Five things to try instead of hoarding soft plastic for recycling

Wondering what to do with your soft plastic waste now that recycling collections have been put on hold?

Like many kiwis, my plan was to continue collecting my soft plastics, ready for the return of the recycling scheme in April. But, of course, there’s no guarantee the recycling scheme will return as planned. And given the recycling scheme was paused in the first place because the supply of material for recycling far outweighed the demand, inundating the collection bins when they reopen with hoarded piles of soft plastic is hardly going to help matters.

A better option for everyone involved is to reduce the amount of soft plastic waste you create and, where possible, reuse the soft plastic that you can’t avoid. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Bring your own bags

Let’s start with the obvious. Everyone knows about reusable shopping bags. The trick is to actually use them, every time you go to the shops – and that refers to any shop, not just the supermarket.

Less common, but equally useful, are reusable produce bags for all your fruit and vegetables. These come in many different forms, but the most common are 100% biodegradable organic cotton bags, or mesh bags made from recycled plastic drink bottles. Even The Warehouse is getting in on the action with a very budget-friendly set of mesh bags (eco-credentials not available).

Or, if you’re only picking up one or two items, perhaps you don’t need a bag at all?

… and your own containers

These days, I get almost all of my dry goods from bulk bin shops – nuts, seeds, legumes, cereals, sugar, dried fruit, rice, pasta, herbs, spices, and the list goes on. I have a large collection of zip lock bags that I take with me to the shop, but it’s just as easy to take along your own containers or jars to fill – just make sure to weigh them first so you can subtract the weight of the container from the price. (Another option is to buy reusable bulk bin bags – they’re available from many of the same places that sell reusable produce bags.)

I also buy most of my cleaning products from bulk stores (along with oil, syrup, and peanut butter). I simply bring along the original bottles to refill.

Sometimes, though, going to a bulk bin store just isn’t a good option. Many of the new stores that have been popping up around Auckland are, let’s face it, very expensive. Or maybe the nearest store is more than a half an hour’s drive away. But many supermarkets have their own bulk bin section, which often have a reasonable selection of things like nuts, seeds, legumes and snacks. And see if you can find some pantry staples in paper packaging – like porridge oats, flour or sugar.

Stepping outside the supermarket, you may also be able to find a local bakery or butcher who use paper packaging or who are willing to place their products into your (clean!) containers or bags. Check out your local farmers market too, if you have one nearby.

Make your own

Years before I’d ever heard of “zero waste”, one of the first things I started making in an effort to reduce the amount of rubbish I created was muesli bars. I think at the time most of the ingredients I bought for my home-made bars still came in plastic, but it felt a whole lot better to make my own than to unwrap and discard a wrapper from a muesli bar every single day.

More recently, one of the big lifestyle changes I made when I first took part in Plastic Free July was switching from buying bread to making my own. As with the muesli bar example, bread was a regular source of plastic waste in our household. I knew I could source most of the ingredients in paper bags or from bulk bin shops without single-use packaging. And we already had a breadmaker so it made sense to use it!

I know most of us don’t have time to make a whole lot of things from scratch, so try to identify just one or two things that you currently buy but could easily make instead.

For example, do you have a breadmaker that only gets pulled out for special occasions? Or do your parents/children/siblings/flatmates have one you could borrow for a while? Snacks like muesli bars, biscuits and crackers are also surprisingly easy to make.

Choose to reuse

If you can’t find what you want without plastic packaging and you don’t have the time or inclination to make it yourself, see if you can choose packaging that you can use again. For example, many items in the supermarket come in zip lock bags that can easily be repurposed. Over the years, I’ve saved zip lock bags from biscuits, specialty flours, muesli, and brewing ingredients (now part of my bulk bin shopping bag stash), as well as holey zip lock bags from spinach (now used to store other vegetables that dry out too quickly if I leave them in my reusable produce bags).

Or just refuse

Some things are really hard to buy without plastic packaging. Meat and dairy products are two of the biggest culprits in our house. Some types of fruit and vegetables are also notoriously difficult to find free of plastic.

So… If you can’t find what you want without plastic packaging and you don’t have the time or inclination to make it yourself, ask yourself: Do I really want this, despite the plastic? Am I willing to give it up? Or can I eat or use a little less of it?

Because of my shift towards a zero waste lifestyle, some foods that used to be a staple part of my diet are now an infrequent treat. Only you will know what you’re willing to compromise on, but if you’ve never considered cutting back on some things because of their packaging then it’s worth thinking about it now.

Take one step at a time

Finally, no matter where you are on your journey to reduce your plastic waste, whether you’re just starting out or you feel like a pro, know this: It takes time. I’ve been slowly whittling away at my waste for years now. I can comfortably say I create less waste than the average kiwi, but I’m also nowhere near being able to fit all my rubbish for the year into a single jar. Sometimes life gets on top of me and I backslide, and that’s okay too.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for simple swaps you can make to avoid soft plastics, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. Now, come up with one or two changes you think will be easy for you to make, and give them a go!

I’d love to hear what you try – let me know in the comments below.

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.

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.