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5 ways you can give back to your community (even under lockdown)

Something I’m working to do more of this year is contribute more to my local community and those with less. If 2020 taught me anything, it was that local resilient communities are so important for those that live in them, and the support networks that a good community can offer are priceless.

The other lesson was that, no matter how hard you think you’ve got it, someone else has got it worse, and almost all of us have privilege that we can use to benefit those with less.

(Privilege, incidentally, doesn’t just mean the more obvious things like time or money or power. It can mean white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, mental health privilege, and so on. We might not have them all, but even having one or two makes life easier for us than those who lack them.)

What this ‘contributing’ looks like will vary from person to person – it depends on our privilege, after all. But there are lots of ways we can benefit others and support our community. It doesn’t need to be big or grandiose. Small actions are just as important.

Something so small it only makes a difference to one person still makes a difference to that person.

Here are five ways I’m trying to give back to my community, and contribute more.

Picking up litter

It might seem small, but litter (or lack of it) has such an impact on a community. Rubbish strewn across a park or in waterways is unsightly and harms wildlife but it also gives the impression that no-one cares about the area. And if somewhere is already covered in trash, it almost gives the go-ahead for more trash to be added.

If you want to instantly improve your local community, commit to picking up litter.

It might be that you just try to pick up three items every time you leave the house. Or you might join an organised clean-up event once a month, or even just once a year, where you collect rubbish as part of a group. Or you might decide to ‘adopt a spot’ and keep that one area trash-free.

In Western Australia our container deposit scheme launched at the end of 2020. This means most beverage containers can be returned to receive a 10c refund. Whenever I’m out on my bike, I pledge to pick up every container I see. I’d say on most trips I find 2-3 containers. The funds are going towards a community replanting project in the local area.

And yes, I feel guilty about all the other litter I see and leave when I’m out on my bike. But the reality is, if I stopped to pick up everything, I’d never reach my destination. So I focus on the containers (which is more than I used to do) and accept that I can’t do everything.

In March every year there is a national ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ event. So this year I got together with some like-minded neighbours and we organised a Clean Up Carlisle event, picking up litter along the train line. It’s the first time I’ve ever organised a clean-up like this myself – so it was pretty exciting that people outside of our group turned up!

When I was talking to my neighbours about the event afterwards, they were annoyed that we hadn’t decided to choose one of the main roads in the area, which also has a litter problem. And so I suggested another event, to come soon. When people take pride in their community, these things start to happen…

Donating what you no longer need

I’m a huge fan of donating stuff we no longer need – or more accurately, finding new owners and homes for our old things. It’s one of the things I talk about in a lot of detail in my book Less Stuff.

I have mixed feelings about donating to the charity shop. Too many people use charity shops as a dumping ground for stuff they feel guilty about throwing away. Charity shops are overwhelmed with stuff, only selling about 15% of everything that gets donated.

If you’re going to donate to the charity shop, ensure it’s your best stuff, its clean and not broken, and it’s appropriate for the time of year (charity shops don’t want Christmas decorations in January, or ski ware in summer). You can even call before you drop off to check it’s stuff they actually need right now.

Charity shops are an easier option, but there are lots of other places to donate items to people who need them.

Try your local Buy Nothing group.

Ask on a local community Facebook group for ideas of local places to drop things off (such as homeless shelters or refuges, community projects, schools or playgroups).

If you have excess food (even if it’s open or past its expiry) try Olio. They’ve recently expanded into non-food items, too.

Givit is an online Australian platform which lists items needed by individuals or organisations.

Supporting a local food bank

Food banks often have specific needs and won’t accept items that are open or past their use-by (use Olio for these things). You might have items in your cupboard to donate, or you might decide to make a donation by buying extra groceries.

I found a local food bank run by church just two streets away from me, and I started the habit of making a monthly donation box at the end of last year. Being local I like that it benefits people in my area. Every time I got to the shops I’ll buy a few things to add to the box, and then once a month I make a delivery.

It felt strange to me to buy items in packaging at first, but I feel better about supporting the food bank than I would if I avoided the groceries and didn’t contribute. I still try to keep to my values where I can – buying Fairtrade coffee and locally grown tinned vegetables.

