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New Habits: 8 Micro Actions to Reduce Rubbish in 2019

A brand new year is about to roll around the corner, and for many of us that means thinking about our dreams, aspirations and plans of what we’d like to see, do and accomplish over the next twelve months. Whilst I don’t set New Years Resolutions, I do like to use this time between Christmas and New Year to reflect on the year that was and think about the year that’s ahead.

Before I get any further, let me reassure you: this isn’t going to be one of those posts about “achieving everything you ever wanted in 2018” or “having your best year ever”.

The last few months of 2017, I was busy. Busier than I wanted to be, more stressed than I wanted to be. I kept thinking back to all the things I’ve written in the past about simple living, and how important it is to me, and yet somehow it felt like I’d steered away from that path.

For me, 2018 isn’t going to be about speeding up. It isn’t going to be about packing more in, ticking a bunch of things off my “achievement” list and wildly chasing dreams, whatever it takes.

It’s going to be about slowing down.

Really, all the big things that we want to achieve and accomplish are the result of taking lots of micro actions. So rather than focus on the big picture, the goal at the end, I’m going to focus on the small things – the journey itself – and encourage you to consider doing so too.

In my experience, it’s a better journey.

For example, if we’d like to reduce our rubbish or plastic-waste in 2018, declaring that we’ll “be zero waste” is a huge step. It sets a high (and possibly unrealistic) expectation of ourselves, adds unnecessary pressure and can feel overwhelming before it’s even begun.

That’s not a recipe for a fun ride.

Rather than make grandiose goals, try thinking about the small steps that need to be taken. Break it down into things that you can start on straightaway. You will start making progress, and that will give you the confidence to take the next step when you’re ready.

It’s not meant to happen overnight. It’s a process, and a journey, and there’s so much to learn along the way. Why would you want to rush?

Here’s some ideas to get you started.

8 Micro Actions You Can Take to Reduce Rubbish in 2018

1. Make 1 Food Item from Scratch

You do not need to be a great baker or masterchef to go zero waste. Being able to make things from scratch is a useful skill, but it has nothing to do with being good at cooking. if you can stir stuff, or use a rolling pin, or chop, chances are you can make something from scratch.

Think about the things you use, and the packaging that you end up with, and find out if you can make any of those things rather than buy them ready-made.

Some things will be far too complicated, take too much time and you won’t think it is worth it.

But other things are very simple, and you might start to wonder why you ever purchased them in the first place.

Simple things to start with (that take no skills and very little time) include pesto, hummus, apple cider vinegar and yoghurt. You could consider getting a (second-hand) breadmaker. Cookies are much easier (and quicker) to make than cakes, and ridiculously tasty.

Just try it.

2. DIY Just 1 Bathroom Product

Food packaging and bathroom products account for the majority of our weekly household rubbish and recycling. By swapping one purchased product for a DIY alternative, you will save a huge amount of packaging over a lifetime.

It isn’t about making DIY alternatives to everything. I buy (rather than make) bar soap, laundry powder and dishwashing liquid. I have good local options (I buy my laundry powder and dishwashing liquid from The Source Bulk Foods, my local bulk store) and I don’t have the time or inclination to make everything.

I do make my own toothpaste, deodorant, moisturiser and sunscreen. I tried making mascara once and it was a disaster, so I decided not to bother again, but there are plenty of recipes for DIY makeup if its something you wear.

3. Support Bulk Stores

Bulk stores are a great way to shop packaging free, and many bulk stores are dedicated to reducing waste upstream too. This means that as well as reducing the waste for their customers, they are working with suppliers to reduce the waste generated before the stock arrives at the hands of the customers.

Not everyone has access to bulk stores. Not everyone can afford to shop at bulk stores. But there’s still steps that we can take. Choosing to make a trip to a bulk store out-of-town every month, or every two months, is one option. Choosing a small number of staples to buy at the bulk store, even if the rest of the groceries needs to be purchased elsewhere and in packaging due to budget or practical constraints.

Everything that we do makes a difference. If an entire bulk shop isn’t going to work for you, don’t write them off entirely. It’s not all or nothing. Even making the commitment to buy a couple of things occasionally will help: it will help you reduce your waste, and help support bulk stores so they can thrive into the future.

4. Choose (and Use) Reusables

Most of us own reusables, but it takes practice to remember them, and remember to use them. Commit to using reusable shopping bags, or a reusable coffee cup, or not forgetting your reusable water bottle.

If using reusables is something that’s new to you, don’t expect perfection all at once. Choose one thing to get into the habit of remembering, and work up from there.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, then think about investing in some reusable produce bags, or taking your Tupperware or Pyrex next time you go to the bakery or deli counter. If a reusable straw is something that will help you reduce waste, invest in one.

Beeswax wraps or sandwich wraps can help reduce clingwrap (more on alternatives for food wrap can be found here).

Glass jars are a very good alternative for all sorts of things.

Just choose one thing to start with.

