I had always thought of myself as a modern day environmentalist. I vote the greens, I don’t eat meat and I try to buy ethical products as much as I can. I was an environmentally conscious shopper. That was, until I began a four week journey of refusing plastic and minimising waste. I would normally take my hessian bags to the supermarket, thinking I was doing my part, because I no longer used plastic bags. ‘I was making a difference, one bag at a time,’ I said to myself as I trudged through the aisles. My bags were full of plastic products and packaging, but it didn’t matter- I would recycle those items, then I wouldn’t feel so bad. I would drink from my plastic water bottle, buy coffee in a take- away cup with a plastic lid, drink from a plastic straw, eat take out in plastic containers, and fill my pantry with plastic packaging and stuff I didn’t really need. It wasn’t until I started looking at what zero waste really meant that I began to question my plastic consumption. It was at this point I realised that I was addicted to plastic. I was part of a global problem. My cupboards were littered with non- reusable items ready for landfill. So I decided to look at how our reliance on plastic has impacted the planet.
All over the world plastic has become the ideal medium in a large range of products, with 280 million tonnes of plastic produced each year. Used for its lightweight, cheap, and durable qualities, plastic offers a range of different ways in which it can be consumed.
However, plastic has also had a serious impact on the environment, due mostly to the fact that this tough little product doesn’t breakdown. Plastic pollution has significantly multiplied over the last few decades. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic is the cause of death in up to one million seabirds, countless fish, and 100,000 mammals each year. Australians use of plastic bags account for seven billion a year, which equals around 365 per person per year according to Brown from Habitat Australia. With an estimated 50-80 million plastic bags ending up in landfill where they don’t break down for thousands of years, as well as ending up in our waterways and parks.
President of the Centre for Cetacean Research & Conservation and Director of Cook Islands Whale Research Nan Hauser, works all over the world, educating people about the impacts humans have on the oceans and marine animals, especially whales. She says that often times when she surgically examines a whale that has stranded itself or is found dead on the shore, she will find a plastic bag, a foil balloon, or plastic objects in its stomach. “These whales ingest plastic and they get sick because at times it will often block their intestinal tract. They can’t digest food and sometimes it even stops the flow of food completely,” says Nan Hauser. “They also often mistake bags for jellyfish thinking that it’s food.” Whales and dolphins can also get caught in plastic fishing nets that are floating unattached all over the ocean and drown as a result. They then decompose and the net floats free again to capture its next victim. “There is so much that I could tell you about the impacts of having plastic in the ocean, they become tiny little micro beads which are ingested by fish and we in turn ingest them. They make us sick and sometimes even cause breast lumps in women,” says Nan.
Some people are opting not to consume or buy plastic at all in an attempt to reduce their footprint on the planet. They are living what is commonly known as a zero waste lifestyle and are part of a growing movement to stop the discarding of single-use plastics from harming the planet.
Especially when research from the Plastic Marine Pollution Global Dataset indicates that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish, with 250,000 tons of plastic already accumulated in the world’s oceans.
Erin Rhodes is a blogger who regularly writes about her zero waste life on her blog The Rogue Ginger. To her zero waste means making the active decision to divert rubbish from landfill by refusing, reducing, reusing, composting, recycling and choosing moments over things. She first began cutting plastic from her life after she watched an eco documentary, The Clean Bin Project, at the age of 28. “This movie opened my eyes to the staggering impact plastic pollution has on the planet, before that, my care factor was low,” says Erin. She then participated in Plastic Free July and after the long month challenge she quit it for good. She then moved onto zero waste. “I won’t lie, it was hard,” she says. “Not because there were no alternatives to living without plastic, there are many. The hardest part was learning new habits, like remembering to take my own water bottle or using cloth bags instead of plastic ones.” Erin also runs workshops for school children up to adults, talking about her journey to life without plastic. In some workshops she shows how to make toothpaste or other fun zero waste recipes. “My health and savings account have improved, I eat better by choosing to say no to packaged food, my skin improved, I lost weight and have more energy,” says Erin.