Something else I’ve been able to do, and this might work for you if you don’t have the budget to contribute financially, is take food that’s been offered up on the Buy Nothing group to the food bank on behalf of others.

(The drop off hours are quite specific, being Wednesday and Friday mornings only, so not everyone can get there. I have flexible working hours and can pick things up and drop them off.)

I want to add, that the very fact that food banks need to exist at all is quite outrageous. In a world where 1/3 of all food grown is thrown away, the fact that millions of people go hungry in countries like the UK, Australia and the USA (so called ‘developed’ countries) every day is quite unbelievable.

Our food system is in crisis, and there is a lot of work to be done by corporations and governments to stop allowing this waste on this scale and to redistribute resources more fairly. In the meantime, people need to eat and donating to food banks is one way to share our resources with others.

Making a monetary donation

The obvious one, possibly. But making monetary donations to organizations you believe in and/or whose work you value – whether it’s a regular donation or a one-off, whether it’s a small or large amount, whether it’s a big organisation or a small community project – is always going to be of value to them.

I want to get better at this. It’s easy to get stuck the rabbithole of where’s best to donate, which type of organisation, how do I know my donation will be effective, am I making the best choice etc etc.

To get unstuck, I’m learning to let this whole idea of ‘best’ go. Donations are more than money, anyway. They are a show of support and belief in the work.

My new rule is, don’t fixate on what’s ‘best’. If a donation drive crosses your path and it’s something you believe in and you can spare a few (or many) dollars, make a donation.

You might not be able to spend that money on cupcakes any more, but that wasn’t going to make the world a better place either.

I make a monthly donation to IndigenousX, who fund and give a platform to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices across Australia. I’ve learned so much through their writing.

Because I’m self-employed and my income isn’t regular, I don’t commit to regular monthly donations other than this – although I have plans to when I can. I made a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation on my birthday, I made a donation to Boorloo Justice (Boorloo is the Whadjuk name for Perth) for their Decolonise Pride fundraiser, I supported the Learn Our Truth crowdfunding campaign organised by the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition and In My Blood It Runs.

I also purchased a photo print that was a fundraiser for the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project. (Does that count?)

And at the other end of the scale, I supported a local community garden in their fundraiser to get new chickens.

Making an in-kind donation

You might not have money to donate, but you might have a product or service you can donate. I’ve donated copies of my books to the Hilton Harvest community garden, and Free the Hounds (a greyhound charity) simply because they reached out to ask me – and I like gardening and greyhounds!

If you’re a writer, needleworker, an artist or some other creator, maybe you can offer your creations to organisations to help them with their fundraising efforts.

Volunteering your time

If you don’t have money but you do have time, maybe volunteering is for you. Volunteering can mean so many things, from getting out and about and hands-on to helping with social media. It can be a regular commitment, or one-off jobs as required.

It can be helping an established organisation, an informal local group or even helping one person (for example, with their weekly shopping).

In the past I’ve volunteered for not-for-profit organizations, but currently my focus is on much more local activities – such as hosting the community Grow Free cart and helping get our new community Street Activators group up and running.

I also admin a couple of zero waste Facebook groups.

My energy, enthusiasm and time for volunteering ebbs and flows, and right now this is all I have the capacity to do. But I’d love to volunteer at the Food Rescue place sometime in the future.

2020 (and 2021) have left me feeling a little bit ‘stuck’. Unsure where I want to concentrate my focus, and unsettled by all of the change. Simple acts like picking up litter, buying some (plastic-free) teabags at the grocery store to give to the food bank or making a donation to a group whose request popped up in my feed are tangible things that I can do, today, in the moment, to help make things a little bit better.

As Anne Frank said, no-one has ever become poor by giving.

How to start a Grow Free Cart (+ share surplus produce with your community)

A Grow Free cart is simply a cart (or a stand, or a table – any surface really) where home-grown produce, preserves, seeds and seedlings are placed and made available to anyone in the community. It’s the ultimate answer to “how can I share my surplus with my neighbours”, or on a more basics level, “what do I do with my courgette/zucchini glut?”

It’s one of a number of awesome neighbourhood community initiatives popping up all over the world. You’ve probably heard of the Little Free Library movement , which is the world’s largest book sharing movement. Books are placed in little free libraries all across the globe, and people are free to take them, and/or add new books.

