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Zero waste and the circular economy (and what it has to do with us)

Expressions like ‘zero waste’ and ‘circular economy’ get bandied about a lot. You might call them buzzwords. But the thing about buzzwords is that, as they become more popular, they often lose some of their meaning or get used outside of the correct context.

Which is why people distrust the expression ‘zero waste’ (because on a literal level, it is impossible to waste nothing, ever) and why people often think that ‘the circular economy’ simply means ‘better recycling’.

Wrong!

I thought I’d put together a post explaining what the circular economy is, what the concept really means, how it relates to zero waste, and why it’s about so much more than recycling. In short: the circular economy, and what it has to do with you.

What is ‘zero waste’?

I’ve talked about the meaning of ‘zero waste’ before, but to summarise quickly: it was first coined as a manufacturing term in the 1970s by the chemist Paul Palmer who was interested in reducing the amount of useful chemicals going to waste in industrial processes.

‘Zero waste’ was later adopted as a lifestyle movement in the 2000s: people who live a zero waste lifestyle aim to throw nothing away (nothing to landfill or incinerators) and recycle as little as possible.

By following a set of principles – refuse, reduce, re-use, repurpose and repair – and buying less, the goal is to reduce the amount of waste produced.

Of course, the world isn’t really set up for zero waste living (yet) and almost every person working towards living a zero waste lifestyle will still create waste (if not in their own homes, then it is guaranteed there was waste created upstream).

The way the world works right now, zero waste is more like a philosophy or a set of values than a literal translation. (And because the ‘zero’ part can be misleading or seem unattainable, more people are now choosing to say ‘less’ waste or ‘low’ waste rather than zero.)

What is the circular economy?

A circular economy is a systemic approach to economic development which is designed to benefit businesses, society and the environment.

This is in contrast to our current model, which is linear, and operates as ‘take-make-‘waste’.

A circular economy is regenerative by design – resources aren’t ‘used up’ but are kept in circulation, and are eventually remade, repurposed, refitted or recycled.

This illustration is an excellent simple summary of the linear, recycling and circular economies. (Source: Plan C – Empowering circular futures.)

The circular economy is based on three principles:

  • Designing out waste and pollution;
  • Keeping products and materials in use;
  • Regenerating natural systems.

You may have heard about Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity uses up all of the resources that can be renewed in a year.

In a sustainable world, we’d be reaching this day on 31st December, and in a regenerative world we’d still have resources left on 31st December.

In our current world, we’re reaching this date on 22nd August. In nine months, we are using up all the resources we have, and taking from future years (and future generations) for the rest of the year.

You can read all about Earth Overshoot Day here.

But of course, different countries use resources differently, and so the people behind Earth Overshoot Day have gone further, and calculated on what day Earth Overshoot Day would be if everyone in the world lived as the people of a particular country.

For the US it’s 14th March and for Australia it’s 30th March. That’s when all the resources for the year are used up.

When you hear the phrase “if everyone lived like Americans/Australians, we’d need four planets – and we’ve only got one” it’s another way of saying this.

But waste and pollution are not accidents. They are design choices. By embracing the circular economy, viewing waste as a design flaw and keeping materials in use (rather than sticking to our current take-make-waste model, we can make better use of resources, and create an economy that is regenerative.

The role of individuals (us!) in embracing the circular economy

Let me guess – you’re not a product designer, and you don’t advise government on economic policy? It’s easy to think that the circular economy is an abstract concept that has little to do with everyday people like us. And it’s easy to think that we, as individuals, have little influence to create change on something so big and all-encompassing.

But both of these ideas are wrong.

The circular economy recognises the importance of the economy needing to work effectively at all scales – for big and small businesses, for organisations and individuals, globally and locally.

We might not design products or write policy, but our individual choices are an important part in creating change.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation do a lot of important work on the circular economy (I’d recommend looking at their website if you’d like to know more) and have created this diagram to illustrate the circular economy system- it’s sometimes called the butterfly diagram.

That’s us (individuals), in the middle, split into two behaviours – ‘consumer’ and ‘user’.

We consume things (like energy). But we also use things – and the less things we use up, the better (and more circular).

If you’re thinking this diagram looks complicated, focus only on the blue section, and forget about the rest. This blue part is where individuals have an influence. The loops show all the actions we can take to keep resources in use, and contribute to the circular economy.

Share, maintain and prolong:

Keeping products and materials in use by prolonging their lifespan for as long as possible.

For product designers and manufacturers, this means designing for durability, and making sure it is simple an straightforward to repair an item.

For us as individuals, this means passing on things we no longer use or need to those who will use them, servicing the things we own that need servicing so that they continue to work properly, and fixing stuff when it breaks.