5. Buy Local and Support Independent Stores

The more local we can buy things, the better: less fuel, less packaging, and keeping money in the local economy. Whether it is food items (locally grown vegetables and fruit), or supporting a local greengrocer; whether it is using an independent bricks-and-mortar store; whether it is supporting local artisans, there are plenty of ways to support local businesses.

Most of us would agree that we don’t want to support sweatshops and unethical businesses, yet when it comes to shopping, it can be tempting to search out the lowest price, and forget about the bigger picture.

That’s not to say we can all afford organic hand-stitched everything. It’s a balance.

Buying everything local and from independent stores might seem too much of a stretch. In which case, consider making a smaller commitment.

What about doing the big shop at the supermarket, but the top-up shop from the independent grocer? Using the Farmers Market for two months in summer? Buying jeans from the department store, but jumpers from the local mill? Buying books from the bricks-and-mortar bookshop rather than the online giants?

Commit to one change, and start there.

6. Tell Businesses When They Do Something Good

It’s oh-so easy to tell businesses when they are doing something wrong, but we often forget to congratulate the ones that do the right thing. Particularly when the right thing isn’t the easiest thing, or the thing that makes the most economical business sense.

When businesses put their values before profit, or the environment before convenience, we should let them know that we noticed, and that we thank them for their efforts.

This isn’t something that I do often, but it’s something that I want to do more of in the coming year. I see so many businesses doing great things, but do I tell them? Not as often as I should.

If you see something good – and it can be as simple as a cafe using jars of sugar on the tables rather than individual sachets, or as committed as refusing single-use disposable packaging – tell the business that you noticed, and you like what they do.

Let’s celebrate the good guys.

7. Think About Who (or What) You Can Influence

Power and influence isn’t just about being a politician or having a huge social media following. Most of us have the ability to influence others, whether it’s in our workplaces, social clubs, friendship circles, local groups, the council, or our favourite cafe.

I often think that the person who does the stationery order for a business is in quite a position of power, when it comes to reducing waste. Or the person that runs the community garden cake sale. Or the person who chooses the venue for book club.

These things all matter.

Making good choices around these things is about helping others to make better choices too. Starting conversations and opening eyes to new ways of doing things.

Some things can’t be changed, and some people won’t be changed. Family can be the toughest. (You can find tips for dealing with friends and family here.) Rather than trying to fight a battle with those that are reluctant to change, see if there’s somewhere else in your life where you could have a positive impact, and focus on that.

8. Join In.

Community is important. It’s a way to share ideas, support others and be supported, meet like-minded people and enrich our lives. The plastic-free and zero waste communities are two examples of people coming together to support a common cause.

It’s a great feeling to know that others care about the same things as we do.

How you choose to get involved is up to you, but there are plenty of options.

On one hand, reading blogs and commenting is a great first step, as are joining Facebook groups and other online networks. If you can’t find an online group that works for you, or would prefer to connect with local people so you have the opportunity to meet in real life, consider starting your own Facebook group.

Getting out and about and meeting people in real life is even better. If you’re not sure where to start, you could try Transition Towns, local litter clean-up groups (Sea Shepherd and Responsible Runners are good places to look), Boomerang Bags groups, or a community garden.

Here’s some more ideas for how to join in, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, and no matter how much free time you have.

There are plenty of things that we can do to make a difference. Things that are good for the planet, and make us feel good too. Rather than reaching for fantastical goals like “having the best year ever”, my approach this year is to look at the small things I can do to make things slightly better.

Not the best, but better.

It’s all a journey, so let’s be kind to ourselves and have some fun along the way.

Now I’d like to hear from you! What small goals are you planning to work on in the coming months? Is there one thing you really want to work towards, or a number of things you want to tweak? Are you taking the slow approach? What was your approach last year, did it work for you, and how is that influencing your choices this year? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Is Zero Waste Only for the Privileged? (And Does It Matter?)

I’ve received a few emails recently asking whether I think zero waste is a lifestyle for the privileged. After all, it is predominantly represented in the media by white, seemingly middle-class females. Is zero waste really a lifestyle for everybody? Or just the more affluent few, or those with more time on their hands to spend traipsing to the various trendy organic stores and making DIY skincare products from scratch?

I wanted to explore this further by answering four questions: what is privilege; what is zero waste; is zero waste a lifestyle for the privileged; and ultimately, does it matter?

What is Privilege?

A good definition of privilege is this: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. These “privileges” are often unearned, for example, being born into a particular country or family. Actually, privilege is a lot more complex than simply calling it an “advantage”. Often it’s multiple advantages, based on all kinds of factors.

This short video (less than 2 minutes) does a great job of explaining privilege, and this video below (which is 4 minutes) demonstrates how different people are affected by privilege in society.

In many ways, privilege is an advantage that manifests itself as choice. The more privilege, the more choice.

Having privilege doesn’t make anyone a bad person. It doesn’t mean not having to work hard, or struggle to achieve a goal. It just means having advantages that make these things easier than for someone else without that privilege.

What is Zero Waste?