The Grow Free movement is the fresh-fruit-and-vegetables version of the Little Free Library.

There’s also Little Free Pantries, which are the dry goods/long-life groceries version, and Community Fridges – sometimes called Solidarity Fridges or Freedges depending on where you are in the world.

All three movements help reduce food waste through sharing, and make good food more accessible to those who need it.

Being a vegetable grower, a Grow Free cart seemed like the best fit for me, with a suitable space on my front verge. A fridge requires power, which wouldn’t be easy for me to set up on the verge. There’s already a Community Pantry two streets away from me, so no need for another so close – plus a local church two streets away in the other direction runs a food bank that I make regular donations to (one of my 2021 resolutions).

You don’t have to be a vegetable grower to start one, of course, but it helps knowing that every week I will have things to put on the cart.

I’ll talk you through the steps to get started. If you’re interested in starting a pantry or fridge instead there will be some differences to your setup, but the process will be pretty similar.

How to establish a successful Grow Free cart, in steps

Setting up a Grow Free Cart: what you need

The only thing you really need is a surface on which to place things, so any table or shelving will do. A lot of cart stewards (as people who have carts are called) use baby change tables, because they are a great size, have multiple shelves, tend to be on wheels for easy moving, and have sides to stop babies (and lemons!) rolling off the edge.

Some people go further and rig up a roof for their cart, to protect from the sun and rain, and even paint their carts in bright fun colours. This is the best one I’ve ever seen (in a neighbouring suburb, and how I first heard about Grow Free)…

I’m positioning my cart under a tree, where it has shade, and the one weekend there was a downpour I relocated to underneath my garage door where it was protected from the rain.

I purchased a wooden baby change table second-hand for $15. I spent a long time trying to find a free one, but in the end I decided to pay for one that was exactly what I wanted. Two shelves as well as the top, and unpainted wood, on wheels.

I’ve got a few different baskets that I picked up on the Buy Nothing website. I could use cardboard boxes, but I tend not to have them lying around.

I also got a whiteboard from Buy Nothing that I’ve use to make a sign, and I wrote on a piece of scrap wood for a second sign.

Other people use Eskies/cooler boxes to store more heat sensitive items. I don’t, but I would use a repurposed polystyrene box that chilled products often get delivered in, or track down an unwanted cooler box on Buy Nothing.

My total cost: $15.

Choose your opening hours.

Unlike little free pantries and community fridges, most carts have opening hours. This is because the produce is out in the open, exposed to the elements, and often quick-to-perish. Some are run by community centres, and so open Monday-Friday 9am – 5pm. Others (like mine) are run by people outside their homes. I decided to open my cart at weekends, for now.

It goes out on Saturday morning, and stays out until Sunday evening. Then it’s wheeled back inside until the following weekend.

Finding produce for the cart and people to share with.

Of course, for a successful cart you need fruits and vegetables! Seedlings, seeds and homemade produce are also permitted. My garden has a few things growing, and I chatted to my neighbour with a lemon tree beforehand to get some lemons.

But the best way to find surplus fruits and vegetables is to tell others what you’re doing! I posted to the Buy Nothing group and a local Grow Swap Share group (both on Facebook) in advance of the first outing to let people know what I was doing.

There’s also a directory on the Grow Free website which lists all the carts across the world. I emailed them as soon as I was ready, and added my cart. There’s a local Grow Free Western Australia facebook group too, which I use, but without a doubt my other community pages draw the most people.

(I chose to register my cart with Grow Free because I love the movement and what it stands for. Obviously I can give away vegetables to my neighbours with or without official permission of Grow Free, so there is no requirement to ‘join’, but there’s value in being part of a collection of like-minded people like this and helping spread the word. On their website, Grow Free have some great resources, downloadable flyers, a logo etc and it’s helpful to be able to refer new visitors interested in learning more here.)

Start before it’s perfect.

I took way too long to start my cart once I decided this I what I wanted to do. (Like, twelve months too long.) I was worried about finding the right cart. About whether I’d have enough stuff. That I’d end up with too much stuff and create food waste when I was trying to reduce it. That no-one would come. That everyone would come! That it wouldn’t look inviting.

