20 April 2018

Live well, without recycling

Once a fortnight in my street, and in many streets around the country, people roll out their recycling bins for collection. Kerbside recycling is now the norm for many people, despite only being introduced in most areas during the 1980s or later. People are generally well accustomed to paying attention to what materials their waste is made from, and sorting into the appropriate bin. But situations change, and I think it is time to rethink our attitudes and approaches to recycling.

You may have heard that from Jan 1st 2018, China stopped accepting a range of recyclable materials from Australia. This means that an estimated 619,000 tonnes of stuff that used to be shipped away for China to deal with (e.g. China would recycle plastic into things like rubbish bins), now has to be managed in some other way. Under the previous process, recyclable material would have made a chunk of money for those in the recycling industry – around $500 million dollars a year (for 600,000 tonnes). But now the recycling industry and people within local councils (who collect, sort and manage waste collection) are scrambling to figure out what to do next.

One of the consequences of China’s import ban is that some municipalities might start sending the contents of kerbside recycling bins straight to landfill. Blergh. What a waste. All those jars, cans, bottles, paper and other recyclables that were rinsed, sorted and put in the recycling bin by YOU – now sent to landfill with the rest of the waste from regular waste bins. So far, Ipswich City Council, southwest of Brisbane, has stopped kerbside recycling (although the latest news is that they may have reversed this decision). There is a risk that other councils will retract their kerbside recycling if costs become untenable (in the absence of the cheap, send-to-China option). 

Many councils are stockpiling; hoping and waiting for a local solution to recycle or manage recyclables in a way that avoids landfill. But stockpiling can get expensive and hazardous, and local recycling solutions are few and far between. Councils might start increasing household rate prices to deal with the increased quantity of recyclable material that has to be managed locally. Others might beg the state and federal governments for money to fill the gap. But that won’t solve the longer-term issue of what to do with all the recyclable waste material generated by people in Australia each year.

There have also been whispers of new ‘waste to energy’ schemes being established in Australia to deal with ‘residual waste’ (i.e. waste left over after recyclable material is sorted out). Even the national environment minister is keen on the idea. This might follow along lines of waste to energy plants in Europe and elsewhere. But these, are, in my view, not sustainable long-term solutions. Waste-to-energy plants do little to discourage consumption of harmful plastics and other materials, because those materials are what keep the power plant operating. Waste-to-energy systems do not reflect a closed-loop system, but rather, a slightly elongated linear one. And they still produce waste (approximately 25% of the volume of waste inputs are outputted as a toxic ash, for landfill). We need to do better.

We CAN do better!

The solutions are already all around us. Zero waste solutions, particularly those that provide ways to refuse or reduce quantities of certain types of packaging and waste, can empower you to avoid all this recycling (and landfill) malarkey altogether. And you can start now.

You don’t have to wait for your local council to act. You don’t have to ‘wait and see’ if new recycling plants will be built in Australia, or wait for waste-to-energy plants to be built to deal with all your waste. You don’t even have to wait for some magic plastic-eating enzyme product to hit the shelves. There are actions that can be taken immediately to address the problem of the millions of tonnes of waste going to landfill and recycling. Try these:

  •           Make that decision to commit to avoiding waste. Not just for straws or plastic bags, but for all the things you consume, including those items whose packaging you were normally put to recycling. It’s not as difficult as you might think. Once you’ve made that conscious decision to actively avoid waste (including excess recycling), then many of the other answers you need are out there!
  •           Get informed! Join your local zero waste group. And if you don’t have a local group, Zero Waste Tasmania (which we run), accepts people from all over.
  •       Scout around for alternatives. Think hard about what foods and ‘stuff’ you really need to keep you well-fed and happy. Can you find packaging-free alternatives? Or if you can’t find packaging free options, can you use your own packaging, or only buy compostable packaging.
  •       Get composting – for many people, more than half of their waste comes from food scraps and organic matter. If you can nail a good composting system that suits your home context, then you might be able to halve your waste!
  •       Get talking! The solutions that work for one person don’t necessarily work for everyone. So, talk with your family and friends, your local shop keepers, your social network, and help each other problem solve ways to reduce or avoid certain types of packaging. Think of refillable options instead of single-use, look for home-compostable packaging over plastic, and consider home-made snacks and sweets (or bulk bought ones in your own bags) over plastic-wrapped ones. If you’re stuck, ask online – and the hive mind of your zero waste group will respond, often with more ideas than you can poke a stick at!
  •       Get activisty! Speak up and write to government representatives, businesses and product manufacturers and tell them what changes you'd like to see that help to reduce waste. What products do you think should be better regulated or banned, and what packaging needs to be replaced or eliminated? What other positive actions can you encourage?