I think it is important here to explain both “zero waste”, and also “zero waste as represented by the media”, because they are not the same.

“Zero waste” is about sending nothing to landfill, and recycling as little as possible. It’s about rethinking the way we do things: refusing what we don’t need, reducing what we use, reusing what we have, repairing what we can, and recycling as a last resort.

Zero waste is about consuming less, making conscious choices when we do need to make purchases, supporting companies who are trying to do the right thing and reducing our environmental impact. It’s about choosing second-hand, borrowing or making do, choosing things that will last and taking responsibility for our personal choices.

Of course, the media represent zero waste in a slightly different way. Zero waste in the media is the newsworthy bits, the glamorous bits, the bits that invite intrigue and discussion. The media love to talk about and show photographs of glass jars of annual trash, trendy bulk stores and Farmers Markets.

Some of the most popular zero wasters are glamorous Americans who are also extremely photogenic and live in beautiful houses and apartments, and their lifestyles lend themselves to media coverage.

But this is just a snapshot. Even glamorous zero wasters shop at second-hand stores, and compost their food scraps, yet this isn’t talked about nearly as much. Or they choose to buy nothing at all – but where is the photo opportunity there?

Is Zero Waste a Lifestyle for the Privileged?

I would say no. But also yes.

Whilst any “lifestyle” is a choice, and therefore infers some level of privilege, the zero waste lifestyle is the lifestyle of consuming less, of refusing the unnecessary. Of borrowing, and choosing second-hand. These choices are accessible to most.

So no, the zero waste lifestyle is not reserved only for the young, affluent, or those with plenty of time on their hands.

The media might represent the zero waste movement as white, female and middle-class, but scratch beneath this veneer and you will find that zero waste is embraced by men and women, young and old, from all of the continents.

The glass jar full of trash might be the emblem of the movement, but to me, the zero waste lifestyle is a philosophy and a set of principles rather than a destination.

Anyone can subscribe to the ideals.

How far and how quickly we can progress towards these ideals, in practical terms; I do think that is a matter of privilege.

Having a choice – about where we live, where we shop, what we buy and how we spend our money – that is a privilege.

I don’t have children. I don’t have elderly or sick relatives that I need to look after. I don’t have any disabilities, serious health complaints or allergies. I live in a city with plenty of options. I can do a big bulk grocery shop once a month because my budget allows me to, rather than having to go every week. Because the bulk store is very close to my house, I can also pop over there if I’ve forgotten a couple of things.

These factors make it easier for me to reduce my waste, and that is privilege.

Access to bulk stores and Farmers Markets, the choice of grocery store, being able to afford things like stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats, these choices are not available to everyone.

For those of us who do have access to these things, we are privileged.

Of course, zero waste is not about stainless steel lunchboxes or organic oats. It’s about working towards reducing waste, consuming less and choosing better. Privilege makes it easier, for sure. The less privilege and the less choice, the harder we have to work for our desired results and vice versa.

Zero waste is no different from any other scenario.

Does it Matter?

I don’t want to talk about whether privilege matters. Rather, I’m interested in why, when it comes to living zero waste, privilege is talked about at all, and more so, why it is seen as a bad thing.

Privilege exists everywhere, that’s just a fact. Yes, privilege tends to mean more resources and more choice. Like many things, zero waste is easier for some than others.

But that shouldn’t stop us doing what we can. Every step is a step in the right direction, and small changes still add up to create a big impact.

Whenever I see negative press or comments about zero waste in the media, the discontent tends to be around privilege; perceived and actual. It is perceived that zero wasters are well off, and therefore the lifestyle is not attainable to most.

Firstly, I disagree that zero waste is only for the affluent. I disagree that we need expensive zero waste “trinkets” (like stainless steel lunchboxes or reusable coffee cups) to live zero waste. They are luxury items.

As someone who owns both a stainless steel lunchbox and a reusable coffee cup, I realise this. The most sustainable and zero waste choice would be for me to not drink coffee at all, and drink only water. But I enjoy an occasional coffee, and so I have a reusable coffee cup.

That doesn’t mean these things are necessities of the zero waste lifestyle.

The “stuff” gets talked about so much because it is a talking point! But talking about the “stuff” can detract from the real message.

 Zero waste is the lifestyle of refusing, rethinking, reducing, reusing and repairing. Of using what we have, and making do.

Buy nothing new and choose second-hand – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Join the library – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Ride a bike and get rid of the car – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Refuse a plastic bag and a plastic drinking straw – that’s the zero waste lifestyle. Own less pairs of shoes, choose the best you can afford and wear them often – that’s the zero waste lifestyle.

Let’s not get distracted by the things that others buy. Zero waste is not about what we can afford to buy. It is about what we choose not to buy. Ultimately, zero waste is not a lifestyle of “buying” or “stuff”. The less we buy and the more we make do, the better job we do of living zero waste.

Secondly, I’m at a loss as to why anyone would think it is a bad thing that those with privilege are choosing to live zero waste, use less resources and tread more lightly on the planet. There are plenty of people with privilege exploiting the planet, using more than their fair share of resources, and encouraging consumption.

