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Zero Waste and Plastic-Free Make-Up Options

I’ve never been a big wearer of make-up, and when I went plastic-free back in 2012 I decided it was easier to simply skip the make-up altogether. Six years later and make-up is something I’m beginning to explore again, for a couple of reasons.

The first: people often ask me what the zero waste make-up options are, and I like to be informed about the answers! Second: whilst I don’t think make-up will ever be something I fully embrace, as I get older maybe I can appreciate what it offers a little more.

I always remember in a teen magazine I read, it said: “blusher is for making you look like you’ve had a good night’s sleep when you haven’t.” Colouring my cheeks in, I’m open to that. And in serious need of that, on occasion!

I thought I’d share some of the solutions I’ve come across so far. I’m no expert, but hopefully you’ll be able to share your own experiences too and we can put together a useful resource!

The DIY Zero Waste Beauty Approach

I tried to make activated charcoal by burning almonds once in order to make eyeliner, and I made a huge mess and swore never again. Fortunately now it is possible to buy ingredients like activated charcoal from bulk stores (I know The Source Bulk Foods has it). Other ingredients I’ve seen used in DIY beauty products that are available in the bulk store include cocoa powder, beetroot powder and maca powder.

For me, I just don’t use enough and I’m just not interested enough to get experimenting with these things. If you are, the bulk store is a great starting point.

The one DIY-type thing I have done is used Australian pink clay as blusher. I tend to apply after I’ve moisturised as it’s easier to rub in, and I apply with my fingers.

The Done-For-You Plastic Free Beauty Options

Fortunately there are individuals passionate about creating cruelty-free, plastic-free beauty products, so if the DIY approach is not your thing either, it is possible to buy ready-made options.

Dirty Hippie Cosmetics

Dirty Hippie Cosmetics is based in Canberra, ACT. Danni (the owner) set up her business after giving up plastic and realising the only plastic products she was buying were make-up products. Not being able to find alternatives, in 2012 she started her zero waste business and sells eye and face make-up, as well as skin care, body care and man care products.

All the packaging is glass, aluminium and compostable cardboard, and the products are sent without plastic packaging. It’s possible to request products without stickers. (I asked for stickers for the purposes of taking photographs!)

The products I’ve used are the black mascara and eyeliner (which come with optional bamboo applicators), a tinted moisturiser and a concealer.

Dirty Hippie Cosmetics sell their products via Etsy and in eco stores. If you’re in Perth, the Raw Kitchen in Fremantle is a stockist.

Website: Dirty Hippie Cosmetics

Clean-Faced Cosmetics

Clean-Faced Cosmetics is a US business based in Michigan, and Laura has been selling products on Etsy since 2014. She has a penchant for fun colour and has lots of interesting shades of eyeshadow and mascara. There’s even a gold mascara! No, I didn’t buy that one.

Most of the products come in reusable recyclable aluminium tins. The website has some products in glass with plastic lids also.

There’s the option to ask for no applicators and no stickers on the packaging, and the products are all sent plastic-free.

(I purchased some products from this store because I wanted to talk about them on my blog because many of my readers are American. From a eco footprint perspective, it’s always better to choose the most local option. If you’re in the US this may be it! For me, it isn’t.)

Website: Clean Faced Cosmetics

Luna Beauty (Not Longer Trading)

Whilst I was in the UK I ordered a mascara and blusher from Luna Beauty, but by the time I got round to writing this post, Elisha had decided to close the business to concentrate on her other job. I don’t know whether she will re-open in future, but currently there’s a UK-shaped hole in my listings, so I’d love to hear from anyone who knows another great business.

I’m no make-up expert, but I’m heartened to know that there are people creating zero waste and plastic-free make-up options. When it comes to waste there’s always multiple solutions. Being make-up free might work for me but it doesn’t suit everyone, and it’s great to have a choice.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you a fan of make-up, or do you prefer the natural approach? Has that changed since you started learning more about waste? Do you know any great DIY make-up recipes? Do you know any waste-free brands selling eco-friendly products? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Toilet Paper That Builds Toilets? Yes, that’s a Thing…

If there’s one brand that’s consistently been with me since very early on in my plastic-free living and zero waste journey, it’s Who Gives A Crap toilet paper.

The thing about Who Gives A Crap toilet paper, is that it isn’t just about the toilet paper.

For me, it isn’t enough for a company to print a green leaf on their packaging and tell me it is eco-friendly. I want to know how; I want to know the details.

The more ethical, sustainable and environmental boxes that can be ticked, the better.

Who Gives A Crap tick a lot of these boxes for me. When they asked if I’d be keen to collaborate on a post because they are currently offering new customers a FREE TRIAL (yes, YOU get to try their toilet paper for free – Australia and the UK only) well, how could I say no?!

I use their toilet paper every day, and I recommend it to everyone who uses toilet paper.

 

Not to mention, it is a great opportunity to explain what Who Gives A Crap do, and why they do it (as well as why I think they are pretty great) – it’s about more than just selling loo roll.

(I was wondering exactly how long ago it was that I first started using Who Gives A Crap. They only actually started selling toilet paper in March 2013. Turns out, I placed my first order back in January 2014.)

Firstly, Let’s Talk Eco Friendly Toilet Paper

I started buying Who Gives A Crap toilet paper because it was plastic-free. It’s also made of 100% recycled paper. There’s plenty of recycled toilet paper out there, but finding a plastic-free toilet paper is surprisingly challenging.

Not buying anything in single-use plastic is very important to me.

Who Gives A Crap is plastic-free and 100% recycled, and they do not put inks, dyes or scents in the paper. As natural as toilet paper can be.

I order online (I order the 48 double-length rolls, which is the most toilet paper for the least packaging), and it gets delivered in a big box. Cardboard and loo roll, nothing else. (Oh, except a bit of sticky tape to seal the box shut.)

 

Even now, I still appreciate the “nice bum” comment printed on the box. Thanks, guys!

Each roll is wrapped in colourful paper (Who Gives A Crap have just updated their packaging – it was fun and colourful before, but now I like it even more.)

As someone who doesn’t do presents, opening a box of brightly wrapped toilet roll is about as Christmassy as it gets for me! Yes, I get my present-opening fix with boxes of loo roll ;)

(A quick note on the packaging – individual wrappers might seem wasteful, but actually it’s only possible to wrap a maximum of 6 wrappers in paper. It also needs to be thicker. With the individual wrappers, the net use of paper is the same, but it avoids any plastic, still protects the rolls from moisture, and looks fun.

You can read more about the decision-making around the wrappers, if you’re interested.)

In every box, there are three “emergency” rolls, wrapped in red paper. This is possibly my favouritist (yep, that’s a word) feature.

