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

It’s now been 6 years since I first took the Plastic Free July challenge (all the way back in 2012) and made the decision to make this plastic-free living lark a way of life. What an adventure it has been!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lining a Bin with Newspaper

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

A friend suggested newspaper, and I made the switch.

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

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

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

“Who even gets a newspaper these days?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. Great idea and what I do now.

“Now” being the key word.

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

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

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

Buying Plastic Reusables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why “Guilt” Has No Place in the Zero Waste Lifestyle

Why do I love the plastic-free and zero waste lifestyle? Well, there are lots of reasons, but a big one is this: knowing that every single day I can make a difference and have a positive impact. Every single day I have the potential to create waste, and the opportunity to avoid it.

We all do.

This is something we can all be excited about, and embrace.

There are so many things in the world that are out of our control. Decisions we have little or no influence over. Policies or actions we cannot change. Despite this, we do have the ability to look at our own personal choices.

We all have some influence, even if it is at the household level. We have control of our own personal actions, and we can do the best we can.

We can choose carefully, considerately, and deliberately. We can do our best.

And that is something to feel really good about.

Which means that embracing the plastic-free and/or zero waste lifestyle should be something we feel good about.

Yet all too often, those good vibes are mixed in with something else.

Guilt.

How is it that doing something good can make us feel guilty?

Because it shouldn’t. Yet it does.

For me, I think guilt comes from falling short of “perfect”.

We can strive for improvement. We can aim for better. Indeed, setting goals and working towards improving has plenty of positives.

But it can also be exhausting. We all have our limits.

Most of us will hit these limits long before we reach “perfect”. If perfect even exists.

There’s a gap between wanting to be perfect, and coming up short. This is where guilt sets in.

When it comes to living plastic-free and zero waste, guilt isn’t helpful. We want to feel good about the actions we take and choices we make. Feeling good is the best way to keep going.

Feeling guilty can be paralyzing; like it’s all too hard. Guilt can lead us to think it’s-not-good-enough-so-why-bother-anyway.

That’s not what we want at all! Something is better than nothing. Trying is better than not trying. However imperfect it may be, bothering is most definitely better than not!

Guilt is a topic I keep coming back to. I’ve talked about how being perfect is an illusion. I’ve talked about how it is important to share all the bits of zero waste living, not just the best (photogenic) bits.

There’s another aspect of guilt that I think we need to talk about. How we support one another in our imperfect choices, and the things we say. We have the power to encourage, and we have the power to deflate.

What we say, and how we say it.

It’s so easy, when we’re excited or passionate about a topic, to trip up on this. However well-meaning our intentions are. For example, someone tells us about their newly purchased reusable. And we point out that there’s a better or more ethical version. Or we tell them that it’s easy to find that same item second-hand.

We’re excited to share our knowledge. We’re excited to encourage the next steps.

But it can leave the person feeling judged and inadequate. It can make the person feel unsupported. It implies that they fell short… and that can mean guilt.

It’s not the intention, but it can be the outcome.

I had this experience recently when I threw away my old bag. I received a couple of comments, obviously well intentioned: Couldn’t I have coated the bag in wax? Couldn’t I paint it? Couldn’t I cover it with new fabric?

By this point, the bag was already in landfill. I immediately felt guilty. Guilty for not trying harder to salvage the bag.

And then I thought… no. I try really hard to reduce my waste. I rarely send anything to landfill. (This bag is the most I’ve sent to landfill in years.) I share my tips and insights, and encourage others to reduce their own waste. I do a lot already. I know I’ll never be perfect, and I never said I was perfect.

No, I should not feel guilty for not learning to sew, or researching fabric paint (that comes plastic- and packaging free).

No, I should not feel guilty for discarding one old, worn out thing; and buying one new thing in its place.

No, I should not feel guilty for not being perfect, or not putting up with something that has really served its purpose.

The point is, I did the best I could.

Don’t we all do the best we can?

In which case, shouldn’t we be cheering one another on?

Any change in the right direction is a positive, however small and imperfect it might be. When others make changes, it shouldn’t matter if it’s not the change that we would make. Let’s celebrate their achievements. There’s no need to point out the “better” choices.

There are so many people in the world oblivious to the impact of plastic on the environment, unaware of the resources wasted with single-use items, too wrapped up in the culture of convenience to realise how much it’s harming the planet. Let’s not rebuke those taking steps to do something better.

Judgement and guilt-tripping is not going to inspire anyone to keep trying. Encouragement and inclusiveness, that’s much more motivating.

Let’s be kind. We’re all in this together. We must celebrate the wins. Applaud the steps in the right direction. Cheer on any decision that’s an improvement on the previous one.

In my view, the plastic-free and zero waste lifestyles are all about encouraging others to make better choices. And any step in the right direction is better than no steps at all.

Let’s not berate others for how far they’ve got to go. Let’s celebrate how far they’ve come.

Spilling the Truth About the “Perfect” Zero Waste Image

I’ll admit it. I do like a stylish, carefully curated zero waste image. I’m prone to double-tapping “like” when a snap of a beautiful pantry with whole foods stacked neatly in glass jars appears on my social media feed.

I think that pictures of products made of stainless steel and glass are much more visually appealing than the equivalents in plastic.

But I also know that for me, zero waste doesn’t really look like that most of the time.

Sure, I can take a cute snap of my pantry essentials once I’ve hauled them home from the Source Bulk Foods (which is my local bulk store, and lets me bring and fill my own jars – and jars can look lovely in a photograph)…

…But then they get shoved in my pantry, which is not some kind of oasis for groceries, but a ramshackle assortment of mis-matched jars with mis-matched lids.