Sharing stuff:

I’m a big fan of the sharing economy (the real sharing economy, where people genuinely share stuff). The idea of everyone owning everything they might ever want to use, and most of things languishing on shelves and in cupboards for most of the time, is a complete waste of resources.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the library. (And hopefully, you are all members of your local library!) Mine lends out books (obviously), DVDs, CDs, board games and magazines, as well as ebooks, e-magazines and even online movies and documentaries.

Then there are toy libraries, tool libraries (the Auckland Library of Tools is particularly inspiring, and there’s a new Tools and Things library coming to Perth very soon), libraries of things…

They vary in scale from registered charities to informal community initiatives. The Community Dishes library I set up a couple of years ago is an example of an informal arrangement.

(And of course, then there’s hiring, which is still a form of sharing. Hiring furniture, tools, flatware and glasses, vehicles – it all maximises the use of those resources.)

Fixing stuff:

Whether we fix stuff ourselves or take it to a place to be fixed, mending our possessions keeps them in circulation longer and stops us using resources to make new stuff.

I learned how to sew buttons back on and darn holes many years ago, but that’s pretty much where my mending skills end. However, I am the proud owner of this book, Modern Mending, written by my friend and talented mender Erin Lewis-fitzgerald, which will make me a master mender, I have no doubt.

If you’d like to learn to mend clothes, I’d recommend reading this book.

Longer term, we can start thinking about the longevity of a product when we buy it, rather than realising too late that it can’t be repaired. We can pay attention to quality, and buy things from companies who supply spare parts and provide assistance to fix things (rather than those companies who deliberately make it difficult, so we have to go buy a whole new one).

This (second-hand) coffee machine was easily fixed simply by ordering a replacement seal, and borrowing a short screwdriver to swap it with the worn one.

There is a great free resource called ifixit which provides free repair guides for, in their words, ‘everything’. They believe in the right to repair, and help people fix their stuff.

Reuse and redistribute:

Products and materials can be reused multiple times and redistributed to new users in their original form, or with little enhancement or change.

Reuse:

‘Reuse’ is the part that all zero wasters (and everyone who cares about reducing their rubbish) love. Whether we are talking about the reusables we buy (KeepCups, water bottles, lunchboxes), or the hoarding of glass jars for *all the things*, choosing to reuse is a big part of zero waste living.

But the problem with this individual reuse model is that it’s up to us, the individuals. We have to remember our stuff and we have to seek out the places that will accept it for use.

It relies on us not forgetting, being prepared and planning ahead. It helps if we know our neighbourhoods well. It requires us to have the disposable income to invest in owning these things (and then the organization skills not to lose them).

Imagine if, rather than the onus being on individuals, the system was actually designed this way.

Thinking about reusables like coffee cup and lunchboxes, companies are starting to offer an alternative reuse model – one where the customer doesn’t need to buy or own the reusable, or even hire it – they can simply borrow it.

These schemes are popping up all over the world. Renome is a coffee cup scheme based in Perth – you pay a $3 deposit for the cup and $2 for the lid. The cups can be returned to any participating outlet and either the deposit is refunded, or the cup is swapped for a fresh one.

Returnr is a Melbourne-base business that has lunchboxes as well as coffee cups, and can even be used with the food delivery app Deliveroo. They have a similar deposit scheme – pay $6 to borrow the container, and receive a refund when it is returned.

You might have heard of Loop, the reusable scheme currently being trialled around the world with some of the big-name brands in the big supermarkets in partnership with Terracycle. They supply products in reusable containers, which customers pay a small deposit for, and these containers can be returned and refilled.

The Loop UK trialed launched with Tesco in July 2020, and the Loop Australia trial will start with Woolworths in mid-2021.

If you’re interested in finding out more, Ander Zabala (a UK zero waster) recently wrote about his experience with Loop UK.

(There’s lots I could say about the merits and drawbacks of the Loop scheme, but I’ll spare you – for now. Whether you think this is a great idea or a marketing scam, it is interesting that big companies are looking into this and potentially making the idea of reusable packaging and circular systems a more mainstream and more accessible one.)

Redistribute:

If you own something you don’t use, there’s really no reason to keep it. Give it to someone who needs it and will use it. You can sell stuff or you can donate it – online platforms such as eBay, Gumtree and Craigslist have made it so much easier to find people who want our old things.

My absolute favourite platform is the Buy Nothing project, which is a network of neighbourhood groups dedicated to sharing things (you can only join one group – the one where you live), and runs on Facebook.

I’ve talked about it a million times before, but if you haven’t heard of it, head to the Buy Nothing Project website.

If you’re looking for more options, I’ve written about alternative places to give away stuff you no longer need here, and all the different ways to share excess food here.

Refurbish and remanufacture:

Refurbishment: a largely cosmetic process, where a product is repaired as much as possible, usually without disassembly and. replacement of components.

