I went to see another “eco” movie at a community screening on Friday. This time I saw the Clean Bin Project. It’s about a Canadian couple, Jen and Grant, who pledge to buy nothing for a year, and each collect their landfill waste for 12 months to see who has the least impact. The goal is zero landfill waste. The movie isn’t really about the competition, but rather the journey, and the issues with waste and landfill. There’s some great interviews with some really inspiring people involved in spreading the waste message, too. Read more
After my recent blog post on trying to make my own tahini, which was motivated by my desire to use less packaging, I thought I’d write about my quest for a zero-waste kitchen. Let’s be clear, though. I do not have a zero-waste kitchen. It is something that I aspire to, something I’m working towards, but I am not there yet. I might never get there completely either, but it’s something to strive for.
This is my journey so far.
My zero-waste successes
I predominantly buy my groceries from bulk-buy stores. I have a few local stores to choose from that sell nuts, seeds, flours, grains, pulses, beans, herbs and spices in bulk, and I store everything in the pantry in glass jars. I can also buy some condiments in bulk, such as tamari and soy sauce, and cleaning products like dishwashing liquid.
Rather than use the bags supplied by the stores, I take my own. I re-use old paper bags (I once read that a paper bag takes three times more energy to make than a plastic bag, so my goal is to use each bag at least 3 times), and also have reuseable washable cloth and netting bags. If reusing paper bags, it’s worth checking what was in there last time. Cinnamon-flavoured brazil nuts are a pleasant surprise, chilli-flavoured sugar is less delightful! I also have a rule that I can’t take any new paper bags from the shop – if I don’t have enough then I have to go without. It’s a good lesson in being more prepared next time!
At my local farmers market there is an egg seller who takes back old egg cartons for re-using. I store my eggs in their boxes at home, so I have four of these so I can return the empty ones to swap with new ones without running out in between. We also have local olive oil producers at the market who sell oil in bulk and refill bottles.
If I want to buy items from the deli counter or fishmongers, I take my own containers. When you do this, it’s worth making sure that the assistant weighs your container first – you don’t want to pay for the privilege!
As much as possible, I prepare my meals from scratch to save on packaging, because it tastes far better, saves money, is additive- and preservative-free and is FUN! As well as meals, that includes making my own bread, yoghurt, nut milk, dips… and I’m always interested in learning something new.
We get most of our fruit and vegetables delivered via a local organic veg box scheme. The produce arrives predominantly packaging free, but usually there’s a paper bag in there with something inside. Typically the potatoes and carrots arrive bagged. This means that despite my refusal to pick up new bags at the bulk produce stores, I still seem to be gradually accumulating them. The company were very good about not putting any of my produce in plastic when I requested it – I wonder if I call and ask for no bags at all they will be able to accommodate me?
I have struggled a little with pasta. I have found one shop that sell vermicelli nests in bulk, as it seems harder to find than rice and other grains. Maybe this is because it is bulky. Sometimes we are caught short, and this means we do buy pasta occasionally in cardboard packaging. We try to stick to spaghetti rather than bulky shapes because the packaging is smallest with this.
(In the last month Barilla have been swept up in calls for a boycott after the Chairman said he would never feature gay families in his advertising, and if gay people didn’t like his message, they could eat another pasta. I’m on the fence about this. I like that they package their products in cardboard and support this, yet the idea of importing pasta to Australia from Italy does seem a little unnecessary. Really, I should make my own…or switch to eating potatoes.)
The first tip we picked up from taking part in Plastic Free July in 2012 was lining our bin with used newspapers. If you want to know how to line your bin, check my post about it here. With a zero waste kitchen we shouldn’t need a bin, but we have no composting facilities where we currently live and what we can’t feed to our worms (and what little plastic sneaks in) still goes to landfill.
We buy milk from a local producer called Sunnydale who take back the empty bottles for re-using. We get stuck with the lids (which we can’t return) but it’s pretty waste free. I have a friend who has goats for milking…maybe that is the next step!?