The kind that won’t be gracing the front cover of magazines anywhere, ever.

The reality is, zero waste is a lot more jumbled and mis-matched and imperfect in real life. At least, it is for me.

That may seem obvious. But a scroll through any social media feed suggests that zero waste is all perfectly matched jars, beautiful white homes and stylish accessories.

This begins to set unrealistic expectations.

It plants the idea that we need different things – better things – in order to fit with the zero waste lifestyle.

Zero waste is a lifestyle choice. But that lifestyle, in my mind, is one of consuming less and making do with what we already have.

It’s easy to see how the curated images of social media could give a different impression – one that implies a need to purchase new things if they fit with the zero waste ideal.

But zero waste is not about consuming more.

The most important thing with living zero waste is the intention. The intention to reduce our footprint, reduce our waste, and make the best choice we can with the time, resources and options available to us.

Image is secondary to this.

Of course, we all share the best images we have. Good images help – they help attract attention, raise awareness, start a conversation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing the best, so long as we don’t only share the perfect bits. There are lots of imperfect bits to share, too.

Without sharing those, we are doing the zero waste movement a bit of a disservice.

Perfection is intimidating. No-one should feel that this lifestyle is unattainable because they don’t own the “right” things.

As someone who could never describe themselves as effortlessly stylish (or, let’s face it, even stylish when I do put in the effort), zero waste does not look perfect in my house.

Yet I’m definitely guilty of curating my images to share more of the perfect bits, and omit more of the less perfect bits.

Crazy really, when I believe that intention comes before image.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share some snaps from my zero waste life that fit firmly in this category. The embarrassing, cringe-worthy, no-way-near-perfect images that are the reality of what zero waste living looks like for me.

Intention over Image: What Zero Waste Really Looks Like for Me

The Zero Waste Pantry

I’ve already shared a couple of pictures of my groceries and pantry above, but groceries in glass jars are such an iconic image of the zero waste movement, I thought I’d share a couple more of my less-than-perfect moments, just to get my point across.

Sharing pictures of my grocery shopping in glass jars on social media is one of my guilty pleasures. I like the way groceries look in glass, and I also think it’s useful to share the kinds of foods that it’s possible to buy in bulk.

Whilst my groceries tend to look pretty stylish when laid flat, viewing from the top down reveals the truth about the containers I use: upcycled jars with mis-matched lids retrieved from the recycling bin over the years.

In fact, if I empty the entire contents of my pantry, it’s the same thing on a bigger scale.

For me, the intention is to reuse what I can. I’m happy with upcycled mismatched jars. Whilst I love the look of Weck and Le Parfait jars, I can’t justify buying new (and as they are German and French brands, they don’t often turn up second-hand in Australia).

My pantry might not look the most aesthetically pleasing, but it works for me.

Zero Waste Cleaning

My washing-up set-up looks pretty much like this: a wooden dishbrush with replaceable head, a natural pot brush, and dishwashing liquid purchased from the bulk store.

Oh, but there’s also my 2012 dish brush, which doesn’t often turn up in photos due to the fact it’s plastic, bright green, and really doesn’t suit the zero waste aesthetic.

In the spirit of zero waste, I said that I’d keep it and use it until it wears out, and then obviously not replace it. Well, it’s now 2018, and that damn brush is still going strong! Which, really is a good thing, considering how quickly plastic dish brushes degrade.

It might not look good in the photos, but the intention is to use things until they wear out, and choose better next time, and that brush continues to serve its purpose.

Zero Waste Bathroom

I make my bathroom products from scratch, with ingredients that I buy packaging-free, and I use repurposed containers. Ticking all the zero waste boxes there!

However, there’s plenty of other things in my bathroom that don’t fit the zero waste aesthetic at all.

When I first went plastic-free I used a bamboo toothbrush, and I hated it. The bristles would fall out in my mouth and then get washed down the sink (hello, microplastic). After more than a year of that, I had enough and purchased a toothbrush with replaceable heads.

Since then (we’re talking back in 2012), the number of bamboo toothbrush brands has exploded, and many of my readers have suggested bamboo alternatives that don’t lose bristles. The thing is, now I have this brush, the most zero waste thing is to keep using it. Plus it works, which is what I want from a toothbrush.

Yes, it’s ugly (and definitely not the zero waste aesthetic). But that’s how it sometimes is.

The intention is to create as little waste as possible whilst still feeling comfortable with the choice I’ve made. Bamboo toothbrushes just didn’t do it for me.

Whilst we are on the subject of ugly plastic, I still have my plastic razor from circa 2009. When I went plastic-free, I had the razor and a number of blades, and I declared that I would continue to use it until the heads wore out, and then I would replace it.

This picture is from 2014, when I still had three blades left.

I’ve been down to the last one for a while, and eventually it will wear out. But a good rinse, drying properly and polishing the blades with a piece of denim cloth has seen it last a lot longer than I expected.

Of course, a stainless steel razor would look much better in my bathroom, and in any pics I share. But actually, what I need is a razor that works, which is what I have. Right now the only reason to swap the ugly plastic one for a shiny stainless steel one is the aesthetic.

Which from a zero waste perspective, isn’t the intention. Replacing functional items solely for better looking ones makes no sense.

The point I want to make is this: zero waste isn’t picture perfect.

Don’t get disheartened by “perfect” images. We all share the best moments, but that is rarely the whole story. Behind every perfect image is plenty of imperfection. That’s just how life is.