Remanufacturing: a product is disassembled into components and rebuilt (replacing components as required) to as-new condition with the same warranty as a new product.

The best example I can think of for this is the electronics companies that sell refurbished phones, tablets, mp3 players, laptops and desktop computers that are approved for resale and come with a manufacturer warranty.

Rather than buying new, we can seek out refurbished items. Outside the electronics sector it might not be something we see often, but it’s something to keep an eye out for.

Recycle:

Reducing a product all the way back to its basic material level, which allows these materials (or a portion of them) to be remade into new products.

Recycling is part of the circular economy, but it’s the lowest value of all the processes because of the energy used and material losses that happen when something is recycled.

Recycling something into a lower quality product that then cannot be recycled and has to be landfilled is not the aim of the circular economy.

Plastic recycling in particular barely reduces consumption. Take soft plastics (often used in packaging: crisp/potato chip wrappers, crackers, bread bags, etc). They can be dropped off for recycling at local supermarkets…

They are recycled into traffic bollards and plastic benches.

Whether this is a useful way to use plastic is arguable (it seems there is less of a need for benches to be made out of recycled plastic and more a need to do something with all this plastic), but the issue is, this recycling is doing nothing to reduce the need to use new plastic to create more crisp/potato chip wrappers, bread bags, and so on.

It’s an almost linear system, not a circular system.

Recycling is better than not recycling, of course. And recycling still needs to be encouraged. But as a society, we need to move towards recoginsing that recycling is the last option, not the first.

It’s true, in many places, recycling is our best and perhaps only option. Which is why we need the engineers and material scientists and policy makers embracing the circular economy – they need to design out this kind of waste.

The circular economy needs the involvement of everyone, on all levels. As policies change, systems are redesigned and schemes are introduced, we can support these changes and help them thrive. We all have a part to play.

Manufacturers and big companies sometimes like to make us feel like it’s up to us. All the responsibility lies on our shoulders, and we should feel guilty if we do anything less than.

Have you ever seen the label ‘please recycle responsibly’ on some packaging – and discovered it’s not recyclable where you live? It’s as if, by writing this on the packaging, the company is passing the onus onto us.

But the real question is, why aren’t companies ensuring there is infrastructure to recycle the packaging they produce? Why are they even allowed to contribute to waste and pollution through poor design choices?

As individuals, we mustn’t bear all of the guilt for trying to live a sustainable life when the system often makes it difficult and even encourages waste. But we also have to be careful not to give our power away. To think that we have to wait for companies and governments to act before we can do anything.

We have power in our actions and choices. We can write to companies. We can petition governments. We can support the businesses trying to do the right thing. Where we have the option, can spend our hard-earned money wisely. We can tell our friends and family about good ideas and innovative solutions.

We might not be product designers or policy writers, but work on the circular economy is well underway, and as individuals/shoppers/users/responsible citizens, we have plenty of opportunity to support it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Anything about the circular economy you find confusing? Any good examples of circular systems you’d like to share? Have you used the Loop system, and what was your experience? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Tis the season of ‘stuff’: what to do with (and where to donate) gifts you don’t need

I know we haven’t actually got to Christmas Day yet, but I’m writing this now because plenty of gifts (and other things you don’t need) are given before Christmas Day. And if you can, passing it on before Christmas Day means it’s more likely to be wanted (and used) than if you wait until January, when everyone is trying to pass on stuff they don’t need.

Last weekend, I was given a Santa-themed gift bag with a couple of boxes of chocolates by my 92-year-old grandfather-in-law. Despite the fact he doesn’t like gifts himself and insists not to be given anything, he seems to like to give stuff, and every year I receive a similar bag of stuff.

First, I give the gift bag away. As soon as I get home. If I can gift to someone before Christmas, it will get reused immediately. Otherwise it’s got to face a year in storage where it might get bent, chewed or otherwise damaged, and then likely forgotten about anyways.

I almost always give the ‘treats’ away. They tend not to be things that I would eat, high in sugar, dairy and palm oil and covered in plastic. Depending on the year I’ve taken to workplaces, given away on Buy Nothing or donated to a Food Bank collection.

No, I don’t feel bad. People give gifts because they enjoy the act of giving. That doesn’t mean that I need to keep things I don’t want or don’t need. There is no obligation to keep things, and letting go of feeling like there is has been great for my stress levels and mental health.

Instead, I try to make sure these things go to places where they will be used.

If I know someone else wants and will use them, that is the best outcome – for me, for them, and for the planet. (It helps stop others buy new stuff, as they can reuse stuff that already exists.)

Christmas Packaging, Decorations and Other Christmas-Themed Things

It’s definitely best to get rid of this stuff before Christmas than after. If you get something you don’t really like, you don’t need to think that you ‘should’ use it as a token gesture this year. Pass it on to someone who loves it and let it be appreciated!