Why attack or dismiss those using their privilege trying to make the world a better place?

Anyone working towards reducing their impact and sharing what they’ve learned should be applauded, in my view.

I am very aware that I am white, female, middle-class, and living in Australia. The stories that I share are written from this perspective: my lived experience. Most zero waste advocates share their own experiences and lifestyle choices. It’s fact-sharing rather than prescribing a lifestyle for others. We do what we can, and we share what we know.

I do not think that people with privilege talking about and advocating for zero waste is a bad thing. However, if they are the only people talking about zero waste, then that is a bad thing.

I don’t think the issue is one of privilege. I think the real issue is one of representation. That is what matters.

Waste is something we all make decisions about, every single day. We all have the potential to create waste, and the opportunity to avoid it. Reducing waste is accessible to most.

But if zero waste is only talked about (or represented in the media) by one group of people, with one set of experiences, how can we expect everyone to embrace this way of living?

How can we expect those not in this group to relate, or to connect, or to feel inspired?

Whilst the zero waste movement is represented as white, female and middle-class, there will always be people who feel excluded.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if we want the zero waste movement to spread, we need to be supportive, inclusive, and encourage all voices, even those that are different to our own.

We need to recognize that people have different experiences and different journeys.

We need to recognize that we cannot and do not speak for everyone.

Where we have privilege, we need to be aware of it. Not deny that it exists, but recognise that it is there.

Privilege isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s how we use it that counts.

10+ Practical Ideas for Eco-Friendly Plant Pots

I started my plastic-free life back in 2012 and my gardening life long before that. When it comes to plastic-free gardening, though, I’m still a relative newbie. I lived in an upstairs apartment for my first few zero waste years, so there was no garden to practice with.

I’ve been living in our new place, complete with garden, for over a year now, and there’s been plenty of opportunity to learn. I’ve come to realise that whilst plastic-free might be the goal, there is so much “waste” plastic that can be reused in the garden, that I’m more focused on zero waste (and reusing) than plastic-free.

I’d rather use what exists than purchase new “zero waste” items.

I thought I’d share some of my plastic-free and zero waste gardening tips, beginning with eco-friendly plant pots.

Choosing Eco-Friendly Plant Pots when Growing from Seed

The best way to avoid waste is to grow from seed. Saving your own seeds, and swapping seeds with others, is the best way to source seeds. However, it isn’t always practical. If you’re establishing a new garden, like I was, you’ll probably need to buy seeds.

However, before you go shopping, I’d recommend looking for local gardening groups and seed swaps, just in case. A few of our local libraries even offer seeds to “borrow” – the idea is that once you’ve planted them and have your own seeds, you return these to the library.

Some seeds can be sown directly in the ground, but most need planting into trays or pots before planting out.

Toilet rolls

Toilet rolls are the perfect size for seedlings, and you can fold one end over to make a base. However, if you have a productive garden, getting enough can be a challenge!

If you need more, Buy Nothing groups and Gumtree are a great way to find them. Similarly, if you don’t need your own, they are a great way to offload them to someone who does. Save them up until you have enough to entice someone to make the trip, and give them away.

It sounds bizarre, but if you look you’ll see that old toilet roll tube trading is a real thing! ;)

Newspaper Pots

My favourite way to make seedling pots is folding them, origami-style, using old newspaper (you can find DIY instructions for making seedling newspaper pots here). There’s no tape and no glue, no tools required and it takes less than a minute to make one.

I love these as, unlike toilet rolls, there’s no need to store them. Grab a couple of old newspapers and make everything you need in half an hour.

You can buy tools to make newspaper pots. They are usually made of wood, and to make the pot the newspaper is wrapped around a cylinder and pressing into an indented base (here’s an example of a wooden paper potter). Personally I think they are unnecessary, and as a minimalist I like to keep my tools to essentials only.

Wooden Seedling Flats

These are wooden boxes that are not compartmentalised, used for seed-raising. They are filled with soil and seeds sown, which can be transplanted once they’ve germinated.

Seedling flats can be made from softwood (like pine) or hardwood. If looked after properly and maintained, they can last several years. The most eco-friendly option are those made from reclaimed timber and offcuts.

Soil Blockers

Soil blockers are metal presses that allow you to press soil together to make cells to plant seeds without any other material. I first heard of soil blockers via Milkwood, and whilst I love the idea, I’m yet to give them a go. A friend has recently purchased one so I’m keen to test it out and will keep you posted.

Purpose-Bought Compostable Pots

It’s worth noting that ‘compostable’ is not the same as ‘biodegradable’. Compostable means it will break down in a compost bin or soil into humus (natural material) with no toxic residue. Biodegradable means it will be broken down by bacteria under certain conditions (often tested in a lab).

A ‘biodegradable’ label does not guarantee it will be broken down into constituent parts, only that it will break down small enough that it cannot be seen. It does not guarantee there will be no toxic residue.