Don’t be tempted to buy new stuff to “fit in”. If you want to fit into the zero waste lifestyle, use what you have, and make do.

Zero waste is about intention. It isn’t about buying the right things. It is about caring about the right things.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What do you think is missing from the curated zero waste images shared in social media? Are you guilty of sharing the better bits and excluding the less good bits? Do you ever feel embarrassed about the appearance of your zero waste attempts? Are you happy to share things exactly as they are, whatever they look like? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Illusion of Being Perfectly Zero Waste (or Perfectly Plastic-Free)

A few years ago, I wandered into a second-hand bag outlet in a pop-up shop that sold handbags. One bag caught my eye – it was in excellent condition and very inexpensive (it was $28 AUD). The lady explained that she had purchased it thinking it was leather, but then realised it wasn’t leather at all, so she had reduced it to clear – she was a leather shop, and didn’t want to stock non-leather items.

I bought the bag. It was second-hand, in almost new condition, and I really liked it. It seemed like a good purchase. It carried my zero waste and plastic-free essentials around for a few years.

But over time, the faux leather began to flake off. Slowly at first, but as the bag aged it got worse and worse.

Aside from the fact that it looked pretty tatty, I was also acutely aware that this flaking faux leather was actually microplastic, shedding into the environment.

Eventually enough was enough, and I realised I had to get a new bag.

I always say that it’s important to think about how we’ll dispose of an item when it’s life expired before we make the purchase. (If we are concerned about waste and are trying to reduce our landfill, at least.)

Clearly when I chose this bag, I didn’t think about that at all.

I think that’s why I held onto it as long as I did, even though it was disintegrating before my eyes. I knew that there was nothing I could do to save it. It’s 100% synthetic materials, so not biodegradable, not reusable, not salvageable. It’s next destination was landfill.

Of course, I feel bad about that.

I knew that my next purchase had to be better.

I’ve been following a small independent handmade bag business based on the east coast of Australia (in Mackay, Queensland) called Small World Dreams on Instagram since forever, and I’d decided that when I needed a new bag, I’d purchased one from Claire. I first heard about her because she uses Ink and Spindle fabric to make her bags – Ink and Spindle are a Melbourne-based company who use organic fabric, natural dyes and Australian flora to inspire their hand-printed designs.

I wanted my new bag to be made responsibly and transparently, fit all my things in it, be repairable, not contain any plastic at all and therefore be completely biodegradable, and be made so well that the idea of even needing to put it in the compost is one for the next decade, not this one.

The bag I chose fits all of these criteria.

But I confess, I felt a small pang of guilt when I chose it, because even though it meets all my criteria, is completely plastic-free, and is almost entirely made from organic cotton, the strap is made of leather.

I feel bad about this because I try very hard to avoid purchasing animal products.

But my previous bag, made of faux leather (which is plastic) ended up creating microplastic pollution and damaging the environment that way. It also ended up in landfill.

I feel bad about that, too.

In the end, I kept the leather to an absolute minimum, and made peace with my purchase because plastic-free was my first and biggest priority.

I know that if I’d really tried, I could have found a completely natural and biodegradable bag. I’m sure there are other great ethical small businesses I could have chosen from. Small World Dreams even stock a vegan range made using Piñatex, a relatively new leather alternative made from pineapple fibres. These bags didn’t suit my needs, however – and gold really isn’t my colour.

Actually, I really like the bag I chose. I love the style, the design, the craftsmanship. I know the strap will last a long time (and that is important to me).

I think the guilt I feel comes a lot from the need to try to be perfect.

I know it would be much easier to share with you a completely biodegradable, ethically made, natural, vegan bag – one ideally made locally with organic fabric, and packaged in recycled sustainable materials.

Easier in my mind because if I tick all the “ethical boxes”, no-one can make judgments about my choices.

Which is a false truth, actually, because people will make judgments whatever the choice.

Choices are rarely (ever?) perfect. No matter how many boxes are ticked, there’s always something that was forgotten about.

It’s a scary thing, putting your life and your choices in public. You’re opening yourself up to criticism and judgment. The reason I do it is because I think that sharing what I do and the choices I make helps others find their own way, learn from my discoveries and make better choices themselves.

Knowing that I can influence others to have a positive impact in their own lives and towards the environment is what keeps me motivated to continue.

It’s much easier then, to share the best choices. The things that work really well. The success stories.

But none of us are perfect. I’m not perfect. I don’t pretend to be, either, but it’s a lot easier to share the perfect bits than the imperfect bits.

I’d rather tell you that I’m the perfect vegan.

I’d rather tell you that I’m perfect at zero waste.

I’d rather tell you that I’m perfect at plastic-free.

But of course, I’m not any of these things.

The reality is that absolutes are hard. Different values can be conflicting, and we have to find our own way.

I have complete respect for anyone who lives with absolutes. I know that for many vegans, their resolve is absolute, and the idea of being an “imperfect vegan” is an oxymoron. There’s no room for flexibility: you either are or you aren’t.

For me, doing what I can is better than doing nothing at all. I try, and I struggle, and I fall short, but I keep striving to do better.

I wonder if my imperfections are because I’m multi-passionate. I care about too many things to be completely focused on one at the expense of all the others. I care about plastic-free and zero waste, supporting the local economy, buying second-hand and supporting Fair Trade. I care about food miles and air miles and reducing carbon emissions. My diet is plant-based and I don’t buy animal products at home, but when I’m out I make exceptions, and especially when friends have cooked for me.