In the end, I just decided that I had to start. Best decision I made. Sure my cart isn’t beautiful or overflowing, but it’s growing each week and in time it will get to a place where I’m happy with it.

Promote, promote, promote.

For a long time before I started my own cart, I followed along on the Grow Free Western Australia Facebook page. And I noticed that the best carts were the ones that posted each week, saying they were open and sharing their offerings. And so I’ve done the same, and it’s been the best thing for getting people to the cart.

Even though it’s officially on the list as ‘open’ at the weekend, people need reminding. And mentioning what is on the cart also helps with visitors. (Tell people there are passionfruit, lemons and fresh figs and they are there!)

So every Saturday morning, once it’s out, I take a picture of the cart and post to the Buy Nothing group, Grow Free Western Australia group and sometimes the Grow Swap Share group, reminding people that the cart is ready for business and telling them what’s available.

Then on Sunday, I edit the post with an update as usually there’s a heap of different things by then. And people can message to check if stuff is still available before they swing by.

Posting every weekend is a bit tedious and part of me can’t be bothered, but I know it’s the single thing that gets people coming, so I grit my teeth and do it.

Dealing with surplus stuff.

At the end of the weekend, there’s usually a few bits and pieces left. Some things can be popped in my fridge until next week (fresh chillies and lemons will last a week). I usually let my immediate neighbours know if there’s anything left so they can come and take it. I haven’t needed to yet, but I can always post to Buy Nothing if there’s too much for me to use.

Setting yourself (as well as your cart) up for success.

Stewarding a cart isn’t a lot of work, but it isn’t no work, either. I have to put it out each weekend, set it up (which means raiding the garden beforehand for things to share), post about it, and then pack it all away at the end of the day – and then repeat the next day.

I started mine in the hottest month of the year, which meant I had to check back often to top things up (rather than just putting out everything at the start of the day and being done with it).

If this sounds like too much work for you, a Little Free Pantry might be a better often, as they are much more ‘set and forget’.

If you decide to set up a cart, consistency is important for success. I’ve committed to weekends, and so I’m making sure that the cart goes out and that I post about it, every weekend. That way people know to drop things off, they know to come and take what they need. And I can decide if it’s too much work, or if I’d like to do more.

There’s no reason why a cart couldn’t be seasonal (from May – September only, for example) or even just once a month.

(Originally I’d thought about doing a midweek day too, but having been going for about 6 weeks now, I’ve found the weekend is more than enough for me.)

I don’t specifically commit to a time, so I don’t have to drag myself out of bed in order to meet a deadline – I just post when it’s ready. That works better for me.

Why set up a Grow Free cart in your neighbourhood?

Really, the answer is, why not?

It’s a great way to share excess produce with neighbours, meet new people, connect with our local community, reduce food waste, and feel good about taking some kind of positive action in a stressful world.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you heard of Little Free Pantries, Grow Free carts or Solidarity fridges before? Is there one in your area? Have you set one up, or are you thinking of doing so? Any questions about getting started? Anything else to add? Please share your thought in the comments below!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soap making

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

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

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

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

DIY skincare

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

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

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

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

DIY toothpaste recipe

DIY deodorant recipe

Alternative deodorant recipe (sodium bicarbonate/baking soda free)

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

DIY zinc cream (used as sunscreen)

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

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

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

Learning to cook

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

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

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

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

Learning to grow food

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

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

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

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

Learning to forage

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

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

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

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

Learning to preserve

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

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

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

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

Learning to mend

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

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

Learning to share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things You Need (No Purchase Required) To Go Zero Waste

I believe that less waste is firmly linked to less stuff. Yes, I do have a bunch of reusables, and yes I use them and find them useful. But the focus of the zero waste conversation doesn’t need to be around “stuff”.

Rather than talk about the things we can buy to reduce our waste, I wanted to talk about the things we can do, and the ways that we can change our thinking.

Because we can have all the zero waste reusables in the world, but without the right attitude and mindset we’re going to end up frustrated, defeated…  and those reusables will end up languishing on a shelf.

Instead of creating another one of those “5 Things You Can Buy” posts, I thought I’d create a “5 Things You Can Be” post for going plastic-free or zero waste.

A little encouragement, with no purchase required.

