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I’m Green… But I Don’t Like Recycling

Before my plastic-free “awakening” I used to religiously recycle everything I could. I’d save all my plastic bottles and traipse across my home city once a month to take them to the only recycling point. I recycled Tetra-Paks back when the only option was to post them back to the supplier. I also saved used stamps and posted those off for recycling too. If something didn’t say it was recyclable, I’d hope for the best and toss it in the recycling bin anyway.

Now I’m so much more environmentally aware…and recycling no longer fills me with joy. In fact, it’s something I actively try to avoid. Thinking that doesn’t make any sense? Read on!

Recycling Lulls us into a False Sense of Security

My main frustration with recycling is that it gives the impression that we are being a responsible consumer and that, by recycling, we’ve done our bit. Of course recycling is far more responsible than sending a whole heap of stuff to landfill, but being a responsible consumer begins long before we throw our trash out.

The main issue is that recycling doesn’t address the issue of over-consumption. It sends the message that you can consume what you want so long as you recycle afterwards. Recycling still takes huge amounts of energy. It involves collection of waste from your doorstep and delivery to a depot, sorting, cleaning, processing and re-molding, followed by shipping to the next part of the chain, and plenty of this recycling waste could be avoided completely by shopping a little differently.

An enormous bin crammed full of recyclables is nothing to feel “green” about.

Recycling is a Business and Operates for Profit

It’s nice to think of recycling as a service that exists solely for the good of the planet, but actually most recycling centres are run as businesses and rely on markets, just like other businesses do. That means if a waste line is of value, it will be recycled, and if it is not of value, it won’t be. This changes according to global prices, demand and labour fees.

For example, to get a clean line of glass to make new glass you need hand pickers who will select glass bottles and leave bits of terracotta, old lightbulbs etc. A machine would sort this as glass and would contaminate the batch. But if the value of glass is low, and the cost of hand pickers is too high, the option might to to crush to make road base or even to landfill.

[This was my big revelation. When I visited a recycling centre (technical name: Materials Recovery Facility or MRF) in Perth in 2012, I was told that the only glass processing facility was in the next State – and this is still true in 2015. To drive a truck there with a load of glass that might be rejected for contaminants was an expensive risk, and the price of glass was too low to employ hand pickers to ensure there was no contamination, so this MRF chose to send all its recyclable glass to landfill.]

Recycling doesn’t always mean Recycled

Knowing whether something is recyclable or not is actually straightforward. One reason is that just because something can theoretically be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it will be, and every council has different rules about what it will accept.

For example, the bioplastic PLA is recyclable, but it is hard to sort without specific technology and most recycling plants don’t have this, so it is not recycled. In fact, the difference in recyclability of all plastic varies wildly from council to council, and country to country. Even moving suburb can mean a whole new set of rules apply! (You can usually find the details of what your council will and won’t accept on its local website.)

Even if you check your council listings meticulously, there is still a chance that your recyclables won’t be recycled. One reason is how they’ve been sent to the MRF. If you’ve bagged your recycling neatly, chances are it won’t be unbagged at the other end but sent to landfill instead. Ditto if you’ve left any liquid in bottles, or left the lids on.

But let’s assume you’ve done everything exactly as you are supposed to. Great…but what if your neighbour hasn’t? Or the guy at the end of your road? People chuck all kinds of things into recycling, and it can contaminate the whole truck and mean the whole consignment gets landfilled. Car batteries, duvets and pillows, even loose shredded paper can contaminate whole loads.

Recycling MRF Perth WA

Recycling isn’t pretty…and when everyone’s waste gets mixed together in a huge truck, chances are there will be some contamination : /

It’s not necessarily that people are deliberately doing the wrong thing, either. Recycling can be confusing! I can confess to putting light bulbs into recycling because hey, they’re glass! I didn’t know any different! Now I know, yes they are glass, but it’s heat resistant glass that melts at a different temperature to regular glass like wine bottles, and isn’t going to do the recycling process any favours!

If not Recycling, then What?!

I want to be clear that I still recycle. Of course I recycle! However my goal is to recycle as little as possible. We have a wastepaper bin which we use as a recycling bin, and we fill it every couple of weeks. We have paper (often mail), paper receipts, the community newspaper and beer bottles.