My decisions are always about reducing my impact, but what that looks like varies from one decision to another – there’s always a compromise somewhere.

Then again, maybe my imperfections are nothing to do with being multi-passionate. Maybe they are simply because that’s how I am. Imperfectly imperfect.

What I’ve realised is, I don’t want to feel bad about the decisions I make. I try so hard to weigh up all the options and make the best decisions that I can. Not perfect ones, but better ones than the time before. That’s something I should feel good about.

Making better choices is something we should all feel good about.

Chasing the crazy notion of perfection, that’s what leads to overwhelm, stress and feeling miserable. Embracing our imperfections? That’s acceptance of what actually is. None of us are perfect at everything, all the time. Being kind to ourselves (and to others) is a much better alternative than beating ourselves up over our shortcomings.

My choices won’t be everybody’s choices. But they are my choices. In all their imperfection, I make them. Being happy with them means letting go of the desire to be perfect, and the fear of being judged when I’m not.

I’m not perfect, and I can be happy with that.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with the need to be perfect? How do you tackle criticism or judgment of the choices you make? Have you found your peace with making imperfect decisions? Anything else you’d like to share? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments!

A First-Timer’s Guide to Shopping at Bulk Stores

Bulk stores make shopping plastic-free and zero waste so much easier. They allow us to avoid unnecessary packaging, and buy only what we need (no unnecessary food waste). But they operate quite differently to regular stores and supermarkets, and if you haven’t shopped at one before, the idea can be a little intimidating.

If you’re new to living plastic-free and zero waste, and find the idea of shopping at bulk stores a little nerve-wracking, I’ve put together a guide to help you out. No two bulk stores are exactly the same, but the principles are.

I believe that we should be embracing these types of shops where we can, and there’s no need to be intimidated!

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Before You Leave Home

The first thing I’d recommend you take is a shopping list. Go through your pantry and decide what you need before you get there. Browsing in a store you’ve never been in before can be a little overwhelming, and it’s easy to spend more money than you intend on ingredients that you didn’t really need.

Second, think about how you intend to buy your groceries. If you want to avoid packaging you might want to bring glass jars, containers or reusable produce bags. However not all bulk stores are set up the same.

For a first shop, I’d recommend taking reusable produce bags rather than jars or containers. (If you don’t have reusable produce bags and want to invest in some, you can find my online zero waste stores guide here.)

I shop at the Source Bulk Foods (and there are 50 of these stores across Australia and New Zealand) and these stores are set up for customers to bring their own containers. I can take a bag full of empty glass jars, the team will weigh them for me and record the weight on the jars, and then I can fill them up. When I get to the till the weight of the jar will be subtracted from the total, meaning I only pay for the weight of the actual products I buy.

Not all bulk stores offer this service. Maybe they don’t have the technology, maybe they don’t have the staff training, or maybe they just don’t want to. In these stores, using glass jars will be an expensive exercise as you’ll end up paying for the weight of the jar as well as the product. Reusable produce bags are the best alternative.

If you really want to use containers, consider ringing ahead and asking if they will be able to tare the weight, and how it works.

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Once You Arrive

Shopping at a bulk store is a very different experience to shopping at a supermarket. It’s extremely likely that the staff are as passionate about reducing waste as you are, and they will be more than happy to help. If you’re unsure in any way, I’d recommend going straight to a staff member and explaining that you’re new to this way of shopping, and asking how their store works and if there’s anything you need to know.

Ask them about different containers, and if they have preferences. Ask what other customers do. Start the conversation!

Some bulk stores might allow you to weigh your own containers. Some might ask that you write the code number of the product down (many people using their own jars do this by writing the numbers in their mobile phone as they go) to present at the till.

Some might print their own labels which just need scanning at the till. Ask to find out how your store works.

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Other Things to Consider

If we are used to supermarkets, we are much more used to unit prices (such as x price for a jar of peanut butter) rather than price per kilo. Even though supermarkets will list these prices, we don’t tend to pay much attention. This can be confusing at the start when shopping at bulk stores, because we often don’t have much idea how much things weigh. For example, chocolate coated nuts are quite heavy, so they might not sound expensive per kilo but a bag full can be more expensive than expected! On the other hand, items like tea can seem very expensive per kilo, but a full jar will not weigh much and be more affordable than the price suggests.

If you’re on a budget, for the first few shops I’d recommend getting a receipt, and tracking how much things cost, and making adjustments next time. I learned the hard way that big jars full of chocolates hurt my pocket!

Most things sold at bulk stores are sold by weight, but occasionally products are sold per unit (priced “each”) and some liquids will be sold by volume. The price label will always tell you how you will be charged. If a liquid is sold by volume, you will need to know the volume of the container rather than the weight (such as knowing the jar is 500ml or a litre).

If you do make a mistake, the store will help you sort it as best they can. They deal with a lot of containers and will have a good idea of the weight (if you forgot to weigh it) or the volume (if it doesn’t say on the container).

Whilst I’m shopping, I like to take note of the other ingredients that I see. If I see something interesting, I’ll head home and read up on how to prepare or cook it, and look up some recipes. If I decide I’d like to try it, I add to my list for next time. This works better for me than buying random ingredients that then sit in the cupboard untouched.

We’re often used to heading to the supermarket every week, but bulk stores can be approached a little differently. If you live far from a bulk store, getting super organised can mean you only need to head there every few weeks – the products they sell have a long shelf life, so there is no need to head in weekly. On the other hand, if you prefer to pop in every few days rather than stockpile, that works too.

