So, what is “zero waste”? Well, for me, it means sending as little waste to landfill as possible. Yes, we recycle, but recycling is not a magic bullet – it is a hugely energy-intensive and polluting process where many products, particularly plastic, are down-graded into lower quality products and will eventually end up in landfill. So, recycling is not the best option.
I find it helpful to follow the 5 R’s, in order:
Here’s a room-by-room rundown of the changes we’ve made so far on our journey to zero waste.
Ecostore bulk refill shampoo (available at Freemans Bay store)
Ecostore package-free soap (available at Freemans Bay store)
Cloth toilet wipes (being used part-time…not fully committed!)…we have a simple, clean system – used wipes are popped into a lidded bin next to the loo and then thrown in the wash. No smell…no waste…easy peasy!
Recently I went to a friend’s house and was introduced to someone as an “eco warrior”. And, I have to say, I was a bit taken aback by the label. Although, I’m obviously passionate about environmental issues, and hey, I’m aware of the name I’ve given my blog, I was a little troubled by this title.
Firstly, referring to me as an “eco warrior” paints me as some kind of hero.
I’m not a hero. I’m a normal, bog-standard, everyday person. With flaws – oh so many flaws. Yes, I try my best to not bring trash into my house. But, my life is not perfect – not even close. My house is often a mess, I struggle with time management and am a master procrastinator (facebook!!), I can be lazy, selfish and judgemental and, even though I strive to be zero waste…I drive a car, I take long showers – actually I waste too much water in general, my vege garden is a nightmare – well, I’m not even sure I can technically call it a vege garden anymore (do weeds and a giant ageing rosemary bush count?). And, despite being appalled by dairy industry practices and the impact they have on our environment, I’m still buying butter and cheese.
So, no, I’m not a hero. And I think that calling me that doesn’t help our planet one iota. Putting someone up on a pedestal makes that person seem extraordinary and that what they are doing is unattainable to mere mortals. But, the stuff that I’m doing? Buying food at the bulk store, getting things secondhand, choosing glass, metal and wood over plastic, bringing my own bags and containers, cutting down on purchases in general? It doesn’t require superhuman strength and it’s something that everyone can do (okay, if you live out in the middle of nowhere, the bulk store might be tricky – but the rest of it? – totally doable).
So, if you haven’t made a start with zero waste, it’s not too late. If you want to think of folks who are already on their way with this lifestyle as heroes, go right ahead…but you’d best have a phone box in the vicinity for a quick change.
Because if I’m a hero, you are too…you just have to put your cape on.
I was a child of the 80’s…an era when the prevailing environmental message was “recycle! recycle! recycle!”. I have fond memories of going on a school trip to the Coca Cola factory where they taught us about the many interesting ways that one could repurpose a plastic Coke bottle. We even got to take home the (*cough* propaganda) handy reuse booklet. Bird feeder, anyone?
So…they taught us about repurposing and about how important it was to recycle.
What they didn’t teach us was the fact that when a Coke bottle is recycled, it doesn’t turn into another Coke bottle.
And it was only a couple of years ago that I learned the truth – that each time you recycle plastic, it is made into a product that is more inferior in quality and you can only do this 7-9 times before the integrity of the product degrades to the point where it will be sent to landfill.
Recycling, however, is still regarded as an important piece of the waste solution puzzle…and it does have its place. So, I thought I’d better learn more about the business of recycling and when the team at EcoMatters got in touch with me to ask if I’d like to come along on their tour to the Visy Recycling Centre in Onehunga, I jumped at the chance.
After a brief journey through the streets of Auckland, we rolled up in our bus and disembarked with the faint sweet stench of garbage in the air and seagulls circling overhead.
Visy is NZ’s largest recycling centre (otherwise known as a Material Recovery Facility or MRF) running 24/7 with 200 deliveries every day. They receive all of Auckland’s recycling (a hefty 230,000 tonnes each year), which they then sort, bale and forward to processing facilities, most of which are overseas.
Recycling trucks collect the contents of our curbside bins and make their way to Visy, where the loads are emptied onto a huge heap at the back of the building. The items are then picked up by a digger and dumped onto a conveyor belt that snakes its way into the facility.
A team of people do the pre-sorting, pulling non-recyclable items off the conveyer belt. It’s challenging work, made even more difficult by the need to handle some seriously unpleasant items (dirty nappies!)…so, think of those brave souls when you’re chucking things in the recycling bin and make sure that items are clean and actually able to be recycled.
The recyclables then go through a series of rotating cylinders with different sized holes to filter out different types of materials. Metals are collected by magnets and plastics are sorted by infrared cameras.
The recycling machine gets stopped at least once a day due to wraparound issues (non-recyclable materials jamming the machinery) and any untangling has to be done by hand (and can take up to an hour!).
