Zero Waste Blues

This week I attended a fantastic Upcycle Festival, with interesting ideas, local upcycling stalls, live music, workshops and demonstrations. I’m all enthused about the potential for collaboration, cross-promotion, and inspiration for projects. But first I’m going to publish this post, which I wrote a few months ago when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the whole zero waste thing. I’m no longer living at the community, so some of these issues aren’t even relevant to me any more. But they may be to you, so I’ll share it as it is:

In the lead up to Plastic Free July, I embarked on a month-long course in zero waste living with Spiral Garden. Already, in the first few days, my rubbish and recycle bins were filling up. Yes, I’m even trying to reduce my recycles. It’s a really interesting course and gently encouraging for whatever stage you are on the zero waste journey, but the focus is shining a light on how far I am from zero.

If there’s no such thing as waste, only stuff in the wrong place, as Charlie McGee sings, why am I still putting stuff in the bin? Maybe because plastic is always in the wrong place. Where is it coming from in my household? Most of my son’s plastic toys and plastic packaging comes from gifts. Every time I clean out his toy cupboard, there are more tatty plastic things to send to the tip shop or just into the bin. Broken balloons, laminated stuff from school, food other people give us, the (plastic) bag full of other people’s recycles that he lugs home every few weeks and won’t let me throw out. The downside of bringing up a child doing PFJ is that when someone gives him food in a disposable plastic cup, he squawks ‘don’t throw that out, I want to use it!’ when I try to recycle or bin it. All good, except half his room looks like a recycle bin as his ‘creations’ pile up into a mountain of stuck-together tins, plastic and cardboard which I then have to separate and recycle/bin when he’s not home.

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This year he’s started junior football, and I didn’t mention the free backpack of footy gear to him in the hope that they’d forget to give it to him, but no such luck. Complete with sheets of plastic, junk mail and a whole pile of plastic propaganda with logos all over it. He’s so proud of it that I don’t have the heart to make an issue of it. I’ll slowly send it to the op shop. They also provide the children with free sugar in the form of soft drinks and chocolates. It’s not really my scene, but I don’t want to deprive him of experiences because of my judgements.

Another entry point for plastic is the communal kitchen. The way it works here is that each of us buys $75 worth of food a week. It’s mostly meat, fruit, veg and bulk foods, but there are still products that sneak in wrapped in plastic. If I don’t purchase them myself but I eat the meals from them, does that count as my plastic use? If I don’t eat them, but my son sees them on the shelf and snacks on them, does that make me responsible? We’ve been scrounging for lunchbox ideas lately because I refuse to buy single serve packets of anything.

As part of the course, we did a bin audit for the first week. This is the contents of the community rubbish bin, divided into food, food packaging, other packaging and other. I was surprised to find food scraps in our rubbish, as we do have chickens and compost bins. I also audited the recycle bin, and found lots of paper and cardboard that could be composted or used to light the fire instead of trucking it back to recycling facilities. It was a pretty messy exercise going through the rubbish, and both bins had broken glass in them, so I had to be careful.

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During this week we weeded half a bin of double gees from the paddocks, and this quantity was larger than all our other rubbish combined! I’m sure we generate less waste than the average 5 adult & 2 child household, but there were lots of opportunities for improvement.

Sometimes I have quandries at the supermarket. Do I buy the $5 litre of local mik in glass, or $2 for two litres of milk in a light recyclable plastic bottle? Both bottles will be recycled. It seems like a lot of embodied energy in the heavy glass bottle. Glass can be recycled over and over, whereas plastic can generally only be downcycled. I’d like to use them locally or upcycle them, but other community members aren’t keen on stockpiling them without a clear end purpose (which is why they have less clutter in their space than I do!). Sadly, the legalities of refilling glass bottles makes it not viable for small dairies to do this, so I can’t take the glass bottles back to the producer.

I also buy food in plastic for work functions, for reasons of time efficiency and cost. I can’t spend extra time baking unless it’s in my own time. I’m finding it’s desensitising me to purchase plastic things, although I do aim for cardboard and bulk foods where I can.

Once I had a brief job handing out junk mail, which as well as enabling (forcing) me to go walking regularly, educated me about what happens when you stick a ‘no junk mail’ sign on your letterbox. That is, precisely nothing. The person doing the junk mail run doesn’t give this feedback to the distributor or the printer of the junk mail. They just have extra pamphlets left at the end of their run. If you’re lucky, they’ll put them in their own recycle bin. Just as likely they’ll chuck them in their general rubbish. Ever since, I’ve accepted junk mail and taken the responsibility to recycle it myself.

Another sobering fact is that even when you buy bulk foods in paper bags, they arrive at the shop in big plastic sacks. I’m still shutting my eyes to that one at the moment; how would I get cereals, spices and nuts? I guess I could prioritise herbal tea over black, homegrown beans over bought, oats over rice, lemongrass over vanilla, and freeze my own shelled nuts in autumn… but I’m not ready to forsake the bulk food shops yet. Doable, people, we want to keep it doable!

So. Some strategies needed. One: specifically request no plastic to all family and friends who may attend birthday parties or send presents (as leading by example hasn’t worked!). I could request no presents but some would probably buy presents anyway. This could raise awareness of the impact of plastics, and encourage second-hand or handmade presents which I would prefer anyway.

Two: have a conversation with the other community members about what’s feasible to do as a group to reduce our rubbish & recycles. Are there products, like pasta, that we could make and store? Can we buy a plastic-free brand instead? Can we direct our paper and cardboard waste into the compost or worm farm instead of energy- and transport-intensive recycling? Less trips to the tip are a clear benefit to everyone here.

Three: is there a local milk producer, crafter or preserver who would like a supply of glass milk bottles? Can I find somewhere, safe from the baby, to stockpile them out of the way?

Four: for months, I’ve been meaning to write up Sustainable Event Guidelines for work (the demotivating factor being that I’ve been running most of the events in the office and I already know my own advice!). Still, having it in writing will carry more weight, create consistency and give the opportunity to nut out specific scenarios. I could also base office snack plates on fresh fruit and veg, instead of biscuits. Sadly I’ll have to leave cheese off the list, but I wonder if fair trade dark chocolate passes all the tests?

Even though it was a challenge, I recommend joining courses like this one to both stretch your comfort zone and gain the support of like-minded people. It might not be comfortable to open our eyes, but that doesn’t justify keeping our heads in the sand. Well, take your head out of the sand before you open your eyes. Otherwise you’ll have sand in your eyes. Ouch.

Have conversations. Help your friends. Share ideas. Keep learning. The first post I wrote on this blog was about the advantages of secondhand materials. Consuming less, and buying secondhand when you do, is far more effective at waste prevention than any fancy expensive solution. Do what you can with the time and resources that you have. Zero waste? I think it’s a bit ambitious. Can we go for Not Very Much Rubbish, or Hoping To Be Zero Waste, or Pretty Low Waste Most Of The Time? Take my hand and join me on the journey!

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3 responses to “Zero Waste Blues

  1. It takes a great deal of time and effort to avoid bringing plastic into one’s home as well as being a conscientious recycler, reuser, etc. I admire your efforts! After reading ‘Gippsland unwrapped’, another great blog, I have started considering how much of the food scraps that go into the compost can be used in some way. I do love a challenge!

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  2. Pingback: A Man Is Not A Plan | Shoestring Sustainability·

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