Edit: I wrote this post last year and didn’t publish it quickly enough to be relevant. Now I need it for reference for this year’s Plastic Free July landfill tally; so I’m going to publish 2017 and 2018 PFJ in the same week.
The first step to reducing your rubbish is to find out what it is and where it comes from. At the end of Plastic Free July 2017, I did a rubbish audit to find out what was in our bins. It was my intention to avoid single use plastic this month, however because we moved house and therefore amalgamated pantries, and also had quite a few visitors, we actually created more rubbish than usual. Including plastic. Sigh. Instead of viewing this as a failure, I’ll call this the baseline and steer the household up up and away towards zero waste. Or is that down, down?
As soon as we moved in, we began to sort our waste into three piles in the under-sink cupboard. We didn’t set a rubbish bin up for about two weeks, which started off as motivation to avoid waste but eventually became unhygienic. I designated a white tub for soft plastics recycling, and reinstated a green tub for recyclables. The soft plastics can be taken to a Coles or Woolworths store, and the recyclables can go into our kerbside collection.
There was about a quarter bin of rubbish and half a bin of recycles already in the outside bins when we moved in at the start of July. I pulled the top layers out, to separate them properly, but didn’t poke right down to the bottom. The recycle bin already contained an empty handbag, chunks of metal, soiled gloves and other rubbish. I didn’t know where the handbag had come from or what had been dumped on top of it, so I moved it with the other rubbish into the landfill bin.
I also took things out of the landfill bin – half a dozen little water bottles, from contractors working on the building before settlement perhaps. I took the lids off and put them into my lid collection bottle, and put the bottles in the recycle bin. There was also junk mail and newspaper, which I moved to the recycle bin.
So where did our waste come from?
1. Using up what’s in the pantry, fridge and freezer. We combined two pantries into one, and only one of us was previously low-plastic. Preventing waste means using what you have. So lots of noodle packets (fridge and dry stored), foil packets of things like stock cubes and sauce, vegetables in bags, frozen meal containers, pasta, crackers. Some of this went into soft plastics, and some was landfill. We’ve eaten through quite a bit of this now, and the rest will slowly find its way into the rubbish or soft plastic tub as we use it up.
2. Existing stock of cosmetics, medicines, supplements, toilet paper, etc. Most of these are little-used and will hang around for ages. But we’ll use them up, and then try not to buy them again. Some medicines are necessary and will have to go in the unavoidable landfill pile. Learning how to make basic herbal remedies reduces the need for packaged pharmaceuticals, and so do other strategies like wheatbags, massage, diet, acupressure, etc.
3. Visitors & gifts. We had 7 Couchsurfers as well as parents, friends and workmates join us for meals over the month. Often the Couchsurfers cook us a meal, and it’s ungracious to make too many limits on packaging as well as diet. They don’t know the local places to shop and don’t usually have much money. One couple left a plastic bag full of dirty takeaway containers behind the bins in the kitchen cupboard, obviously unsure which bin to put it into. My parents brought me Latvian chocolates, and toys for my son wrapped in plastic. Many of the gifts of food left after shared meals were plastic-wrapped. What do other zero waste bloggers do with this waste? Send gifts back? Not count it if they didn’t choose it?
4. Free bread from local bakeries. In plastic. I accepted for a few weeks until I was able to get Maybelle settled in and producing. This added about 8-10 plastic bags to our soft plastic waste for the month. We’re back into sourdough now, which is not only plastic-free but tastier, healthier and cheaper than shop bread. I cost it out to around $1 a loaf.
5. At the moment we are eating some ethical local meat. I tried to source it in bulk at the butcher, but the staff are not 100% on board and tried to place it into plastic bags then tip these into my containers. Some more education needed. It’s hard to find organic, free range or otherwise ethical meat choices as loose meat. We do have an ethical local pork producer nearby, who even do nitrate-free bacon and silverside… they sell their meat in plastic. At least we don’t eat meat every night.