We don’t buy plastic so we never have any to recycle, although we do accumulate small amount of soft plastic over time, and I usually take a small ball to the soft plastic recycling point about once every six months.

Recycling bin

This bin (loosely packed) get’s filled every one / two weeks with recyclables… less if my husband decides not to buy any beer!

plastic waste

This photo was taken in September 2014, and was the third stash of plastic we collected since January that year. Soft plastics can be downcycled, but I’d rather eliminate them altogether!

Instead of recycling, I try to bring as little waste as possible through the door. Bringing my own produce bags, cloth bags for bread and reusable shopping bags to the shops, buying in bulk, cancelling junk mail and buying second-hand items rather than new has seriously cut down the amount of packaging we throw away.

Everyone knows the manta “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but we tend to focus on the last one – “Recycle” – when it’s far more environmentally responsible to focus on the first one – “Reduce”. Or add another in front – Refuse!

Recycling is a great place to start in the journey to be more environmentally friendly, but it’s a terrible place to stop. After all, we can’t recycle our way to a more sustainable planet! We need to be just as responsible about what’s entering our house as we are with disposing of it afterwards!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – do you have a love-hate relationship with recycling? Are there any frustrations you’d like to share? Or do you embrace it with open arms?! Has your opinion changed as you’ve gone on your sustainability journey? Have you ever been to a recycling plant and what surprised you about what you saw? Do you have anything else to add? Whether you agree or disagree I’d really like to know our thoughts, so please leave a comment below!

Why Tetra Paks aren’t green (even though they’re ‘recyclable’)

Tetra Paks are the cartons you find in the shops that are used to package long-life milk, juice and various other liquids. You can also find products like chopped tomatoes packaged in this way. These containers allow food to be protected from contamination by bacteria and other microbes, meaning products can sit on the shelf for months without going bad.

Once they’re used, Tetra Pak assure us that they can be recycled.

That sounds great, but I was left wondering…how exactly are Tetra Paks recycled? Aren’t they made up of layers of different material? Is it even possible to separate them, and then what happens to the materials?

After some investigating, my conclusion is that Tetra Paks aren’t a green solution at all. Here’s why.

What is a Tetra Pak made from?

Tetra Paks are made up of a number of components which are layered: paperboard (made from wood), polyethylene (a type of plastic) and aluminum. These different components give Tetra Paks their unique properties: keeping the liquids in but the microbes out, and a strong but lightweight container.

Packaging material, aseptic carton package

When a Tetra Pak is recycled, all these component parts need to be separated out.

What Does Recycling Mean?

Whilst recycling can be thought of as a way of converting waste into a new material, more accurately it means a process to return material to a previous stage in a process that operates as a cycle. After all, the word is “re-cycling”. The idea is to take a used product and turn them back into the same type of product, such as glass bottles being melted down and formed into new glass bottles. There is no loss of quality, so this recycling of glass can go on forever.

When a product doesn’t get turned back into the same product, but one of lesser quality (as with plastic recycling) it isn’t recycled, it’s downcycled. Products that are downcycled often only undergo a limited number of cycles (maybe as few as 2) before reaching the end of their useful lives and ending up in landfill.

For Tetra Pak to be truly recycled, these layers of paperboard, polyethylene and aluminium would need to be separated out, and reformed to make new Tetra Pak cartons. However, that isn’t what happens.

How is a Tetra Pak Recycled?

I’ve found not one, but two different videos that explain how Tetra Paks are recycled: how they are sorted into their component parts and what happens to these parts.

The first is a somewhat cheesy video from India, which seems to be a Tetra Pak promotional video that lasts four minutes. The second is a UK/German video that runs for less than two minutes.

Whilst you watch them, think about the following:

  • How much energy is involved in the process?
  • How are the post-recycled materials used?
  • Where is the ‘cycle’ part of the process?

Why Tetra Paks aren’t Sustainable

If Tetra Paks are recyclable, why aren’t they green? Let’s look at the different components, where they come from and what happens to them once the cartons are empty.