Things to Work On
There’s still things that we buy in glass jars and tins. I buy tinned tomatoes (I have had a go at canning my own once – it was time-consuming and messy, although successful – but I ended up with three jars. Mass production, I think, is the key. Maybe when tomatoes are in season this year I’ll buy a heap and try to can a shedload of them – not that I have a shed to store them in…). I buy coconut milk, and this is on my list of things to try to make. Tahini is another one!
We have just used up our last jar of olives and I want to start getting these from a deli in future, which should mean better quality as well as less packaging.
My boyfriend likes to drink the odd beer, and beer bottles (and occasionally wine bottles) end up in the recycling bin. These are not something we keep for re-using. On the list for the distant future (when we have the space), homebrew is something that I think he’d like to try.
What else? I recently bought some cocoa butter, which came in a plastic lined bag. I know that it is possible to buy this in bulk, but none of my local shops seem to sell it. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and I don’t want to compromise by going without trying new things. I try as much as possible to keep plastic-free and packaging free, but sometimes I get caught out. Unless I change my behaviour (or an amazing bulk produce store opens down the road) I will never be completely waste-free.
So I try to do as much as I can. I might not be able to achieve 100%, but I can get as close to that as possible. As we find a solution or an alternative for one thing, so I can focus on the next thing. Small steps, in the right direction.
Okay, so maybe I’m misleading you. It wasn’t the whole weekend. In fact, it was for a little over three hours on Sunday – but that doesn’t sound nearly so sensational, does it?!
I was volunteering with the Earth Carers – the fantastic group of people who came up with the Plastic Free July campaign. One of the local councils in our area was organising a family fun day called “Celebrate Lake Claremont”, and the Earth Carers decided to run a washing-up station next to the coffee stand so that all the coffees sold would be in ceramic cups – which we would wash up – rather than disposable takeaway containers. They ran a similar stall at the Mosman Park Eco Fair back in June which was a massive success and eliminated disposable coffee containers completely at that event. This was the inspiration to try to offer free washing-up stations at other events… and this one was next.
We do what we can on an individual level. My boyfriend and I haven’t purchased anything in a single-use disposable food container of any kind since July 2012. But we’re just two people. There’s only so much that we can reduce with our own habits. There’s a whole world out there that needs educating, or inspiring, or motivating to change too. So what better way than to get out there in the community and make it super easy for the people at the event to lower their impact?
You’d think that everyone would be totally supportive of such a service. We rock up for free, bringing our own standard barista-sized ceramic cups, and wash them free of charge for the consumers before returning them to the coffee stand for re-use. What’s not to love?
There was actually a bit of wavering at the start though, because someone questioned whether it was hygienic. Yep, you read that right. There was actually the suggestion that washing up coffee cups using ordinary water and washing-up liquid might not be hygienic. We weren’t washing up anything else. Just empty coffee cups. Can you believe it?! We couldn’t either.
So we set up a system to maximise the cleanliness of our cups. We had a four-bowl dishwashing system, with the cups moving from the bowl on the left through the middle bowls to the bowl on the right, and the water getting hotter with each bowl. The last bowl, with the water at 70°C, was for the final rinse. We didn’t make it up either – apparently this is a recommended practice for washing-up stations (we asked Google, although I can’t actually find the link now to share with you).
In the three hours we washed up about 100 cups, probably more. Whilst it doesn’t even make a dent on the number of cups being sent to landfill (it is estimated by KeepCup that 1 million cups end up in landfill EVERY SINGLE MINUTE), it is far more than I am stopping heading to landfill with just my own individual action of using a reusable cup.
This is why it’s so important that as well as doing the best we can on an individual level, we try to get out there and inspire change at a community level. We can achieve so much more. It may be small, but it was still 100 cups that would have ended up in landfill without our intervention. It is more than just numbers though – it’s all the people we spoke to and explained what we were doing and why, who will take that message with them. We’re helping the idea to spread and the word to grow. Imagine if every community event, or every other event, had a washing-up station and a zero disposable waste policy? Imagine how many we’d reduce then?