Where to pass on items:

Facebook groups: including Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing groups, the Good Karma Network, Pay It Forward groups and no doubt plenty more.

Online classifieds: Gumtree, Craigslist and others.

Neighbourhood network groups like nextdoor.com.

Friends, family, neighbours, colleagues: it’s worth mentioning to people you know that you have things they might want or need.

Gift Food Items

As well as all the places mentioned above, consider donating food items to Food Banks. you’ll often find deposit points spring up in supermarkets and shopping centres this time of year. If you can’t find one, here are some contact details:

Food Bank Australia

The Trussel Trust (UK)

Feeding America/Food Bank USA

If the item is something that Food Banks won’t accept, such as homemade preserves or a box of chocolates that you opened to try before deciding you didn’t like them after all, consider trying to pass on via a food waste app like olioex.com.

Or try your local Buy Nothing group.

(Recent offers on my local Buy Nothing group include Red Rooster small hot chips, delivered by accident – sadly no takers but only because they went cold before anyone saw the post – and some half-eaten room temperature blue cheese, which was snapped up. Not. Even. Kidding. And good for them for not feeling weird about giving or receiving said cheese! Don’t be scared to give it a try!)

Gifted Toiletries and Perfume

I often wonder how many gift sets like this are purchased and never used every year. But I probably don’t want to know. Rather than letting stuff like this languish in the bathroom for the next year, if you’re not going to use it, give it away.

As well as the options listed above, consider donating unopened toiletries to homeless organisations and women’s refuges. Bear in mind that refuges won’t list their actual addresses online, but they will let you know how to donate items.

If you’re in Perth, Ruah Community Services are currently in need of unopened toiletries. Donations can be dropped off at the Ruah Centre, 33 Shenton Street, Northbridge on Monday to Friday between 8:30am – 4:00pm.

If you’re not in Perth, a quick internet search will help you find a service local to you.

What not to do: donate to the charity shop

I know it seems counter-intuitive, but try to resist giving anything to the charity shop unless you know for sure (because you’ve spoken to someone who works at your local charity shop this week) that they want what you have. Charity shops get inundated with stuff in the three months after Christmas as everyone tries to ‘declutter’ their unwanted stuff guilt-free.

Thing is, who is actually shopping at the charity shop in January? Not most people. They just got a heap of stuff for Christmas!

The combination of more stuff than usual and less customers than usual is a recipe for landfill.

There are plenty of people who want your stuff and will be able to use it. Rather than hoping they will pass by the charity shop and spot your stuff in there, donate your items directly to those in need of them.

Christmas is the season of goodwill and giving. So give away what you won’t use, make another person happy, save some resources and take a little pressure of the planet. Wins all round :)

6 Places to Declutter To that Aren’t the Charity Shop (or the Bin)

I think decluttering is both a good thing (for our sanity and our stress levels), and a zero waste thing to do. Yes, a zero waste thing. Let’s make no mistake: keeping stuff in our homes that we don’t like, don’t need and never use is a terrible waste of resources.

Of course, yes, the most zero waste thing of all is to buy things once, cherish them forever, use them often, and pass them onto our children and grandchildren. But many things are not designed for this, good intentions don’t always work out, items date, technology is superceded, and our lives (and our minds) change over time.

So sometimes we have things we don’t like, don’t need and never use in our homes. But chucking this stuff in the bin or offloading at the nearest charity shop even though we’re pretty sure the stuff we are offloading isn’t definitely saleable definitely isn’t the best thing to do with it.

Which is often why we don’t declutter the things we no longer use. We don’t want to throw things in the bin, but we don’t know what else to do with them. So we let them languish in cupboards and drawers, and we feel guilty every time we see them.

Decluttering does not come down to just two options: landfill or closest charity shop. There are so many other places to take our stuff, and ways to find new owners for things we don’t need.

Keeping our stuff in circulation and giving others the opportunity to use these things is the best thing we can do for this stuff. This is how we declutter, zero waste style.

So what exactly are these options?

Online Auction Sites

The most well-known online auction site is eBay, with 39 country-specific sites, and a presence in 100 countries. But it’s not the only option, and many other smaller auction sites exist with cheaper fees.

These sites have a national and sometimes global audience, making them ideal for items that can be mailed easily (meaning things that are lightweight or easy to pack, such as small electronics, clothing and homewares).

These auction sites are great for connecting your stuff with buyers looking for that item or brand. It’s also useful for people looking for parts, or even items in need of repair (particularly electronics).

Many high quality, unusual or valuable items can be missed in charity shops because they rely on foot traffic and opportunistic sales. With auction sites, customers can browse but they can also search specifically for things they need.