I can tell you, since switching to these rolls, I have never run out of toilet paper.

The trick is to pack the emergency rolls at the back of the cupboard though, so they are definitely the ones that are used last!

I can wedge most of my loo roll into my under-the-sink cupboard in the bathroom, but because it looks so good, I don’t mind having a few rolls stacked on the counter.

It brightens up the place!

I never put the wrappers straight in the recycling. Firstly, they are too pretty. Secondly, they are too useful!

I’ve used the wrappers to wrap gifts, but as someone who doesn’t do presents, this has limited demand. What I do with them instead, is use them to pick up dog poo. They are cut to the perfect size and strong enough for the task.

I actually tend to purchase this toilet roll 10 boxes at a time, by getting together with a group of friends and neighbours and splitting it up. Doing it this way means it’s much cheaper ($39 AUD a box rather than $48 AUD), and it also means there isn’t a truck driving round the suburb dropping off one box at a time to 10 different houses.

Even better, my neighbours then leave their finished wrappers in my letterbox, so I can use them to clean up after my greyhound too!

As for the toilet paper itself (it is easy to get distracted by the wrappers!), well, it does all the things that you’d expect toilet paper to do. It’s 3 ply, and as strong and absorbent as toilet paper should be.

Sometimes eco friendly paper can be so feeble that you end up needing to use twice as much, which rather defeats the point of choosing eco-friendly. Good news is, this is definitely not the case with Who Gives A Crap. A single square can meet all your needs ;)

Second, Let’s Talk Ethical Toilet Paper

Who Gives A Crap meet the eco-friendly toilet paper criteria for me by using 100% recycled paper (meaning not trees are harmed in the making of the loo roll); not using dyes, scents or inks on their paper; and not using any single-use plastic packaging.

However, their impact goes far beyond simply wrapping a few loo rolls in paper to skip the plastic.

Firstly, Who Gives A Crap donate 50% of their profits to their charity partners, to help build toilets and improve sanitation in less economically developed countries. The business was established to do something about the fact that 2.3 billion people do not have access to a toilet.

To date, Who Gives A Crap have donated over $1.2 million ($ AUD) to charities working in this field. As the company grows (and they now sell toilet paper in the USA and UK as well as Australia) this figure is only going to grow.

More toilet paper sales means more toilets built in places where people need them.

You can read more about how and why they donate to these organisations on their impact page.

(Alternatively, they do a pretty good job of explaining their mission and ethos on their toilet paper wrappers themselves.)

The other thing I love about Who Gives A Crap is that they are a certified B Corp. If you’ve not heard of B Corporations before, I like to explain it as similar to a Fair Trade certification scheme, except it is for businesses that manufacture goods rather than grow food, and use factories rather than farms.

B Corps explain it like this: Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

What this means is that not only do Who Gives A Crap claim they care about the environment, people and the planet – they have actually invested in being independently audited and verified, to prove it.

Who Gives A Crap have been a certified B Corp since February 2016.

This is important to me, because many companies make great claims about their mission, but few are able to demonstrate how.

Whilst some companies are simply too small to afford the auditing and certification process, those that can – and do – are demonstrating commitment to positive change, transparency, and integrity.

Whilst Who Gives A Crap is an Australian company, they manufacture their toilet paper in China. I’m a big believer in buying local, but I also recognize that China is the manufacturing hub of the world. For me, being a registered B Corp is proof that Who Gives A Crap are manufacturing responsibly. (You can read more about their decision to manufacture in China here, as well as how they audit their factories.)

Personally, I choose to purchase from Who Gives A Crap because they are an independent, Australian grown company with a transparent commitment to environmental responsibility and ethics, who donate profits to good causes.

No company is perfect, but those that recognise their imperfections, explain their choices and always strive to do a little better next time will always get my vote.

In short, I’m a long-time fan of Who Gives A Crap toilet paper, and I’d encourage anyone looking for a plastic-free, sustainably sourced and ethical brand to give them a go.

>>CLICK HERE to get your free trial.

This post is a sponsored collaboration with Who Gives A Crap, whose toilet paper I have been using for the last 4.5 years, whose products I genuinely love and whose business ethos I wholeheartedly respect. I only recommend products that I think you, my readers, will benefit from and enjoy learning about. All words and opinions are my own.

The Ultimate Guide to Reusable Containers

The conversation around reducing single-use plastic and working towards zero waste often begins with reusables. These are the tools we often need to avoid the single-use and wasteful packaging – alongside getting the habits in place to actually remember and use them, of course!

Today I wanted to talk about reusable containers. It’s a big topic, because reusable containers have so many uses: for carrying food on the go, leftovers and general food storage. There are also lots of options.

I always say this, and it is as true here as anywhere: there is never a single perfect solution, or a one-size-fits all approach. Different things work better for different purposes, and often we might use different things for our different needs.

I thought I’d share some of the things that I use, and some of the things that are consistently recommended to me by my readers. These aren’t the only options by all means, and they may not be the best options for you.

There’s no need to rush out shopping and buy ALL the things. There may be no need to buy any of the things. Be mindful of your purchases. Ask yourself – can I make do? Do I really need it? Will I actually use it?

I simply want to give you some ideas of what’s available and help you find solutions that fit with your lifestyle and needs.

Reusable Containers – Glass

Glass Jars

I’m a big fan of repurposed glass jars. They come in ALL the sizes, and have many uses: dry food storage, holding liquids, keeping leftovers, freezing food (yep, they can; here’s some tips for using glass jars in the freezer) and transporting lunches.

They are also really easy to source, for free from the recycling bin, or for low cost at charity shops.

Occasionally I’ve needed to buy new lids for old jars, and these are available at specialist kitchen shops or online. Metal lids often have a plastic lining, but I see it as a lower waste solution than purchasing an entirely new glass jar with non-plastic lid.

Much as I love the look of (plastic-free) Weck or Le Parfait jars, I prefer to make do with what I already have.

Pyrex (and Other Glass Food Storage Systems)

I’m not a fan of storing food in plastic because of health concerns, so back in 2012 I invested in some Pyrex containers. They have plastic lids, but the containers are (freezerproof, ovenproof) glass.

At the time these were the best budget-friendly option I could find. Pyrex is one of those tried-and-tested built to last brands. When the lids split I’ll improvise with something else.

Since then, more glass storage container options have become available: some with plastic lids, others with glass lids and even those with stainless steel lids (part of the Onyx stainless steel range).

Glass storage containers are something easy to find at the charity /second hand shops. I’ve found a few Pyrex containers in my time.