The previous situation (sending our recycling to China) was not environmentally sustainable. I mean really, how many plastic rubbish bins do we need in the world? The current post-import-ban situation is also not good, but it is prompting Australia to take more responsibility for its own waste – its own mess. Let us not fall back on harmful, out-of-sight-out-of-mind solutions such as stockpiling and waste-to-energy. Let us use this as a flag to pay more attention to our own waste, and to look for ways to avoid it in the first place. We live in such a geographically large country that recycling is inevitably limited in its efficiency, due to long transport distances and hence, fossil fuel inputs, involved. All the more reason to reduce and avoid waste in the first place.

Oh, and the photo above, shows our little owlet holding the sum total of one year of our recycling. What is more significant is what you don't see - 26 recycling bins of recycling avoided, for each year that we have lived waste-free. This waste-free lifestyle has proven to be quite easy for us, and so we think it is totally doable for many other people in Australia to live similarly, by applying solutions that work for their own circumstances.   

This Sunday is Earth Day! This year’s campaign is around the mission to end plastic pollution. To support this initiative, we are offering our Zero Waste Families e-course for only $10 (which is more than 50% off RRP) between now and midnight Sunday. The course is designed for you to do over a four-week period (or at whatever pace suits you), and aims to provide many solutions for living without waste. Use the coupon code EARTHDAY2018 at checkout, to claim your discount on our e-course.

~ Oberon.

4 April 2018

Waste-free pillows (and sweeter dreams)

We'd been putting off the inevitable decision, and cost, around choosing a new pillow for quite some time. Huz and I bought curved foam pillows more than 12 years ago, and despite cleaning the cover and protector regularly, I'm sure that there were cities of dust mites living in them. Yuck. Probably not great for my dust-mite allergy, and possibly the reason I'd had recurrent sinus infections. And our pillows were starting to disintegrate, with tiny bits of foam flaking off. Gross. Apparently, you're supposed to change pillows every three years, or every six months if you have allergies, so we were well overdue! We started to look at what would be the best waste-free option for us.

Firstly, we wanted to find something home compostable, so we could avoid landfill. That discounted latex foam from our search. Organic cotton, bamboo, wool, and feather were all compostable options we considered. But, of course, there were ethical and environmental considerations to take into account with each option. Distance the materials would travel to reach us, water used in creating the fibre or filling, treatment of animals in animal-based fillings, treatment of fibres and chemicals used in production... And cost. These factors are going to be different for each person, depending on where you live, what you have access to, health considerations, and what you can afford, so one of these may already be right for you. But what was best for us?

Where we live, in Tasmania, we're always happy to try local options to avoid products travelling by air and sea. So, after a hunt around, we were happy to find Tasmanian grown buckwheat hulls. These are a by-product of buckwheat farming. They're also grown by a supplier of our favourite organic grocer, so we asked her to order us a sack with her next delivery, keeping carbon miles relatively low. And as they're not generally a highly sought-after product, the cost was pretty low too (ours was about $10 per pillow). Buckwheat hulls are often used to make yoga bolsters and cushions. They've been used for sleep support in Japan for over 600 years, and you can actually buy ready-made buckwheat pillows in a few places online, so we didn't feel like we were planning something completely eccentric!

We had the sack of hulls sitting in a corner of our lounge room for almost a year while we wrote our book, so it's taken a little while to get to making the actual pillows, but making them was super easy. I wish we'd done it sooner! Here's how we did it:

We already had zip-up pillow protectors, so we re-used those and filled them with a comfortable amount of hulls. I should add here that pillows are actually not a requirement for living and it may even be better for our bodies to sleep without them, but while we get our heads (and necks) around the concept of pillow-free living, we've started with about half a grain sack each of hulls. We will consider reducing the amount of hulls until we're sleeping comfortably without a pillow. Next we zipped up the pillow protectors and added a pillowcase. And that's it. So easy!

