Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

***

Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

***

In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

***

This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

New Perspectives

Hello, old friend. I know I’ve been absent for a while – nearly six whole months, in fact. Where does the time go?

Truth be told, the last few months of 2016 seemed to disappear in a flash. “Is it really October already?” I thought. “November? December? 2017?!”

I kept meaning to come back here, and write a blog post – or five. My absence has not been for lack of inspiration. But when life is rattling along at a breakneck pace, the easiest commitments to drop first are those I keep solely for my own enjoyment, and blogging sits squarely in that basket.

That’s not to say my life was passing swiftly by without me. When I look back over the past year, I can see I filled my time with things I love and that are important to me – dancing; hanging out with family and friends; learning Te Reo Māori; rediscovering downtime; finding a new home with my husband; moving to a place that helps me to live more in line with my values…

It’s those last two points I’d like to elaborate on now. Moving to a new home brought about several changes in my attempts to tread lightly on the earth, for better and for worse.

Ginger cat sitting on footpath at intersection

The neighbourhood cat

Unfortunately, I found the process of moving to a new neighbourhood rather disruptive to my nascent zero-waste habits. I’d spent months finding local shops and suppliers that enabled me to reduce household packaging, and now I was back at square one. Not only that, but the stress of moving into and setting up a new home took its toll and I found myself growing lax about buying plastic-packaged food. I’ve started to establish new waste-minimising routines here, but getting back on the zero-waste bandwagon is definitely a work in progress.

This was the first time my husband and I moved into a completely unfurnished home, so we had to acquire a number of new-to-us items. Some of these items we did have to buy brand new, either because we needed them urgently or because it’s the only way to source apartment-sized furniture and whiteware in New Zealand. But we also found a lot of the things we needed secondhand, in op shops, online, or donated by relatives. 

One of the things we acquired was a car. It’s the first time I’ve officially owned a car, and I have very conflicted feelings about it. Car travel is far more damaging to the environment and to local communities than going by foot or public transport, but I must admit that it’s so darn convenient to own a car in Auckland. In the past I’ve always been able to access a parent’s car for those trips I couldn’t make by bus or train. At our new house, my husband and I don’t need a car for any of our day-to-day work, study, shopping or recreational trips. But when it comes to visiting far-flung friends and family (or bulk bin stores) there really isn’t a good alternative to the car.

On the other hand, I love the location of my new home because it means I don’t need to use the car very often. I can walk to work in less than an hour; the nearest supermarket is just five minutes away by foot, as are op shops and whole foods stores. I can go to dance and yoga classes with a fifteen-minute walk. The local bus route runs every five minutes all day and every ten minutes late into the evening and on weekends, and the train line is also nearby. As far as Auckland locations go, it’s pretty much perfect for (almost) car-free living. Ultimately, being able to access such a variety of destinations on foot gives me a sense of freedom and autonomy. I love that walking can legitimately be the easiest and fastest way for me to get where I’m going, and I love being able to get a regular dose of exercise as part of my commute.

On balance, the move to a small, central apartment has made me feel like I’m living more in keeping with my values. I can drive less, walk more, spend less time commuting and cleaning, and more time enjoying my home. And I can access the people and places I want to visit more easily, so I’m looking forward to another year filled with the things I love. 

Jacaranda tree in bloom

Jacaranda tree in bloom

P.S. I’d love to end on that positive note, but as we dive headlong into the second month of 2017 I feel the need to somehow acknowledge the darkness clouding the world at this time. I’m feeling pretty powerless down here at the bottom of the planet though. While I don’t have the capacity to engage with the issues in a meaningful way right now, I promise: I am here, I am awake, I am watching, I am listening. 

While the light lasts I shall remember, and in the darkness I shall not forget.

Plastic Free July 2016: Final Reflections

My Plastic Free July experience this year took an unexpected twist in the final week. Things were trucking along nicely, with a relatively small trickle of plastic entering my dilemma pile and my cravings for dairy getting a little weaker. Then a family emergency temporarily turned my life upside-down, and avoiding plastic suddenly didn’t seem like such a high priority.