After a short time in the education room, talking to Caroline, Visy’s educational advisor…we all donned high vis vests, safety glasses and shocking pink hard hats for our tour around the perimeter of the facility. I have to say, I was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to see the factory floor. It would have been awesome to watch the machines at work, but, unfortunately, that area is highly restricted (for some reason), and no peeking is permitted.
As we watched the trucks driving in and emptying their contents and the digger hard at work, Caroline talked about some of the more unusual things that found their way to Visy. “You would not believe some of the things that people put into their recycling bins. Once we found an entire single mattress that had been squashed into a bin. We get a lot of hazardous waste – car batteries, paint tins, needles. All of the guys have to have Hepititus injections before working the machines. One time, a truck came in and, unbenownst to the driver, his load was on fire – a car battery had ignited. We had to wave him down and put out the fire. We’ve also had a rifle turn up. We had to shut the place down and call the police. And one time, someone even decided to try and recycle a dead cat.”
In the same way that you can tell a lot about someone from the contents of their shopping trolley, Visy staff get an insight into Aucklanders’ lives based on our recycling habits and there are trends at particular times of the year. For example, in December and January, Visy receives tonnes of glass as a result of Christmas & New Years celebrations. In November/December, they get loads of cardboard and paper from Christmas gift-buying. And, in June/July, they collect mountains of milk bottles (cold weather equals lots of hot drinks, it seems).
Some other interesting facts:
Visy is owned by the Pratts, the second wealthiest company in Australia. The name “Visy” comes from Mr Pratt’s great-grandmother, whose nickname was Visy.
Visy was opened in 2008. When they started operations, they were sending 30% of what they received to landfill. Nowadays, they send around 11% of deliveries to landfill.
Aluminium is the highest paying commodity.
All glass stays in NZ to be recycled, however Kiwi companies are accepting less glass these days, as it’s cheaper to bring pre-manufactured glass in from overseas than it is to make it in New Zealand 😦 .
Pizza boxes are recyclable (as long as no food scraps remain – a smear of oil is fine).
Disposable coffee cups are not recycled due to inconsistent labelling.
Small bits of paper must be placed in a sealed envelope or box…otherwise they’ll get lost.
Cans of spray are recyclable…but they must be empty as they are a fire hazard! (although, apparently the guys don’t mind too much if it’s a can of potpourri or Lynx deoderant that explodes, as it makes their workplace a little less stinky!).
At the end of our tour, I asked Caroline if I could show her some items I’d brought along to clarify whether or not they were recyclable. And, happily, she obliged. I was pretty well convinced that most of the things in my “box of shame” were landfill-bound, but, it doesn’t hurt to double-check these things.
And the outcome?
Out of all these items….
This pitiful trio of tinfoil, were the only items that are recyclable.
And the rest? All headed for the dump.
One area of confusion for me was jar labels. Paper labels are obviously recyclable. However, some labels are lined with plastic (the way you can tell is that they are usually shiny and can’t be torn). I always wondered what happens to those plastic-lined labels attached to containers that go to the recycling centre. It turns out, they are definitely not recyclable, and, once removed, they get sent to landfill. Boo again.
So, from now on, I’ll be seeking out companies that don’t line their labels with plastic…and I’ll be contacting those that do to ask them to consider switching their labels to those that are plastic-free.
At the end of our visit to Visy, as our bus rolled away, the following thoughts remained: Yes, recycling is important. It’s certainly a better option than sending waste straight to landfill. But, as we know, recycling is an energy-intensive and polluting process. Much of our recycling is shipped overseas. And plastic has a limited recycling life. So, it’s certainly not a solution.
There’s a reason why recycling is a fair way down the waste reduction hierarchy. If we’re aiming to be zero waste, we should be recycling less not more, focusing our efforts on Refuse, Reduce and Reuse…and then, as a last resort, Recycle. And no, dead cats are not recyclable.
Well, I’m feeling positively giddy. On the horizon, is my very first zero waste workshop, which I’ll be running as part of EcoMatters’ fabulous month-long EcoWest Festival.
If you’re in West Auckland and new to zero waste, book yourself a spot! You’ll find more details here.
The other exciting EcoWest Festival event that I’m organising is a screening of the new film, “A Plastic Ocean”.
Filmed in 20 locations over four years, in beautiful and chilling detail, this documentary shows us the global effects of plastic pollution – and introduces technology and solutions that can, if implemented in time, change things for the better.
Join us up at Lopdell House on April 6 for an evening of education and inspiration. It will be a great opportunity for our community to connect around this issue and talk solutions with our special guest speakers. Be part of the wave of change. More info here.
EcoWest Festival is chock-full of fabulous events and, if you’re Auckland-based, I highly recommend you take a look at their website to check out what’s on offer.