Paperboard (Wood)

Tetra Pak have devoted a significant amount of their website space to telling customers how sustainable their containers are. As well as talking at length about Tetra Paks being recyclable, they inform us that Tetra Pak source FSC-certified wood for 41% of their cartons worldwide (2013 figure). This equated to 32 billion FSC-labelled Tetra Paks reaching consumers in 2013.

Let’s look at this another way.

If 32 billion containers is 41%, then the amount of non-FSC wood Tetra Paks reaching consumers would be 46 million. 46 million containers made from non-renewable sources? That is a lot of wood. Tetra Pak might have a goal to reach 100% FSC-wood, but it isn’t happening now.

When this paperboard is recycled, it isn’t turned back into new Tetra Paks. It is unclear whether this is because their paperboard needs to come from virgin sources to avoid contamination (as is the case with plastic), or whether the quality of the recycled paperboard isn’t high enough to make new cartons, or some other reason. Whatever the reason, it is turned into office paper.

Plastic and Aluminium

The other two layers of the Tetra Pak, polyethylene (plastic) and aluminium, cannot be separated by the recycling process and remain combined as a “polymer”. The uses for this “polymer” is in the cement industry, or as low-cost housing material. The question arises, is there a genuine demand for this product, or is there a market because of an abundant supply of this waste material?

The fact that it gets reused and isn’t sent to landfill is great, except it doesn’t serve to make Tetra Paks a “green” solution. These cartons use fresh plastic and aluminium to make their cartons, and the waste products becomes something else entirely. Thus it is a linear system, not a cycle – and anything that is linear cannot be sustainable long-term.

A Word on Recycling Tetra Paks

The other thing to alwyas remember about recycling, is just because something can be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it will be recycled. The two are very different. For example, in the UK access to recycling facilities is as high as 85%; in the USA it’s nearer 40%, and in other countries like China, considerably less. Tetra Pak estimate global recycling was less than 25% in 2013. In Denmark in 2007, 33% of Tetra Paks were incinerated: resources turned to toxic ash.

The Conclusion

Tetra Pak may want to be sustainable; they may want to use 100% FSC wood and achieve 100% recycling rates, but they still have a long way to go. Even if they achieve this, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tetra Pak production is a linear process. Tetra Paks are turned into different post-consumer products, meaning a constant supply of fresh virgin material (wood, oil and aluminum) is needed for their manufacture.

Tetra Paks – What Are The Alternatives?

  • Choose glass over Tetra Pak containers. Glass can be truly recycled back into new glass products. You can find wine, milk, juice and oil in glass so there’s no need to buy Tetra Paks for these items.
  • For items like chopped tomatoes, use steel cans, which can also be truly recycled.
  • Consider refillables, or making your own. Juicing your own fruit is far tastier than drinking pasteurized syrupy juice in cartons, and healthier too!
  • If you can’t avoid Tetra Paks, skip the single serve containers. Buy the largest size and decant into individual containers for lunches or when you’re out and about.

Did you know that Tetra Paks contained plastic and aluminium, and that they cannot be truly recycled? Did any of the statistics surprise you? Are Tetra Paks something that you regularly buy? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so please leave a comment below!

Choosing Electricity that’s Greener (Sort Of)

One of the first things we did when we knew we were moving was to revisit our energy bills, and look into green power. Now you might be thinking, surely we were already buying green power? But actually, no, we weren’t.

When I lived in England I had both my electricity and gas supplied by Ecotricity. Ecotricity describe themselves as Britain’s leading green energy supplier, and when they launched in 1996 they were the world’s first green electricity company (you can read more about their history here). They supply UK households with electricity made from wind and solar, and they are looking into using wave power too. They are also looking into producing green gasmills that use renewable sources to make gas (such as organic material and algae). They have planning permission to build their first green gasmill, but in the meantime they promise that all gas supplied will not come from shale, meaning it is frack free.

Moving from the UK to Western Australia, however, meant I no longer had this option. In fact, I had no options at all. Energy supply is heavily regulated here, meaning there is only one electricity company and one gas company. They don’t even offer a range of tariffs. The electricity provider, Synergy, is actually owned by the Western Australian government and they offer one plan – the (uninspiringly titled) Home Plan.

Alinta (the gas supplier) don’t offer any green options at all, but Synergy offer “Green Energy”. It may sound good, but we’re not talking solar power or renewables From Synergy as such. We’re talking certificates.