If I want to see change happen, I personally need to do something about it. I can’t just sit around lamenting that other people don’t do enough. I need to get out there and do what I can to make it easy for other people to do more. Which is why I gave up my time on Sunday to wash up other people’s dishes.
I sold my glass jug blender today on Gumtree. Not exactly front page news, I know, but bear with me.
When I got my new kitchen robot I listed my Magimix food processor and my jug blender on Gumtree straightaway. The Magimix sold almost instantly for the money I asked; they are solid gadgets with fantastic motors and I knew it would be easy. I did not have such optimism for the blender. It’s not a bad blender and it still works, but it wasn’t a great brand, it didn’t have a massive motor and it was a few years old. There was only one other same-model Magimix on Gumtree when I listed mine; there were hundreds of blenders.
I listed it anyway, and after a week, rather unexpectedly, I got a call. Someone wanted to buy it, and offered $20. Rather amazed that I’d even got the call in the first place I agreed (I’d listed it for $30).
When the guy turned up, he explained that he had the same blender and the glass jug had fallen off the kitchen bench and smashed. He’d called the manufacturer who’d told him the price of a new jug…and the price of a new blender. Guess which one was cheaper? Yep, the whole unit. They actually advised him on the phone to just order a whole new unit. But rather than buy a new one, he’d checked on Gumtree first, and there was mine.
It makes me so mad that companies do that deliberately. One bit breaks and you have to replace the whole thing. It’s so incredibly wasteful. Of course it doesn’t make sense that a whole unit would be cheaper than its parts. Yet it always seems to be that way. I feel like they’re trying to condition us to never try to repair things or replace parts, but mindlessly buy new ones instead.
We don’t have to stand for that! That’s why sites like Gumtree and eBay are so useful. They give all the people who need replacement parts access to loads of people who have replacement parts. We don’t have to let these companies have their way!
If I’d have sent that blender to the charity shop, there’s a chance it would have gone to landfill anyway. Not all charity shops accept electrical goods, and they also need to be able to test them for electrical safety. Plus I sometimes feel that sending stuff to the charity shops is shirking our responsibility a little bit. It’s too easy to dump our unwanted stuff and feel good about giving to charity when there’s no guarantee they’ll actually want what we’ve given them. This way I can be sure that the item I’m selling has gone on to a new home where it will be used.
People sometimes think I’m crazy for listing things on Gumtree for such small amounts of money. (I have listed things on there for free, but the lowest price I’ve listed something for was 50 cents – and it got a buyer!) But it’s not about the money. It’s about diverting something from landfill and stopping somebody else buying something brand new when there’s a suitable second-hand alternative. Double win! The argument that you haven’t got the time? Seriously?! You need to take a photo, upload it and write a short description. You can do it from your mobile phone in about 1 minute. Not exactly labour intensive!
I’m feeling pretty smug that I thwarted the electronic company’s attempt to get a new sale, pleased that I was able to give the guy exactly what he was looking for, and glad the blender isn’t stuck on a dusty shelf in a charity shop or heading to landfill.
If you’ve got stuff that’s broken or got parts missing, it’s doesn’t mean no-one will want it. I bet for every functioning blender with the glass jug broken, there’s another with an intact jug but a burnt-out motor. Even if you think something’s beyond salvage, someone else may find it useful for an art or sculpture project. Before you chuck it in the bin, give it a go on the second-hand listings sites. You’ve got nothing to lose!
It’s not often that I see a product that I think is worth raving about. After all, we can’t save the planet by buying more stuff, no matter how great the eco credentials claim to be. But when I came across the JOCO cup I thought it was worth sharing.
I’ve talked before about how takeaway coffee cups are made from fossil fuels (yep, that’s where plastic comes from) and are creating a huge landfill problem. The same goes for those biodegradeable ones that actually need commercial composters to biodegrade (you can read that post here).
The way I see it, there’s two simple solutions. Dine in, or bring your own reuseable cup.