1. A Can-Do Attitude

If we want to achieve something, we have to believe it is possible. That doesn’t mean we have to think in absolutes. Let’s be realistic about what is possible, for us, and build on that.

Too many people trip up thinking oh, I could never be 100% zero waste, or I could never do all my shopping at the bulk store, it is too expensive. But there’s no rule that says you have to do that. Not being able to do everything is no reason not to do what we can.

If 100% zero waste or plastic-free isn’t for you (and let’s be honest, in today’s economy, with today’s systems, it is impossible to achieve 100%), decide what is for you.

Choose a different percentage, or even better, choose how much you want to improve by compared to where you are now. Maybe you’d like to reduce your bin by half, or maybe you’d like to make one swap every month until Christmas.

If the bulk store is too expensive, commit to doing 10% of your shopping there, or just buying your herbs and spices there.

Too often people assume it has to be all-or-nothing, and if they can’t do it all it doesn’t count and they shouldn’t bother. Wrong. It all counts. Every single action counts.

What you need is a goal that is achievable and realistic for you, one you can feel good about and know is within your grasp. Ideally one that involves no comparison with what anyone else is doing. That will keep you upbeat as you work on making change.

Let’s not forget that there will be slip-ups, mistakes and moments where it all gets a bit too hard. See them for what they are, part of the learning process, and know that despite any backwards steps, you can do this.

2. A Focus on Solutions

There are a lot of things about the world that could be a whole lot better. It can be a little overwhelming to think about it all. So don’t.

We can recognise that there are a huge amount of things that we care about and want to see changed – climate change, peak oil, farming practices, the food system, plastic pollution, over-use of plastic in manufacturing, animal welfare, deforestation – whatever the things that are closest to to your heart.

This is our sphere of concern: the stuff we care about.

From there, we can think about what we are in control of, or can influence. We might not be able to influence the political decisions made by leaders in foreign countries, but we still have influence on others and the world around us.

We can write letters, or join campaigns. We can support local events, or create our own.  We can pick up litter, or choose to boycott unethical companies. We can refuse single-use plastic, and we can buy second-hand.

This is our sphere of influence: the things that we can do.

Try to spend less time worrying about the things that you cannot change, and more time doing the things you can to make the world better.

For specific problems, tackle them one at a time, and find a solution. Ask the internet. Talk to friends or colleagues. Try different things. Someone, somewhere, will probably have a solution to the problem staring you in the face.

And if you really can’t find a solution, put it aside, for now. It is in the sphere of concern, but not our sphere of influence (yet). Move onto the next concern, and look for a solution for that.

3. Some Creativity

If you don’t think you’re creative, don’t panic. You don’t need to be – you just need to find others who are. People are always coming up with great solutions and hacks for different problems, and the internet means they are freely shared.

Saying that, creative doesn’t necessarily mean artistic. I consider myself to be creative in the kitchen – but you won’t find me making cute cupcakes or icing cakes worthy of best-in-show rosettes. No, my creativity is based around my ability to make a meal out of almost anything. I am a dab hand at using up fridge dregs! Not Pinterest-worthy, but tackling food waste gets my creative juices flowing.

Maybe you know how to sew. Maybe your mending skills are extraordinary. Maybe you know how to fix stuff. Maybe you know how to make stuff. Maybe you can find a use for anything. Maybe you’re full of upcycling ideas.

Whatever your creative outlet is, use it in your journey to zero waste. Share it, if you can. And use the creative outlets of others to help you with the things you’re less good at.

4. Healthy Scepticism

I believe it’s useful to question things, particularly claims about eco-friendly credentials that a business or product might have, or those headline-grabbing claims that companies often spout. Read the fine print. Ask questions. Become your own investigator.

There is a lot of greenwashing and misleading information out there. I was someone who used to take these claims at face value. If it said “eco-friendly” on the packaging, that was good enough for me! But of course, claims like this aren’t regulated. We need to do our homework.

Any business can decide its product is eco-friendly and stamp it on the front of the box. Any business can make a media statement promising to ban plastic/single-use items/non-recyclable packaging by several years into the future. But claims and headlines like this are meaningless without explaining how, or offering an an actionable plan to back it up.