Reusable Containers – Stainless Steel and Other Metal

I have a variety of stainless steel storage containers and also a titanium one. In this picture, clockwise from centre top: Planetbox, round single tier tiffin, 4 tier tiffin, Vargo titanium BOT, Seed + Sprout lunchbox, Ecolunchbox (with condiment container).

There are some different types that I haven’t used that have been recommended to me, and I’ve mentioned these below too.

If you keep an eye out, it is possible to find second-hand stainless steel containers in charity shops rather than buying new.

PlanetBox

PlanetBox is a stainless steel bento-style lunchbox. The box itself is completely made of stainless steel. There’s no silicone seal and it isn’t leakproof. Great for sandwiches, slices, salads, fruit and nuts.

They have three different versions: the one I have is called the “Launch” (pictured) which has 3 compartments and includes a dipper (little condiment pot). The other versions are the “Rover” (which has 5 compartments and 2 dippers) and the “Shuttle” (which has 3 compartments and a dipper, and is half the size of the “Launch”).

If you’re in Australia, Biome (3 stores in Australia and online) is an authorised stockist of PlanetBox.

Stainless Steel Tiffins

Stainless steel tiffins are the lunchbox of choice in India, and they are one of my favourite options. They are a series of stainless steel bowls that stack together and are clipped in place. The top bowl has a lid and can be used as a single container.

I have a single tier tiffin with an insert that sits inside, and two stackable tiffins (one 3-tier, and one 4-tier).

My favourite is the 4-tier, as each bowl has a stainless steel lid that fits over the top and can be used as a plate. (My 3-tier one is just three bowls, clips and the top lid).

They are easy to store because they stack.

I find them great to take to picnics because they are easy to carry and all the bowls are good sizes.

I purchased my single tier tiffin in Thailand, my 3-tier from a department store and my 4-tier from Dunn & Walton, a store in Perth, WA.

Indian supermarkets are a great and affordable place to find tiffins.

If you’re in the USA, Life Without Plastic have a good range.

Vargo Outdoors BOT Titanium Container

I purchased this titanium container for my Camino Frances hike (800km across northern Spain) because I wanted a reusable container that was extremely lightweight (it holds 700ml and weighs 136g) and also leakproof (it has a silicone ring inside the lid). It can be used to carry water.

(By comparison, the stainless steel tiffin weighs 295g without the inner tray, holds the same volume, but is not leakproof – there is no seal).

I purchased this container from Vargo Outdoors, a US company whose products are stocked by specialist hiking/expedition stores.

Rectangular Stackable Lunchboxes

I have a couple of rectangular stackable lunchboxes: one by Seed & Sprout (pictured) which has rounded corners and a metal divider, and an EcoLunchbox which is more rectangular, without a divider and with a condiment container.

Neither have a silicone seal and neither are leakproof.

Both are a similar size. My EcoLunchBox is better quality but more expensive (you get what you pay for).

The Seed & Sprout lunchboxes are available directly via the Seed & Sprout website. This design is also available with a number of other brand names: Urban Revolution (an online store and bricks-and-mortar shop just down the road from me) stock the Ever Eco version, which looks identical.

I actually purchased my EcoLunchbox via a seller on eBay. There is a larger version called Sustain-a-Stacker which is stocked by Biome.

Other Stainless Steel Lunchboxes

Some stainless steel lunchboxes come with plastic and/or silicone lids. I don’t have any of these, but I can see the appeal if you have children, want a bit of colour and/or are looking for a leakproof alternative. (Without plastic or silicone to form a seal, stainless steel lunchboxes are not leakproof.)

Two well established and popular brands making kid-friendly reusable lunchboxes are Lunchbots and U Konserve. Both are US brands (US and Canada residents can order from these companies directly). Biome (Australia and NZ) and A Slice of Green (UK) stock these brands for those of us a little further afield.

Food Wraps and Lunchbox Alternatives

Containers can be big and bulky, and sometimes we need more flexible (sometimes literally) solutions. Here’s a few alternatives for this type of food storage.

Food Wraps

Food wraps are a great alternative for transporting food. They are often not plastic-free but they are reusable, and reduce the need for other single-use packaging.

I have a set from 4myearth, a local Perth business. These are natural cotton fabric that have been coated with a plastic layer. They are machine washable. I have both wraps and pockets, and I’ve been using them since 2012.

Other synthetic fabric options also exist, including Lunch Skins, Keep Leaf and Onya Sandwich Wraps (which are made out of recycled PET).

Alteratively, if you’re handy with a sewing machine, consider making your own.

Beeswax (and Other Wax) Wraps

Beeswax and other wax wraps are a 100% compostable alternative to food wraps. Due to the natural wax coating they are not suitable for machine washing and need to be hand washed at low temperatures. This makes them unsuitable for some types of foods, such as raw meat.

For me, the ability to chuck in the washing machine is important, but many people swear by wax wraps.

Beeswax wraps are a great opportunity to support local businesses. Most Farmers Markets sell them, alternatively try finding local small businesses on Etsy. If that fails, the majority of online eco stores stock them.

Whilst beeswax wraps are not vegan friendly, there are vegan wax wrap alternatives.

Reusable Silicone Storage Bags

I have personally never used reusable silicone storage bags, but a reader of mine, Katie, raved about them so much I have included these as an option. These reusable bags are designed to replace the single-use plastic zip-lock bags and can be used in a similar way.

The brand Katie recommended was Stasher Bag. These are silicone food storage pouches that can be reused and are dishwasher, freezer, boil and microwave safe.

Rather than paraphrase, I’m going to quote what Katie said directly. (And yes! I did check if she was on some kind of commission too! But no, she is just a fan.)

“I purchased Stasher brand silicone bags and I love them. They are dishwasher, microwave, freezer, and boil safe (for sous vide), and they come with zero plastic. Some of the other highly-rated brands I looked at on Amazon came with a plastic piece to help seal the bag. The Stasher bags seal SO well, and you can even put soups in them.

I’ve been using these bags for frozen fruit. I’ve been buying fresh fruit now that it’s in season, then freezing it to use in my smoothies. This helps me avoid buying plastic bags of frozen fruit from the store. They work very well! I would definitely recommend them. The only downside is that 1/2 gallon (~2 liters) is the largest size, which is a bit smaller than I want.”

Having never been a ziplock bag user, I’m not sure I’d personally get too much use from these. However, if you are a ziplock bag fan, these are a reusable alternative.

Reusable Containers – Where to Source

I’m a huge fan of buying second-hand over buying new. I always check the second-hand stores, online listings such as Gumtree and online auction sites like eBay before I purchase new.

Borrowing (if that’s an option) is a good way to test if you’ll actually use something before committing to making a purchase.

