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From landfill to refill: cleaning products that clean the ocean

This post is a sponsored collaboration with Zero Co.

When I started my waste journey back in 2012, I primarily wanted to reduce my plastic. A few month in I realised that reducing waste isn’t just about the plastic, and so I worked on reducing all my single-use packaging – metals, paper, cardboard, steel and aluminium as well as plastic – and of course, reducing my food waste.

I even went as far as the ‘fitting a year’s waste in a jam jar’ challenge.

And what I realised from that challenge is this: whether or not I can fit my waste into a jam jar or not is not the point. (And frankly, who cares?) If a handful of people can fit their waste into a jam jar, it’s not really game-changing stuff.

It’s definitely not where I want to be focusing my attention.

I’m much more interested in how we can get everybody reducing their waste, whether it’s 90 per cent or 50 per cent or even 10 per cent.

Much better to have everybody doing something rather than a few people doing everything.

And for everybody to be doing something, we need options. There’s no one way to reduce waste. What works for some of us will never work for all of us. The more alternatives, the better.

Zero Co and their mission to untrash the planet

I’m going to confess, the first time I came across Zero Co, it was hard to see past the plastic. Even though my views have changed on plastic since my first plastic-free month challenge back in 2012, I’d still rather see as little plastic as possible.

Zero Co make (palm oil free, greywater safe, plant-based, vegan) cleaning and personal care products. And although it’s plastic, the the packaging that they use to distribute their products is not single-use – the containers are made out of recycled ocean plastic and the pouches are returnable and refillable, to be used and reused over and over.

When I heard about their model, I was intrigued.

As much as I dislike plastic, I dislike single-use even more. Anything that can be used again and again and again is a better use of resources than single-use. For me, it’s about the waste, and how we reduce it.

So yes, I was intrigued, but I had a lot of questions.

(Like, how much ocean plastic? From which ocean? Who collects it? How are the pouches refilled? How many times?)

And so I emailed them, and we had a great back and forth, and then I poured over their website and sent a bunch more questions.

And I’m happy to say that I learned a lot, and I changed my mind.

Zero Co offered to send me a box of their products to try so I could test their products, the packaging and the return system. (And we had an agreement that if I didn’t like the products, there was no expectation to share with you. And if I did share, that I’d be honest and tell it like it is.)

But I think their re-use model is interesting and their transparency is refreshing. That’s how they won me over. It’s one thing to pledge to do things, but quite another to showcase how.

How it works: the Zero Co circular economy (reuse) model

Zero Co have a mission to “untrash the planet” through stopping the production of new single-use plastic, and by cleaning up the plastic already in the oceans.

They do this by distributing cleaning products in reusable, refillable pouches. The dispensers (which you can choose to use with your refills) are made of ocean plastic.

You order the products you want (all packaged in the pouches) and if you need them, you also order the dispensers. They are shipped to your home with no additional plastic packaging.

The box contains a reply-paid (cardboard) envelope for the empty refill pouches. Once you have 15 empty pouches, you send it back for the pouches to be reused.

They describe the model as “like the milkman, reimagined.”

Sounds good so far, but I’m a details person. Luckily, they provided the details.

Ocean plastic

The ocean plastic used in the dispensers is collected from the waters outside Jakarta, Indonesia, via an initiative called Ocean Waste Plastics. Local fishermen collect the plastic, which they sell to Pack Tech, who reprocess the plastic into (amongst other things) the Zero Co dispensers.

These dispensers contain 70% recycled ocean plastic, and 30% non-ocean recycled plastic.

So far, Zero Co have pulled 6,000kg of plastic from the ocean to make their dispensers.

OCEANS 21

One of Zero Co’s newest initiatives is OCEANS21, which has the goal of collecting 21 tons of Australian ocean-bound plastic waste, to turn into Zero Co bottles.

From March until May 2021, Zero Co will invest $5 from every starter box sold to fund their ocean clean-up projects. Their launch event will be in Sydney where they will be making a record-breaking attempt to clean up Sydney Harbour.

From there they will head to Cape York – but they are also working on some more local and grassroots initiatives.

Refillable pouches

The refillable pouches are made of 40% recycled plastic, and are designed to be refilled 100 times. (Yes, it would be great to use 100% recycled plastic, but they found that this compromised how many times the pouches could be refilled – 40% seemed to be the sweet spot.)

Carbon emissions

There’s always going to be a higher footprint with delivery models versus getting refills at a bricks-and-mortar store. It’s worth remembering that not everyone has access to a bulk store that sells cleaning products. To combat this, Zero Co use couriers that carbon-offset their emissions, and ask that empty pouches are not returned until there are 15 of them, to reduce transport emissions and packaging.

They are also looking at how they might get their products into brick-and-mortar stores in the future, whilst maintaining the circular reuse model.

Zero Co Products – a review

The core range of Zero Co products includes air freshener, bathroom and shower cleaner, bodywash, dishwasher tablets, dishwashing liquid, handwash, laundry liquid, stain remover and toilet cleaner.

