So you've mastered the first steps of going plastic-free - you're probably sipping from a reusable coffee cup as you read this, about to bring your tote bag of stainless steel straws and water bottles to your weekly Boomerang Bag meetup. So what are the next steps when you’ve mastered the plastic-free basics?
One of our pioneering staff members, Giulia began her zero waste journey 2 years ago when she first moved to Wellington and she is now living a very low-waste life, producing less than a mason-jar of landfill rubbish since April. We sat down with her for a (Keepcup of) coffee and picked her brain about how to transition towards a plastic-free life.
Here are Giulia's steps for the practical and psychological stages she worked through to reduce her waste.
1. Know your waste
As a first step, I monitored my rubbish for two weeks. I kept it all in bags and at the end of the two weeks, I emptied them out onto my kitchen floor and took a real serious look at my buying choices (it was a bit of a shock!).
2. Use the 5 Rs
When I knew what I was dealing with on a weekly basis, the next step was to use the 5 R’s. These can be used in all aspects of reducing waste but when sorting through my rubbish, they came especially in handy. The 5 R’s are:
So much can go in the compost! – Cellulose, paper, cardboard, tissues, even organic sanitary products (See our note about compost below.)
Easy items included plastic bags, straws, products that could easily be replaced with glass jars eg jam and peanut butter.
Anything that you can't do without, ask yourself, can I use less of it? i.e. I don't make my own milk but I reduced the amount I use, now I use water in smoothies and porridge and milk pretty much only goes in my coffee, so I can buy less of it.
Reuse what you already have, as well as new things that you can't refuse or reduce. Jars and plastic zip-lock bags can be used for refill bulk items. This also includes Repairing! Fix your clothes and electronics before throwing them away etc.
The 5 Rs are also a hierarchy, so you can aim for #1 (Refuse) but if you can’t do that, then aim for #2 (Reduce) and so on. At the end of that, I realised that tofu, soy milk and toothpaste were the only things that I had to really think about how to replace, everything else felt easy.
3. Go Room by Room
Once I felt happy in the 5 Rs mindset, I took one room of my house at a time and made a list of the alternatives I could buy (working at Commonsense helped me know what alternatives were out there). I then wrote down all of the disposable items I used daily
4. Make your own
A huge part of finding alternatives to the products I used and ate daily was learning how to make them myself! Luckily, there are thousands of recipes online for everything from oat milk to deodorant.
I baked a lot when I first started and it showed me how easy and fulfilling it can be to make my own products – Commonsense has a lot of flours, sugar etc in bulk so that helped. I then moved on to hummus which was an easy one as chickpeas come in recyclable cans, tahini in a glass jar, re-fill olive oil and lemon and garlic were unpackaged. I also started buying bulk oats, seeds, nuts and dried fruits which I combined for warm and healthy breakfasts. I then moved on to more technical recipes (like milk) when I felt ready to.
Alongside this step, it’s important to be honest about what you’re not good at making. I quickly realised that I was terrible at making toothpaste – so I researched companies that were ethical, sustainable and reflected my values. Some companies have their packaging policies written up on their websites, or if they don’t, they’ll always have an email address you can get in touch with and ask them why they choose certain packaging. As consumers, we have the power to tell suppliers when we aren’t happy with their choices, and push them to do better.
It’s awesome to find something you can do that is good for your body, your finances and for the planet all at the same time. When I began buying more whole foods and less processed foods, I saved money, felt healthier and more grateful and connected to the food I was eating.
5. Be prepared!
This process does take time at the beginning, but as you make small changes each day, it gets easier and ends up saving you a lot of time in the long run – trust me. And if you look at the bigger picture, sacrificing a bit of time now for huge gains in the long run is worth the investment. Being prepared means I never leave the house without a bag. In it, I usually have my water bottle, canvas bags, reusable coffee cup, face cloth (so I don’t need to use napkins), a set of cutlery, and I often bring snacks from home so that I don’t get caught hungry and pushed into buying something packaged when I’m out. It felt a bit odd at first, but soon I just got used to bringing these things with me, just like I remember my purse and keys when I leave the house.
1. Eyes Wide Open - #Woke
It all starts with awareness. Take a step back and look at your buying habits. Do they align with your values? Is convenience more important to you than your other needs, or the needs of the people who make and grow your food, or the needs of the planet? For me, my mental shift at how I looked at waste changed when I contemplated the fact that I only get to live on this planet once, and I want to do everything in my power to lessen my negative impact on it.
2. Be Gentle with Yourself
Remember that Zero-Waste is a journey, not a destination. Being absolutely zero waste in this life looks more like living wild in a forest than an Instagram-able packageless pantry - because if you buy food or use a phone or live in a house or drive a car, you are a part of a system which produces waste. Don’t stress about it. Do what you can each day, and when you make mistakes, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, celebrate yourself for being conscious enough to notice and move on. My purchases produce very little waste but I’m not a magical being from another dimension, I’m just human, I make mistakes and I’m not doing anything special, just reducing my waste one day at a time.
3. Be a pioneer
I know the feeling, you’re in a bar and you remember that you should ask for no straw with your drink and then you just…don’t. It can be really hard to request things that might make you look weird like no straws, no plastic bags, or bringing your own Tupperware to takeaway cafes. But when you do it for the first time, I swear it’s not as scary as it seems. Just like all progressive movements, pioneers are the ‘weirdos’ that are doing things differently. Have courage, back yourself. Know that you are doing the right thing.
4. Let yourself enjoy the journey!
Try to not get frustrated with people who don’t understand what you’re doing, aren’t ready to join you, or get defensive about their choices. I have friends who made fun of me at first and now they’re coming to me for advice on giving up plastic which feels great!
I have also made many friends through my zero-waste work. I’ve found people with similar values to me, I’ve gained new skills and a strong sense of independence from the need to buy new products. I’ve inspired people to change what they buy, I’m way better at cooking and sewing now than I ever have been. It’s a fun challenge and it has helped me grow so much in the last couple of years. When I felt ready to take the next step, I joined groups and my aim is to work with the local council and government to help change packaging policies in the whole country!
Finally, remember that your choices have an impact and you are making a difference! There is no such thing as perfect, just the best you can do. Keep fighting the good fight!
Alongside working at Commonsense, Giulia runs this awesome blog with heaps of advice on going plastic free.
Some of Giulia’s favourite resources:
A note about compost:
While it may not seem so, sending food waste to landfill can be very damaging, as the waste can create pockets of methane gas which leak out into the atmosphere. If you do not have your own home compost, consider getting one to help reduce your waste. If you don’t have the space or money for it, take a look at local community gardens - https://www.sharewaste.org.nz/ who will often happily take it off your hands.