As Synergy tell me on their website: “When you choose to purchase EasyGreen or NaturalPower, Synergy will use your premiums to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) from nationally accredited GreenPower renewable energy sources. The RECs purchased will match the amount of your EasyGreen or NaturalPower contribution.”

My understanding of what this means: Synergy will continue to burn fossil fuels to produce my electricity, but they’ll spend the extra that I’m willing to pay on pieces of paper (RECs) that “prove” that Synergy are being green (after all, they’re getting a certificate – what says proof more than that?). They get these certificates by giving my money to other companies who produce green energy (according to this list Synergy don’t own any green power generators themselves). These pieces of paper are issued by the government, and Synergy are buying these certificates with my money – so effectively I’m just reimbursing the government and Synergy is getting the credit. I wonder what the government does with the revenue from these certificates…dredge the Great Barrier Reef to sell more coal?

Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the scheme. Have a look at the explanation GreenPower have on their website for how the scheme works:

How GreenPower WorksCould it be any more complicated and confusing?! I have no understanding of what this means either, but I’m not getting good vibes from this diagram! Seems like too much regulation and too little action to me!

In spite of my distrust for these certification schemes, I’ve signed up for NaturalPower anyway. Why, if I’m so skeptical?

  • It may not be Ecotricity, but its something, and something is better than nothing.
  • I need to make the best of what options are available to me.
  • I want to send a message that renewables are something that I support, and something that I want to see more of.
  • I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t have a roof to install my own solar panels (ah, one day…) so this is how I can contribute.

The NaturalPower scheme that Synergy offers means we can contribute up to 100% of our consumption to purchase RECs. We’ve opted to contribute the full 100%. We use 5 units of electricity every day, which will mean our bill will go up $1.76 a week.

Green Power Square Image

Now I don’t like paying more for energy than I have to… who does?! But I also believe in using our money to shape the kind of world we want to live in. I’m happy to pay the green premium, but I still want to pay as little as possible. In order to get my bill down I need to look at my electricity usage and see if there’s any way we can reduce it further. We’re already pretty good in this department, but a fresh look at everything won’t hurt! I’ve got a blog post coming soon on ways to reduce your electricity consumption in the home, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

My thought for the day: Don’t let the pursuit of perfection hold you back from taking action. Synergy’s NaturalPower scheme is definitely not perfect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction…

Right, I’m off to dream of off-grid living and solar panels!

What do you think about green energy tariffs? Do you think they’re a scam or do you think they’re helping renewable energy become more mainstream and accepted? Have I totally misunderstood the REC scheme?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Mobile phones: When Second-Hand Just Isn’t Good Enough

I’ve decided that I need a new phone.

Need, I hear you say? Do I actually need a new phone?

Good question.

My current phone is an iPhone 3GS. I purchased it as a refurbished phone in January 2010. In phone life, that’s old. iPhone have released 8 different models since they launched, and the iPhone 3GS was the 3rd one they released. Since then, they’ve updated the iPhone 5 times, each model being better than its predecessor.

iPhone Comparison

Yet in real life, four years is not old, and the fact that I’m thinking about replacing it seems ridiculous!

If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Or so the saying goes. And whilst on a basic level my phone still functions – it can make and receive calls, the battery still works – it has some problems. It deletes my entire contacts list at least once a month. It crashes at least once a day. The software is corrupted, so I cannot update to a new operating system, nor restore the original settings.

This means that I can’t download new apps, update existing ones or generally use my phone as a smartphone. This is annoying. I realise there are more pressing problems in the world. I know there are people who would argue that a mobile phone is just for making calls, and all this smartphone stuff is unnecessary.

However, I find my smartphone useful. Not having a car, I use public transport a lot and I like being able to check my email, manage my blog and read the news via my phone. We don’t have a television, so my smartphone helps me stay in touch with what is going on in the world. If I didn’t have a smartphone, of course I’d manage. But what I find particularly frustrating is having a smartphone, but one that doesn’t really work properly. That is the worst possible combination!

What are the options if it IS broken?