After speaking to Erin, I decided that if I wanted to fully understand the influence plastic has over my life, it was best to see if I could go without it (for a while). Erin’s tips for me were to start in the kitchen, as this is the area of the house that is updated each week when shopping for food. As well as to start taking a look at what is being thrown out into the bin. “Food scraps are one of the biggest contributors to waste, so finding a place to drop off your compost or getting one started, will help decrease what goes to landfill each week,” says Erin. Her last tip was to start collecting empty jars, cloth bags and plastic containers so food can be bought without packaging.
When I first discovered the zero waste lifestyle, I was incredibly fascinated into how living without plastic was possible. As I began the plastic free journey myself, I started to ask myself the question, could we really live a life without plastic?
At first I thought ‘sure’ just don’t buy things in plastic. But wow (nearly) everything has plastic around it! I spoke to Kathryn Kellogg, who writes a blog called Going Zero Waste; she first began living this way when she was in college. “I started feeling an unbearable pain in my left breast, after going to the doctor, they found a lot of abnormal tumour growth,” says Kathryn. Thankfully the tumours were benign but the experience made her question what was going into her body. “I started cooking from scratch, making my own beauty products, and ditched plastic,” she says. “Once you start examining one part of your life you start making all sorts of eco changes which snowball into other areas of you’re life. I’m saving money because, I don’t really buy anything anymore.”
My main question for Kathryn, however, was could you really have no plastic at all? “I buy 99% of everything without plastic, but, 1% is probably still bought in plastic. There are exceptions for everything,” says Kathryn. “This isn’t supposed to be an ultimatum. It’s more of a goal for doing the best you can, being aware of the purchases you’re making and being a conscious consumer.” Her tips for me are easier ones such as reusable bags, a reusable water bottle, and composting. She also advocates that if you forget your bags then turn around. “You turn around once, you’ll never forget again,” she says.
With all my new found knowledge I was ready for the task. Four weeks. Easy. My first step was to ditch the plastic water bottle opting for a stainless steel one from Kathmandu and a glass reusable coffee cup. Easy. My trips to the supermarket became few, as I walked through the aisles and realised, I actually couldn’t buy anything. The brightly coloured packaging, with appealing images was a friendly reminder into how we ended up with such a waste problem. I eventually stopped going all together and started going to my local farmers markets.
Wow. I love this place; here I was, sleeping in on a Sunday when there was a whole market full of fresh food. No plastic. I bought a few shopping items online at a store called Biome, so I was prepared when buying my food. I got some great little bamboo cloth bags for smaller items and a denim bag for my bread.
I also got some glass containers so I no longer stored my food in plastic. And if I was going all out, then I may as well do it properly, with my wooden toothbrush and homemade toothpaste, made from bi -carb soda, peppermint oil, and coconut oil. It tasted… gross. I bought shampoo and conditioner bars for my hair and bought face wash in glass. I was living the zero waste lifestyle. I found a great place that sold bulk foods called The Source, which was full of everything you could think of. All you had to do was bring your own jar or container and fill up. They had everything from flour to shampoo and conditioner, and oil to dishwashing liquid, they thought of everything.
Owner of The Source Sharon Barrett says that buying in bulk means you only buy what you need. Their aims are to lower waste and provide a simple shopping experience for customers. “We recycle, and we encourage customers to bring their own jars and containers so there is no waste at all. We have other processes in place in our BOH to minimise our impact on the environment as well, “ says Sharon Barrett.
Although the four-week exercise was hard at times, I managed to minimise my plastic and waste consumption significantly. However, some things I couldn’t help but buy in plastic, such as birth control and sanitary items, although you could use menstrual cups (I wasn’t game). I started thinking about each purchase I made and what impact that would have. The foods I craved like potato chips, I eventually no longer wanted. I became healthier and felt better because I wasn’t eating food wrapped in plastic; I lost 2kg just from eating more fruit and vegetables and less processed food. I saved money as it was definitely cheaper to shop at local farmers markets and I got more creative with my food.
Over the four weeks, I shared with family and friends about what I was doing and how I was feeling. By sharing and talking to people about this issue, the overall consensus was that they knew they should be more conscious about what they are buying. Everyone wants to help make a difference but maybe aren’t sure how. What I have learnt is that small changes that make a huge difference. Overall I will continue to minimise my plastic consumption and waste production, and be conscious of what goes into my shopping trolley from now on. It is definitely a daily practice, but well worth it.