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Zero Waste Week…the Halfway Point

I’m halfway through my Zero Waste Week challenge, and things have been going pretty waste-free, although I must confess – some waste has managed to sneak in!

Things went well on Tuesday. I received my second thermal paper BPA-lined eftpos receipt (to tell if a receipt is printed on thermal paper, you can rub a coin or your fingernail on the paper – if it darkens then it is thermal paper). Much smaller than the Post Office one, but still waste.

receipt 2

No more waste came until Tuesday night, when one of our bamboo toothbrushes died. The thing with bamboo toothbrushes is that they decide when they’re fit for the bin, by releasing all of their bristles into your mouth. Yuck. Loose bristles are not pleasant. Once the bristles start falling out there’s no way I’m going to continue using it. Seriously, it’s that bad. Usually the toothbrush would end up in the bin – ironic as it’s meant to be environmentally friendly. Thing is, I can’t compost it because of the plastic bristles. What I could do is chop the head off and try to compost the handle. Alternatively, I’m trying to soak the brush to see if I can loosen the rest of the bristles, so I can separate them and save on waste.

The old toothbrush on the left, and a new one

The old toothbrush on the left, and a new one

Soaking to see if I can loosen the bristles and compost the wooden part.

Soaking to see if I can loosen the bristles and compost the wooden part.

Wednesday came, and we received our toilet roll order – all 48 rolls of it! The box will get reused, and the paper and rolls get added to the wormfarm.Toilet RollI should probably add that my zero waste week does not extend to toilet paper. I’m still using regular toilet paper in all its single-use disposable glory! Even if it isn’t being sent to landfill, technically it’s waste as it’s going into the toilet, but reusable cloths are not happening in this house any time soon. Even if I was up for it (and I’m not), there is no way I’d convince my boyfriend!

I wonder if I had a compost bin whether I could/would compost my toilet paper?

We also received our first mail of the week – a letter with a label for changing the address on my boyfriend’s drivers license. In the past I’d recycle it, but now I’m going to feed it to the worms. What I’m wondering is what should happen to the cellophane window on the envelope?

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There seems to be some debate about whether the windows break down in a worm farm. According to this discussion, some do, and some don’t. In the interest of Zero Waste Week I’m going to give it a go.

We invited our neighbour over for dinner on Wednesday, and of course I cooked. I made everything from scratch: dahl, aloo gobi, coconut rice (I’m stlll trying to perfect a DIY coconut milk recipe) and parathas. As I’ve said many times, I buy everything in bulk, but for some reason we had a bag of wholemeal flour, and I finished it off.

parathas
empty flour bag

(I must have had it for a while, because I notice it was technically out-of-date: ah well!) So what did I do with it? Shredded it up into strips, to make wormfarm bedding! These guys have to have somewhere to rest in between all this extra eating I’m making them do!

worm bedding

Whilst cooking, I had to send my boyfriend out for last minute ingredients. As well as the things I requested (he took some old bags to use) he also bought some milk, and some completely illegal and unrequested chocolate licorice managed to sneak its way in. Not waste, but definitely a waste of money! That white bag cost almost $4!

Wed Shopping

We try to buy our milk from Sunnydale, a local dairy that accept the glass bottles back for refilling. Sadly, they can’t take the lids back. Our local store used to stock this but has recently stopped. They sell a different brand of milk in glass which doesn’t operate a bottle-return policy. If it’s an emergency, we buy this one. Well, my boyfriend does. I make my own nut milk which is always plastic and waste-free!

Luckily, Sunnydale use the same glass bottles as the other dairy, so we sneakily take them back to Sunnydale for reusing. Unfortunately this other brand uses a nasty plastic sticker which we have to peel off in order to take the bottle back (Sunnydale request you keep their labels on). So once the milk is finished, we will be left with a plastic sticker and a metal lid.

I did think about asking our neighbour not to bring anything (because I was worried about the waste!) but in the end I decided not to…and he came to the door with a bottle of red wine! We rarely drink wine at home these days (Glen drinks the occasional beer and I have a really exciting waste-free beer story to share in my next post!) but it is nice to share a bottle with friends. Much better than bringing a box of individually wrapped additive-filled confectionery!

Friend for Dinner

I could have demanded he take the bottle home with him to help make my Zero Waste Challenge look more successful (I bet he would have thought that was weird – as neighbours we share the same bin system!) but I decided that would be cheating. So the wine bottle and lid is our first big waste item.