I really don’t want to buy a new phone. More virgin materials, more unnecessary plastic packaging, and another step on the consumer treadmill. Having to research where the phone was manufactured, where the minerals were mined and whether the workers are fairly paid. And goodness, they’re expensive! A new unlocked sim-only phone (without a contract) costs almost as much as a computer! Then again, it is a computer. A very small one.

Second-hand isn’t a perfect solution though, particularly with mobile phones. I don’t want to buy anything stolen or damaged, and there is no security and a lot of money lost if something goes wrong. Then again, I’ve bought enough electronic items second-hand, as have many people I know, and none of us have ever been ripped off.

The bigger issue, for me, is that I want a high-tech, up-to-date mobile phone. Whatever I buy, I want it to last at least another four years! This means finding a phone that has been released fairly recently. There are plenty for sale, but they aren’t for sale because their owners have seen the light and have decided smartphones aren’t for them; instead they’re selling so they can get another new smartphone. They want to sell their iPhone so they can buy the latest Samsung, or sell their Samsung because they want the latest HTC.

Is this really any better than me buying a new phone in the first place? The consumer treadmill goes on, and I’m still contributing.

Surely there must be a better way?

Buying new – with a difference

What I want is a smartphone with social values. Wishful thinking?

Actually, no.

Fairphone

Social values, environmental responsibility and fair trade are the thinking behind Fairphone, a mobile phone with a difference. Different because they are all about opening up the supply chain, using conflict-free minerals and ensuring workers are fairly paid, and designing a phone that can be used, repaired and recycled responsibly. yes, repaired. They sell spare parts on their website, and have teamed up with iFixit to offer repair guides so people can fix their own phones. No built-in obsolescence here!

Fairphone Spare Parts

When I say “spare parts”, I’m not just talking about the battery and the headphones either!

Here’s what they believe:

Mining: We believe in conflict-free, fair resources that put people first. We’re starting with conflict-free minerals from the DRC that support families, not armed militias.

Design: We’re making phones that are built to last using open, responsible design. We want consumers to have true ownership of their phones, including how they use and configure them.

Manufacturing: Factory workers deserve safe conditions, fair wages and worker representation. We work closely with manufacturers that want to invest in employee wellbeing.

Lifecycle: We’re addressing the full lifespan of mobile phones, including use, reuse and safe recycling. We believe that our responsibility doesn’t end with sales.

The people behind Fairphone don’t think of the Fairphone as a phone, they think of it as a movement. Their vision is to start new relationships between people and their products by showing where stuff comes from and how it’s made. They want us to make informed decisions about what we buy.

Fairphone’s first phone was launched a year ago as a crowdfunding campaign with a target of selling 5,000 phones. They smashed their goal and 25,000 people pre-ordered the Fairphone.

A year later and they’ve just announced a new batch of 35,000 phones available for ordering (NB they currently only deliver within Europe). Last time round, I wasn’t quite ready to switch my dying iPhone. This time, I am. I’ve placed my order, and shipping is expected to begin in July.

The most sustainable mobile phone is always going to be the one you already have. But the Fairphone seems like a pretty good second choice.

Cardboard Castles, Celebrity Coffee and Social Contracts

I had a busy, productive and inspiring weekend. Don’t you just love those weekends? It nearly didn’t happen – I’d been brewing a cold/virus for the previous few days – but in the end the sun was shining and it all worked out perfectly.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights.

The Celebrity Photo Shoot

Well, not exactly “celebrity”, but my boyfriend has been asked to be one of the faces for the new Plastic Free July campaign, which meant a photoshoot at 9.30am on Saturday morning along the main shopping strip where we live. So Glen spent 30 minutes pacing up and down past the shops, whilst a guy with the longest camera lens I’ve ever seen snapped pictures, and Rebecca (from the Plastic Free July campaign) and I looked on. As did a few other Saturday morning shoppers; it’s interesting how people are drawn to the camera.

No-one asked for his autograph though, which I found disappointing.

Annoyingly, I forgot to take my camera, so I’m going to have to wait for the official ones to be ready before I can share them. Hopefully not too long to wait!

The Mosman Park Eco Fair

The Mosman Park Eco Fair is a glorious day out; set in the beautiful community gardens at St Luke’s Church in Mosman Park, featuring all things green, including sustainability workshops, ethical and environmental stalls and with a real focus on reducing waste.