6. Cheese. Cheese is a dilemma category of its own. In past plastic free periods, I have tried buying cheese packed in oil in tins or jars – tasty, but then I end up with lots of leftover oil and more glass jars. I make crackers from the oil and use the jars for storage, but there is a limit to how much of these I can manage. This also limits available cheeses to soft, expensive varieties. I’ve tried buying cheese coated in wax and using the wax to make firelighters, but this is paraffin wax which is a fossil fuel product like plastic. I’ve tried buying cheese from the deli in paper or my own containers, but the deli still buys the cheese wrapped in plastic in the first place, and often wraps the cut cheese in more plastic wrap. Some of these cheese wrappers are from visitors, and some are from me trying to buy large blocks of cheddar. We had a couple of waxed cheeses, but we burnt the wax to get the wood fire going. It smelt like fried cheese.
7. Parent guilt. I let my son buy some new toys on a holiday, because I don’t want him to miss out on what other kids get… instant regret as soon as we walked into the store. I let him spend pocket money on ‘educational’ science toys. Mostly made-in-China plastic rubbish. Should have stuck to the tip shop; although he often begs for plastic crap there as well. Trying to avoid plastic for kids rules out almost all new toys, and many secondhand ones too. So telling your kids ‘no more plastic’ is a great way to cut down spending!
8. Broken items. These babyfood pouches have never been used. The bottle nipple was perished. The yellow frisbee came from verge-side hard rubbish collection. The duct-taped creation is a favourite hobby of my eight year old son.
9. Garden waste. The broken plastic is from a potted rose about ten years old, that I just recently planted out. The plastic is so brittle that it broke off as I took the rootball out. I also mulched the garden with cardboard boxes, which seemed plastic-free but actually required the stripping off of quite a bit of packing tape. The cable ties are from two bags of sheep poo. I can reuse the sacks, but the cut ties aren’t much good for anything. I guess I could have put them into my bottletop container, with little mixed plastics.
Things in the wrong bin! All bins had recycles in the rubbish, and rubbish in the recycles. Both bins had food in them, which should go into the compost bucket. Clear labels help, and more conversations.
Culture shock. I’ve been doing the plastic-free thing for several years now, and have a routine and familiar solutions. My housemate has been thrown in at the deep end. She has different priorities to me, and other things are often more important than my zealous and lofty missions. I’m trying to facilitate lifestyle choices that support my values, including gathering a community around me, without insisting that everyone follow my path exactly. I am going to keep having conversations about values and strategies, though.
And lastly, my own clashing values. I want to keep pollution out of the environment and out of my home by avoiding plastics, and also eat healthy and support ethical food production; but what about foods where the organic version is plastic? One Plastic Free July I bought pasta in cardboard boxes, instead of plastic packets, until my friend told me that the product in cardboard has been fumigated with chemical to kill insects, as it’s not sealed airtight. I continued to use it, warily, until I tipped a boxful into boiling water and it seemed to have dirt in the pot. On close inspection, I found dozens of tiny dead bugs… both the fact that there were insects in it and that they were all dead (sprayed?) was rather offputting. There’s also the organic meat in plastic v who-knows-what-standard meat in BYO containers, as mentioned above. This is the reason I don’t just decommission my bins and keep my waste in a mason jar. It’s a constant dance around ethics; will we be plastic-free, organic, local or cheap today? Luckily, these things cross over for lots of products, so those are things we’ll base our diet around.
We’ve both learnt how to fold newspaper bin liners. We keep a stack under the kitchen sink. They are fairly small but my indoor landfill bin is small. It fills in about a week or so, with housemates and guests around.
Now we know what’s in our bins, we know what to focus on finding solutions for. Bin labels are the first step for our house, and a quick introduction of the bin system when showing new guests around the house. My best tip to avoid plastic is to buy secondhand. You’ll really notice this reducing what’s in your bin, and it’s way cheaper too. Clear communication without guilt and setting an example is the best way to work with housemates or partners who might be on a different page. A clash of priorities is a good time to practice setting boundaries in a nonjudgmental way. Where’s your bottom line?
No matter where you are on your zero waste journey, welcome and take heart. Together we can make a difference.