The past few months I’ve been working on reducing plastic (and waste generally) in our house. We are not big consumers. We don’t get take away much, we try to eat healthily (and avoid excess packaging) and the purchase of toys for the kids is generally reserved for birthdays or Christmas only. But we still make more impact than I want to in the amount of stuff we send to landfill. This has been weighing on my mind more and more. The world is at such a critical juncture with climate change, ocean pollution from single use plastics, and sustainability issues generally that I feel we all need to challenge ourselves to do more.
Our oceans are responsible for generating at least 50% of the oxygen we breathe and yet by 2050 it is predicted that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Currently, the world seems to be tracking on a 4-degree temperature rise rather than the below 2 degrees aim of the Paris Agreement. The UN Secretary stated at COP23 in Bonn that climate change is the “defining threat of our time” and that it is “our duty – to each other and to future generations – to raise ambition” around climate change action. The week before COP23 the World Meteorological Organization announced that CO2 levels had surged at record breaking speed with levels in 2016 higher than anything seen in at least 4.5 million years coinciding with 2017 likely to be the hottest year on record. As the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change said at COP23 “We are running out of time to turn things around. To do so, we must significantly increase our efforts to reduce emissions and our carbon footprints”. We have both an ecological and moral imperative for change.
I truly believe we have all have a duty to examine our own lives and work out where we can make changes for the better. Our government is failing to take a lead so it must fall to the people to lead the change. I’m really trying to be model this. After watching the War on Waste as a family, it has also been easier to get the kids on board with some waste reduction projects so I’ve been seizing the moment. A big thing with change, is that some people delay making changes in their lives until they can do it “properly”. But waiting for the ideal time, or just waiting for X, Y r Z to fall into place first often means that the changes you want to implement never happen. We need a philosophy of “day one” not “one day”. We don’t have to achieve the perfect vision of sustainability straight away. It’s OK to start changing things slowly. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, it often makes change more sustainable in the long term if our changes are gradual and really worked into our lives bit by bit.
For years we have been bringing our own reusable shopping bags and using reusable produce bags for our fruit and veg. This was an easy step as there was not much behavioral change involved (it was more about remembering to take the bags!). For the past year or two we have also been collecting all our soft plastics (cereal liners, bread bags, plastic wrapping from crackers etc.) to Coles (Woolworths got a bad rap on the War on Waste) for recycling. I’d also been trying to do little things personally. Like occasionally on my way to or from work I’ll buy a bun from the Chinese bakery and I would always refuse the little plastic bag that they put buns in. If I’m just going to eat it then and there I don’t need a bag to carry it in. This may seem like a little step but it’s all about challenging norms. The norm when you purchase a bun is for the cashier to automatically put it in a small plastic bag. By refusing the bag we’re not only using less plastic, we’re helping the people around us think about our habits and they’re impacts – and most importantly – how it is possible to do things differently.
Challenging the ways that we traditionally do things isn’t always easy. It can be socially awkward to challenge norms. You can fear coming across all ‘holier than thou’ and being overly critical of others. You can fear refusal or rebuke. But it’s something that it is important we all step up and do. I’m not the world’s most outgoing person so it was a challenge to me to start doing this. But the other day when we ordered take away I summoned up the courage to ask if we could bring our own containers in rather than have it packed in plastic. To my relief the restaurant was really accommodating of it. I hope to continue to challenge myself socially like this in other ways – like shopping at local butchers and bakers and asking to use my own containers. This is a bigger step for me though – not because of the social confrontation – but because it is a real shake up of our household routine. The way we currently manage my week is a weekly shop at the supermarket. Changing our routine to shop at local butchers, bakers and fruit markets with perhaps an additional supermarket shop to pick up specialty items is a harder hurdle and because we need to work out a new routine. It’s a step I’m keen to take but it is a step that is a little further down the line for me as I need to weave it into tour lives and make it workable for us.