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer, but after organising the Less is More Festival not too long before, it’s nice to go to an event as a punter and be able to enjoy everything that’s on offer.

The Earth Carers have a big presence as always. In addition to running their Washing Up Station to reduce disposable cups at the event, they also ran a children’s activity – make cardboard castles!

CardboardBoxes

EcoFair2

I wrote about the Washing Up Station at last year’s event (and why I think it’s so important here), but the castle-building was a new activity and a very popular one!

It was really great to catch up with so many people I know, as well as learn about all of the interesting projects that people are involved in, and hear about their latest achievements. Personally, I find it really inspiring and motivating reconnect with people from my community, and I always feel like my passion is re-ignited afterwards.

Permaculture Day

Sunday was International Permaculture Day, and there were some workshops at one of the local Farmer’s markets. I’ve been wanting to learn about beekeeping for ages, and made the effort to trek across town on a rather chilly morning for the 8.30am workshop. It was so interesting! Something to save for another blog post, but I felt a real sense of achievement in having taken a step closer.

My Glass Jar Trade

A few weeks ago I nearly put some of my glass jars into the recycling. In fact I did put them in, but then I took them out again. Most glass in Perth isn’t actually recycled (it’s trucked to Adelaide, turned into road base or landfilled) and I was sure that someone could use those jars. Just after I retrieved them, a friend requested jars for bottling her honey. I exchanged several of my finest jars in exchange for one jar of her finest honey. An awesome trade! I wouldn’t have got that from the recycling peeps!

Honey

Even better, once home I turned the honey into a delicious cake. Yum!

CakeThe cake is a chocolate pear rosemary cake that’s gluten- and dairy-free. You can find the recipe here; I used honey rather than sugar and it was perfect!

The Social Contract

In my last blog post I mentioned that I didn’t have a “no junk mail” sticker on my mail box. I know I needed one, I’ve been talking about it for months, but I could never quite get round to getting one. In fact, I didn’t just mention it once, I mentioned it 3 times. I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

Why? Because if you have an intention, there is nothing better than to tell EVERYONE your intention. Comments were made to me both on the blog and on Facebook about how should get a “junk mail” sticker. People taking an interest not only reinforces what I already know (that I need to get a sticker), but also makes me feel guilt and shame for not getting on with it. I don’t want to be asked by these same people over the next few months whether I’ve got one and have to say no – so this is a great way to force yourself into action!

I’m pleased to say I’ve been and got a new sticker. No more junk mail for me! Except, it still needs to be stuck on. A minor detail!

JunkMail

So that was my weekend. How was yours?!

Another step in the right direction

The parcel I’ve been waiting for all week finally arrived on Friday. Oh the excitement! I don’t order things online much anymore, but it wasn’t the idea of receiving a parcel that caused my excitement. It was the contents of the parcel…

Toilet paper.

Yes. You did read that right. Read more

Going Plastic-Free in Asia (Part Two – all the other plastic)

My goal was to travel around Thailand for four weeks without consuming any single use plastic. It’s what I do at home, so why should anything be different whilst I was away? I’ve already talked about how I avoided using disposable water bottles, which I thought would be the biggest battle. But there were other contenders.

The plastic straw

Thai people love straws. I thought the straw problem was bad in Australia, but there is a whole other level of straw-dependence over there. Every single drink seems to come with a straw. Of course the obvious smoothies and cocktails come with plastic straws. But less obvious drinks come with them too. If you buy bottled water to take away, it comes in a plastic bag and with a straw. If you buy a tin of fizzy pop, a straw is neatly tucked under the ring pull. Even tins of iced coffee and beer come with straws. It seems that the cultural norm is to drink your drink with a straw. Everyone does it.

Except, we didn’t want to use plastic straws.

I don’t know how to say “please don’t give me a plastic straw” in Thai. Fortunately, this didn’t matter, because I’d brought a stainless steel reusable straw with me from home. It was the single most used item on the trip. Whenever I purchased a drink, I’d whip out my straw and demonstrate that I had one, and no straw would come with the drink. I’m sure they all thought I was a crazy Westerner, but at least I was keeping to the local custom!