As the week rolls to an end we have another challenge coming up – we have a friend coming to stay on Friday for a few weeks. (We’ve got a spare room now so we might as well make the most of it!) Not that the friend will be challenging – the challenge will be sticking to the Zero Waste Week rule with an extra (jetlagged) person in the house!

But you know me, I like a challenge, and I’m feeling confident! Looking forward to the end of the week!

Plastic Shores: a Movie Review

Last Friday I saw the eco documentary Plastic Shores at the delightful Ecoburbia monthly movie night. The Producer/Director Edward Scott-Clarke describes the movie like this:

‘Plastic Shores’ is a documentary that explores how plastic affects the marine environment. Travelling from the International Marine Debris Conference in Hawai’i to the polluted Blue Flag beaches of Cornwall, the film reveals just how bad the problem of plastic debris is and how it harms aquatic life and, potentially, human health. 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced in the world every year and a third of this is for disposable packaging. There is now, according to the UN, not a single beach or sea in the world that is not affected by plastic pollution and the problem is only increasing.

Here’s the trailer:

Now you know me, I love a good eco documentary, especially one about plastic. I love Bag It!, and also The Clean Bin Project (not specifically about plastic but waste in general, and an excellent documentary), so I was looking forward to this.

I have to say, I found it somewhat disappointing. It opened with an interview, and the interviewee was extolling the virtues of plastic, and this wasn’t really countered by the film’s narrator. The interviewee actually made some good points, including that transporting plastic is lighter than glass (reducing fossil fuel use and emissions), and that if plastic was replaced with other materials, there would be far greater burden on the planet in terms of mining and cost.

I was expecting the movie to then counter these arguments, perhaps with a mention of the need to cut back on consumption in general, the fact that whilst plastic has some great uses, a lot of plastic is for single-use items, or that plastic is made from fossil fuels, maybe even that despite the benefits, the ultimate environmental cost outweighs all the advantages.

But there was no response at all. It seemed a strange way to introduce the movie, leaving viewers confused as to the message the film was trying to get across.

The content itself was informative, although a little slow moving. There were facts revealed that I didn’t know (apparently 5% of oil production is used for plastic manufacture), and the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans was very clearly explained. There was a lot of detail of how plastic has affected Hawai’i, and interviews with some knowledgeable and informed plastic activists.

What disappointed me most, though, was the solutions, presented after all the negative impacts of plastic on the oceans had been covered. I guess I was just expecting more.

‘Reduce’, was the first option; the solution? Take your own bags to the shops. I felt that most people who would take the time to watch this (any?) eco-documentary were probably past the whole ‘bring-your-own-bags’ scenario. This was discussed in great detail, including interviewing a man who ran a company making biodegradable bags… from fossil fuels. Hardly a win-win solution.

No other solutions were really discussed; the movie moved on to ‘Re-use’. There was a sweeping statement that all plastic is reusable, combined with camera shots of used syringes, empty crisp packets and condom wrappers. I would think that the issue with most single-use plastic is that, actually, it is not reusable. Surely that is the point?

Then we were back to the trusty ‘Recycle’. “We should recycle what we can”, the movie tells us. Again, most people taking the time to watch an eco documentary are probably already at this point.

I just felt that there was so much more to say. There was no discussion about the impact of convenience, of how convenience is a key generator of waste and a huge part of the plastic problem. There was no real discussion about reusable containers, cutlery, water bottles, refusing straws, avoiding single-wrapped items, yet there was so much potential.

I felt this was a missed opportunity.

The biggest let down, for me, was that this movie did not inspire. It educated, yes, but I didn’t leave feeling like I could make a difference, or armed with any new tips, or empowered to make changes. That’s exactly what I love about Bag It and the Clean Bin Project. They show what ordinary people can do (and are doing) to make a difference. For me, that is the key to a successful eco documentary. It should empower.

Oh, and there should be some light-hearted moments, some humour, some fun. It’s not all doom and gloom, and making people feel like it’s all too much does not inspire change.

If you’re a die-hard zero waste advocate, then watch it; you’ll probably still learn something new. If you’re not, I’d give it a miss. Bag It! and Clean Bin Project have a similar message but are uplifting, fun, and more enjoyable to watch.

Have you seen Plastic Shores? What did you think? Do you agree with me that a good eco documentary should be inspiring? Maybe you’re a fan of the ‘Doom and Gloom’ approach? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Friday night movie – the Clean Bin Project

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

Plastic recycling: What Those Numbers Actually Mean

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.

7. Other

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.