There are a lot of pots that fall under the “compostable” category. The most eco-friendly ones are natural and made of waste materials like coconut coir or aged cow manure. Less environmentally sound ones are made with brand new wood fibre, and/or peat moss (removal of peat moss has been linked to global warming).

Whatever they are made from, they are designed to be single-use. They require energy to manufacture, package and transport. If we can use what we already have, that is a more eco-friendly option.

They are more durable than newspaper or toilet rolls, so are a good option for growing seedlings to sell or where they need to look more professional.

Purpose-bought Biodegradable Pots

Biodegradable (but not compostable) pots are often made with PLA plastic, also called corn starch or plant-based plastic. This is a polyester made from plant material rather than fossil fuels like traditional polyester.

Some PLA pots will state that they are compostable, but this will usually refer to composting under controlled conditions. They should state the test standard used and be “certified compostable.” Without the certification, the claim is meaningless.

These pots are a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional fossil-fuel based plastic pots. It should be possible to reuse them a few times before they begin to break down.

Personally, if a pot says biodegradable but does not say compostable, or is made of PLA plastic, I would avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

Things I don’t recommend:

Eggshells might look cute, but they are ridiculously impractical to fill. I found the same with egg boxes, and they are so absorbent they dry out the soil, but if you don’t live in a hot climate, they might work. On the downside, too cold and damp and they will encourage mold growth.

Terracotta pots aren’t great for seedlings as the roots can attach to the clay and get damaged in transplanting. Brand new compostable seedling punnets might sound green, but they seem a waste of resources when there are so many other options to use.

Transplanting Seedlings to Bigger Pots

Sometimes seedlings need to be transplanted into bigger pots before heading out to the veggie patch.

Reusing Seedling Trays/Plastic Pots

I’m a big fan of re-using what we have. We don’t use plastic at home, but I often find plastic plant pots thrown out on verge collection day, and I collect them to re-use. Plastic yoghurt pots, milk bottles and other plastic containers that can all be re-used to make plant pots.

Plastic that has been used with soil is difficult to clean and won’t be recycled. That’s fine if you intend to reuse the plastic as plant pots again and again. If there’s a choice, it is better to choose plastic that isn’t recyclable over plastic that is, and aim for as many re-uses as possible.

Plastic that is left in the sun will also begin to photo-degrade (break down into smaller pieces). They will last better in cooler, shadier conditions.

Potting On (Transferring Plants from Small Plant Pots to Bigger Plant Pots)

Seedlings eventually grow up, and either go into the garden or need bigger, more permanent homes. Whilst it’s easy to find small pots in various sizes, as the size goes up the opportunities become more limited. Here I’ve focussed on some of the biggest options, which are big enough to plant a small tree.

Terracotta Pots

I’ve found that terracotta pots aren’t great for small plants that I intend to repot as the roots get damaged, but they are a great plastic-free option for bigger plants, bulbs or annuals. We got these pots from the verge when our neighbours moved to Queensland.

One thing to note about terracotta – it is porous, which means in hot summers it can wick moisture out of the soil. One solution is to paint or glaze on the outside or the inside, to maintain the moisture of the soil, or choose pots that are already glazed.

Wine Barrels

I love wine barrels. They look beautiful and rustic, and are a waste product of the wine industry, but they are also very expensive to buy. These two wine barrels were purchased several years ago, but now they’d cost more than $100 each. Great for a feature, but not practical if you are on a budget or need more than one.

Wine barrels can be stained or varnished to help protect them from the weather, but ultimately the wood will break down. In Perth with its long dry summers, a wine barrel receiving haphazard (or no) care should last several years. In wetter climates I’d expect they’d need more management.

Olive Barrels

Olive barrels are big 190 litre food-grade plastic barrels that olives are imported in. They cannot be re-used by the import/export industry, so they are a waste product. Yes they are plastic, but they are second-hand. Much as I hate plastic, I love re-use,. Most terracotta pots for sale in WA are imported from Italy, whereas these barrels are already here. They are also extremely low cost – one barrel costs around $25 and can be cut in half to make two pots.

I would always choose the orange barrels, which are food grade. The blue ones are chemical barrels and most originally contained pesticides and fungicides, or other chemicals. They also tend to buckle in full sun, whereas the orange ones do not.

I’ve made all my olive barrels into wicking beds, meaning they have a hole at the side rather than the bottom, and a reservoir below the soil to hold water. This means the soil can wick water from the reservoir in summer, so the plants need less watering. Because a container needs to be fully waterproof to do this, it is difficult to do without plastic.

Upcycled Things

Honestly, it is only your imagination that will restrict you when it comes to finding eco-friendly plant pots. I’ve seen garden beds and plant pots made of old toilets, sinks, bathtubs, metal tins, plastic clam-shells and much more.

Just because it isn’t round and sold in a garden centre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow something in it!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list? Do you have any “not-to-do”s or things to avoid? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen used as a plant pot? And more importantly – did it work or was it a fail?! Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Is Almond Milk Bad for the Planet? (+ Some Myths Debunked)

First almond milk and other plant-based milks are lauded as a healthy alternative to regular milk; the next thing is they are being hailed as environmentally destructive. I exclusively drink nut milk at home (I make my own) and when I first starting hearing these claims, I decided to look into it a little more.