There were a couple of occasions where the staff forgot (there were two times that I can remember) and brought me a straw. I handed them back immediately unused, hoping that the straws would be washed and reused, but of course, they went in the bin. So usually I’d watch as staff prepared my drink, and if I saw any hands heading near the straws I’d run over, flailing my arms in the air until they panicked and handed the straw-free beverage over. I may have looked mad, but it worked.

straws

Our stainless steel straws in all their glory!

The plastic bag

The plastic bag is the other obvious contender, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be pretty easy to avoid these. Just say no when you buy something, right? But there were a couple of complications.

The first was laundry. In Thailand self-serve laundromats aren’t very common, and instead people offer a private laundry service where you pay by weight. You drop your laundry off and pick it up 24 hours later, smelling fragrant, neatly pressed… and folded in a plastic bag. It’s not like we could not use a bag altogether, because we’d have ended up dropping our underpants and socks all the way down the street. Fortunately we had brought a calico bag with us and we were able to use this instead.

laundry

Our freshly washed, neatly pressed laundry in the calico bag I’d brought with us. Plastic free!

The second was that Thai people used plastic bags as a vessel for food and drink. Literally. They pour cold drinks, hot soups, curry, sauces, coconut milk, you name it, into plastic bags, seal them up, and send you on your way.

plasticbagsThere’s no way I’d want to eat or drink anything served that’s been transported and stored in a plastic bag, even if I hadn’t given up plastic. Fortunately, our KeepCups served as containers for food, so the few times we bought something as takeaway, we didn’t need to use plastic bags.

deepfried

Battered, deep-fried sweet potato and banana – so delicious! We used our KeepCups rather than any disposable packaging.

The most important place to avoid plastic is at the beach. There are no bins so the options for rubbish disposal are taking it home, leaving it there or burying it. Of course, with the last two, it’s only a matter of time before it gets washed out to sea. Best to avoid disposable plastic altogether!

pineapple

Other Disposables

The main other disposable plastics that we were faced with were styrofoam trays (for takeaway food items) and plastic cutlery (for takeaway food items). We avoided using plastic cutlery by taking our own re-usable bamboo cutlery. The spoon was useful for ice cream and getting all the tasty coconut meat out of the drinking coconuts once they were empty, and I even managed to skin and chop up a whole mango with the knife!

cutleryAs for styrofoam, and any disposable food packaging, we avoided this by choosing to dine in rather than get takeaway. The food was fresher, we got to sit down and use metal cutlery and it looked so much more appetizing on a plate rather than stuffed in a plastic bag or cling-wrapped in styrofoam.

food

Imagine eating any of these out of a plastic bag… and yes the option was available!

Tips for Keeping Plastic-Free

There was a lot of plastic to avoid as so much stuff was packaged this way, but keeping plastic-free didn’t mean going without, it just meant looking a little bit harder for what we wanted.

I took a reusable straw, a reusable cutlery set, a KeepCup (which is a coffee cup with a lid that can double up as a small container), a cloth bag and my water bottle. All of these were invaluable. The only additional thing I’d take if I went back is a small sealable plastic container (Tupperware or similar), because the KeepCups were a little too small for most food.

bananasAmongst all the plastic out there, there were plastic-free options, which were exciting to find! These bananas were barbequed, pressed and smothered in coconut sauce, and then served on banana leaves. Plastic-free definitely makes things taste more delicious!

Holiday packing: the battle of minimalism vs sustainability

In less than 12 hours, I’ll be on my way to the airport for a month-long break overseas. It’s not my first trip abroad, or course, but it is the first time since I really started embracing the sustainability path. The last time I went overseas I hadn’t taken part in Plastic Free July (or given up plastic), I wasn’t passionate about reducing waste, I’d never heard of simple living and i thought minimalism was a furniture/design style.

Fast forward 18 months, and all of these things have become really important to me. I don’t want my ideals to go out of the window just because I’m going on holiday, although it would be much easier to take a break from all of that too.