Recycled sculpture: the Castaways sculpture awards at Rockingham

This weekend I went to Rockingham for the last day of the Castaways Sculpture Awards 2013. The exhibition runs for 9 days on the Rockingham foreshore and aims to raise the profile of recycling and environmental sustainability through art. All exhibits must have a recycled component. Read more

Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Plastic is rubbish: why waste valuable resources on single-use throwaway items?

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?

oil production

This graph shows the discovery of oil deposits and oil production over time. I found it on Wikipedia but if you search the internet for ‘oil production’ images you’ll find hundreds of similar graphs.

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.

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Some of the numbers you find on the bottom of plastic containers, which tell us what type of plastic the container is made of and whether/how it will be recycled.

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.

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Cover Image: Bales of Recyclables, Walter Parenteau via Flickr

A word (or two) on recycling

Recycling. Almost everybody has heard of recycling. (Just in case you’re one of the minority that hasn’t, it’s the process of taking old materials and turning them into new products.) The number of households that recycle is on the increase and local councils are becoming more supportive of the idea, with collection points and kerbside collections in urban areas. In 2009, 99% of Australian households recycled and/or reused, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

(Reusing. That’s something different to recycling, although people often mix the terms up. If I finish a bottle of cordial, wash it up and then refill with water to keep in the fridge, then that is reusing. If instead I put the bottle in my kerbside recycling, and it gets collected by truck, driven to a recovery facility, sorted, cleaned, melted down and reshaped into a new bottle, then it has been recycled. The two are very different. Recycling uses energy to create a new product, whereas reusing does not.)

Recycling2

A big heap of recycling waiting to be sorted. Yep, this is recycling!

So… back to recycling. If 99% of Australian households recycle, then that’s great… isn’t it? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. Whilst 99% of these households recycle, the ABS estimated recycling rates for Australia to be around 50%. In WA, the state where I live, recycling rates are only 33%. The other 22 million tonnes of waste are sent to landfill. So 99% of households may be recycling, but they’re not recycling 100% of their waste.

The other thing about recycling, it’s not the big green magical solution we’ve all been led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is great and we should all recycle what we can. But the idea that it’s ‘enough’ is a myth. Here are just some of the shortfalls of recycling:

Recycling still uses energy – in transport, recovery and processing of the materials.

Just because something is recyclable, it doesn’t mean it will get recycled. Different councils have different rules to what they accept and if you put something in your recycling box that isn’t on their list, it’ll get sent straight to landfill.

Products are often downgraded. In theory a product can be melted down and made into the same product, but this is often difficult and can be expensive, and it is more likely that the product is made into an inferior product, a process called downcycling. This is especially true of plastic which can only be downcycled.

Contamination can be an issue. You may have sorted your recycling out diligently, but if your neighbours have thrown pottery, lightbulbs and old pillows in with theirs, chances are the whole load will end up going to landfill.

Overseas processing– labour costs are often cheaper overseas (and labour laws are often more lax) so containers of materials can be often shipped abroad for processing, which adds an environmental (and financial) cost to the process.

Recycling is ultimately a business; the products need a market and it needs to be profitable. For example, plastic is bulky (so expensive to transport) and there are many different types meaning it requires sorting (another expense), and the end product has a fairly low value, which partly explains why plastic recycling is far less common than paper, aluminium or glass.

Recycling

This is just a fraction of the waste delivered to this site every day to be recycled. The vehicle at the back is completely dwarfed by the heap.

The shortfalls of recycling really hit home for me when I had the chance to visit a recycling facility last year. It looked (and smelled) like a rubbish tip. Less than 20% of all glass they received was recycled, the rest was sent to landfill due to lack of ‘business opportunities’. The glass they did recycle was used for road base. Any recycling that arrived in plastic bags was automatically sent to landfill – no time to open them, plus there may be potential hazards. Anything mixed with shredded paper went to landfill – it contaminated the other items and was difficult to remove.

It felt like recycling anything was far too much hassle for these guys, and that was their job! Bales of old newspapers sat in sea containers waiting to be shipped to Asia. Nothing about the experience felt particularly sustainable. Before I used to feel good about recycling. Not so much now!

The good news is recycling isn’t the only option. The traditional waste hierarchy has three principles: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. Recycling comes last. Before we even get to this we need to consider the others. First reduce, and then re-use. I’ve made changes to the way I shop, the products I buy. I’ve taught myself how to make things from scratch to avoid packaging altogether. And of course I still recycle…but there’s so much less than there used to be.