I want to live as sustainably as I can, and I also want to understand as much as I can about where my food comes from.

Articles with headlines like “Almond milk: quite good for you – very bad for the planet” and “Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry“, published by reputable news sources (in this case, The Guardian and Mother Jones respectively), make it easy to see why many people think nut milk is bad for the planet.

But these articles don’t tell the whole story.

The headlines definitely don’t tell the whole story.

Sustainable choices are rarely completely black and white. There’s often compromise, or prioritizing one aspect of “green” over another.

If you stopped at the headline, you’d think that almond milk is bad for the planet. I want to go beyond the headline, to find out what reasons they give, and explore the rest of the story.

NB Statement quoted below were taken from this article by the Guardian.

The ‘Water’ Issue

The main environmental concern with almond milk seems to be the amount of water needed to grow almonds, coupled with the fact that most almond trees are grown in drought-hit California.

“It takes 1.1 gallons (4.16 litres) of water to grow one almond.” (The Guardian quoted this article, which stated where they obtained their data from: Mekonnen, M. M and Hoekstra, A. Y 2011.)

There are 92 almonds in a cup, which makes a litre of homemade almond milk. That means 1 litre of almond milk requires 384 litres of water to produce.

(Store-bought almond milk appears to have a much lower almond content, listed as around 2% of the total. Most brands do not list the number of almonds used per litre, but it is thought to be much less than homemade nut milks.)

“This isn’t to say cow’s milk, which takes about 100 litres of water to produce 100ml of milk, is more environmentally friendly”. (The Guardian quoted 250ml as requiring 255 litres; this source contains the research data.)

A litre of cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce.

Almond milk requires 384 litres of water per litre, and cow’s milk requires 1016 litres of water to produce, which is 2.5x more water. Almond milk is less water intensive than dairy milk.

 Environmental Impacts: the ‘Cows Versus Trees’ Issue

It is very frustrating when environmental impacts are measured on one factor alone. For many companies, using plastic is considered a more environmentally friendly option than using paper or glass, as it has a lower carbon footprint and is cheaper to transport. But when you take into account reuse-ability, recycle-ability and nenew-ability, it is a different picture.

Talking about the environmental impact of almonds based solely on water usage is only part of the story. What about the fact that almonds grow on trees, which stabilise soil, add oxygen to the atmosphere and decrease soil erosion?

Compare this with dairy cows, which are big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (methane), require huge swathes of land to produce feed, and contribute to soil erosion and waterways pollution.

Animal welfare and ethical issues aside, growing trees seems the more environmental choice over raising cows.

The ‘Location’ Issue

Almonds seem to be targeted because they are grown in California, which has been hit by drought in recent years.

“More than 80% of the world’s almond crop is grown in California.”

This means 20% is not. Australia is the second-largest almond producer. I exclusively purchase Australian almonds as they are local to me. All produce has a printed country of origin, even products purchased in bulk stores. I purchase all my nuts from The Source Bulk Foods (they have 33 stores across Australia), as they stock Australian almonds as well as other nuts from Australia.

Almonds are also grown in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. World production is 2.9 million tonnes, and the USA produces 1.8 million tonnes. There are a million+ tonnes of almonds not grown in the USA to choose from.

For all of us living outside the USA, we have the option to purchase non-Californian almonds. However, Californian almonds are definitely more common.

If low food miles and sourcing locally grown or produced food is a priority, and almonds don’t grow close to where you live, almonds might not be the best choice for you.

“Its production is not concentrated in one area of the globe.” Meaning that whilst dairy milk is produced globally, almond production is concentrated in California.

Does distribution even matter? Or is it more about scale?

In 2014 California produced 2.14 billion pounds of almonds. In the same year California produced 42.3 billion pounds of milk. Regardless of worldwide production distribution, California produces more milk than almonds, and milk has a greater water footprint than almonds.

When the water used to produce Californian almonds is dwarfed by the water used to produce Californian dairy products, it seems a little misleading to claim that it is almonds that are “sucking California dry.”

They may not be blameless, but they seem to get more blame than they deserve.

The ‘Scapegoat’ Issue

California might have a lot of almond trees, but it’s an agricultural powerhouse, growing more than 200 crop varieties including almost all of America’s apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts. It leads in the US production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries.

California also produces huge numbers of animal products including milk, beef cattle, eggs, sheep, turkeys, hogs and horses.

Dairy and livestock are considered far more water intensive than vegetable crops. Almonds use similar water to other nut trees (and 99% of America’s walnuts are also grown in California). “Fresh” crops like lettuce and broccoli not only need large quantities of water to produce, they need to be refrigerated and are often air-freighted to their destination.

Why do almonds get a bad rap, whilst all the banana bread bakers adding Californian walnuts to their loaves get not a single talking-to?