If you do decide to buy new, please consider supporting local brick-and-mortar stores in your area. Actually being able to look at, pick up and generally handle products is a much better way to really decide if something is well made and suitable for what we need.

If that isn’t an option, supporting local independent businesses who genuinely care about the planet is the best way to spend your money. I’ve put together a worldwide list of independent online zero waste and plastic-free stores here.

We can choose to buy new, or we can decide that we can make do without. It’s not wasteful to buy something brand new that we know we will use often, and something that will significantly reduce single use packaging over a lifetime.

The best reusables will always be the ones that we actually use.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your favourite reusables? What do you find the most practical for your needs? Are there any other brands you’d like to mention? Is there anything you’ve tried that you wouldn’t recommend? Have you found second-hand treasures that you love? Anything else to add? I really want to hear your thoughts so please share below!

Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a link and choose to make a purchase, I may receive a small payment at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products that I’ve used myself or those recommended to me by you, my readers, and I always encourage making do or purchasing second-hand before buying anything new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lining a Bin with Newspaper

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

A friend suggested newspaper, and I made the switch.

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

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

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

“Who even gets a newspaper these days?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. Great idea and what I do now.

“Now” being the key word.

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

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

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

Buying Plastic Reusables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A guide to reusable produce bags

When it comes to tackling single-use plastic bags, it isn’t just plastic shopping bags that we want to be replacing with better, reusable alternatives. Plastic produce bags (the extremely thin, colourless, clear bags we see in the fruit and veg aisles at supermarkets) are just as problematic – difficult to recycle, very difficult to reuse and a huge contributor to litter.

Yet the conversation always seems to be around shopping bags, and the produce bags are left out.

Which is a tragedy! There are just as many solutions for replacing single-use produce bags with reusables as there are for shopping bags. Yet it’s something that isn’t on many people’s radar when they are starting out.

It certainly wasn’t on mine.

Fortunately, it is now. I want to share some of the alternatives to single-use plastic produce bags, the pros and cons of different options, as well as a few things you may like to consider.

This post contains some affiliate links. You can read more about what this means at the end of the post.

Reusable produce bags – some initial things to consider

There are plenty of options with reusable produce bags. Here’s a few things to consider:

Homemade versus purchased

Homemade is always cheaper, and there’s the option to choose the exact size that you need. If you want bags that last and don’t need to be mended continually, an overlocker generally produces better (longer-lasting) results than a regular sewing machine.

The flipside of homemade is needing access to a sewing machine, and knowing how to sew.

If you do know how to sew, produce bags make great gifts.

Second-hand fabrics

Second-hand fabric is an option for making reusable produce bags, and ready-made produce bags that used second-hand fabric are also available. Fabric includes old net curtains, tablecloths, sheets and old bedding. Choose a fabric that is machine washable and can go through a hot wash (rather than the handwash cycle).

Although mosquito netting seems ideal for produce bags, most mosquito nets are impregnated with pesticides, so not desirable for use with food.

Choosing the fabric type

Different fabrics have different properties. Mesh or net bags are lightweight and see-through, but are rarely made of natural fibres. They’re also not suitable for flour and fine powders.

Cotton cloth is natural but not see-through, and is slightly heavier. (Not all stores have the ability to take off the weight of the bag on the scales, so heavy bags will cost more.) Not being transparent will slow down the checkout operators, so be mindful of using too many of these bags on a busy day.

In practice, it can be useful to have different types for different things.

Reusable produce bags – different options

Personally, I have a combination of homemade and purchased reusable produce bags, and made of different materials.

As much as I recommend making do and using what we have where possible, I also know that sometimes we need shortcuts.

If sewing if definitely not your thing (and you don’t have a relative or friend to persuade to do it for you!) then here are some ready-made solutions.

Mesh fabric produce bags

If you haven’t heard of it or used it before, Etsy is an online marketplace where people who know how to make things sell these things to those of us who do not (or do not have the time). There are plenty of sellers on the platform who make reusable produce bags out of old curtains and tablecloths (as well as sellers who use new fabric, if that’s your preference).

If the second-hand approach appeals to you but you just don’t have the time or inclination, I’d recommend looking on Etsy for reusable produce bags made of upcycled fabric.

There’s no one Etsy seller I recommend, instead I’d suggest browsing and finding the seller that is closest to your home to minimise the packaging and transport footprint.

Recycled PET Plastic Mesh Bags

Some people don’t love the idea of going plastic-free and then buying reusables made of plastic. When I first went plastic-free back in 2012 I was the same. But then I looked into it a little more and adjusted my view.

If we stopped using plastic today, and didn’t make anything else made of plastic, there is still a huge amount of plastic already in existence. Legacy plastic, I call it. From a resource perspective, it makes sense to be using this to make resources rather than leaving it somewhere to sit for all eternity.

PET is the plastic that water bottles is made from. It’s hard wearing and durable. The PET plastic bottles can be recycled into a mesh that is used to make reusable produce bags. These bags have a much lower carbon footprint than other “new” bags because they are made from 100% recycled material.

I have a set of Onya bags that I purchased for my first Plastic Free July back in 2012. They may not be as white as they were when I purchased them, but they function as good as new. (Which cannot be said for my biodegradable ones, which have, well, biodegraded and needed some stitching up).

Mesh bags are great for fruit and vegetables, loose salad leaves (the produce can be washed in the bag) and loose bread rolls.

Cotton Produce Bags

Cotton bags are great for all the things that mesh bags aren’t: powders and flours. I have a set made out of an old bed sheet. The advantage of these is that they can be repaired easily, and composted at the end of their life.

It’s possible to buy new cotton reusable produce bags: I’d recommend looking at your local bulk store as they will often stock them.

I’d always recommend supporting a local brick-and-mortar store where you can, but if this isn’t an option, they can easily be found online.

If you’re further afield here’s a list of independent online plastic-free and zero waste stores.

Bulk reusable food bags

These reusable produce bags are a fairly new idea, and are designed for bulk store shopping (as opposed to fruit and veg shopping). Whilst reusable produce bags are very easy to transport, they aren’t ideal for storing food.

Onya Life launched these bulk bags in 2019 (made of recycled PET, which I talked about above) as a lightweight alternative to glass jars. They can be labelled and are suitable for food storage.

They are not something I’ve used, but I think they are a great alternative for those of us who don’t want to carry huge amounts of glass jars on our shopping trips, or have to decant everything into said glass jars when we get home.

Other options: making do

Before rushing out and buying anything new, have a think about what you might already have at home. Many bulk stores accept glass jars for refilling, so consider taking jars rather than bags, if that is practical. A pillowcase makes an excellent cotton bread bag. Laundry bags are a mesh alternative to mesh produce bags – and they are definitely machine washable.