I have decided to pack as lightly as I can. Having been on numerous trips where I’ve taken far too much and cussed as I’ve had to haul heavy luggage all about the place, this is something I’ve been working on for years. Read more

What I’ve been up to…

Do you ever get yourself into a situation, and wonder how on earth it was that you ever agreed to get involved in the first place? This time last week, that was me. You may have noticed (from the distinct lack of personal photographs on the blog) that I’m not a particular fan of having my picture taken. So how was it that I agreed to be photographed last Monday morning wearing a pair of overalls, sitting in a knitted (yarnbombed) wheelbarrow, clutching a live chicken?

Well…

Let me tell you about the Less is More Festival. Read more

Twenty-four trees

So we’re off to Thailand in just over a week for a long-overdue rest and holiday. We’re flying there. You don’t need to tell me that flying is not a very sustainable form of transport. When I lived in England I was very disapproving of flying. Then I met my partner, an Australian, and moved out here, and it changed my perspective a little.

The first thing I had to reconsider was that wherever in the world we lived, one half of our family would be the other side of the world. Neither of us are prepared to never see our families again in order to try to combat climate change. Have you heard of food miles? Well there’s another concept, called “love miles”, which is the distance that we need to travel in order to see our friends and family and loved ones.

Before flying existed, or until it became affordable for the masses, most people would marry and remain within their communities and wouldn’t need to travel very far. I’m sure in the future, indeed I hope in the future, that flying will become so unaffordable or undesirable that this becomes the case once again, as people re-embrace their local communities. In the meantime, it is very cheap and easy to fly anywhere in the world and for most people, our love miles are pretty high.

The other thing I discovered when I moved here is that Australia is very far away from everything (and everyone) else. Even the other side of the same country is a few hours by flying, or a few days by driving. Having lived all my life in Europe, I have been spoiled. I could travel by boat or by train, or even drive, and reach numerous different countries in a matter of hours. I didn’t need to fly to see ancient ruins, buzzing modern cities, and beautiful rural landscapes, or to visit snow-capped mountains or golden beaches. I love experiencing different cultures; it makes me feel more connected to the world and travelling inspires me. In Europe it’s at your fingertips; here in Australia, it is not.

So I’ve come to accept that, living in Australia, I will probably need flying in my life, at least in the short-term.

What does this mean for the environment?

I was wondering, how much carbon will I be generating by flying to Thailand? And what can I do about it? I plugged all the info into a carbon calculator. My flight will generate 1 tonne of C02. Each way. And I’m going with my partner. So we’re generating 4 tonnes of C02, according to the calculator.

The website suggests that to offset this amount of carbon, I can pay $90, which will plant 24 trees.

I’m not really a fan of carbon offsetting. I feel like it’s a capitalist response to an environmental problem – paying money to alleviate guilt, or buying your way out of a situation. I feel like it benefits the wealthy, who can afford to pay to offset their travel more than others. I’m not completely convinced that it is the best way to help the environment. It seems so…detached. I have heard stories and worked at places that are involved with tree planting and investigated carbon trading, and my experience is that these organisations are committed to plant trees irrespective of whether they get funding by these schemes, although of course the money helps. But does it actually mean more trees get planted? Or does it mean that organisations can free up other funds to spend elsewhere? These carbon trading schemes are often run as businesses, too – so not all the money is going straight to tree-planting. I don’t like that aspect, either.

I may feel like these schemes are a little flawed, but that’s not to say that they aren’t still worthwhile. For people who are cash-rich, or time-poor, they offer a solution. And they’re making the concept of offsetting your flights easy and available to the general public. But I’m not going to be paying $90. I am, however, thinking about these 24 trees. I want to do something which I feel more accountable to. Ideally I’d like to plant my own trees. I’m wondering if there’s a local tree-planting scheme that I can get involved with (either when I’m in Thailand or back home). If that’s not possible, I hope to find a not-for-profit group to donate to where the money will go directly to local tree planting – trees that I can see.

Of course, not flying is still the best option, and I don’t intend to to be flying regularly. We don’t intend to go back to the UK every year, for example. I’ve also made a commitment not to use budget airlines, because I think that they are even more unsustainable than the bigger airlines. I don’t think flying should be cheap, and if governments didn’t allow airlines to avoid paying tax and fuel duty, it wouldn’t be. But as I now realise that I will be taking more flights over the coming years than I have in the past, I need to come up with some way of mitigating my cost to the environment in the best way that I can.

Starting with twenty-four trees.