Whichever you prefer, bulk stores offer more freedom than supermarkets to choose how you’d like to shop. They’re also friendly places, selling real food, and owned by real people rather than faceless corporations. What’s not to love?!

Now I’d love to hear from you! What practices does your local bulk store use? Are there any quirks that you’d like to share? Any other tips on bulk shopping?  If you’re new to the idea, any questions we haven’t covered? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

5 Mistakes That Beginners Make When Going Zero Waste + Plastic Free

I don’t know about you, but when I set out to tackle a new project or challenge, I begin by feeling pretty excited about what I’m going to achieve. I feel good about making the commitment, I anticipate how great it’s going to be when I get there.

Only… not long after that, the doubt starts to set in. I realise the enormity of what I’m trying to tackle. I hit a stumbling block, and realise that the goal I set myself isn’t going to be such easy sailing.

It’s going to be hard work, and progress isn’t going to be a straight line.

It can be pretty disheartening after the euphoria of the beginning.

Can you relate?

However, progress is never a straight line, and there’s no need to give up just because things get a little tough. It’s all about practice, and chipping away, and bouncing back after we’ve been knocked down.

Time is always on our side.

No-one learns how to play the guitar in a few days, or speaks a language fluently in a week – so why should other habits be any different?

If you’ve set yourself the goal of really trying to live plastic-free and/or embrace zero waste, chances are you started out feeling great about what you want to achieve, only to feel deflated and overwhelmed as the days roll on. Whether you’ve struggled to find a good bulk store, argued with an obstinate customer service assistant who rolled their eyes and refused to let you use your own containers (or insisted on bagging them afterwards) or simply forgot your reusables because you were in a rush and took the single-use packaging without thinking – I promise you, we have all been there.

When that happens, dust yourself off, file it away under “experiences” and keep going.

We all make mistakes. If you’re a beginner on the zero waste journey, here’s 5 more common mistakes that people make, and how you can think differently about them.

Five Mistakes that Beginners Make When Going Zero Waste or Plastic Free

1. Not Starting Small.

It’s easy to focus so much on the end result that we forget this: big changes are really lots of small changes added together. Yes, the end goal is important. But the small actions are how we are going to get there.

If we want our expectations to meet our reality, we have to start small and achievable.

It’s much more motivating to pick a small, attainable goal and actually achieve it. That’s what spurs us on to take another action. Picking a wildly ambitious goal and then failing to meet it just makes us feel guilty, miserable and more like giving up.

If you’re new to zero waste and have never done anything to reduce your waste in the past, deciding that you’re going to go straight for the “all-my-waste-fitting-in-a-jam-jar” challenge in week 1 might be a step too far.

Why not start with sourcing a good set of reusables, and work on remembering to take them with you when you head out? Or choose one item that takes up a huge amount of space in your rubbish bin, and decide to find a low waste solution to that?

You’ll find some inspiration for micro actions you can take to reduce your waste here.

2. Feeling Bad About the Successes of Others.

Comparisonitis is very real. We see other people doing things that we want to be doing, possibly better than we could ever do them, and we feel bad about ourselves. Social media makes it worse, as we are much more exposed to what others are doing.

But comparing ourselves to others isn’t helpful, especially when we feel miserable or disheartened as a result.

Rather than feeling bad about the successes of others, we can choose to celebrate with them. People make progress as a result of hard work, determination, and courage. Anyone ahead of us on the journey can share their experiences, help us make progress and shine a light on the path to take.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Personally, I think that social media is a tool for good, connecting us with great ideas and inspiring people. We can choose to follow people who motivate us and lift us up. People who write kind words, share ideas freely and build supportive communities.

If you find that you follow people who make you feel bad, you can stop that immediately by unfollowing them.

If we find that social media gets a little overwhelming, we can take time out.

If it doesn’t feel good, there is no need to do it. We have the control and the power to change it.

Try to celebrate the success of others. If you find this too difficult, choose to disconnect from it. It’s all a choice.

3. Letting the Negative Opinions of Others Influence Your Journey.

We all try to make the best decisions we can based on the knowledge we have, the time and resources available to us and our experiences. There is rarely a perfect choice, so we do what we think is best in that moment.

That doesn’t mean that our decisions are right for everyone, or are what others would choose.

I think the most important thing is to understand why we make the choices we make: to know why they feel right for us.

Others will have different ideas. Sometimes this feedback can be very useful. We can learn about other (and maybe better) ways of doing things. We can consider new perspectives, and factors we hadn’t considered before.

This can help us make better, and more informed, decisions next time.

Sometimes, although people are well-meaning, these comments can come across as overly critical or negative. It might not be what they say, but the way they say it, or what is implied.

You don’t make your own? I do.

You bought something new when you could have made do/found it second hand? That’s not zero waste.

Do you know it contains palm oil/is made in China/some other thing that’s terrible for the planet? I thought you cared about that.

I believe that most people mean well. Sometimes our passion and excitement for a subject can get in the way of thoughtfulness. Just remembering this fact can help us see past any unintended negativity.

Of course, sometimes people do try to catch us out. To point out our flaws and imperfections. Really, that says more about them than it does about us.

Regardless, there is often (but not always) an element of truth to consider in any negative feedback or comments. It’s worth taking a step back, considering the message and taking any feedback on board for next time.

It’s not worth dwelling on it, though. Or getting upset by it. Or letting it negatively influence our efforts.

Remember, people have no idea about your life. It’s your journey, and you’re figuring it out as best you can.

Negative feedback can be useful. Just don’t let it derail your plans.