When you see a headline or product that sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Probe. Look deeper. Ask questions. Most companies with genuine ethical credentials will be able to answer your questions and address your concerns, or will tell you they don’t know and offer to find out. Anyone who ignores your request or is elusive or cagey: remain sceptical.

5. Community Spirit

We’re in this together! We really are. The reason that zero waste and plastic-free living is referred to as a movement is because there are lots of people joining in, all working together towards a common goal. We’re sharing resources and sharing ideas, and learning from one another.

Particularly if you don’t have much support from friends, family and colleagues, finding like-minded people elsewhere is crucial.

Be part of the community. This can be online, via social media (Facebook groups are good resource for creating online community spirit) and blogs. Share your thoughts and insights, and ask questions. Post ideas and success stories. Support those who are struggling, and celebrate those who are doing good things.

Help make our community positive, welcoming and supportive for others.

This can be offline, too. Join a local group or attend a community event (from beach clean-ups to movie screenings to DIY beeswax wrap making, I guarantee there will be something out there). If you’re feeling brave, offer to run an event at your local library – it will be a good way to meet like-minded people.

At the very least, join a Buy Nothing group or local neighbourhood network. Whilst the platforms are online, the members are the people who live where you live. It’s a great way to start to get to know your neighbours better and share stuff.

If you think zero waste is too hard, it will be too hard. But if you think that reducing your trash or limiting your plastic use is within your grasp, you’re already on your way.

Look at the areas in your life where you can make tiny changes and improvements, and find ways that work for you. Whenever you’re stuck, reach out – it’s likely someone will have a creative solution for your problem. And if you come up with an amazing solution yourself – tell everyone who will listen!

Zero waste and plastic-free living is a lifestyle and a journey. There’s not some end point that you get to and you’re done. It’s ongoing, and every day brings new challenges. So forget about absolutes or perfection. Just do what you can.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you agree with this list? Any other attributes you think are helpful when trying to go zero waste and plastic-free? Anything you struggle with? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Community Dishes (to Borrow and Bring Back)

I love it when a plan comes together. This one has taken rather longer than I intended, but finally, it is ready to go. Which means, I can tell you all about it. Introducing the Community Dishes, a set of reusable crockery, cutlery and glassware to borrow and bring back, free of charge.

Why? Because…

It means less waste. Less plastic wrap, less plastic utensils, less single-use disposables, less stuff in the garbage and less litter.

It means less stuff. Less people nipping off to the Swedish furniture store to purchase a huge set of glassware / plates for a one-off event that then languish in the sideboard for years until they are horribly out of fashion and can’t be given away.

It means growing community. Helping people connect with their neighbours, share what they have and consider re-use before purchasing new.

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the project, and how it works.

The Community Dishes Project – Who, What and Why

Have you ever been to an event where the cutlery was plastic, the plates were disposable and the coffee cups were non-recyclable takeaway cups? Me too. Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, I wish they used reusables too.

The Community Dishes project aims to make this easier for event organizers and hosts to choose the reusable option.

There are plenty of reasons why people choose disposables. Sure, laziness might be true in some cases and lack of knowledge around the plastics issue might be true in others, but I believe most people want to do the right thing. Sometimes, the limiting factors are time and money.

Solutions need to be convenient.

Borrowing large numbers of items is tricky. Most people don’t own party-sized amounts of crockery and cutlery, and borrowing a handful here and a handful there is a logistical (and time-consuming) nightmare.

Hiring is an option but small organizations and community groups can be priced out of this.

I wanted to find a solution, and the Community Dishes project is exactly that. A kit of crockery, cutlery and glassware that can be borrowed for free.

Disposables are viewed as cheap and convenient, so for a solution to be workable it needs to be cheap and convenient too. The Community Dishes kit is free to borrow. Yes, it does need to be washed up and returned clean, but the goal is to make everything else (the borrowing, using and returning) as convenient as possible.

There’s 50 each of cutlery, side plates, bowls, mugs, water glasses and large drinking jars. (There are no wine glasses as wine and liquor stores often provide free glass borrowing services.) The kit is packed into boxes similar to those used by hire companies for ease of transport and storage.

The crockery, cutlery and glassware is catering standard, white, and matching. Catering quality is slightly more expensive upfront, but less prone to chip, crack or break – and doesn’t change style or colour with the seasons as high street homewares brands do.

