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.

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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… 

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

A word on compostable and degradable plastics

At the end of Plastic Free July, bojblaz wrote an interesting comment about technological solutions for improving packaging, particularly whether there are more sustainable ways of producing and using plastic. I wrote a quick answer at the time, but I want to delve further into the available alternatives to traditional petrochemical plastics.

Just Degrading

One of the big problems with traditional plastic is that it takes hundreds of years to break down. “Degradable” plastics are often touted as the green alternative to regular plastics, and many plastic bags these days come with the statement “This bag is degradable” proudly stamped across their base. However, degradable plastics are not all they’re cracked up to be. Continue reading

Soft Plastic Recycling Comes to Aotearoa New Zealand

Here in Auckland we’re lucky to have a kerbside recycling system that accepts most types of packaging, but there is one conspicuous exclusion: soft plastic. Apparently plastic films and bags clog up the machines that sort our recycling, causing all kinds of chaos in the process.

Now I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that avoiding single-use packaging in the first place is more important than recycling it after the fact. However, there are some items I still struggle to find plastic-free, and I know many households still consider it normal to bring home a stack of single-use plastic bags from the grocery store each week. What’s more, I recently unearthed a great pile of soft plastic while clearing out some old boxes, and I’m loath to send it all to landfill.

So, with all that in mind, I was delighted to discover a new recycling initiative was recently launched to provide soft-plastic collection bins at supermarkets and The Warehouse stores. The bins will take pretty much any type of soft plastic you can think of, and if they’re well used they should make a big dent in the amount of waste going to landfill. The initiative is being trialled first in Auckland before being rolled out to the rest of the country over the next few years, so keep an eye out for them at your local stores.

While the soft plastic collected won’t be recycled into new plastic bags — it’ll be used to make park benches and other outdoor furniture and signs — providing any sort of recycling is undoubtedly better than sending the whole lot off to a rubbish dump.

Check out the following links if you want to find out more:

  1. Soft Plastic Packaging Recycling
  2. Press Release: Industry, Community and Government partnerships to recycle soft plastic bags gain momentum
  3. Plastic shopping bags to finally be recyclable in new project
  4. From metal to plastic: recycling soft plastic in NZ

Want to have a go at plastic-free living? Here’s my advice for getting started

After a month of the Plastic Free July challenge (and many years of inching towards a more sustainable way of life), here are my tips for those of you who want to have a go but are intimidated by the idea of trying to eliminate plastic from your life.

1. Start easy!

If you try to go completely plastic-free all at once, the enormity of the task is likely to make you give up before you even begin. It’s better to reduce some plastic waste than not try at all. So figure out what’s going to be easiest for you, then start introducing new habits into your everyday life. To give you some ideas, here are the things I’ve found easy:

  • Using reusable shopping bags for everything — not just at the supermarket but at every store; it helps if you always keep a small/foldable shopping bag (such as a canvas or string bag) in your bag or car.
  • Likewise, using reusable produce bags for fruit and veg (you can buy produce bags made of cotton or tulle or make your own from a light material).
  • Carrying a reusable coffee cup and water bottle (I use a stainless steel bottle to avoid plastic additives leaching into my water).
  • Packing sandwiches and snacks in a lunchbox instead of glad wrap (aka cling film).
  • Covering bowls of food in the microwave or fridge with plates instead of glad wrap.
  • Buying Earthcare tissues, which are made from recycled post-consumer paper and have no plastic insert in the box.
  • Better still, replacing single-use tissues with handkerchiefs — I scored eight for 20c each at an op shop the other day!
  • Using solid shampoo and conditioner (e.g. from Lush). Another alternative is bulk shampoo (e.g. from bulk stores or ecostore).
  • Buying bars of soap packaged in cardboard or paper.
  • Using a wooden dish brush and bamboo clothes pegs (from ecostore, organic stores, and some supermarkets).
  • Buying dried goods from bulk bins in my own bags or containers (e.g. Bin Inn, most organics stores, or even in the small bulk bin section at most supermarkets if you don’t mind paying the weirdly high prices).
  • Making my own hummus, muesli bars and bircher muesli.
  • Using cloth menstrual pads (check out this detailed guide to reusable menstrual products by Use Good Stuff).
  • Using an old-fashioned safety razor — I don’t use one (yet) but my husband does.

Feel free to take it slow: I introduced all these changes over time, so don’t feel like you have to overhaul your life in one go.

2. Start big!

I know this appears to contradict the previous tip, but what I mean in full is: Identify the areas of your life where you can make the biggest impact, and start there.

For my husband and I, bread and cereal bags were a regular source of plastic waste, and we identified plastic-free alternatives with relative ease so that’s where we started. Plastic packaging from cheese, milk, and meat is also a big source of waste for us but we’ve found it difficult to source alternatives, so that’s something we’ll keep working at.

On the other hand, the plastic pottle of honey I finished during July or the plastic spray bottles from bathroom cleaner are both things we replace just once or twice a year, so finding plastic-free alternatives for these items has a lower priority.

3. Look at the bigger picture …

Plastic Free July is all about attempting to live without single-use plastic. Plastic waste is a huge issue in the modern world, but it’s certainly not the only issue we’re facing. So while you’re figuring out the best way to live a low-impact lifestyle, consider all the (big and easy) changes you could make. For example, I try to avoid single-use paper items too. Recycling or composting paper packaging just doesn’t feel as good as knowing I avoided unnecessary packaging altogether.

4. But go easy on yourself

Sometimes thinking holistically will throw up tradeoffs: Milk in recycleable single-use plastic bottles, or bulk bin milk powder that was dried using coal-fired furnaces? Walking to the local shop or driving several kilometres to the nearest bulk bin store? Buying the fair trade, organic coffee or the bulk bin coffee beans? Don’t beat yourself up when this happens; just make the best decision for you at that point, and remember that simply being aware of the dilemma is more important than being the ‘perfect’ ethical consumer.

Thankfully, more often than not buying ethically will actually allow you to make a positive difference in multiple ways: Eating less meat and dairy products because they’re difficult to source plastic-free and they generate higher carbon emissions and create more water pollution than eating a largely vegetarian or vegan diet! Buying fresh, seasonal, locally-grown fruit and vegetables because they’re easy to find packaging-free and they have a smaller carbon footprint and they taste better and they’re usually cheaper too!

Now that you have a few ideas under your belt, go get started! I’d love to hear how you get on.