4. Not Seeing Making Bad Choices as a Learning Experience.

On any journey we make decisions and choices that, with the benefit of hindsight, we wouldn’t make again. That’s part of the learning experience.

Bad choices are not a reason to give up. We all make them, and we will all continue to make them. Hopefully, the more we progress the less we’ll make, but there are no guarantees!

Making a bad decision, and realising that it was a bad decision, is what helps us make better decisions next time round. I would argue that making a bad decision is better than making no decision – taking action is how we get clarity.

Most decisions will be good, some will be not so good. It doesn’t matter.

5. Making Things Harder Than They Need to Be.

Going plastic-free or zero waste is not about going without. That said, it can take time to find workable solutions for everything. There has to be balance, and in trying to find that balance we can tip a little too far the other way.

To find balance, we need to push things in order to find out just where the equilibrium lies.

However, if we go too far, we need to recognize that, and bring things back, or we will stress ourselves out and the whole thing will become unsustainable.

There’s plenty of ways that we can unintentionally make things harder for ourselves. Creating an unmanageable amount of work for ourselves by trying to make every single thing from scratch. Trying to ensure our entire family is zero waste or plastic-free rather than just focusing on ourselves. Tackling multiple challenges at once, like going zero waste, plastic-free, vegan, organic and local all together. Forgoing things we love (and that make us happy), or letting our health suffer for the “cause”.

We can only do what we can do. Some things we can maintain in the long-term, some things we can strive for only in the short-term, and other things just won’t work for us at all – at least not in the present.

Zero waste, plastic-free and sustainable living is not meant to feel like a chore. Its not meant to feel like a struggle. If it does, it might be time to take a step back and let some things go. There will be a time to try again.

There’s no benefit to anyone in making things harder than they need to be.

If you have any mistakes you’d like to add to this list, I’d love to hear them so please share! Were there any mistakes that you made when starting out? Are there any mistakes you see others make at the beginning of their journey? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

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!

A Zero Waste Guide to Reusable Coffee Cups

Is a reusable coffee cup a zero waste essential? Well, that depends on your perspective. Do you think that coffee is a life essential? ;)

Seriously, whether you personally think so or not, the fact is that over 500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced every year. Which clearly shows that plenty of people do think coffee is a life necessity.

Reusable coffee cups are the obvious solution if we are to do something to stem this tide of disposables heading to landfill (or worse) every year.

Use a reusable just 15 times and the environment wins. (Hocking’s 1994 lifecycle energy analysis found that ceramic cups needed to be used 39 times, plastic cups 17 times, and glass cups 15 times before they became equally energy efficient to plastic-lined paper cups.)

Bear in mind that a reusable, looked after, will last for many years.

The message that these cups send is just as (maybe more) important than the vessels themselves. It’s about showing the solution. Demonstrating to the public that there is an alternative. Showing others that there are people (us!) who care about this issue, and are doing something about it.

Making reusables a little more socially acceptable, and single-use disposables a little less so. Changing the story about convenience.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of some of the best reusable coffee cup brands that I could find. Companies that not only make great reusables, but that care about the impact single-use items have on the planet.

(This is not a sponsored post. None of these brands have paid to be featured.)

Choosing Reusables: Coffee Cups

All brands listed below make cups that are barista standard. This means they hold the same volume as standardised disposable takeaway cups, and fit underneath a coffee machine.

Most reusable takeaway cups do have a small element of plastic or silicone, because they need a sealable lid and a band to protect the fingers from burns. Their primary purpose is takeaway, after all.

I’ve listed brand websites below, but if you’re looking for a local store to make a purchase from, I have a worldwide list of local online zero waste stores. Please try to support a local independent business, if you can. The big department stores and Amazon really don’t need our money, and these small businesses do.

7 Reusable Zero Waste Coffee Cup Brands I Recommend

1. KeepCup

KeepCup is possibly the original reusable cup brand, and if not the first, definitely the most well known.

KeepCup began in 2009, and are now sold in 65 countries around the world. KeepCup ship from Australia, the UK and the USA.

Their cups are available in both plastic and glass. All cups have a plastic lid (plastic #4, LDPE) which is hard and rigid, with a plastic plug (a polyethylene polymer called TPU). The bands are made of silicone.

Their plastic cups (plastic #5, or polypropylene – considered to be the best food grade plastic with thermal stability) come in 5 sizes: 4oz (the ideal size for a babycino), 6oz, 8oz, 12oz and 16oz. Their glass cups come in 3 sizes: 8oz, 12oz and 16oz. Additionally, they offer a glass “LongPlay” booster for the 12oz and 16oz sizes which creates a double-walled vessel to keep hot drinks hot (and cold drinks cold) for longer.

Their KeepCup Brew edition features a glass cup (8oz, 12oz or 16oz) with a cork band, making it their least plastic option.

W: https://keepcup.com

2. JOCO Cup

JOCO cups were the first company to produce a barista standard glass coffee cup. The glass cups come in 3 sizes: 8oz, 12oz and 16oz. The lid is made of silicone, which makes it soft and rubbery. The band is also made of silicone.

JOCO cups are distributed worldwide, and ship from Australia and the USA.

W: https://jococups.com

3. La Bontazza

La Bontazza is another Australian company (influenced by Italian style) that produces reusable glass coffee cups with silicone lids and bands. La Bontazza are the only company I’ve found that make a small 4oz reusable coffee cup in glass – perfect for short macchiato drinkers, espresso drinkers and babycino drinkers (who are old enough to handle a glass cup).

Their three cup sizes are 4oz, 8oz and 12oz.