I bought a KeepCup, which is made of durable plastic. I’ve used it countless times. I was torn between buying the KeepCup, which appealed to me because its cups are standardised sizes (8oz, 12oz and 16oz, the same as disposable coffee cups), and buying a non-plastic alternative. I would rather have purchased a stainless steel one (or even ceramic) but they all seemed to come in bizarre and impractical sizes. (If your takeaway coffee cup is too tall to fit underneath an expresso machine, it rather defeats the point of having it, don’t you think?!)
The downside of the plastic KeepCup is that it does retain the taste and smell of the previous drink. No matter how many times I wash it out. Soaking overnight with a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate does a pretty good job of removing it, but wouldn’t it be better if I could wash it once and be done with it? The plastics used in the KeepCup are polypropylene for the cup (type 5) and LDPE (type 4) for the lid, which are both considered safer types of plastic. They thought that about plastic with BPA and phthalates once though. This type of plastic isn’t easily recycled either, so disposal will be an issue at the end of its life. Reuseable plastic is better than disposable plastic, but the best would be no plastic at all.
So I’ve been quietly waiting for KeepCup to bring out a stainless steel alternative.
It seems like JOCO have beaten them to it. Not with stainless steel, but another non-toxic material – glass. I wish the JOCO cup had been around when I was in the market for one. It truly seems to be the best of both worlds. The JOCO cup is made out of glass, with a silicone band so your fingers don’t get scalded. It’s the only glass coffee cup I’ve ever seen. Plus they come in proper barista sizes: 8oz and 12oz. And they’re easy on the eye, if stylishness is your thing.
The other thing I love is that they sell replacement glass, bands and lids so if you lose any of the bits (or the glass breaks) you can replace them without having to buy a whole new one. This may seem obvious, but often companies make it very hard to buy replacement parts. If you’ve ever broken the glass in a coffee plunger and tried to buy a replacement you’ll know exactly what I mean.
I don’t have a JOCO cup, and I haven’t tried using one. I won’t be getting one either, because my KeepCup still has plenty of life left and to get rid of it would be wasteful. Discarding old products to buy new ones, however green they may be, is not the sustainable option.
But I know there’s a few people out there who are taking part in Plastic Free July, and maybe haven’t got round to buying a reusable coffee cup of their own yet. In which case, here’s another option for you to consider.
With Plastic Free July just around the corner, I thought it might be helpful to talk about plastic recycling, and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Recycling gives the impression that you can consume something, and then dispose of the packaging in a responsible manner, free of all guilt. But whilst recycling is a great last resort when the only other option is landfill, it should be remembered that it is the LAST resort. Have you ever heard the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’? There’s a reason that ‘recycle’ comes last! Now there’s a new mantra that is gaining popularity. This one goes ‘REFUSE, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’. And that is what Plastic Free July is all about. Rather than worrying about disposing of plastic packaging responsibly, ask the question: do I actually need it in the first place?
If you’ve been happily consuming all that plastic because you know that you’ll recycle it responsibly when you’re done, maybe this post will change your mind. I used to be the same. But once I started to understand what plastic recycling actually meant, I began questioning everything I bought and I drastically reduced the plastic in my life.
So here is a guide to the different types of plastics, what they are used for and what they are recycled into – if they can actually even be recycled.
Let’s dispell a couple of myths!
Firstly, if you’re under the impression that your old plastic bottles can be recycled into shiny new plastic bottles, unfortunately you’re wrong! Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled, meaning it’s used to create a product of inferior quality and productivity. So whilst glass can (in theory) be recycled an infinite amount of times, plastic can only go through two or three cycles.
Secondly, just because you see the ‘recycling arrow’ on your plastic packaging it doesn’t mean that it’s actually recyclable. The arrow is meaningless. The number tells us what the plastic is made from, and so you can work out if it can be recycled. Just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it, either.
Plastic recycling – a guide to the numbers
If you don’t want to read this list (I’ll take no offence!) allow me to summarise it here. The majority of plastic products are not commonly recycled, and when they are, the major product is plastic ‘wood’ and garden furniture. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen any attractive plastic recycled garden furniture, and I definitely have no desire for fake plastic wood products. Considering how much plastic gets recycled each year, that’s a LOT of plastic garden furniture. So rather than helping the environment by recycling your plastic, you’re actually adding more eyesores to public spaces everywhere!