If you do decide to buy something, just be sure that it is something that you will use. Reusables that sit in the back of the cupboard are not a good use of resources!

The best reusables are the ones you use often.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What reusable options do you use? Do you have one preference, or do you use a combination? If you sew, do you have fabric types you recommend and any to avoid? Are there any other alternatives or DIY hacks that you can suggest? Please share you thought in the comments below!

Disclaimer: this post contains some affiliate links which means if you click a link and choose to purchase a product, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I only ever recommend products I have used, companies I trust or those that are regularly recommended to me by you, my readers. Making do and buying second-hand are always my first recommendations.

A Zero Waste Backpacking Trip: What I Packed

Tomorrow I’m setting off to France on my big walking-across-Spain adventure. I’m hiking to Santiago de Compostela (in Spain) from the town of St John Pied-de-Port in France. It’s 800km in total, along the Camino Frances (most commonly known as the Camino de Santiago).

I’m expecting it to take about 5 weeks.

The biggest difficulty (well, aside from walking 800km of course, but I’m putting that to the back of my mind right now so it doesn’t seem so far!) is figuring out what to pack.

Particularly as a minimalist, who needs to keep warm at the top of the mountains and cool on the lowlands, believes in packing light, can’t face the idea of needing anything single-use on the way, would rather not buy anything new and doesn’t have time to source everything second-hand…

As always, there’s a balance, and there’s compromise.

A Zero Waste Backpacking Trip Across Spain

Using What I Already Have

I’m a big believer in using what I already have where I can. Interestingly, the things I already own and don’t own were a little random. I already own a pair of decent hiking boots, a backpack and a silk sleeping bag liner (purchased back in 2002 and still going strong).

No need to replace these.

On the other hand, I don’t actually own any t-shirts, any jumpers with full length sleeves, or a raincoat.

(I’ve been saying I’ll buy a raincoat since I moved to Perth in 2011. I think I believed Perth was the land of the eternal sunshine. It’s no UK, but I was definitely a little over-optimistic.)

Although I already have a bunch of reusables, I did get some new ones that I think are more appropriate for what I need.

Brand New versus Second Hand

I try to buy as much as I can second-hand, but when you’re looking for specific items it can be more of a challenge. I’m confident it can be done. On this occasion though, I did not have the time (or the patience) to source everything second-hand.

I visited a few second hand stores and had some success. I also spent a great deal of time searching online, with less success.

I found two pairs of shorts, a t-shirt and a lightweight dress second-hand. I was also able to borrow two walking poles.

The difficulty of browsing online was that I had no real idea of the quality or fit of many of the brands on offer. (Plus most things take 2 weeks to reach the west coast from the east coast via mail, so second-hand online shopping means allowing a considerable amount of time.)

The range was also pretty small. In the end I accepted I’d have to buy more new than I’d have preferred to.

Natural Fibres versus Synthetic Fibres

I’m always torn between wanting natural fibres but also needing to be practical, not to mention the ethics of different materials.

Waxed cotton is waterproof but super heavy; lightweight rain jackets are 100% synthetic. Products like down can be harvested by cruel methods; synthetic fleece is the worst fabric for shedding microfibres into the ocean.

The raincoat I purchased was made by Patagonia, who are well known for and committed to pursuing sustainable practices. The outer is made from 100% recycled nylon. Whilst I hate buying synthetic fabrics, I do take comfort in knowing it is made from recycled material over virgin plastic.

(For those in the US, Patagonia offer Worn Wear, which is an online store selling pre-loved Patagonia wear. I love this option, but it is not currently available in Australia.)

In my quest for a lightweight jumper I purchased a down vest. I’ve been against down since watching the Earthlings documentary; they show undercover footage of geese being stripped of their feathers whilst fully conscious. But at the store I was told about ethical down, wild harvested once the geese leave their nests (they shed down to insulate their eggs), and I felt more comfortable with this.

Each down product the store sells has a tracking number for traceability.

Having tracked my ID at trackmydown.com I discovered that the down in my vest is 100% duck down from China, which is a by-product of the meat industry. No birds are live-plucked according to their auditing process. Not exactly the wild-harvested down I was told about though (which does exist, but is much harder to find).

This down is certified Responsible Down Standard. Auditing and certification is better than not, and changing any industry with improved animal welfare and greater transparency is a good thing. Being a part of the meat industry, I do have mixed feelings.

The few other things I purchased were merino wool, which is lightweight and breathable. A pair of leggings (Macpac), a bra (Icebreaker), a t-shirt with no seams across the shoulders (much better for carrying a backpack) (Icebreaker) and a long-sleeved thermal (Kathmandu).

I checked all the brands with the Behind the Barcode 2018 Ethical Fashion Report, which assesses supplier relationships, policies and worker empowerment for different companies and grades performance.

Icebreaker was graded A+, Patagonia was graded A, Kathmandu was graded A, and Macpac was graded B.

Okay, so here is my confession: I purchased a pair of brand new nylon trousers. Not recycled nylon. Yes, I’m cringing too. We all have moments of weakness. In my defence, I was pretty tired of shopping by this point.

Total weight of clothes (including everything except hiking boots): 2.4kg.

Packing Reusables

It is very important to me that I avoid single-use disposables wherever possible. It is also important that I avoid plastic where I can. I want to travel light, yet all of the lightweight reusable solutions seemed to be plastic.

I knew that titanium is a lightweight metal sometimes used in camping and hiking gear, and I wondered if titanium reusables exist. It turns out they do! I found a reusable water bottle, leakproof container, spork and travel mug at Vargo Outdoors, who specialise in titanium equipment and accessories.

I’ve compared them with my regular reusables to give an idea of weight difference. Clearly they are not exact swaps, but they serve the same purpose.

The Vargo water bottle weighs 120g, compared with 240g for the Klean Kanteen bottle (it’s a slightly smaller volume, being 650ml as opposed to 800ml).

The Vargo BOT (which is what Vargo call their reusable container) weighs 136g, versus 295g for the stainless steel container. Despite owning a few stainless steel containers, none of mine are actually leakproof. The Vargo BOT is leakproof, so I can use it as a second water bottle if required.

The Vargo travel cup weighs 61g, versus 222g for the KeepCup. Clearly they are quite different (the KeepCup has a lid, and an insulated band). But I don’t want to take (breakable) glass with me on this trip.

The Vargo spork weighs 17g, and the bamboo fork and spoon (part of my To-Go wear set) combined weigh 17g (with the knife, chopsticks and the case it’s more). So they weigh the same, but the bamboo fork isn’t very easy to eat with – I tend to only use the spoon, which doesn’t work for everything. I love how small the titanium spork packs down.