W: http://www.labontazza.com

4. Planet Cups by Pottery for the Planet

Planet Cups are handmade pottery cups fitted with a silicone lid, and with an optional silicone band. They are available in 3 sizes: 6 oz, 8oz and 12oz. Every single cup is unique, being made by Renton Bishopric ceramics in their Queensland studio.

The cups are not currently sold via their website, but stockists can be found via their social media channels.

W: http://www.rentonbishopric.com

5. Cupit by Kahla

Kahla is a German ceramics manufacturer who produces Cupit, a range of white ceramic reusable coffee cups in three sizes: 8oz, 12oz and 16oz. The lid is available to purchase separate from the cup. Both the cups and the lids are made in Germany.

The ceramic cups have a silicone foot at the base, making them non slip. The lid is plastic, and the band that wraps around the cup is fixed and cannot be removed. The cups are slightly heavier than a glass reusable coffee cup, and are very sturdy.

W: http://en.kahlaporzellan.com

6. Klean Kanteen

Klean Kanteen produce insulated stainless steel tumblers with a plastic tumbler lid in 3 sizes: 8oz, 16oz and 20oz. The tumbler lid is designed for transporting liquids (although it is not leak proof) but is not designed for drinking through.

W: https://www.kleankanteen.com

7. Ecojarz

For anyone who doesn’t drink takeaway often and doesn’t see the need for a purpose-built vessel, Ecojarz offer an alternative: a stainless steel drinking lid with silicone seal that fits your existing wide-mouth mason or canning jars.

They also offer hot drink holders and silicone bands.

W: http://ecojarz.com

Of course, I realise that reusable coffee cups aren’t for everybody. (Is anything?!) You may not be a daily takeaway coffee drinker. But I’ve no doubt that you know someone who is. The public’s perception of plastic bags has shifted, plastic pollution awareness is rising, and tackling disposable coffee cups seem the next logical step.

Reusable coffee cups are a great and practical solution.

Let’s get the conversation started. Bring on the reuse revolution. 

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you use a reusable coffee cup? Do you use one of these brands listed or an alternative I haven’t mentioned? Do you make do with a DIY approach? Do you think reusable coffee cups are a load of nonsense? Any other thoughts to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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

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

Let me explain.

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

Woah.

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

But I read this one.

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

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

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

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

Here’s my thoughts.

What Living Plastic Free Actually Means (To Me)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Is Plastic-Free not Plastic-Free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Tips for Choosing Ethical Zero Waste Essentials

The zero waste and plastic-free movements have been steadily building momentum over the last few years, and along with that, so has the proliferation of associated “stuff”. When I started my plastic-free journey back in 2012, there were products to assist with zero waste living, but choice was limited. Now, it seems we are inundated with options, an there are more coming onto the marketplace every day.

That makes me a little nervous.

It makes me nervous because zero waste is about not creating waste; buying less stuff, and making do with what we have. It still means the occasional purchase, but usually “buy-once-and-will-last-forever” type products.

The more stuff on the market, the more we are tempted to buy, the more fashion and style comes into it and practicality and functionality seem less important.

When there’s so much choice, and there’s the temptation to buy more or try new things, these reusables can become “single use”. Reusables made of glass or stainless steel have a big production footprint. Great if we use them all the time, and of course they are made to last forever. But we have to use them often.

When we buy things and then don’t (or rarely) use them, they aren’t such better than single-use.

Finally, it makes me nervous because choice is paralyzing, and too much choice can lead to overwhelm and inaction. Changing habits is hard, and that is without having to exert energy deciding which products might be useful and appropriate, sifting through the greenwash and making good decisions.

Choice adds another layer of complexity.

I recognise that we often do need to buy stuff at the start of our plastic-free and zero waste journey. Not everything, but some things. Now there’s all this choice on the marketplace, I thought I’d put together an ethical zero waste purchasing guide to help navigate through some of the choices.

1. ‘Needs’ versus ‘wants’

There are many beautiful, ethically-produced things out there. Far more than we could ever need. The truth is, we can appreciate and admire the things we see without having to purchase them all. It can be tempting to buy something, thinking “I need this”! But really, is it a  need – or is it a want?

Can we make do without? Can we sit on the decision for a week, or a month, and decide whether we really need it?

The most zero waste option is always to make do with what you have, and buy nothing.

That’s not to say we should never purchase anything. Sometimes “wants” have a place. Sometimes we want to support a local ethical business because we believe in the work they do. Sometimes we know we don’t need something, but we really really want it, and we decide to buy it. No-one is perfect, and we all have desires, standards of living we want to maintain… and moments of weakness!

It’s a balance.

Let’s not kid ourselves that buying things makes us more zero waste. It might help our journey, it might support others in theirs, but is buying something the absolutely most zero waste thing to do? No. So let’s make the things that we do buy the absolute best ethical choices that we can.

2. Before you go shopping…

Think about what you need. Think about the properties what you need has to have. Think about how you’ll use it. Decide what you need, and then go looking for it. Going to a shop for “inspiration” likely ends up in you buying things you don’t actually need.

Do your research. Look online, and search for options. If you find a product you like the look of, go to the manufacturer’s website and read more. Read their mission statement and ethical credentials. Read customer reviews.

If you find the choice overwhelming, ask others on social media what they recommend to narrow your choices down.

3. Read the labels. And I mean *really* read the labels.

Just because someone has shared a photo of a product on social media and stated it is compostable/ethical/zero waste/better, don’t just take their word for it. Go to the product’s website and look. What is the packaging made of? Where is it produced? What is the company’s reason for being? Ethical companies will be clear about their commitment to sustainability.