Whilst it might have been lower waste to fossick through charity shops, experience has shown me that caterers and coffee vans prefer to use standard vessels whose volume they know, and finding matching sets would be a struggle. Also, I wanted it to be as easy as possible for breakages to be replaced with matching stuff.

The funds to establish the kit were provided thanks to a Keep Australia Beautiful (WA), Community Litter Grant.

Community Dishes – How Will It Work?

In theory, anyone can borrow the Community Dishes kit. In practice, because it relies on trust and goodwill to ensure the items are returned (and clean), it needs to stay local and with a community focus. To begin, the word is being spread via the local Buy Nothing Groups, and also the various Perth Transition Town Network groups.

The administration of the kit is run by volunteers (me).

The plan is to record all the borrowing, and count the number of items reused and disposables avoided. In this way, we can measure the impact.

The plan is also to learn from the wins and successes and mistakes of this project, and use this knowledge to create a simple project template, so other people might be able to replicate the idea in their own communities.

It’s hard to talk too much about how it will play out as it’s early days, but by Christmas day 490 items will have been used and reused. That’s potentially 490 pieces of single-use and disposable packaging refused. By this time next year, the numbers should be well into their thousands.

I’ve put together a simple website (which I published yesterday) with some more info about how the kit works and what the project hopes to achieve. You can find out more at communitydishes.org.

There’s still some fine tuning to do, in particular with signage, record keeping, and logistics. The important thing though, is that the dishes are out there, being borrowed and reducing single-use disposables and litter.

I’m excited about the potential, and look forward to sharing more as the project finds its feet. I’d love to see other projects like this one spring up, and hope that the lessons I learn will help others.

Less waste, less stuff, and growing community.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is there anything else you’d like to know about the project? Do you have your own experience with similar projects? Would you use something like this, if it was available? Anything else that you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How Getting to Know Your Neighbours Helps With Zero Waste Living

It’s easy to reduce the idea of zero waste living to thinking about the products we buy (or don’t buy) and the choices we make as individuals. But zero waste (and living with less waste) is a movement, and movements need people. We can only do so much when we act on our own.

Sure, zero waste living can mean shopping at bulk stores and making our own skincare products. That’s part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Ultimately zero waste about consuming less and buying less, and that means rethinking the way we use resources: reusing, making do, borrowing and repairing.

We think of bulk stores and libraries and Farmer’s Markets as great resources for living with less waste, and they are, but there’s a much less talked about asset almost all of us have access to: our local community.

It’s mentioned far less but is equally (and possibly more) valuable for zero waste living.

One of the most valuable assets for my zero waste journey has been my neighbours. I thought I’d share some of the ways we’ve helped each other reduce our waste, and hopefully give you some ideas for how you might be able to get involved with your own community.

What My Neighbourhood Looks Like

Just as a bit of background, let me tell you a little about where I live. I moved into my current suburb in 2016 from the other side of Perth – so I haven’t lived here for very long. My neighbours from four doors down built the property where I live, and I met them through that process back in 2014. I didn’t know anyone else when I moved in.

There’s 7 properties on my block, some rented and some owned, and residents have come and gone in the two years I’ve lived here. Our suburb is close to the city but not densely populated – there’s about 2,500 residents, with 28,000 in the local government area.

In short, I live in a city but it isn’t an urban metropolis: it has quite a suburban feel.

How I Met My Neighbours

There are probably three ways I met my neighbours. The first (and perhaps most obvious one) is seeing them at their front doors, in the garden, in the street etc, and saying hello.

The second is by neighbours introducing other neighbours they knew and I didn’t. This is both in passing and at various events in the town. Slowly the network spreads.

The third way (oh, how 21st century) is via the internet. One of the best tools has been our local Buy Nothing group, which operates using the Facebook groups function (more on that in a sec).

How My Neighbours Help With Zero Waste Living

Sharing Ideas

Sharing ideas has ranged from the big to the minuscule, and all are important. On the far end of the scale, my neighbour and I hatched a plan to turn the disused patch of land next to my block into a community fruit tree project.

I’d had the idea, and he’d the same idea, and once we got together and realised we both had the shared vision we started to make it happen. (You can read more about how we started our community food tree project here.)