If you do want to know more about what different types of plastics there are, whether they can be recycled and what they become, read on.
1. PET or PETE: polyethylene terephthalate
This is the plastic used to make clear bottles for soft drinks and water, plastic food jars for sauces and condiments.
Recycled into: bottles for cleaning products and non-food items; egg cartons; fibres/textiles (carpet, fleece, filling for winter coats).
2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene
This is the opaque plastic used to make milk bottles, oil/vinegar bottles, ice-cream tubs, bottles for toiletries and cleaning products.
Recycled into: recycling and compost bins; pipes; crates; flower pots; outdoor furniture.
3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride
This is the clear plastic used as food wrap, some squeezy bottles. Also used in flooring, plumbing pipes and hoses, children’s toys.
This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for: pipe, floor coverings.
4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene
This is used to make cling-film, most squeezy bottles, food bags and plastic carrier (shopping) bags.
This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture; fence posts; tubing.
5. PP: polypropylene
This is the plastic used to make dairy food containers such as yoghurt pots and cheese containers, margarine containers, Tupperware and other plastic food storage boxes, and medicine bottles. Most plastic bottle tops are made out of this.
This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture and planters.
6. PS: polystyrene
This includes colourless, transparent polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, which is more commonly known as styrofoam. This is used for takeaway food containers, hot beverage containers, food produce boxes and deli packaging.
This is not commonly recycled and predominantly makes two products, insulation and plastic ‘timber’. To recycle it has to be mixed in with new ‘virgin’ polystyrene.
This includes polycarbonate, polylactide, bioplastics made from corn starch, acrylonitrile styrene, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Products made from these include high quality kitchen plastics, CDs, toys such as Lego, protective helmets, toothbrushes, the outer covers for electrical equipment such as printers, and medical storage containers.
These are not commonly recycled (and obviously depend on the material), but can be made into plastic ‘timber’ products.
This year’s Plastic Free July challenge is almost upon us, with just a little over two weeks to go. Plastic Free July, in case you don’t know what it is, is a challenge that runs every year which encourages people to give up disposable plastic for the month of July. (If you think that sounds too hard, you can also commit to a week or even one shopping trip instead.)
What do I mean by disposable plastic mean anyway?
This is the stuff you use just once, or a couple of times, and then throw away. Obvious items include plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles, plastic food packaging in general (cellophane wrapping, polystyrene trays, plastic tubs, bottles and yoghurt pots, even tetra-packs) and a lot of cosmetics and toiletries packaging. But there’s loads of less obvious stuff out there too. Like, for example, when you buy a new pair of socks and they are hanging on the rack with a little plastic hook? That little hook is gonna go straight in the bin.
What’s the purpose of Plastic Free July?
Well, there’s actually a few. On an individual level, it makes participants vastly more aware of how much disposable plastic is in our lives. It also encourages people to look at what plastic they use and see if they can find alternatives to any of it, so maybe after July, some new habits are formed.
But also, by bringing your own bags to the shops, or taking your own containers to the fishmonger, or refusing a straw, people can also send messages to retailers and businesses, and also their staff and other customers. This sends the message to the wider community that there is another way, and create awareness at this level too. The more people that demand change, the more businesses will listen.
Of course, it also means vastly less plastic is consumed in the month of July, which means less plastic going to landfill and less plastic ending up in our rivers and oceans where it harms wildlife. And less fossil fuels are wasted making new disposable plastic that is destined for the same journey.
Plus it’s a great way to find out about businesses that are already doing great things to help the environment – either cafes with zero waste policies, or companies that make stainless steel water bottles or reusable cloth vegetable bags – and also charities, community groups and other organisations that are campaigning for change.
So Plastic Free July is about creating awareness, reducing waste and inspiring change.
Why am I so passionate about Plastic Free July?