To clean the pillow, unzip the pillow protector and pour out the hulls. Then give the protector a wash, and if you can find somewhere to spread out the hulls and give them a little sunlight (perhaps a clean bedsheet or flyscreen away from breezes), that should help to keep the hulls fresh.

So, what are buckwheat hull pillows like to sleep on? Well, they're a little noisier than your average pillow! It's a bit like sleeping on a beanbag, or even a wheat bag/heat pack. They do take a little rearranging, and they're a bit firmer than we've been used to. But they're also super comfortable. The hulls are quite light and soft, hold their shape well, and when you get the right position, it's wonderful. They provide good neck support, and are low-allergy, chemical free, and unscented. The airflow through the hulls keeps them dry and, because they're non-nutritive, and the hulls have regular movement, they're not attractive to pests. I found the knot at the back of my neck disappeared overnight, and my allergies and sinus infection seemed to clear up right away. We did find initially that we tended to move more during the night, and even wriggle down the bed a little, but we actually felt better for that, and persisted. It took Huz a couple of nights to get used to the buckwheat hulls, but now he sleeps comfortably every night.

My favourite thing to try is turning buckwheat hull pillows into enormous dream pillows. Herbs that promote deep sleep and relaxation (such as lavender, rose petals and hops) are fab. The dried herbs can be added in a handmade sachet, or scattered through the buckwheat hulls, for a beautiful sleep.

When it's time for us to replace our buckwheat hulls (in about 10 years), we'll take them out to the garden and compost them and source some new hulls... Great for our garden, good for our bodies, and gentle on the planet.

~ Lauren. xx

1 April 2018

Should I leave my plastic at the counter?

The other day, a few friends shared with me (Oberon) a UK viral video about plastic, and it got me thinking. In the video, a group of supermarket shoppers collectively do their grocery shopping, but when they get to checkout they all remove the plastic packaging from the bought items and leave it on the counter as a sort of plastic protest. The video describes how the group wants supermarkets to take more responsibility for the overuse of plastic packaging in the products they sell. I find it interesting to think about the issue of ‘who takes responsibility’ when it comes to packaging waste. So, who is responsible for single-use waste plastic packaging? I thought I’d ‘unpack’ (pun intended) the issue a little.

There are four main players (probably more) to consider – governments, producers, retailers, and individual shoppers. You could also add other players – media, insurance companies, packaging designers (note the saying ‘Waste is a design choice’), oil companies, plastics manufacturers, waste and recycling managers, industry regulators, and more – but I’ll set these others aside for now.

Let’s look at each of the first four players I mentioned:


Each level of government (local, state, federal, plus international obligations) has different responsibilities and capacity to influence single-use plastic packaging. The Australian Government regulates and manages waste at a national level and administers the Australian Packaging Covenant, which is a sort of ‘soft’ regulation, requiring big businesses to report on the steps they are taking to reduce and better manage packaging.

State Governments have responsibilities around pollution and managing all sorts of aspects of community health and well-being (and waste), but regulation around plastic packaging is not generally offered, unless there is lots of pressure from elsewhere (e.g. peer pressure from other states, or strong lobbying from individuals/communities/local govts). State governments do have the potential to enact fantastic positive change around single-use plastic packaging, but they have to have the will.  

Local government is where (I believe) the greatest in-roads can be made in terms of regulating use or sale of certain types of plastics, but the sphere of influence is limited, to the municipality, and also to limited certain business contexts – e.g. Hobart City Council are banning single-use plastic packaging for takeaway food, but are unlikely to be able to ban all the single-use plastic packaging that lines every aisle of a supermarket.


Producers (the people who grow the food and make the supermarket products) vary greatly – some give attention to environmental impacts, whilst others completely avoid them. Some will give the impression of addressing environmental concerns, such as by calling something ‘eco’ or ‘natural’, whilst continuing to sell harmful products. Producers often sit between a rock and a hard place – they are bound by governmental regulation (e.g. food packaging laws) as well as retailer contracts that may demand certain products be packaged in plastic (e.g. spinach leaves or strawberries), in order for the product to work within the long supply chain of a supermarket. Many foods in Australian supermarkets have had to travel long distances, and with that comes additional requirements for certain types of packaging to keep food fresh and undamaged. Whilst producers can look for ways to avoid plastic packaging of their products, the alternatives may be cost-prohibitive or a legal nightmare – just look at the struggle Elgaar Dairy (both a producer and a market retailer) have had to go through to provide milk in returnable glass bottles.  