Additionally, I’ve packed a single Onya produce bag, my 4myearth food wrap, and a lightweight reusable tote bag.

The total weight of my reusables: 452g.

Toiletries

I keep my toiletries pretty simple at home, so this wasn’t a challenge. Bar soap, a bamboo toothbrush, a pot of DIY sunscreen, a pot of DIY cold cream, a pot of homemade toothpaste and a pot of DIY deodorant.

I also packed 6 soap nuts for laundry, my Diva cup (reusable menstrual cup), and a hankie.

Total weight: 521g.

The Final Pack

My final pack weighs 5.8kg. This includes every single thing thing except my hiking boots, but clearly I’ll be wearing some of the clothes. I was aiming for less, but it’s still manageable.

I’m going to go through everything one more time before I leave, so I still might be able to shave some weight off.

And that’s it! Tomorrow I head to the south of France to begin the walk into and across Spain.

Here’s to five weeks of walking. I’ll report back from the other side on how it all went :) Wish me luck!

Is There Plastic in Your Teabag?

When I first heard that there was plastic in tea bags, I was shocked. It turns out I wasn’t the only one. The subsequent blog post I wrote about it (back in 2014) is my most popular post to date, having been shared more than 44,000 times. (Yes, 44 thousand. That’s a lot of shocked tea drinkers, right there.)

You can still read the original teabag post here, but I thought it was about time to write an update. After all, there’s still a lot of misinformation and confusion around which teabags contain plastic, and what the plastic-free options are.

There’s Plastic in Your Teabags

Can it be that every time we made a brew, we are stewing plastic in our cup alongside our tea leaves?

I do so hate to be the bearer of bad news, but yes.

If you’re a teabag-using tea drinker, it is more than likely that there’s plastic in your teabags.

Wait! I hear you say. Not all teabags are equal! True. When it comes to teabags, there are different types. Those different types use different types of plastic, and use it in different ways, but the majority still contain plastic.

There’s the regular pressed paper teabags (the ones with the crimped edges) and yes, these contain plastic. The main reason is that these crimped teabags are pressed shut using heat, and the plastic melts to seal them together. Typically the paper in these teabags contain 20 – 30% plastic.

Then there’s the premium ‘silken’ type, which are always made from plastic (not silk, like the name suggests).

The only teabag type that might be plastic-free is the string-and-tag variety: these can be folded shut and secured with a knot or a staple. But many suppliers of these teabags still choose to use paper with plastic fibres for added strength.

(If the teabag was just paper, and you left it to steep too long, the paper might break down and – imagine the catastrophe – there could be a loose tea leaf floating in your cuppa.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that organic teabags would be plastic-free, but in fact, the majority of those contain plastic too.

Confusing? This graphic should help simplify things a bit:

The Main Types of Teabag – And What They’re Made Of

Pressed (Heat-Sealed) Teabags

These are the standard square, rectangular or occasionally round teabags that have crimped/pressed edges on all sides, and they always contain plastic. The two separate layers of paper need to stick together to keep the lea leaves in, and paper does not stick to paper by itself. Glue would dissolve in your tea – yuck!

Plastic (usually polypropylene, or less commonly a mix of polyethylene and a polyethylene co-polymer) is woven in between the paper fibres, and melts upon heating to seal the teabag shut. Typically these teabags contain 20-30% polypropylene.

In addition, some companies choose to treat their paper teabags with a chemical called epichlorohydrin to help prevent tears. This chemical is deemed a probable human carcinogen. It is also known to react in water to form another chemical, 3-MCPD, another possible human carcinogen.

Silken Teabags

Despite the name, silken teabags are made from plastic, not silk. Usually found in a pyramid shape, the fibres of silken teabags are woven to make them look like fabric.

These teabags are either made from fossil-fuel based plastic (usually nylon or PET – the same plastic that drinks bottles are made from: plastic #1), or plant-based plastic (PLA or poly-lactic acid, usually derived from corn or other plant starch: plastic #7).

When a company says their tea bags are made with cornstarch, they mean plant-based plastic.

Silken teabags are often spruiked as an eco-friendly choice, but teabags made from fossil-fuel based nylon or PET will last forever – clearly not eco-friendly at all. Plant-based plastic teabags are labelled “eco-friendly” as plants are a renewable resource.

Plant-based plastic is sometimes labelled biodegradable, or compostable. However, just because a silken teabag is made of plant-based plastic, that does not automatically mean it is biodegradable. It is more complicated than that.

Biodegradable means broken down by microorganisms over time. There is no stipulation for avoiding toxic residue, nor a requirement that the plastic breaks down into constituent parts, just that it is no longer visible.

Compostable means something different: that the product undergoes biological decomposition at a compost site, and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, leaving no toxic residue.

A product making either claim should quote the standards used in testing to determine this label. Without this, the claim is meaningless. (You can find out more about certification standards here.)

String-and-Tag Teabags

The filter paper used to produce teabags with a string and tag attached does not need to contain plastic polymer fibres: these teabags close by folding, and are secured by stitching or stapling, rather than by heat sealing.

However, many teabag producers (including organic brands) still choose to use paper with plastic (polypropylene) fibres to add strength to their teabags.

The string is usually made from cotton. If you find a plastic-free variety, these teabags are completely compostable.

Teabags made entirely of paper will rip more easily, and will disintegrate if left to stew in a cuppa. If your teabag seems remarkably resilient, the likelihood is that it contains some plastic fibres.

(If you want to see how teabags are made, this short clip from a BBC2 documentary will certainly open your eyes a little!)

Plastic-Free Tea: What Are the Solutions?

There are two solutions for truly plastic-free tea.

Option One: Look For Paper Teabags That Do Not Use Plastic As Reinforcement.

These will be the string-and-tag teabags, but check with the manufacturer as many brands still contain plastic.

Brands that have confirmed that they do not use plastic in their string-and-tag teabags include Tea Tonic, Pukka teas (although their envelopes are plastic) and Clipper (string-and-tag only: their pressed teabags contain plastic).

Bioplastic is still plastic (even if it’s labelled as biodegradable or compostable) so if you really want to choose a plastic-free teabag, steer clear of anything labelled bioplastic, plant-based plastic, or cornstarch.

Option Two: Choose Loose Leaf Tea

My absolute favourite option is to choose loose leaf tea. The lowest waste option is to buy from the bulk store. If that’s not practical, loose leaf tea can be purchased in tins and cardboard boxes that are fully recyclable.

Loose leaf tea is not as expensive as it appears. Loose leaf tea is often priced per kilo, whereas teabags are priced per bag, which makes it hard to compare.

Actually, it only takes a couple of grams of loose leaf tea to make a cuppa.