I took part in Plastic Free July last year for the first time, and it was a life-changing experience. Seriously. I always thought of myself as pretty green and sustainable, but once I started looking at how much plastic I was consuming, I realised there was so much more I could do. So after July I committed to permanently avoiding buying disposable plastic packaging.
But it wasn’t just that. Once I started looking at all that plastic-wrapped food, I realised that it’s all processed, and mostly junk. The more processed the ‘food’, the more plastic packaging. Once I stopped buying that stuff, I instantly felt better and healthier, and it made me start to look at what I was eating to make the connections between food and health. We all know that you need to eat well, but often we choose to ignore it when we’re busy, for the sake of convenience. Taking part in Plastic Free July made me reconnect with the issue. I also learned to cook new things so I could make fresh, wholesome versions of the things I could no longer buy, so I didn’t have to go completely without.
The same goes for skincare. I used to buy products that were readily available in the supermarkets, and never really considered that they contained preservatives, irritants and carcinogens. Yep, carcinogens. (If you wanna see what’s in the products you’re using, check out the Skin Deep database here which contains 64,000 products. It’s an eye-opener.) Once I started looking for cosmetic products in glass I began to find natural products that didn’t contain any of that nasty stuff. Now I know the alternatives I wouldn’t dream of buying those mass-produced synthetic chemical cocktails to put on my skin. (I’ve also started learning how to make my own.)
The Plastic Free July challenge also led me to small, independent businesses and local producers, and changed the whole way I shopped. Which is great because I’d much rather be supporting these types of businesses rather than the big multinational companies with their inferior products and questionable ethics. I just needed that extra push, I suppose.
What else? Well I learned a great deal about waste and pollution, and found out about a number of charities and individuals doing amazing work, including 5 Gyres, who campaign against plastic pollution, and the fantastic Beth Terry, who gave up plastic completely in 2007, and whose blog contains a wealth of information regarding plastic-free living.
Through Plastic Free July I was also able to really connect with my local community, and meet so many people who live just down the road and have the same concerns as me. It’s great to know I’m not the only one that cares – and sometimes it can feel a bit like that!
So there’s a lot more to Plastic Free July than giving up a few plastic carrier bags!
Want to get on board?
Sign up! You’ve still got two weeks to prepare for it, and if you want to know more have a look at the Plastic Free July website which has loads of information, links and suggestions for dilemnas you may have. You can choose which challenge you want to sign up to, and if there’s something that you absolutely cannot avoid that comes in plastic (like medication!) just keep the packaging in a ‘dilemna bag’ for the end of the month.
And if you’re still not sure, have a look at the website anyway… you’ve still got a couple of weeks to change your mind!
I had a really great weekend. Friday night sushi and a rare trip to the theatre with my boyfriend (Death of a Salesman by the Black Swan State Theatre Company), a Saturday afternoon afternoon trip to Fremantle then dinner with friends on Saturday night, and lunch with family on Sunday afternoon. Busy, fantastic company, amazing food, loads of fun. Read more
I don’t like plastic. I avoid buying it and I talk a lot about plastic-free living on the blog, so I thought it might be useful to provide some background information on plastic, and some of the reasons why I decided to give it up in the first place. There’s so many reasons why plastic is bad (for our health, for the environment, for our sanity) and I’m not going to talk about them all now. I’ll stick to just one – waste.
Plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, either oil or natural gas. It doesn’t just come from the magic ‘plastic factory’. And the problem with this is that once the non-renewable fossil fuels run out, we don’t have any more. But it’s not even the running out that matters. The problems will begin when production hits its maximum rate, because after this oil prices will increase and production of oil-based industries (transport, agriculture, production) will begin to decline, and continue to do so. And if you think that’s way in the future, think again. It’s happening now. Some people think it may have already happened (in 2006). Have you noticed the prices of fuel at the petrol pumps seem to be on an ever-upward spiral?
There are, of course, people who claim that peak oil (which is what it’s called, by the way – the point of maximum production) will never happen, or at least for a long long time. But whether they’re wrong or right isn’t the point. Both sides agree that oil and fossil fuels in general are a valuable resource that we rely on to keep civilization going. In fact, we are completely dependent on them.