So this post reflects on what I learned from the plastic-free challenge itself and from dealing with the realities of an unpredictable world.

But first, what plastic did I accumulate since my last post?

The Plastic

Plastic packaging from July - pill packets, meat tray, chocolate wrappers, and jar stickers

This is the plastic I accumulated in the third week of PFJ.

  1. Meat tray and cling wrap: Both these items can be recycled, and while that doesn’t eliminate the plastic completely, I am much happier buying meat on recyclable plastic trays than polystyrene trays.
  2. Pill packets: Healthcare is one area where it’s difficult—and perhaps not even desirable—to avoid plastic packaging.
  3. Chocolate wrappers: As I said last time, these were a gift (given with good intentions—and delicious!)
  4. A bag of pinenuts: This was purchased a while ago and finished during July. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find replacement pinenuts in any bulk bins yet.
  5. Plastic stickers from glass jars: A disappointing find, and something I’ll have to watch for more closely in future.
  6. Tear strip from an envelope: I received an official document in the post in a cardboard envelope with a plastic tear strip. Compared with the usual plastic parcel bags, I thought it scored pretty highly on the plastic-free front.

The Lessons

Here are the key lessons I learned this July. While they aren’t strictly new lessons for me, they are important reminders about the best way to journey towards a lower impact life.

1. Buying food in your own containers will only get you so far

All I can directly control through my purchasing decisions is my post-consumer waste. Buying from bulk bins or getting takeaways placed into my own container avoids packaging going into my household rubbish and recycling bins, but almost everything I purchase will have arrived at the store in some form of single-use packaging.

However, I can help to reduce this pre-consumer waste by choosing local (hopefully reducing the packaging needed for transport), choosing fresh, choosing to support companies working to reduce waste through all parts of the supply-chain (like Ooooby), choosing to grow or make my own, and choosing to buy less stuff.

2. Living a more sustainable life is not about deprivation

I really struggled with giving up dairy products this July, which is clearly a sign that I’m not ready to do so completely yet! For example, in the middle of winter a hot drink is comforting and warming, but I find tea and hot chocolate taste much nicer with milk than without.

The journey to a more sustainable lifestyle needs to be just that—sustainable. That means gradually building in lifestyle changes that align with your values and don’t feel like too much hard work. It’s impossible to stick with a diet (whether it’s a low-carb diet or a plastic-free diet) if it’s built around a narrative of deprivation instead of mindful consumption. I haven’t yet figured out how to significantly cut back on dairy and meat packaging in a way that feels sustainable for me, but I’ll keep working on it.

3. Sometimes other things are more important

When a family emergency took over my life in the final week of July, sticking to my environmental principles seemed pretty unimportant compared to spending time with family and helping everything run as smoothly as possible (e.g., by contributing to and partaking in meals made with plastic-packaged food, including copious amounts of tea!)

Making the decision to give up Plastic Free July for the final week was actually really easy. I’d read Pip’s recent post on her lessons from Plastic Free July last year just a few days earlier, and I felt like it gave me the permission I needed in order to let go.

It’s also worth mentioning that the plastic-free challenge and my other environmental values still featured in my life, even though they’d dropped lower on my list of priorities. Extended family members were happy to chat about my efforts to live a “plastic-free” and “car-free” life (and gently tease me for failing in those aspirations).

So in closing I’d like to reiterate what Pip said: Some people have other things to worry about and simply aren’t able to reduce their waste. Sometimes, we are those people. And for all of us, some areas of our lives are harder to tackle than others. This just makes it all the more important that those of us who can reduce our waste (and our car travel, etc.) do what we can for the benefit of the whole world and all the people in it.

Shall I buy a cow? A Plastic Free July update

We’re a little over halfway through Plastic Free July so I thought I’d review my progress so far. 

Let’s start with the lady elephant* in the room: Dairy. Everyone I’ve talked to about the challenge wondered what on earth I was going to do about milk and cheese. Neither are easy to source plastic-free in Auckland (though not completely  impossible). My simple solution was to go without. 