I wonder if it is because almond-milk drinkers are seen as trendy hipsters. I wonder if people are trying to make it into a “class” issue (if almond milk is seen as middle-class). I wonder if it is because the dairy industry has a lot of money to push towards fighting the growing nut milk industry and the potential decline of dairy milk sales.

I can make my guesses, but I can’t know for sure. I do think that almonds (and almond-milk drinkers) are unfairly targeted. The issues go much deeper.

The ‘Packaging’ Issue

It is not the growing of almonds that is so bad for the planet. It is the mass manufacture of almond milk and the global shipping to stores worldwide that is having a negative environmental impact.

Shipping water all around the globe is crazy. Most of us wouldn’t dream of buying bottled water (assuming we have drinkable water coming from the tap), but carton nut milk is 98% water. It is virtually the same thing!

Then there’s the containers. Nut milk is usually packaged in Tetra Paks, and these aren’t as easily recycled as their manufacturers would like us to think they are. Theoretically recycable is not the same as actually recycled in our town/municipality/state.

Recycable or not, they are designed to be used once only and not refilled.

Buying carton nut milk, especially one that has been manufactured overseas, is not an environmentally sound choice. From a transport (and energy) perspective, dairy milk has a lesser impact as demand is typically for fresh milk, so it is sold locally.

The great news is, it is really easy to make your own almond and other plant-based milks. I typcially make my own cashew milk and almond milk, but you can use any type of nuts. I’ve made macadamia milk, walnut milk, and brazil nut milk. I’ve even made seed milks! Experiment, and find your favourite.

Yes, seed milk is a “thing”. And they are surprisingly delicious! This one is my favourite, pumpkin seed milk.

What is the Most Environmentally Sustainable Milk Option?

At it’s heart, I don’t think this is about almonds. Or dairy cows.

The real issue here is industrial agriculture in a fragile, sensitive environment, and pursuing profit at the expense of the planet.

If you can, support local farmers, and buy products produced in your local area – or as close to your local area as possible. If you choose to drink nut milk, consider buying nuts and making your own. Oat milk is another (nut free) option.

If you’d rather buy packaged plant milk, look for one that has been manufactured locally (even if the ingredients are from overseas). Coconuts require far less water than other nuts, and grow in climates where rain is plentiful.

Of course, we could refuse milk entirely, dairy, almond or otherwise. We could drink black coffee. We could just drink water, which we harvested from the roof in our rainwater tank. We could… but will we? There’s the perfect world, and then there’s the real world – the one we live in.

I think it’s important to ask questions, and to try to understand where our food comes from. I think it’s valuable to understand why we make the choices we do. Sometimes our choices are less than ideal. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about trying to do the best we can.

As seen on Ethical Superstore and Plastic Free July…

If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have missed some exciting news… I’m spreading my message and expanding my writing beyond this site! I’m currently writing a series of blog posts for the Ethical Superstore. So far three have been published, and there’s a few more in the pipeline.

If you want to read them, here are the links:

Treading My Own Path, Rethinking Waste and the Two New Kids

Not Just About the Chocolate…Can Electronics Be Fair Trade too?

Plastic Free July: Will You Accept the Challenge?

Whilst the messages are something you’ll probably recognise if you visit the site regularly, the content is completely new – no rehashing of old material from me!

In addition, I’m also writing a couple of posts for Plastic Free July’s 2014 campaign. They’re not ready for publishing yet, so keep your eye out!

Whilst I’m on the topic of Plastic Free July, I thought I’d mention the other exciting thing about this year’s 2014 campaign: the Bring One Get One Tree initiative which features my other half as poster boy extraordinaire! It is a local campaign to try to encourage more cafes to participate in reducing their packaging consumption.

You may remember I wrote a few weeks ago about him taking part in a photoshoot. Whilst I write away furiously about whatever hair-brained scheme I’ve concocted for the week ahead (zero-waste week anyone?), Glen is behind-the-scenes putting up with it all – and quietly taking his own bags, his own reusable coffee cup, his reusable cutlery set, and refusing straws and other plastic.

Plastic Free July asked him to feature as their “suited businessman” for the campaign, so now is his chance to shine! Bring1Get1tree posters-shopsI’m not sure he’ll thank me for sharing, but I am in a sharing mood this afternoon it seems!

If you get a chance to read any of my Ethical Superstore blog posts I’d love to hear what you think! You can comment on their site or comment here. Also, if you have any thoughts for future blog posts I could write for them I’d love to hear your ideas!

We’re all on different journeys

Last week I wrote a blog post about toilet paper. Eco-friendly, ethical toilet paper. Toilet paper that’s even more eco-friendly and ethical than the previous eco-friendly and ethical toilet paper I used to buy. It feels kind of absurd, really – writing blog posts about toilet paper. I pondered what friends I’ve not been in contact with recently might think if they stumbled across the post. I wonder what Lindsay’s up to these days? I’ll check her blog. Oh. She’s writing about toilet paper. Is that really how she spends her time these days? Does she have nothing bigger to worry about? Read more

Gift-giving, sustainability and minimalism at Christmas

In less than two months, Christmas will be upon us. There are aspects to Christmas that I like. I like being able to spend time with family, to eat great food, and to relax. The bit I’m less keen on is the huge consumer-fest that goes with it. The huge amounts of stuff that get bought, the money that gets wasted, the stuff that gets wasted, the frenzy that comes with having to buy this for that person or that for the other person.