Retailers also vary enormously, from the massive multinational corporations, down to little Jimmy selling lemonade on the nature strip. But all retailers choose which products they want to sell, and this includes choosing which items they will sell that are wrapped in single-use plastic. Plastic is cheap, and so many retailers are reluctant to avoid its prevalent use. Big retailers will run the argument that customers demand certain items be wrapped in plastic, or they will say that they are simply offering customers the variety of options that they desire. They have control over packaging of home-brand lines, but rarely do anything to reduce the plastic in them.

Big supermarkets now have automatic electronic checkouts, (which, as an aside, cuts jobs), and (say they) require additional plastic packaging to appropriately use the automated checkout system. This is partly why you’ll often see the organic produce in supermarkets is plastic-wrapped. Big supermarket chains will continue to sell what the customer buys, and are strongly driven by their profit margin, with only tokenistic attention given to things like waste and environmental impacts. They will continue to respond to the dollar signs, and rarely to complaints to their social media walls. A couple of years ago, I initiated and worked on a #PlasticFreeProduce campaign to encourage supermarkets to reduce the plastic packaging of their fruit and veggies – but it was like water on rock, as the supermarkets have strong bureaucratic defences, sending out a lowly customer support person to respond to our concerns, offering the same stock standard (weak) responses, and demonstrating very little to no positive change at their end.  

Fortunately, there are some retailers who prioritise packaging and waste – these businesses deserve higher support and their business models encouraged. They are not the focus of the viral video I mentioned above, but they are relevant to the solutions to the problem.


Individuals have more power than they know. Whilst we each appear to be a mere drop in the ocean of customers that frequent big retail stores, our influence (including our absence from those stores) is apparent. When you abstain from buying a certain plastic-wrapped product from a major chain supermarket, and choose instead to grow your own or support a small, ethical and local producer, then you are sending multiple positive messages. You will both reduce the sales of harmful items from supermarkets (which can lead them to discontinue items or consider alternatives) and also promote local businesses to flourish, or (if you grow your own) demonstrate self-reliance – which is a fantastic way to reduce waste.

But what about the fact that it is still just a drop in the ocean? Well, my family have limited out waste over the last two and a half years to little more than would fill a medium-sized glass jar. We’ve also stopped shopping at supermarkets and now source food from local, ethical businesses, grow our own, and barter. The (roughly) $250 per week that we used to spend at the supermarket each week is now supporting a healthy local economy. That equates to around $30,000 that we have taken from the sales of major supermarkets, and divested into businesses that prioritise or support zero-waste approaches. Doing this helps to those smaller ethically-driven businesses to offer items at more competitive prices. Also, supporting local is also great, because it is generally easier to open up a dialogue about waste and improved waste-management, because you can speak directly to the person who can influence production and sales.

That is not to mention the 5 tonnes or so of landfill that we have avoided (compared to the average household over 2.5 years), and the numerous tonnes that would have previously gone to recycling (which we now avoid, compost or burn for heat). And then there is the influence of this ‘passive’ activism – others have been prompted to make changes in their habits, upon seeing that living with much less waste can be possible, cheaper and more convenient that the supermarket trawl. There are now around 7000 people in Zero Waste Tasmania, and other zero waste groups that have started in response to this group. Many others are enacting positive change in their area and discussing ways to reduce waste. Maybe it’s not a drop after all – maybe it’s the start of a wave.

It should be mentioned that neither individuals, producers, retailers or governments, hold all responsibility for waste. But each group have things that they have high influence over, that they could be doing more about, especially when they are informed about the harmful impacts of existing practices. I will also add that none of these four players act completely independently – there is an interplay within and between all four – and I believe that effective, positive outcomes are more likely if the dialogue remains open, informed and courteous. But remember, governments don’t have to keep single-use packaging legal, producers don’t have to keep wrapping everything in plastic, retailers don’t have to keep buying plastic-wrapped goods, and individuals don’t have to buy plastic-wrapped stuff. The responsibility is indeed shared amongst all these groups.