I knew giving up dairy would be hard for me, but I didn’t expect to struggle with it so much! I miss the creamy sweet tartness of yoghurt on my breakfast. I miss the burst of cheesy flavour in my lunch. I miss milky cups of tea and hot chocolate. Every time I prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner, a snack or a hot drink I am reminded that I’m not allowed to have these tasty things. 

It is getting easier as the month goes on and I grow accustomed to a new normal (and as I’ve found alternative ways to get a melted cheese fix on these cold winter nights) but at this stage I expect I will go back to buying plastic-packaged milk, cheese and yoghurt once July is over. 

And then what? I’ll probably eat/drink less than I did before, but I can’t forget that every time I buy these items I’m introducing brand new plastic to the environment, which will take hundreds of years to break down and may never truly be gone. 

So I’m left pondering the question: how much plastic waste am I comfortable leaving in my wake? Should I put my faith in some as-yet-uninvented technology that can chemically break down old plastics into harmless and useful substances, or bacteria that can eat microplastics, transforming them into energy and carbon dioxide? Or should I just buy a cow?!

PFJ trash halfway

In other news, I’ve acquired a bunch of extra plastic in the past fortnight from new board games, gadgets and magazines. While none of the purchases were strictly necessary (and I’m of the opinion they all arrived rather over-packaged), I do expect the new items to bring joy into my life. I would also rather focus on eliminating plastic from regular purchases, like food and cleaning products, because that will have a bigger long-term impact than being super strict about one-off purchases. 

The other new plastic items I bought include toothpaste to replace the empty tube, two meat trays (which someone else dutifully bundled off into the recycling bin before I could photograph them), a few fruit stickers, and the plastic label on a glass jar of coconut yoghurt. 

I have to admit that last one was a bit disappointing! I bought the yoghurt last week after going “cold turkey” for a week, and I’ve really appreciated the added creaminess on my oats. But I subsequently realised the packaging wasn’t quite so plastic-free after all, so I won’t be buying it again. 

The photo also includes my plastic waste from things purchased pre-July, including chocolate wrappers (a gift), and a ziplock bag that fell apart after several years of use.

While the start of July brought a lot more plastic waste than I’d expected, I’ve also managed to successfully avoid plastic in tricky situations like work functions. If you’re doing Plastic Free July this year, how are you finding the challenge?  

*Because female elephants are also called cows! Sorry for launching that pun at you without warning… 

5 reasons I love my fruit and vegetable box

Earlier this year my family started getting a box of fruit and vegetables delivered to our house each week. We decided to order from a company called Ooooby — Out Of Our Own Backyards — because they specialise in local, organic produce, but there are a ton of other companies offering a similar service.

After a couple of months using the service, here are five reasons I love our fruit & veg box.

1. It’s fresh, local, seasonal, and organic

So this is four reasons rolled into one, but they’re all related. Ooooby makes a point of sourcing all their produce as locally as possible. The fruit and veg arrives fresh at our doorstep within a day of being delivered to Ooooby. Because the food is fresh and locally grown, it’s in season too. And Ooooby also focuses on organics, making it much easier (and cheaper, and less packaged) than buying organic produce at a store.

2. It’s super convenient

Between our weekly Ooooby box delivery and a bulk shopping trip for dried goods every month, we don’t have too much more in the way of grocery shopping. That saves a lot of time each weekend that we used to spend traipsing around the supermarket.

3. It’s like Christmas every week

I get excited about receiving a package full of healthy, tasty goodness each week! Opening up the box and seeing all the fresh colours there gives me a thrill similar to unwrapping Christmas presents — but without all the waste and misdirected consumerism.

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Sneak peek… look at that colour!

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A week’s worth of delicious fresh fruit and vegetables

4. We get to try new types of food

Each box comes with a different variety of fruit and veg, depending on what Ooooby’s growers have available that week. And each box includes all sorts of items I never would have bought (or even seen) when shopping at the supermarket! So far the new types of food I’ve tried cooking thanks to Ooooby include:

  • Chestnuts
  • Kale
  • Beetroot
  • Tatsoi
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Fennel
  • Daikon radish

We’ve also received exciting new varieties of familiar plants, like pointy capsicums and rainbow chard.