So if oil is such a valuable commodity, why are we using it to make cheap, single-use, disposable and throwaway items?
There’s no doubt that plastic can be useful, for example in healthcare, medicine and construction. The problem is that it’s become totally ubiquitous and is used for everything – and a lot of these uses are completely unnecessary and a waste of a valuable resource.
The other important thing to remember is that every little bit of plastic ever produced since that first piece is still around. This stuff doesn’t decompose, instead it creates huge amounts of landfill – or worse, makes its way to the oceans where it’s unwittingly ingested by unsuspecting sea life.
So why not cut down the amount of rubbish we sent to landfill and save the fossil fuels for the stuff that we actually need like fuel? Why not stop using fossil fuels so wastefully to make disposable items that we’re just gonna throw away?
But what about plastic recycling?
Plastic recycling is a bit of a con. It makes us feel better about our consumption, because we can put our empty plastic containers in the recycling bin and feel that they will be magically transformed into new plastic containers. But that isn’t what happens. Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled. This means it’s made into a product with inferior quality or functionality. Secondly, not all plastic is equal, and different plastics are processed differently. For some types it is very difficult to make back into useful products. Thirdly, just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it. What happens to your plastic depends on the number on the bottom, written inside what is thought of, ironically, as the recycling arrow.
There are 7 types of plastic, which are numbered 1 – 7, and not all are commonly recycled. (Technically 1 – 6 are different specific types, whereas 7 is a collection called ‘other’.) It’s easy to assume that if there’s a recycling arrow on the bottom of a container then it will be recycled, but actually only types 1 and 2 are commonly recycled. My local council collects types 1,2, 3 and 5. Any other type of plastic collected in my area is heading to landfill. You can check with your local authority to find out which types they will recycle.
Think it’s not too much of an issue? Here’s some figures for you.
- In the USA in 2010, 31 million tons of plastic waste was generated and only 8% of plastic was recycled. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
- Just under half of this plastic (14 million tons) was food containers and food packaging. Source: US Environmental Protection Agency
- In Australia in 2007, almost 4 billion lightweight single use plastic bags were used. Almost 3 billion of these came from supermarkets. Source: Australian Government
- In Australia in 2002, 50-80 million of these bags became litter in the environment. Source: Australian Government
- The amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag could drive a car 11 metres. Source: Australian Government
- In the UK, 3 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year. 11% of household waste is plastic, and 40% of this is plastic drinks bottles. Source: University of Cambridge
- In the UK in 2005, 414,000 tonnes of plastic waste was recycled (around 20% of total plastic waste). Of this, 324,000 tonnes of plastic was exported to China, over 8000km away, for recycling. Source: WRAP UK
So a large part of this plastic problem comes from food and drink packaging, which has been driven by our desire for ‘convenience’ and made us into a ‘throwaway society’. But it doesn’t need to be like this – a lot of this packaging is avoidable, and with very little effort. Whilst I don’t want to list of all the things you can do (it would triple the size of this post! – so I’ll save it for another time), most of the solutions are really quite simple. Taking your own bags to the supermarket reduces the need for disposable plastic bags; using tap water (you can treat it with a water filter to remove the chemicals) and carrying a water bottle from home stops the need to buy bottled water; and buying your fruit and vegetables loose rather than prepackaged in cellophane wrap and polystyrene trays cuts out heaps of wasteful and unnecessary packaging. And just refusing to buy things that are ridiculously over-packaged.
Let’s face it. Plastic is rubbish.
Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr
Lindsay Miles is an educator, speaker, author and passionate zero waste/plastic-free living advocate helping others live more meaningful lives with less waste and less stuff. She has been sharing ideas, tips, tricks and strategies on her website Treading My Own Path since 2013. Her first book, Less Stuff, was published in 2019 and her second, The Less Waste No Fuss Kitchen was published in June 2020. Originally from the UK, Lindsay now lives in Perth, Western Australia.