So, back to the viral video mentioned at the beginning of this rant. Those shoppers who bought plastic-wrapped items, only to remove the packaging at checkout? They want to absolve themselves of responsibility for the packaging and put the onus back onto the retailer. My problem is that those customers are still choosing to buy the plastic-wrapped products in the first place. The retailer’s bottom line is unaffected. The cost to remove the discarded plastic packaging is minimal (whether they landfill it or recycle it). Mountains more plastic is used in the bundling up of goods on pallets at the back of the store, and during other steps in production and transport. The plastic around the product is merely the tip of the waste iceberg for most items in a supermarket. And the customers have the option to simply not buy those plastic-wrapped items. Most fruits and vegetables can be bought unwrapped at supermarkets, and basic needs met by buying items elsewhere, from local grocers, shops, bulk food stores, markets, community gardens, co-ops, butchers, delis, etc.

The viral video does not offer solutions, nor does it demonstrate willingness by those customers to actually change their own behaviours. But many people CAN change how they shop, get their food, and meet their own needs. The viral video shows does have the effect of showing off just how much plastic is wrapped around items that supermarkets sell. But just filming items on the shelves will do that, right? – you don’t need to buy and remove the packaging to see what it is made from.

We can’t keep hand-balling responsibility around. Seeing supermarkets argue that they are merely responding to customer demand (by offering plastic options), whilst ignoring those who argue to remove plastic, is simply exhausting. Conversely, demanding change from supermarkets when there are perfectly valid and do-able ways to live without them (e.g. see our book ‘Bountiful: A family guide to waste-free living’ to be released later this year! *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*) by following any number of ‘zero-waste approaches’. The short- and long-term solution is for individuals and local communities (including businesses and governments) to adopt new, and environmentally-much-less-harmful paradigms – ones that do not rely on multi-national corporations who demonstrate little care for environmental impacts. If they did care, the supermarkets would have stopped selling single-use plastic products decades ago.

Good in-roads to broad, positive change (e.g. community level and bigger) can be made in various ways. But first, we should take a little time for self-reflection – what can we do as individuals and households to reduce our own waste? Once we are informed about the waste we produce, and take steps to reduce it, then the barriers to further waste-reduction becomes more apparent. You may find that you can live without supermarkets, but that you hit waste barriers when you start focusing on the waste associated with clothing, electrical goods, or travel. For each wasteful item, there can be a number of ways to address it. If you have the time, learn about their production system, business ethics, supply chain, and their organizational context. It may be worth writing to them to highlight a concern, but if you do this, offer solutions as well. Refer them to other businesses who are leading the way on a particular issue, so that they may aspire to improve practices.

Also, write letters and emails to your local government aldermen or members of parliament – people who are in positions to vote on motions for positive change. If you’re in the know on and issue and you think the council member is not, then inform them!
You may also want to let retailers know why you’re opting out of their products, but in the case of big multi-national corporations, don’t expect to see much more than a scripted, copy and paste response from them. In the case of the viral ‘plastic protest’ video, the customers aren’t really opting-out of the products, so the argument for leaving the packaging on the counter is confused.  

Leaving plastic product packaging at the counter is, in my opinion, akin to leaving a big steaming turd on someone’s doorstep – it is only going to incite annoyance and anger, but does not offer any solutions to the waste problem. It is an act of despair, of waving hands in the air and saying ‘What can we do, it’s all your fault!’ At best, such action might prompt discussion, albeit confused discussion.

Activism can be a useful strategy to push for broader shifts towards low-waste lifestyles and processes, but such actions will be more effective if they are solutions focused and not simply buck-passing. A great example the sort of positive activism that I mean, can be seen in Plastic Wise Taroona, who approached local, medium-sized supermarkets and negotiated for them to ditch plastic shopping bags, whilst offering reusable cloth bags instead. This action was collaborative, co-operative and mutually beneficial to businesses, customers and the local environment. I’d love to see similar, innovative solutions and cooperative approaches put in place to address waste problems elsewhere.  

As parents, Lauren and I encourage our children to take responsibility for themselves, and for their waste. We don’t want them to feel helpless in the world, or to constantly pass the buck on issues that they can actively control. We’d rather they problem-solve, and we encourage them to be self-reliant. The goal posts of this planet are constantly changing and so we want to equip our children such that they can adapt to changing times, with novel solutions.

~ Oberon