we always do it!

And probably, the fact that it was in the fridge was the reason for what happened next.

Because one day I opened the fridge, and I saw this.

If you hate seeing waste, look away now.

And yes, when I say “one day” I literally mean that I somehow didn’t notice it getting to this point. Clearly it didn’t go like this overnight; but I saw nothing until I opened the fridge and was confronted with this spoiled, rotten and disheveled-looking pumpkin.

And oh, let me tell you about the guilt that followed!

Because I hate waste.

Because I do not identify myself as someone who wastes stuff – so I shouldn’t be wasting stuff, right?

Because I’m organized and I know what’s in my fridge and I don’t let stuff go bad. Except…

Because a farmer went to the effort of growing that pumpkin (and it was organic! Double demerits for me) and then a business went to the effort of sourcing and selling that pumpkin to me. It feels very disrespectful of me to be wasting all that effort.

I have expectations of myself around the way I do things, and I fell short.

Now I’m no stranger to eco-guilt. I think all of us have experienced eco-guilt at some point. When we forget to refuse the plastic straw perhaps, or when we realise the thing we’ve putting in the recycling bin for the last decade is actually not recycable at all.

Basically, if we are not doing everything perfectly all of the time when it comes to trying to live sustainably, there will probably be guilt.

Newsflash – no-one actually does all things perfectly all of the time.

We need time to get those habits ingrained. Sometimes we mess up, sometimes we forget. As beginners it’s easier to forgive ourselves as we are still learning.

But messing up isn’t always limited to beginners. I’ve been conscious of reducing my waste for years now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t mess up! Being more practiced or experienced doesn’t mean slip-ups don’t happen. When they do, I, for one, feel pretty guilty about it.

But the thing about guilt, is that we can deal with it in one of two ways.

We can allow it to crumple us until we feel defeated and like it’s all too hard and what’s the point in trying anyway…

…Or we can take that energy and use it to power our next choice, our next action, and our next commitment.

Let me tell you, the latter option feels infinitely better than the first option.

Dealing with my environmental guilt is something I’m learning how to do. I don’t want to be the person crumpled in a heap, I want to be the one getting back up and dusting myself off.

That doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty, but it means I try not to stay feeling guilty for too long.

Here’s some things I do to turn that guilt into useful action.

1. Remind myself that I’m not perfect, but also that I never said I was, that I actually will never be, and forgive myself for being human.

This should be obvious but I think sometimes we forget that we’re humans, and humans mess up sometimes. I know I do. I know that no-one is perfect but I do set high expectations for myself.

I think that’s okay, but there still needs to be room for error.

So yeah, I didn’t mean to let that pumpkin go to waste. But it happened. I guess I won’t be winning the “zero waste perfection” award this year, but I’m okay with that.

2. Ask myself, what can I learn from this?

Most of my eco-guilt comes from falling short of the standards I set for myself. I think it’s useful then, to have a good look at what happened and why I’m feeling guilty now.

I definitely think that I can get complacent around not creating waste. thinking to myself, I’ve been doing this for so long now that of course I won’t waste anything!

So it’s actually useful to get a reality check. There’s always work to do, it’s easy to slip up when we’re not paying attention.

I had a think about why it happened (I shouldn’t have stored that pumpkin in the fridge, I should have kept a closer eye on what was in the fridge) and resolved to do things differently next time.

I can’t change the past, but I have the opportunity to do things differently in future.

3. Choose something to DO to channel that frustration and guilt into useful action.

Forgiveness and reflection are important, but action is better! That energy has to go somewhere, so why not channel it into something useful?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Talk about the “fail” with others. (Just like this!) We all want to share the wins and successes, but talking about failures is equally important. Change is never a straight line, and it’s helpful to others on the journey to see that it’s a zig-zag, not a perfect arc.
  • Share solutions. For example, this got me thinking – I wonder how many people know how to store food correctly? And how many people end up throwing things away prematurely simply because they stored the thing wrong? I’m adding this to my list of future blog posts. That way I can use my mistake to help others choose better.
  • Make your voice heard. Write to companies, manufacturers and businesses to discuss the issues and share solutions. This isn’t relevant to my situation here as I accept 100% of the blame. But say you ordered something and it arrived wrapped in plastic because you forgot to ask about the packaging, or you were given a straw because you forgot to say “no straw”. You can own your part whilst still reaching out to the business to explain and ask them to do better.
  • Make a change. Forgiveness and reflection are two parts, the third part is doing things differently next time. Whether that’s tweaking our routine, or setting up a reminder, or investing in the tools to do things differently, we need to use this guilt to fuel a new way of doing things.
  • Join a group of others taking action. Maybe it’s picking up litter, or making reusable shopping bags, or writing letters; maybe it’s a group of like-minded people getting together to share ideas… But finding a group that’s bigger than you can help channel some of your energy into creating more systemic change.

I don’t know if we can get rid of guilt altogether. Maybe a little bit of guilt is a good thing. It shows we have an awareness of the impact of our actions. I find that feeling a little bit guilty reminds me that these are things that I care about; issues that I care about.

Used right, we can channel our guilt to take action rather than letting it overwhelm us, and do better next time.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you suffer from eco-guilt? Is there anything that makes you feel particularly guilty? How have you learned from it, and how do you try to manage it? or do you not have a guilty bone in your body? In which case – tell us your secrets! Wherever you sit on the scale I’d love to hear your thoughts so please share in the comments below!