The price of your item and postage is quoted upfront to potential buyers, who will factor these costs into their bids. Listings on eBay can begin at $0.01, so you can still give things away on these sites. And you can cover the postage yourself, if you prefer.

Whilst pick-up only is an option for listing bulky items, there are better platforms to use.

Online Classifieds

I’m a huge fan of Gumtree, which is currently the number 1 online classifieds site in the UK, Australia, South Africa and Singapore. American readers will probably be more familar with Craigslist.

There are also some newer kids on the block such as LetGo, Preloved and Shpock.

Online classified allow you to upload an image (or multiple images) and either set a price or offer the item for free. Most sites are free to use with paid upgrades available.

Classifieds often appeal more to local users, with items like furniture, tools, larger kitchen appliances, bicycles and white goods being easy to pass on. Buyers will collect from your home and can inspect the item before they take it.

Again, people will take broken items for parts and damaged items for repair, so it is worth posting these items and seeing if there is a response. Items can be listed in less than a minute, and it never hurts to try.

Charities and Charitable Partnerships

Charity shops take items to resell, but charities and non-government organisations also collect items to repair and reuse, or pass on to underprivileged communities and groups both locally and overseas.

Animal charities accept blankets, towels and other bedding, old toys, accessories, and food donations.

Women’s refuges, homeless shelters and refugee organisations may accept bedding, furniture, clothing, toiletries, white goods, small appliances and more. The Refugee Council of Australia has a database of refugee organisations accepting donations and what types of goods they accept, which will also give you an idea of the kinds of items that are wanted.

Other organisations focus on specific items: old glasses (they can often be dropped at a local optician and will be tested before being redistributed), sports equipment (Fairgame collects and redistributes equipment across Australia), computers and old electronics, bras, bicycles and more.

Facebook Groups

Facebook groups are a great way to connect with people in your area, and find new homes for your stuff. I’m a huge fan of the Buy Nothing project, which operates as a series of hyper-local Facebook groups. No-one is allowed to join more than one group – the one where they live.

The advantage of decluttering items using the Buy Nothing group is that all the members are your neighbours, so travel time is negligible and journeys are often combined with regular commutes, shop visits or school drop-offs. This means people will be far more willing to take items off your hands than if they had to hop in the car and drive across town.

There are other Facebook groups that work in a similar way, such as the Good Karma network on the east coast of Australia. There also many zero waste groups that allow the offering of stuff (glass jars are always particularly well received).

There are even a few groups called “Give Away Free Stuff” – exactly what we need to find new owners for old things!

Online Neighbourhood Networks

These are neighbourhood networks, a little like the Buy Nothing project or Good Karma Network except rather than being run through Facebook, they have their own platforms. Nextdoor is one of the fastest growing sites. Whilst they aren’t solely for the giving and receiving of second-hand stuff (they also deal with lost pets, neighbourhood watch type issues and other things), sharing is a large part of their service.

Alternatively, Freecycle (and Freegle in the UK) are neighbourhood sites solely dedicated to the passing on and accepting of free stuff.

People You Know

Last but not least, don’t forget that you have friends, family and colleagues who may be interested in your stuff. Probably not everything, but it is worth asking. You could ask people directly or post on social media.

If they are not people who generally shop at second-hand stores it is a good way to gently entice them into the preloved life, and they might be more willing to take things from people they know (you!) than buy from a stranger.

Sometimes exploring these avenues still draws a blank. Even then, there’s still the option of ensuring the materials are recycled rather than putting in the bin. But there’s so much to say about that, it is another post entirely!

The truth is, someone, somewhere wants what we have. We can do our best to find a new owner for our old things. We may not always find somewhere, but it takes minimal effort to ask the question, to do a quick google search for local organisations, or to pop a photo on an online site.

Stuff is useful. Resources are valuable. Success isn’t guaranteed, but we have to try.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your best solutions for re-homing unwanted items? What is the most unexpected item you’ve managed to successfully re-home with someone else? Anything that you particularly struggle with? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Second-Hand First: 8 Ideas for Buying Less (New) Stuff

I think we are all agreed, there is a lot of stuff in the world. Too much stuff, some might say. And if we want to reduce our footprint, it is much better to own less stuff, share more stuff, and avoid buying the shiny new stuff where we can.

But how do we go about that, exactly?

Answer: there are loads of places to look. Let’s start with the obvious ones, and move onto the less-than-obvious ones. Let me know of anything I’ve missed in the comments!

1. The Charity Shop

I’m pretty sure all of us have given stuff to the charity shop in our time. Homewares, clothing, toys, books… we love to donate our old unwanted things to the charity shop.

But you know what is even better than donating stuff to the charity shop? Buying stuff from the charity shop.

It isn’t enough to donate our old stuff to the charity shop, and then go buy our replacement items from the big box or department store. Charity shops only sell about 15% of everything that is donated.