Does it claim to be biodegradable or compostable, and if so, is it certified? (Biodegradable can include toxic residue, and doesn’t mean that it will break down in home or even commercial composting facilities. There’s no regulations on using this term, and lots of products make the claim without providing evidence. If a product isn’t certified biodegradable or better still, compostable, I would avoid it.)

What does “better” mean? There’s a product on the market called “Boxed Water is Better”. Better how? Their containers are made of paperboard, a plastic-lined card that isn’t easily recycled in Australia. Why is it “better”? It’s because water packaged in paperboard uses less carbon emissions to transport than bottled water packaged in glass. Better in that scenario, yes, but why are they shipping water around the globe anyway? Transporting water to countries that already have drinkable water coming out of the tap doesn’t strike me as environmentally sound.

Ask questions. Dig deeper. Suspect everything ;)

If you ask questions, and can’t find the answers, stay away. Better to support those companies that are transparent and honest.

4. A gap in the market or a slice of the pie?

There are companies that have been working on the plastic-free / zero waste message for years. Stores like Biome opened in 2003, Life Without Plastic opened in 2006; brands like Klean Kanteen formed in 2002. They’ve been trailblazers in getting the zero waste message out there.

Then there are new companies and brands, popping up year after year, increasing the reach, making zero waste more accessible, and offering new products and ways of doing things.

I’m all for choice, and I love new companies that offer innovative products, improve and build on existing designs, or increase accessibility by opening in new markets.

What I don’t love is companies who see that there is money to be made, and rip off another company’s product with their own label, or maybe make a cheaper version (easy to do when someone has done the design work for you and proven the business model).

If the only differentiating feature of a zero waste product is that it’s cheaper than an identical product available on the market, that’s not a great reason to buy.

Where products are similar, I prefer to support the original. They were the ones that took the risk and put their product out there.

Where there’s multiple options, I look for other criteria: who owns the business and how it is run, what organisations and non-profits they support, how they manage their supply chains, where production and offices are based, how they support their customers.

5. Be wary of Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding campaigns)

Crowdfunding campaigns ask the general public to support them in raising funds to begin a business venture, often in exchange for a discounted product. Don’t get me wrong – there are heaps of great projects worth supporting.

But there are many more that are not.

What makes a good project? In my mind, it is something that does not exist already; a product that there is clear demand for, and there seems to be a viable business model behind it all.

Projects I prefer not to support: anything that seems like more unnecessary “stuff”, anything made of plastic (we have enough plastic stuff in the world already!), another version of a product that already has a saturated market. (Do we really need another reusable coffee cup design, or reusable water bottle? Maybe…but probably not.)

Crowdfunding campaigns offering discounted versions of reusables which imitate products already on the market can be tempting. We all know reusables can be expensive. But these campaigns put pressure on existing businesses. Once the discounted phase is over, are the new companies likely to stay in business? Or are simply they fracturing the market?

6. Choose your stores wisely

I think it is so, so important to support local, ethical businesses when making purchases. Ethical products purchased from a Big Box store in order to save a few dollars is missing a huge opportunity to support a small, independent, ethical business. The way I see it, these purchases are an investment, which will last years, and a few extra dollars upfront is worth it.

Yes, no-one wants to be ripped off, and we all have budgets we need to stick to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the absolute lowest price.

Ask yourself honestly, can you afford to spend just a little bit more? Those few extra dollars probably aren’t that much to you, but your support will mean a lot to a small business.

My first recommendation, before we even start to think about hitting the shops, is to try to find what you need second-hand. Try Gumtree, eBay, Buy Nothing groups, or charity shops.

Next, I always recommend local brick-and-mortar stores (or market stalls) in your local area. No shipping costs (both financial and emissions/carbon footprint), no unnecessary packaging, and you get to connect with a real person.

If that isn’t an option for you, then consider independent ethical online businesses. I’ve put together a worldwide list of online independent zero waste stores here.

(You’ll never ever find me linking to Amazon. The owner is worth US$81.6 billion: many would argue he made his fortunes by destroying competition and the high street, avoiding paying taxes, and other dubious practices. Maybe you’d argue that it’s fair – business is business. Personally, I don’t see why one man can possibly need all that money. I value choice, and I’d rather see thousands of small businesses owners earning enough money to send their children to college and affording holidays and buying good food than one man reap all the wealth.)

7. It’s not about perfection…

Ethical purchases are a minefield, and there’s rarely a perfect solution. There’s always compromise or trade-offs somewhere. The most important thing is making conscious choices. Knowing why you made the choice you did, and putting thought into the decision.

Think about what’s important to you – the carbon footprint, the production conditions, the company’s wider ethical footprint, transport miles, supporting the local economy, supporting Fair Trade, whether it’s made to last forever, whether it’s recyclable, whether it’s compostable. Chances are you won’t be able to tick all the boxes.

Ticking some is better than none.

Don’t be afraid to take action or make choices that aren’t perfect. Better to do something than do nothing. Worst case, you realise down the track that you could have chosen better. That’s a learning experience. We’ve all made mistakes, opted for choices we wouldn’t take again.

Let’s aim for progress, not perfection.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your biggest ethical struggles when it comes to making purchases? Do you have any non-negotiable criteria? How has your view on ethical purchasing changed over time? What tips do you have to add? Anything else you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below!

Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links which means if you click a link and choose to purchase a product, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. This in no way affects my recommendations as my priority is always you, my readers. I only recommend brands I love, and that I think you will love too.