I’ve found myself asking a key question in our lives lately to try to make things more sustainable. That questions is ‘What’s the plastic alternative?’ Until recently I wasn’t as aware of my own personal contribution to the plastic issue. I did try to avoid single use plastics (especially drink bottles!) but in every year, there would be a lot of non-single use plastic items that our household recycles or throws away because they can no longer be used (broken lunch boxes, drink bottles, pegs etc.). Now when something breaks I’m actively researching non-plastic alternatives so that (hopefully) the next time it must be replaced it will be biodegradable, or if not, that it will at least last much longer.
Consumerism horrifies me. Recently we had Black Friday and my email inbox was assaulted with discount offers all aimed at getting me to buy, buy, buy. We never used to even really be aware of this day in Australia now we seem to be adding yet another day for spending to our calendars. What I do find confronting though is even though I know consciously that we need to consume less, I am still prone to wanting things. I fight it, but it is there. There is still consumerism in the sustainability world and wanting ‘bigger and better’ (or even just ‘more sustainable or useful’) is an issue too. Just because it is ‘green’ doesn’t mean we should not be reducing what we buy. Before I was aware of reducing my own plastics, I invested in some heavy-duty UV resistant plastic pegs. They’re wonderful pegs and I can see them possibly lasting 10 years or even more. They were about double the price of ordinary plastic pegs but worth the investment financially. Now that I’m more aware of my own personal use of plastics though I’ve found out about stainless steel pegs and wish that I had invested in those for a lifetime’s use. But I’m determined that even though I desire a different option I need to use what I have for its full life first. It is the same with my reusable shopping and produce bags. The ones I have now are made from recycled plastic. I am eyeing off cotton bags as they biodegrade at the end of their life -but I need to be a responsible consumer and use my plastic ones to the end of their life first.
So what are some of the plastic alterative changes we’ve made or are going to make?
- Using reusable shopping and produce bags
- Bringing our own water bottles and not buying single use plastic bottles of drink
- Bokashi composting to reduce the majority of our food waste
- Making our own margarine (simply soften 500g butter and blend the butter with 1 cup of your chosen oil) – no more plastic margarine containers.
- If eating out choosing options that don’t have plastic (e.g. paper wrapped chips or burgers, sushi not wrapped in plastic)
- Buying whole pumpkins, watermelons, rockmelons etc. where possible and not cut ones wrapped in cling film
- Using beeswax wraps (we made our own) and Agreena wraps as substitutes for cling film, foil and baking paper
- Recycling all the soft plastics we do get via Red Cycle.
- Swapping to bamboo toothbrushes when our plastic toothbrushes need replacing
- When our current shampoo in a plastic bottle runs out we will be replacing it with shampoo bars
- Looking for cardboard or paper wrapped options in the supermarket (e.g. sugar and flour in paper bags, pasta in cardboard rather than plastic, soap in cardboard boxes etc.
- Paper wrapped toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap
- Bringing our own containers to get take away food
- When our current deodorant runs out I’m looking at different options (you can buy deodorant pasts in tins, glass and even cardboard tubes now)
- Stainless steel straws (we got given some as a present which were good). We have also tried bamboo straws but they are no good for milk based drinks. Probably the best option to go with though is just no straw though it sure would be a different milkshake experience without the slurp 😉
Things I am working my way into include:
- Joining the local food coop and bringing my own containers to shop there
- Shopping at the local butcher and baker and bringing my own containers/bags.
- Shopping for kids clothing at op shops. We love hand-me-downs but never get enough to completely outfit all our kids. It is very convenient to just go to a shopping centre as you know you will be able to find what you need. Op shopping is a bit more hit and miss – but we need to start dealing with having less convenience for the tradeoff of more sustainability.
- Making our own roti (frozen roti from the Indian Grocery that you cook yourself in a fry pan are a family favorite but they are covered in guilt ridden plastic. We need a sustainable alternative.
- More sustainable options for gift giving – particularly for kid’s birthdays and in the silly season generally (check out my new blog Clear and Present Danger which will document this journey)
How have you reduced plastic and waste in your life?
What other steps do you want to take in the future?