The donations that don’t even fit inside the charity shop far outnumber the things on sale…

To close the loop, they need us to buy more things from them.

They don’t need us to donate stuff. They need us to buy stuff.

2. Online Classifieds and Auction Sites

Online classifieds such as Gumtree and Craigslist are a great way to find second-hand items locally, (great for fragile, oversized or heavy stuff) and online auction sites such as eBay are a great way to find items further afield (better for lightweight and easy-to-post items).

I’m a big fan of platforms like these (and I talk about the ins and outs a lot more in my book) because of the way they allow sharing of stuff – most often for a price, but sometimes for free.

3. Online Neighbourhood Networks

Online platforms allow us to connect with our neighbours – some with the sole purpose of buying selling, donating and borrowing stuff, and others with more broad community engagement over things like activities, security and pets.

Some platforms have dedicated membership sites (such as Nextdoor and Streetbank), whilst others use Facebook or Google groups (a quick search will reveal your local options).

Even where these platforms are national and international, it doesn’t mean they will be active in your area so have a look and decide if they are something to pursue or not.

4. Buy Nothing Groups

I could wax lyrical about the Buy Nothing Project all day. In fact, I do. The project is a network of Buy Nothing groups, which exist to help us share with our neighbours, and they operate via Facebook. What makes them unique is that members can gift, accept and borrow things, no money (or even trade) allowed.

And it’s only possible to join one: the one where we live.

The things that are given away would surprise you – both for how great the items are, and for how crazy obscure they can be, too. I’ve been gifted a Dell computer monitor, an almost-new pair of shoes and a desk and chair via my local group.

But it’s not all glamour – I’ve also taken a half-eaten jar of chocolate peanut spread and given away a semi-chewed dog toy. Trust me, almost anything goes.

5. Freecycle and Freegle

Similar to the Buy Nothing groups in that items are offered for free, Freecycle (worldwide) and Freegle (UK) are networks of people sharing items. The platforms are less user-friendly than social media or other newer networks, but they do the job.

6. Verge Collections

Verge collections are the stuff of (my) nightmares. Most councils in Perth allow 2 or 3 verge pickups per household per year, and offer this service for free (well, included in council rates). It works like this: residents put all of their unwanted stuff out on the front lawn, a truck comes along and squashes it into little pieces, and off it goes to landfill.

Cue, sobbing from me.

Every time, the streets are laden with stuff. People throw out 5 mattresses at a time, they throw out perfectly good kids toys. They throw out kitchen appliances, furniture, equipment and even cardboard, metal and other recyclables.

Sometimes every house on the street can have a pile like this of mostly usable stuff, ready for landfill.

Some people love to rummage through the piles and score great stuff. Keeping an eye on verge collection dates in the more affluent suburbs can mean excellent finds, but every suburb has something to offer. I rarely go on the hunt (it upsets me too much), but I’ve rescued wooden garden chairs, an outside table, a worm farm, storage boxes and heaps of garden pots (including some terracotta ones).

The downside of verge collections is that for all the great stuff rescued, there is plenty of great and still-usable stuff going to landfill.

7. Borrowing Stuff

Borrowing stuff can be formal, such as joining the library. They have so much more than books – they have magazines, CDs and DVDs and board games. If you don’t want these, tool, toy and “things” libraries also exist.

Or borrowing can be informal: from friends, family, colleagues or neighbours. If we don’t know our neighbours, the Buy Nothing groups are a great way to make a borrow request.

This is how I was able to borrow a screwdriver to fix my coffee machine (the seal needed replacing).

We often confuse the need to use something with the need to own it. Maybe we need a gadget for a particular recipe, or a hook in the wall to hang a picture. But we don’t necessarily need the blender or the drill. We just need to use them. So we can borrow them instead.

8. Hiring Stuff

Almost everything is available for hire, but these services aren’t as popular as they should be. We can hire dresses and suits, tools, furniture, glasses and flatware – and yet time and again, we buy it instead. My suspicion is that many people think hiring is a false economy – shelling out money for something with nothing to show at the end of it.

For me, this exactly the reason why hiring stuff is so great. We get to use things, then give them back for someone else to use – and we never have to worry about them again.

Not only do hired items arrive clean and ready to go; the hire company is responsible for maintenance. With glass hire, did you know many hire companies will also do the washing up for you?

We forget that it isn’t just the cost of buying stuff. It’s also the cleaning and the storage and maintenance. Because it’s only twice or three times as expensive to buy the champagne glasses rather than hire them, we buy them. We reason we will use them again. Maybe we will – but maybe not.

Once we own them, we have to clean them, and store them. We might need to buy more storage. This is how we end up with big houses with bigger rooms – to accommodate all this stuff.

There’s plenty of stuff already in the world. There’s plenty of stuff in great or usable condition, just waiting for a new owner to maximise its potential. There is absolutely no requirement to buy everything new.