We’ve planted around 24 fruit trees, and they should keep our neighbourhood in plastic-free locally grown produce once they’re a little bit bigger :)

From that, we decided we needed a little help with the tree pruning this spring, and invited the neighbours along so they could benefit from the knowledge.

Lathlain is now sporting the best pruned fruit trees in Perth, not just here but also in all the gardens of the people who came along!

On the other end of the scale, I showed my next-door neighbour how to make mint tea with fresh mint leaves. (It’s super simple – you literally steep fresh mint leaves in hot water. Taste sensation.) Now she does that rather than buy teabags.

She made the most delicious nettle soup I have ever eaten from stinging nettles from her garden. (Not something I’d ever have tried before, but definitely something I’ll try now.)

We’ve also had some good discussions about the in’s and out’s of establishing a functioning worm farm, what actually goes in the recycling bin and some of my neighbours are currently organising a street get-together.

Sometimes it just takes a conversation to spark a new idea or go one step further to changing a habit.

Sharing Resources

A spin-off from the food tree project has been our community composting bank. We share our compost bins with the neighbours, which means lots of food scraps diverted from landfill, and lots of compost we’d otherwise need to purchase. Most of our neighbours have found us through sharewaste.com.

Sharing the Work

The thing about projects led by a single person, is that when that person gets tired, sick, overwhelmed or otherwise occupied, the project tends to fall over.

One of the best things about our Food Tree Project is that there’s multiple people invested, so if one person is too busy, others can step up to keep it going. I’ve taken a step back this year as I’ve had too many other things going on. My neighbour, however, is taking a year off from work and has extra time to keep things going. Consequently the fruit trees look better than ever.

Sharing Stuff

With my closest neighbours, who I know by name, it’s easy enough to knock on the door and ask to borrow something. And I do, regularly. Garden tools, kitchen gadgets, ingredients when I realise I’m out of something mid-way through a recipe and the shops are shut.

Most recently I borrowed a coffee grinder after mine bust, and lent a book to the same neighbour who’d been contemplating buying one and seen (via social media) that I’d already bought it.

I also passed on the magazine to a different neighbour. Things are for sharing!

But when you don’t actually know someone, it’s a little bit harder to borrow something – and possibly a little bit weird to just bang on the door.

Thankfully, the internet can help us out.

There are plenty of online groups and platforms that allow neighbours to connect with each other, firstly on line, and then perhaps in person. The two groups that I use are my local Buy Nothing Group, and my local Swap Share group.

The Buy Nothing Project is a network of hyper-local community groups where people can give, borrow and accept items ,but no money changes hands. People are only allowed to join one group: the one where they live. Consequently the members are all neighbours.

The Buy Nothing group has been a great way to find second-hand items. I tend to give more than I take because I generally don’t need much stuff, but I have scored a few useful items. My two best finds: a pair of almost new trainers in my size, and a computer monitor to use with my (tiny screen) laptop.

Another great win via the Buy Nothing Group was borrowing a screwdriver to enable me to change the damaged/worn seal on my coffee machine. The guy I borrowed the screwdriver from was also kind enough to help me take it apart and gave it a good clean with an air pressure thing.

I purchased a new seal, and the machine is as good as new. The screwdriver was duly returned.

There’s plenty of other donating and lending/borrowing of things via the group. It means resources are much better used (things languishing in cupboards are being wasted) and it means people not buying new stuff.

If you’re not a member of your local buy Nothing group I’d suggest joining, and if you don’t have one, I’d recommend beginning your own!

The Swap Share group meets once a month, and is for people to donate and swap excess garden produce. There’s also been a great deal of swapping recipes and other goods: pickles, preserves, DIY cleaning products and more.

I had no idea pickled radishes were so delicious until I picked some up from a Swap Share get-together!

Without my neighbourhood network there’s no doubt I’d have purchased a lot more things and wasted far more time looking for solutions. Worst of all, I’d have missed the opportunity to get to know and help out the great people who live in my suburb.

Local solutions are almost always the lowest waste solutions. If we’re passionate about reducing our waste, getting to know our neighbours and exploring our neighbourhoods is definitely something to embrace.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you embraced any neighbourhood community groups or hyper-local networks? What have been your experiences? How have you met your neighbours and the people in your suburb – or do you not know them? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!