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Another week’s haul (minus a bunch of kale that had already been sent to the fridge)

5. It’s (almost) waste-free!

The main packaging is the box, which Ooooby collect and reuse each delivery. Aside from tape on the box, paper to protect leafy greens, paper bags for dirty root vegetables, and the odd rubber band, our produce now comes virtually packaging-free, which makes it much easier to avoid plastic and other waste — perfect for Plastic Free July. It also means no more pesky fruit stickers! And we can now buy organic, fair-trade bananas without the plastic tape they come wrapped in at the supermarket.

Of course, getting our produce delivered is not a perfect setup. We have less control over how much fruit and veg we get each week — some weeks we’re barely scraping by and others we end up with a lot more than we need. And when the supply chain is this short and local, any hiccups at the supplier’s end have a much greater influence on us as consumers. But on balance, I’m totally in love with my weekly produce delivery and I highly recommend it as a way to buy local, seasonal, and plastic-free food.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Ooooby in any way; I’m just a happy customer.

Plastic Free July – Round 2

​Plastic Free July kicks off today!  Taking part in the challenge for the first time last year was honestly life-changing. I became so much more aware of how much plastic we use in our daily lives and how damn hard it is to avoid. And committing to pick up rubbish each week during July made me aware of why it is so important to reduce single-use plastic as much as possible. 

But I feel like my journey towards a lower waste lifestyle has stalled since then and I’m becoming complacent about the changes I’ve already made. So I’m using this month as an opportunity to tackle some of the areas I avoided last year – namely dairy, crackers, and (possibly) meat. 

I love dairy-based foods so I’m reluctant to give them up, but plastic-free dairy products are near impossible to come by. Here is my plan of attack: 

  • Milk: I intend to not drink milk this month. I have multiple reasons for this decision, which I’ll elaborate on further in a forthcoming post. 
  • Yoghurt: I plan to buy coconut yoghurt in a glass jar tomorrow – I’ll let you know how that goes. 
  • Cheese: I found a local source of unpackaged cheese but it’s much more expensive than the regular stuff we buy so until I find a cheaper option I’ll be severely cutting back my cheese consumption. 
  • Ice cream: While I don’t eat as much ice cream during winter, it’s still a delicious treat. Luckily, there’s an ice cream store round the corner from my work. I used to always buy ice cream in a cone to avoid the disposable cup, but I’ve discovered the staff are also very happy to serve ice cream in my keep cup. 

There are other areas I’m also keen to tackle at some point, such as making or sourcing plastic-free lip balm, deodorant and cleaning products, but it’s more wasteful to do this before I’ve used up what I already have so I’ll wait until my current supplies run out. 

I also want to mention the #take3forthesea initiative by Take 3, which I came across just today. I hadn’t intended to set myself a rubbish collecting goal this time around, but picking up rubbish in conjunction with doing the Plastic Free July challenge last year played a huge part in opening my eyes to the need to take personal action, and I encourage all of you to give it a go!

Check back here for updates on the plastic I’ll inevitably accumulate this is month, and keep an eye on my (brand new) instagram too: @raquel_nz

If you need some inspiration to get started, check out my tips for reducing waste and the rest of my posts from last year’s #plasticfreejuly

Pre-loved

I recently bought a secondhand jumper to help keep me snuggly and warm this winter*. When I buy secondhand I usually try to pick items in good condition because I like my clothes to last me a long time. The very first thing I noticed about this particular jumper was a tear at the collar, and there were at least three other signs of wear or damage. And yet I couldn’t help but love it – the colour and fit were perfect for me!

Since bringing the top home, I’ve fallen even more in love. I’ve also discovered more signs of wear, including two places where the previous owner stitched up tears in the fabric. And you know what? Knowing that my new jumper has been heavily worn, loved and repaired by someone else makes it feel that much more special. Give me pre-loved over brand new any day!

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*Although it’s shaping up to be a very mild winter so far. Global warming much?