(They have just finished reformulating the multi-purpose cleaner, which is part of their core range but whose shipping was delayed.)

They also have plans to launch shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and deodorant later in the year, but no firm dates on these yet.

I didn’t try the air freshener, as this is a product I’d never use, and I didn’t try the dishwasher tabs because I don’t have a dishwasher.

And yep, all the products I received worked as they are meant to do – they clean!

(To me, cleaning products are cleaning products are cleaning products – except when they don’t work at all. These worked just as well as any cleaning product I’ve ever bought at the bulk store. But don’t just take my word for it, because since when was cleaning one of my strengths? Zero Co went to the trouble of getting their products tested by an independent lab.)

The one notable feature of all these products is that they are very strongly fragranced. I tend to use unfragranced or lightly fragranced products, and this was quite a shock to my senses. Most of their fragrances are based on essential oils, so it’s not artificial fragrance, it’s just… strong.

(You can read their ingredient lists here.)

This is probably a polarising feature, so it’s worth pointing out.

Someone on my local zero waste Facebook group recently was asking about zero waste laundry detergent with a long-lasting fragrance as she said she was sick of her laundry smelling of “wet clothes”, and a lot of people recommended Zero Co. I actually really like the Zero Co laundry liquid for washing my for towels and linen, particularly when it’s going in the cupboard.

I also found that the strong fragrance of the bodywash and handwash means I use a lot less, which makes the products go further.

But if strong-scented cleaning and personal care products are not your thing, this will be a dealbreaker.

(I wonder in the future if they will launch an unscented range, but for now there isn’t one.)

Could Zero Co products be for you?

As I said at the start, there’s no one zero waste product or idea that works for everybody.

Zero Co probably won’t work for you if:

  • You already buy all your personal and cleaning products at the bulk store, and you’re happy with them;
  • You DIY all of your own personal and cleaning products;
  • You dislike strong fragrances;
  • You live outside Australia (so far they only ship within Australia, but they are looking at overseas options).

Zero Co might be something to consider if:

  • You currently buy products in single-use packaging;
  • You don’t have access to a bulk store (for example, living in regional areas);
  • You don’t have time to get to the bulk store regularly, or you’re not happy with the products on offer at the bulk store;
  • You like the idea of a one-stop shop for all your products;
  • You want to support an Australian start-up on a mission;
  • You like strongly fragranced products.

(If you have any questions, their FAQ page is probably one of the most thorough I’ve ever come across. So be sure to have a read.)

If you’d like to try their products, Zero Co have very kindly offered a discount to my readers. Use the code TREADING10 which will give you $10 off all products (new customers only, one use per customer, minimum purchase $80. Don’t forget you can always go halves with friends or family if you don’t need quite this much, and don’t want to stockpile!).

Visit the Zero Co website here.

War on Waste: How Food Rescue Charities Are Fighting Food Waste

The recent ABC television series War on Waste aired last month, and suddenly everyone is talking about waste. Which, in my view, is a good thing. A great thing! As it should be ;) The more conversations we have around waste, the better.

I watched the series myself and thought it was well made, informative and motivational. It did a great job of addressing the problems. The problems need talking about, definitely. But I felt it only touched on the solutions. Which, maybe, was a missed opportunity. In my view, there are plenty of solutions, and we need to talk about these as much as (or more than!) the problems!

No doubt there wasn’t time for everything. (It was only 3 episodes, after all!)

So I thought I’d explore some of the solutions here. Today, I’m going to talk about food waste, and more specifically, what people are doing about.

Food waste is a huge issue in Australia, with around 40% of food being discarded before it leaves farms, and shoppers throwing away 20% of everything they buy (the equivalent of 1 bag of shopping in 5). The UK reported similar statistics with their Hugh’s War on Waste series last year, saying 1/3 of food produced is never eaten. The figure is similar in the U.S.

The supermarkets are linked to a lot of this waste. With their strict cosmetic standards, unbalanced supplier contracts in favour of the retailer, pre-packaging loose items (where they control the portion sizes), and promotional 3-for-2 offers that encourage us to buy more than we need, they encourage waste at every stage in the process.

Arguably, it’s a broken system. But within this system, organizations are doing what they can to reduce this food waste by distributing some of the surplus to others who need it via charity partners.

Here in Perth there are a number of organisations working to fight food waste by “rescuing” food.

Food Bank: are the largest food relief organisation in Australia. They deal with large quantities and collect food on a massive scale. They don’t go to individual supermarkets to collect discards, but rather collect pallets of food from warehouses for redistribution.

Oz Harvest: with their quirky yellow vans, Oz Harvest collect surplus food from all types of food providers, including fruit and vegetable markets, farmers, supermarkets, wholesalers, stadiums, corporate events, catering companies, hotels, shopping centres, cafes, delis, restaurants, film and TV shoots and boardrooms. They collect both fresh food and dry goods and distribute as is to charitable partners.

Food Rescue WA: a WA initiative of UnitingCare West, Food Rescue WA collects surplus fresh produce (no dry goods) from cafes, supermarkets and farmers and repacks into “veg boxes” which are distributed to charitable partners.