It may not even be necessary to buy it at all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any tips for finding second-hand items, or avoiding buying stuff? What are your favourite groups or networks? Is this something you struggle with, and what would make it easier or more accessible for you? Anything else to add? Please share in the comments below!

Community Dishes (to Borrow and Bring Back)

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

Why? Because…

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

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

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

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

The Community Dishes Project – Who, What and Why

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

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

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

Solutions need to be convenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Dishes – How Will It Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Less waste, less stuff, and growing community.

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

A Zero Waste Guide to Sharing (+ the Sharing Economy)

There’s already a lot of stuff in the world. Dare I even say, too much stuff in the world. If manufacturers declared they would be making no more cutlery sets, or dining chairs, or cushions in the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely we’d be unable to eat dinner or get comfy. We’d make do with what we had, or use what already exists. We’d borrow, and we’d lend.

Sharing stuff isn’t new. Since the explosion of the internet and our increased connectivity though, this idea of sharing what we have has also exploded, because we are no longer restricted to the people we know. Technology has adapted to make it easier for us to borrow from and lend to complete strangers.

The terms ‘the sharing economy’, ‘collaborative consumption’, ‘peer-to-peer lending’ and ‘access economy’ are all used interchangeably when talking about this kind of lending, and the definitions are often confusing and contradictory. Personally, I don’t think the definitions are important. (But if you’re really interested ,this article does a great job of explaining.)

The premise is: you have something you’d like to share or give away, and you need to find someone who wants what you have; or you need something and would like to find someone who has what you need.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s peer to peer lending or if there is a company involved; if there’s money exchanged or if it’s free; whether it relies on technology to work or good old word-of-mouth; whether it’s for-profit or non-profit. It’s all sharing – making better use of time, resources and energy.

What is important to me, and anyone else interested in owning less stuff and creating less waste, is the idea of resource optimization. Getting the most use (and best) out of stuff that already exists. For people who are passionate about this, the explosion of the sharing economy has been great.

Global versus Local?

Global or local – which is better? I think it depends, and both have a place. If I travel to the other side of the planet, being able to find accommodation and travel easily is very helpful, so global networks work well. It’s unlikely that I’ll need to borrow a lawnmower whilst I’m there though, so global tool networks or general borrowing sites are less helpful. Global borrowing sites tend to be more focused around urban cities.

Global networks have bigger infrastructure and costs, so tend not to be free. Keeping things local means costs are much less. Local options are much more useful for meeting local people, reducing travel, plus building networks, relationships and community.

Many global share sites have launched to great fanfare, only to fold within a couple of years. The internet is littered with these stories. I think it’s a sign that in many cases, local is best.

Global Sharing Networks (The Ones I Use)

The few global sites I use are one where money generally changes hands. In these cases, having the security and reputation of a global network can go a long way in building trust.

Accommodation: Airbnb

Maybe the best known of the sharing websites, Airbnb is a global network allowing people to rent out their spare rooms and entire homes to travellers for a price. I like knowing that rather than homes sitting empty, they are being offered out to others.

Cost: Accommodation is charged per night. Fees apply to hosts who rent out rooms. Free to join

W: www.airbnb.com (if you sign up via this link, you’ll save $50AUD on your first booking.)

Accommodation: Couchsurfing

This is a global community of travellers offering their couches, floors and spare rooms to those wanting free accommodation, and also offering meetups and information about local events. I used it to both stay and to host back in 2008, but I have no current experience of the site.

Cost: free for basic membership (premium membership also available); accommodation is free

W: www.couchsurfing.com

Classifieds: Craigslist

This is the most popular classified list in the US, with sections devoted to jobs, housing, personals, for sale, items wanted, services, community, gigs and discussion forums. I’ve never used it as it isn’t popular in the UK or Australia, but I have used similar sites.

Cost: free to list most items; some goods free to buy, most have a cost

W: www.craigslist.org

Classifieds: Gumtree

The most popular classified site in the UK, this is a great way to pick up second-hand items, find a new home for your unwanted stuff. It also offers services. Although it’s an international brand, most sales are made locally via cash on delivery/collection.

Cost: free to list most items; some goods free to buy, most have a cost

W: www.gumtree.com.au (Australia), www.gumtree.com (UK)

Composting: ShareWaste

This website and app connects those with compost and food scraps to those with compost bins. It’s a fairly new app so whether it will stand the test of time, I’m not sure. I have registered my bin and as yet, no-one has used it. There was no-one registered within 400km of where we were staying whilst on holiday – and I cannot believe not a single person there had a compost bin!