The other great thing for cheapskates like me (or rather, people who prefer weak tea) is that it’s much easier to brew a second cup reusing loose leaves than it is with a teabag.

If teapot-washing isn’t your thing, tea steepers are a great way to make a single cup without the hassle of extra washing up.

If you aren’t ready to give up the teabags, there are refillable cotton bags out there, too.

Finally, if you’re a herbal tea drinker, ditch the dried stuff altogether and use fresh leaves. Mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow and there’s nothing like a cup of fresh mint tea.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Did you know that most teabags contain plastic? If you did know, have you made the switch? Have you found a brand of plastic-free tea? Have you given up the teabags and embraced the loose leaf? Have you found a different solution? Please share in the comments below!

Is There a “Best” Kind of Reusable Bag?

With more and more councils, states and countries around the world introducing plastic bag bans, the conversation is finally moving towards reusable bag options. Not a moment too soon, either!

Yet as with all things, there’s plenty of different options out there, and the choice can be overwhelming.

Different people have different opinions about what’s best. Whether that’s upcycled or Fair Trade, recycled, organic or vegan, or what the energy footprint is, we all have different priorities in our quest to live a little lighter.

So no, I don”t think there’s one “best” option. But I do think there are lots of “good” and “better” options when it comes to ditching the single-use disposables with something a little more environmentally friendly.

Reusable Shopping Bags: Zero Waste and Plastic-Free Alternatives to the Plastic Shopping Bag

I’ve highlighted some of my favourite options below, along with a couple more I think are best avoided.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Using What We Have

It goes without saying that the most environmentally friendly option is using the thing that we already have. Most of us have reusable shopping bags.

If we don’t, we’ve probably got old plastic bags from previous shopping trips. Don’t forget about backpacks, holdalls or other bags we might own.

Reusable shopping bags do not need to have been purpose-designed for that specific task. If it has handles and a compartment for shopping, it’s likely good enough.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Borrowing (Boomerang Bags and Mors Bags)

You know those times when we find ourselves at the shops unexpectedly? Or we arrive with a list and then remember we need a few more things? Those times when we either don’t have a reusable bag, or don’t have enough?

Schemes like Boomerang Bags and Mors bags tackle exactly that problem. They recognise that most of us have reusable bags, but we also forget them sometimes. So they provide bags for us to borrow.

These schemes run on the power of community: to source second-hand fabric, sew into bags and leave in strategic locations where shoppers might need to borrow bags. The idea is that shoppers borrow bags, use them, and then return them ready for the next person.

No money is exchanged for the borrowing, although bags can sometimes be purchased to help cover expenses (such as screen-printing labels and providing cups of tea to volunteers).

(If sewing is your thing and you’ve been wondering how you can increase your impact, these groups are always on the look out for enthusiastic new volunteers!)

Reusable Shopping Bags – Upcycled Options

Shopping bags made out of repurposed fabric (think tablecloths, sheets, coffee sacks) is a great low-waste option that makes something good out of something that already exists.

Local markets are a great place to find creative craftspeople in your local area who make and sell reusable bags. If this isn’t an option for you, online marketplace Etsy is a great way to connect with sellers a little further afield. There’s plenty of options in terms of material, shape and size.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Recycled PET

Buying shopping bags made out of plastic can seem a little contradictory for anyone pursuing the plastic-free lifestyle. However, there’s a big difference between making bags with brand new virgin plastic and making bags with recycled PET plastic.

PET is the plastic that drinks bottles are made of. Even if we stopped making plastic drinks bottles tomorrow, there’s a heck of a lot of those plastic bottles already in existence in the world.

Recycling this plastic into a usable (and reusable) product seems a better solution that letting it languish in stockpiles all over the world. PET is also the most recyclable plastic there is.

From a lifecycle analysis point of view, these plastic bags have the lowest footprint of all reusable bags. They don’t demand new resources. Being plastic, they are also lightweight, hard-wearing and incredibly strong.

This (extremely well used and hence rather crumpled) recycled PET Onya bag is over 5 years old. It fits into a tiny stuff sack (you can see what it looks like packed down on the left – that’s a second bag).

From a waste perspective, yes they are still plastic. They can’t be composted at the end of their lives.

As much as I’m a fan of natural materials, I also know that our plastic legacy is something we need to deal with. Recycling PET plastic into reusable bags seems to be a good way to make good of a material already in existence.

In a perfect world we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But alas, the world isn’t perfect. The road to zero waste is full of compromise.

Reusable Shopping Bags – Cotton/Calico, Hemp and Jute

Natural fibres are a popular choice for reusable bags. They are typically hard-wearing and can be composted at the end of their useful lives. You’ll never see a reusable cotton shopping bag stuck up a tree as you might a plastic bag.

Of the three commonly used natural fibres, cotton is the most water- and chemical-intensive crop to grow. Organic cotton has a smaller eco footprint than regular cotton. For a lightweight, fold-up bag that fits in a handbag, cotton bags tend to be the most practical.

Jute and hemp are both considered more environmentally friendly than cotton, but the bags tend to be bulkier.

There’s a billion places to buy these kinds of bags. The supermarket would be my last choice. I’d much rather support a charity doing great work with my purchase. Or a small business. Or an independent chain. We vote with our dollars, so choose well.

(If you’d like to support independent eco-conscious businesses, here’s my list of worldwide online stores.)

Reusable Shopping Bags – The Ones to Avoid

With so many great options out there, there are a number of less-than-great options that are better avoided. Sometimes we end up with these things before we realise there are better options. Emergencies happen. If that’s you, don’t despair.

Use what you have, and next time, you can choose better.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Thicker Plastic Bags

Some stores are replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable thicker plastic bags (usually polyethylene), often for a small charge.

These bags are made either partly or wholly of brand new, virgin plastic. They may contain some recycled material – if so, the bag should specify the amount.

These are heavier duty, but despite often being called “Bags for Life” they are estimated to be used an average of 5 times. Not single-use, but not much of an improvement. They are prone to splitting, and the handles also stretch when the contents are heavy.

These bags still present a litter problem when they inevitably end up in the environment.

Reusable Bags to Avoid – Non-Woven Plastic “Green” Bags

These bags are commonly sold in supermarkets and are called “green” bags more because they tend to be the colour green rather than because there is anything environmentally friendly about them. Although they appear to be made of fabric, they are actually made of plastic. Polypropylene (plastic number 5), to be specific.

They are much thicker than single-use plastic bags, and consequently need to be used many more times to be beneficial to the environment. In fact, a study suggested they need to be used 104 times to be environmentally positive. Truthfully, they tend to fall apart long before they are used that much. They are also bulky and cumbersome.