I’m not against presents. I love the idea of finding something perfect for someone, putting some thought in to find something that they didn’t know existed, something that they’ll love and use and enjoy. The thing is, at Christmas that generally isn’t what happens. People write lists, or ask for specific things which other people buy for them. Or maybe the gift-giver is worried about choosing the wrong thing, and so gives money instead. For birthdays this is slightly different but at Christmas the reciprocity of it all makes it a farce. You want a jumper, so someone buys you the one you choose. They want a torch, so you buy them the one they want. You both wrap them up and hand them over. You open the present you chose yourself. Assuming the presents cost the same amount, they effectively cancel each other out. You may as well have bought the jumper you wanted in the first place. Only, would you have actually bought it if it hadn’t been necessary to request a gift, or would you have spent the money on something else?

The older you get, the more quickly Christmas seems to come around, and the harder it is to buy things for people as each year they’ve accumulated more and need less. They don’t need anything, so we tend to buy things to replace things they already have – that probably don’t need replacing and haven’t worn out. Or worse – the dreaded novelty gift!

The thing is, my boyfriend and I may feel this way, but not everybody does. For me, quality time with the people I love is far more important than receiving gifts. That’s why I treasure experiences, and why I enjoy the family part of Christmas. But for other people, gifts are important. For children particularly, receiving gifts makes them feel special and loved. For some people that feeling must never go away.

Last Christmas, I made all of the presents that we gave to our family, except one (a vintage trinket pot that I’d bought before I decided to do a homemade Christmas). Basically I baked. For days. I love cooking and I enjoy it, and I figure that everyone loves eating! So I made biscotti, and cakes, and cookies, and biscuits, and spiced nuts, and flavoured sugar… I can’t remember everything, but there was a lot. I also cooked Christmas lunch. For my family in the UK, for whom homemade gifts weren’t possible, I simply didn’t send presents.

But after Christmas, I had doubts. I wondered whether I had assumed that because we like homemade presents so would everybody else. Because we wouldn’t expect presents or mind not getting any, no-one else would either. It didn’t solve the consumerism problem. None of the gifts we’d received were homemade. We also received gifts from my family in the UK – they hadn’t thought of our no-present idea as reciprocal. Everything we received was store-bought, and yes, we received some gifts that we didn’t really need or want. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’d just rather people saved their money rather than feeling obliged to give us things.

I wondered if our Perth family had judged us for making gifts rather than buying them. I wondered if they thought we’d been cheap. (Not that making homemade gifts is actually cheap – ingredients can cost a fair amount – but they can be perceived as being cheap.) I wondered if the UK family thought we were being stingy, or lazy. I wondered if we were trying to push our values onto our family, and in turn they were trying to push their values back onto us.

We did a great deal of thinking. My boyfriend and I have concluded that we don’t need presents and we are happy for people not to buy us things. If someone thinks of a great appropriate gift then that is one thing, but we don’t need certain amounts spent or certain numbers of gifts on certain days of the year just because that’s what everyone else does. However, other people in our family don’t feel this way. They like to receive presents. And presumably because they like to receive presents, they like to give them too – even when asked not to. We’ve slowly come to understand that if we want them to understand and respect our wishes, we need to understand and respect theirs too. If they want and expect presents, then we need to acknowledge and respect that (whilst keeping to our sustainability/eco/waste-free values) and we can’t try to force our own ideas on them. What works for us might not work for them.

How this works in practice we don’t know yet. I guess we need to find the balance that works for our family, that takes everyone’s desires and wishes into account. Maybe one year we will do a proper family Christmas, and the next year we will take Christmas off. One year we indulge in the gift-giving, and the next year we don’t. Having not tried it yet, I can’t comment about how or whether it will work.

In the spirit of that, my boyfriend and I have decided to take this year off from Christmas. We’ve leaving the country on 7th December and not coming back until 3rd January, which means we will be missing everything. We will not be buying Christmas presents for anybody, including each other, and we are asking our family not to buy gifts for us either. Not before we go away, not for when we get back. No money either. Nothing.

This is the first time we’ve ever requested for our family not to buy us gifts, or give us money. It might be a big deal for them; after all, it’s going against the grain. It is a big deal to us, because it will mean that they respect what we want, and how we choose to live our lives. We hope that they will understand that we’re not buying gifts for them either. By saying that we don’t want gifts but we will be buying them for everyone else just complicates the issue – we don’t want anyone to feel the need to reciprocate. We’ve taken part in consumerist Christmas many many times, so maybe they can try things our way too. Just once. Hopefully in the future we can come up with something that works for everybody.