Case Study: Food Rescue WA

This week I had the opportunity to visit Food Rescue WA in Belmont (a suburb of Perth). I was amazed, humbled and heartened by what I saw and learned. They haven’t stood by in despair at what can seem an overwhelming situation; they’ve got to work righting some of the wrongs.

Food Rescue WA have just two full time staff, with 4 casual drivers and 100 regular volunteers. Powered by this volunteer army, and with 4 vans that have been donated, they collect food from 49 supermarkets, sort and re-pack, and redistribute to 78 different charitable organisations.

In addition, they have two food carts which collect food from 37 cafes in the CBD, and redistribute directly to homeless people in the city who have no access to kitchens.

Between them, they supply food to organisations who feed more than 11,000 people every week.

“Waste” products that have arrived and are waiting to be sorted and repacked.

Food arrives here at the Food Rescue WA warehouse in various ways and for various reasons. The black boxes at the front are assorted rejects from the supermarkets. The oranges are an overstock. The yellow container at the back (a cubic metre) comes directly from a farmer, with carrots that don’t meet the cosmetic/size standards.

Food Rescue WA only deal with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also receive eggs for redistribution, and occasionally chilled products.

This second yellow container is filled with cosmetically imperfect but completely edible carrots donated by a farmer. The dimensions of the container are 1m x 1m x 1m (a cubic meter).

The food is then sorted by volunteers and distributed into boxes (old banana boxes). The food is distributed so that each box has variety and colour, and looks visually appealing.

Sorting food and packing into boxes..

A partially packed veg box…

Boxes of colourful, edible food saved from the bin and ready to be distributed by the Food Rescue WA vans to people in need.

Food Rescue WA currently operates from Monday to Friday, but they may expand into weekends. The volunteers arrive at 7am and sorting and packing is generally completed by 10am. The boxes are then delivered, with all charities in receipt of their food by 11.30am.

What happens next is up to the charities. Some cook meals using the ingredients; others allow people to take the boxes home to cook for their families.

This operation provides 11,000 meals a week. That’s impressive in itself, but there’s more. Food Rescue WA don’t just fight food waste, though. They fight other waste too.

Plastic

Firstly, they sort and recycle all of their packaging. They have a plastics recycling system where plastics are separated into their different types (numbers) and then this is collected by CLAW Environmental for recycling.

They even go one step further and remove all the plastic packaging from the boxes they are donating to the charities. They realise that the charities won’t have the time or capacity to recycle the soft plastic, and may not have the knowledge to sort it correctly either.

By removing the plastic before it is distributed, it saves the charity workers a job and also the disposal costs, and ensures it gets recycled properly.

Food Rescue WA currently recycles 4 cubic meters of soft plastic a week.

Cardboard

The food received by charities is packed into banana boxes which can be returned for re-use. Typically a driver will deliver new boxes, collect old empty ones and they will be re-used for packing. Each box can be used several times before it begins to wear out. The cardboard is then recycled.

Food Waste

Food Rescue WA have an innovative composting machine called the Orca that aerobically digests unusable food waste rapidly, and produces a liquid effluent that can be safely discharged into the municipal sewerage system.

The jar of apple sauce on top of the machine is in fact the liquid effluent which comes out of the machine after the contents are aerobically digested, and have passed through a grease trap and filter system.

These fresh veggies were added…

…and 15 minutes later they were well on their way to breaking down. The food waste has no smell, or if anything, it smells like a fresh green salad!

Food Rescue WA did secure backing to fund a composter in the past, but unfortunately could not get council approval to install it.

Fighting Food Waste: What Can I Do?

There’s plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce our food waste at home. We can reduce what we buy, learn to understand the different ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By ‘codes, and also learn how to tell if something is good or bad without relying on the packaging telling us. We can learn new ways to cook things, embrace home composting and get more organized so there are no longer unidentified objects that used to be food lurking at the back of our fridges. (For more ideas, here’s 12 tips to reducing food waste.)

But we can go one step further. We can support these organisations working to reduce food waste. Here’s three ideas:

Volunteer for a few hours at a Food Rescue service such as Food Rescue WA and donate your time to help collect, sort and redistribute food that’s headed to landfill to people who need it. Or if you have a specialised skill that you think may be of use, offer these services!

Donate to the cause. These organisations run on volunteer hours and donated food, but still need to pay for utilities, fuel and maintenance to keep the operation running. Donating money directly to these organizations is better than buying food from supermarkets to donate. There’s already plenty of food out there that needs rescuing, and supermarkets really don’t need our money – the charities do!

Share their story! Tell your local cafe, restaurant, workplace, supermarket, greengrocer or farmer about these services, and encourage them to use them and support the work that they do.

If you’d like to get involved with or support Food Rescue WA, you can find more information here.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What solutions do you have for reducing food waste – at home, at work or in your local community? What organisations are doing great things in your local community and how could you support their work? Any thoughts on the story I’ve shared? Anything else you’d like to add? Please leave a comment below!