If you already have these bags, use them as long as you can. When they reach the end of their life, consider replacing with something better.

There’s plenty of reusable options when it comes to shopping bags, but the main consideration is whether it will work for you. There’s never one right choice. Sometimes, it’s different choices for different situations.

Regardless of material, the best reusable is always the one that actually gets reused.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What is your favourite type of reusable bag? Do you have a preference for different materials? Is there an product or brand not mentioned that you’d recommend? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

(Disclaimer – I’m an affiliate for Onya, which means if you click the link and choose to make a purchase, I may be compensated a small amount at no extra cost to you. I have been using their products since 2012: I’d only ever recommend something I have tried myself or that has been recommended to me by you, my readers. As always, my first suggestion is to use what you have or choose second-hand before buying anything new.)

Is “Zero Waste” Even Real?

For me, living zero waste means trying to create as little waste (and that includes recycling) as possible. Refusing single-use items, avoiding plastic, reducing what I purchase, and choosing items that are well made and designed to last.

For bigger, one-off purchases I try to find what I want second-hand.

For the regular, consumable things that I purchase week-to-week (think groceries, personal care products, cleaning products), I try to buy unpackaged. This means unpackaged fruit and veg from the grocer, bringing my own containers to the deli and a reusable bag to the bakery, and my own jars or reusable produce bags to the bulk store.

This way I can buy what I need without bringing home any unnecessary packaging. It means I’m not sending anything from my weekly shop to landfill: everything I purchase, I consume.

Zero waste. At least at my end.

Or is it?

What Does Zero Waste Actually Mean?

Zero waste is both a lifestyle choice and an industrial design term. Whilst they both have the same philosophy – elimination of waste to landfill / incineration – what that looks like in practical terms is a little different.

Zero waste needs to be a whole systems approach, looking at production of goods in terms of systems and design. It looks at everything, from the materials selected, how they are sourced, how they are processed, how they are transported, how they are used, and how they are re-used.

For zero waste, products need to be created in a way that allows them to be reused, not disposed of. This is the idea of the circular economy.

The circular economy is the goal, but it is not the reality. Yet.

Zero waste as a lifestyle is all about what we can do as individuals. Typically, we aren’t designing our own products. We are the end users. Our power is in choosing the most ethical, sustainable options that we can when we need to make purchases.

Supporting the companies doing the right thing, and boycotting those that do not.

These options aren’t always perfect. But they are better.

So when I say that my weekly shop is zero waste, I mean that none of the products I purchased came in single-use packaging. There is nothing going to landfill. I didn’t create any packaging waste in the process.

That’s not to say that there was no waste anywhere in the process.

That’s not to say the farmers didn’t use plastic when growing, harvesting or packing their crops.

That’s not to say suppliers didn’t use plastic to transport their goods.

There will likely be waste somewhere (and possibly, in many places) in the production and distribution of these goods.

But reducing waste at the end point – the point where we, as concerned citizens and empowered communities, can vote with our dollars about the kind of world we wish to see – that’s a start.

It’s an important start.

The zero waste movement is about doing what we can. A step in the right direction is better than no steps.

How can we take the second step without taking the first?

Zero Waste Progress Comes Before Zero Waste Perfection

It makes me sad that people sometimes dismiss the zero waste movement because they want to see perfection. They cannot see the value in zero waste progress.

Why does it have to be all-or-nothing?

I purchase my groceries packaging free from The Source Bulk Foods, an Australian bulk store which encourages shoppers to bring their own containers and refuse packaging. I describe this way of shopping as zero waste.

More than once, some cheerful soul has popped up in a comment to inform me that it isn’t zero waste because there will be waste created upstream.

I don’t dispute this statement.

I just think it’s the wrong place to be focusing.

I know that, prior to my 2012 plastic “epiphany”, I would go to the supermarket and buy all my groceries packaged in plastic.

I would buy individual pots of yoghurt, and “fun size” chocolate bars, and single serve drinks, and pre-wrapped cereal bars.

Occasionally I would go to the bulk store for spices, and when I did I would take a fresh plastic bag off the shelf, and buy my two teaspoons of spice using that bag.

{Cringe.}

I don’t shop this way any more, and I haven’t since 2012. Bulk stores are what enabled me (and countless others) to change this. They provided a solution by making package-free groceries accessible. Without them, avoiding single-use packaging would be much harder.

I’d like to tell you that the bulk stores receive all their bulk goods in reusable, returnable containers. I’d like to tell you that they don’t generate any waste. But that’s not the case.

Yet.

I mentioned the circular economy earlier. As I said, we’re not there yet. Bulk stores are enabling us (the grocery shoppers) to purchase without waste. They create waste so we don’t have to (and create far less than if each of us purchased these same products in packaging week after week).

Less, but not zero.

Bulk stores now need to work with their suppliers to find ways of receiving goods without single-use packaging.

The good news is, that’s beginning to happen.

As more and more of us support bulk stores, and demand for this kind of shopping grows, there’s more incentive for (and more gentle pressure on) bulk stores to start the conversations and take that next step.

If demand is there, it will begin to happen more and more.

We take the first step, and they take the next step.

Moving towards a more sustainable future with a circular economy and true zero waste.

That’s the future. Maybe the near future, but maybe not. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play my part and support these businesses choosing the better option. Yes, I’ll buy my groceries packaging-free, and I’ll say my shopping is zero waste.

Even though I know that bulk stores do create waste. Suppliers create waste. Farmers create waste.

Am I saying that zero waste isn’t real? If we’re talking about it on a technical level on an economic scale, in terms of definitions and what-not, then it would be fair to say that zero waste isn’t real.

But I don’t want to talk about it like that, because I don’t think about it like that. For me, the meaning of zero waste isn’t how it’s characterized in dictionaries or interpreted by textbooks.

For me, zero waste is about values, ideals and beliefs. It’s a guiding principle for the choices I make. Choices that help create a better, fairer, more sustainable future for people and the planet.

Whether or not it technically exists, zero waste is very real.

Let’s not get bogged down in the minutiae. Technical details don’t matter. What matters is that we do our imperfect best, support those companies taking the next step where we can, and champion better solutions where we see them.

Small steps, in the right direction, together.

Whether we believe in zero waste or not, we all have a part to play. Waste is something we all have control over, and can do something about. So let’s do something about it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does zero waste mean to you? Do you use the term yourself, or steer well clear, and why? Has your understanding and perception of zero waste changed over time? In a good way, or a not so good way? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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

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

We all do.

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

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

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

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

And that is something to feel really good about.

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

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

Guilt.

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

Because it shouldn’t. Yet it does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What we say, and how we say it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point is, I did the best I could.

Don’t we all do the best we can?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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