Cost: free

W: www.sharewaste.com

Selling: eBay

This auction site allows users to buy and sell used goods, either by auction or for a fixed price. Most countries have their own eBay site, but if international shipping is offered, listings may appear across multiple sites, meaning there is access to a huge audience. It’s a useful way to sell rare or unusual items, but most items must be posted, so weight is a limiting factor.

Cost: free to join; listings may be free or a small cost, fees payable once an item sells

W: www.ebay.com (US), www.ebay.com.au (Australia), www.ebay.co.uk (UK)

Transport: Shiply

Shiply connects lorries and trucks already on the road with people who need things delivered (such as bulky things they’ve purchased second-hand on eBay). Shiply aims to make use of transport already on the roads to reduce carbon emissions. Users list their delivery request, and companies quote for the job based on their existing routes.

Cost: free to request a quote as a customer or join as a transport company; fees are payable if a quote is accepted.

W: www.shiply.com

Transport: Uber

Uber connects people with cars to people who want to go somewhere. It’s a peer-to-peer ride-sharing service where private cars are used in place of taxis. No cash is exchanged as all transactions are made through an app.

Cost: free to join; taxi services are charged to users.

W: www.uber.com

Local Sharing Networks (Ideas to Look Out For)

These are ideas rather than specific sites:  whilst the underlying principles are generally the same across the world for each idea, the companies, organizations and groups that run them are different.

Bike Share

Bikes share schemes differ from bike rental in being a much more casual arrangement, often for shorter periods of time, and with the option of picking up at one point and dropping off at another. Often these points are close to train stations, and are unmanned bays. The idea is to make bicycles available for people to take short trips as an alternative to car use or motorized transport.

Whilst not currently active in Perth, it is reported to be coming shortly. Currently these bike-share schemes operate in 172 cities in 50 countries.

Cost: varies, but is often free for short trips

More info here.

Car Share (Car Clubs)

Like the bike share schemes, car shares are like short-term rentals where the car is charged by the hour. They are useful to anyone needing a car on a short-term basis but who don’t need to own or even hire a car for extended periods. They work on a self-service model so there is no restriction with opening hours. Car-share schemes require users to join as a member.

There is currently no car-sharing service in Perth, but it is common in some parts of the world, with 1.7 million users reported across 27 countries.

Cost: membership fee and subsequent car hire fees

More info here.

Community Groups

These are groups of like-minded people, joined by a common interest. The common interest could be a hobby (gardening, fishing, beer brewing, sewing, art), it could be based on age or circumstance (young mums, working parents, retirees) or it could be based on a common interest (sustainability, politics). These groups are great to tap into for many reasons: to connect with others and share ideas; to gain access to specialist equipment; and to find or pass on second-hand items.

Cost: Some free, some with membership fees

Where to find: community notice boards, or Google search your local area.

Facebook Groups

Facebook groups are different to Facebook pages. Facebook groups are member groups where there is no news feed, but a discussion area where any member can post. (In contrast, a Facebook page is “owned” by a single person, team or organisation, and they control the news feed.) Facebook Groups are currently ad free. You request membership rather than liking a page, and may need to meet conditions to be accepted (like being located in the area). Groups can be public, closed, private or secret.

You need to be a member of Facebook to use Facebook groups, but there is a separate Facebook Groups app you can install on your phone. This means you can be a member of groups without actively using a personal Facebook page.

This is what the “Facebook Groups” app looks like on my phone, along with a collection of groups I’m currently a member of.

There are groups for everything you could imagine, and plenty you wouldn’t. Join the ones that appeal to you (you can always leave if you change your mind). If you see a great idea for a group but can’t find one in your area, start your own!

Cost: free

Library

Anybody who is not a member of their local library is seriously missing a trick! We use our local library to borrow books, DVDs and magazines, and occasionally use their printing services – which means we do not need to own a printer. All libraries are different, and not all services are free, but membership usually is.

What’s on offer: Books, eBooks, Magazines, newspapers, DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, internet and printing services, talks and workshops

Cost: Usually free to join, most services free, some incur a small charge

Where to find: check with your local council.

Specialist Libraries

These are usually community- or volunteer- run services, but may also be run by local councils. They lend specific items, such as tools and light machinery, gardening equipment, or toys.

Cost: Varies – there can be a membership cost, and often there is a small charge to borrow items

Where to find: check with your local council, or Google search your local area.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and new share sites pop up all the time. I hope it gives you some insight into the kinds of things out there, and encourages you to think about embracing this bold new world (and yet very traditional, centuries-old idea) of sharing.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you a sharer – and how do you share and borrow? Do you prefer to use global networks or local ones? Do you have personal experience of any of these sites or any of these ideas? Do you have any others you’d recommend? Have you had any bad experiences with sharing? Any stories to share? Are you involved with running or administrating a local sharing site, and how have you found it? How to you feel about the growth of these sharing networks – is it a good thing or a bad thing? Are you still undecided? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!