My darling sister and her partner recently travelled over from Melbourne for a short holiday. As well as catching up with friends and family, one of the reasons for their visit was that they had signed up to do a sustainable Earthship building course, which involved them camping out at a building site on a lovely rural property in West Auckland.
It wasn’t very practical to travel trans-Tasman laden down with camping equipment, so we happily said they could borrow our tent and airbed while they were here. They arrived in Auckland, came to collect the gear and off they went to pack tyres with earth, stuff straw into frames and plaster mud onto walls.
And then I received a text a few days later…with unfortunate news.
Through no fault of my sister or her partner, the seam of our second-hand, nearly-new (but apparently not great quality) Kathmandu airbed had not survived the camping trip.
So, my dilemma now is, what the heck do I do with a double airbed that is punctured beyond repair?
Well, I’ve done a bit of research and these are the solutions I’ve found so far…
cut it into small pieces to patch other inflatables
groundsheet for a tent
painting drop sheet
rug protector for under a child’s chair
car boot liner
whip out the sewing machine and use my non-existent sewing skills to make:
outdoor cushion covers
a beach bag
a painting smock or raincoat
Or….would someone take it off my hands if I listed it on a Buy Nothing page (with helpful suggestions for reuse)?
What about you? What oversized objects have bitten the dust in your house? And what clever concepts for reuse have prevented you from sending large items to the dreaded landfill?
Two of the most helpful steps I took when I started on the pathway to zero waste back in March, 2015 were:
Making a list of every consumable we purchase (and then slowly working through that list in a bid to find zero waste alternatives).
Taking a peek in my bin to see what our biggest waste items were (which, at the time, were tetra paks of soy milk and vege stock).
Pre zero waste, our household produced one 50 litre bag of trash every three or so weeks. We’ve managed to shrink that down to around one 50 litre bag every five to six months – a fairly hefty drop in rubbish (fist pump!). And the great thing is, despite the requirement for a large change in mindset, it hasn’t been all that difficult.
But, I figure, if I want to continue making progress reducing our household waste, I should probably take another peek in our bin.
So, what exactly are we looking at here?
This is the landfill waste my family (my husband, our 3 yr old daughter and myself) created last month (November, 2016).
a bicycle repair kit
nylon bristles from a dish brush (when I’m washing jar lids, the brush sometimes gets caught on the inside of them and then I have to wrench it out – drives me nuts.)
fruit stickers – predominantly All Good Bananas (why must we choose between fairtrade and zero waste?)
the broken end of my daughter’s scooter handle – rubber
plastic fragments from the bottom of my disintegrating slippers (previously my mum’s slippers, rescued from the bin)
nylon from a rope
a broken twisty tie (removed from a potplant)
a plastic media pass (from my husband’s work)
empty antihistamine tablet packaging (for my husband’s hayfever)
stickers (given to my daughter at her dance classes and by her friend)
dental floss (purchased pre Zero Waste)
a small foam sticker (from the bottom of a potplant)
a balloon (given to my daughter)
masking tape (from purchasing wooden stamps on TradeMe)
…and a couple of items pictured that, in hindsight, probably don’t have to go to landfill:
acrylic wool covered in glue (from my daughter’s crafting) – I’m going to try washing the glue off the acrylic wool and then reuse the wool
plastic wrap from a balsamic vinegar bottle lid – I forgot that this is actually recyclable through our city’s soft plastic recycling scheme
Now, aside from disowning my husband and daughter (who created the lion’s share of this rubbish), what am I going to do to avoid this type of waste in the future?
Three ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’
Actions for this Month!
contact the folks at the Vodafone NZ Music Awards to see whether they’d consider using a biodegradable material for next year’s media passes
give Savana’s dance teacher a set of wooden stamps and stamp pad as a Christmas gift with the hope she will replace stickers with stamps – DONE (I’ll give you an update when classes resume next year as to whether this was successful!)
And here’s a peek inside last month’s general recycling bin…
two plastic yoghurt containers
a balsamic vinegar bottle – glass
five beer bottles – glass
three cannellini beans tins
a treacle tin (purchased pre Zero Waste)
a vitamin C jar – glass
three beer bottle caps
Two ‘Zero Waste to Recycling’
Actions for this Month!
try making my own soy yoghurt
have another go at soaking/cooking beans
(I haven’t had much success with this in the past)
What about soft plastic recycling and paper?
Well, we’ve pretty much eliminated all our soft plastics. The only bumps in the road are cheese packaging and the small plastic wrappers that cover some jar/bottle lids.
Unlike plastic, paper is a biodegradable material that the earth can absorb so it hasn’t been high on the zero waste priority list, thus far. Let’s just say paper recycling in our house is a mountain I’m yet to traverse, despite the mostly-effective “No Junk Mail” sign on our letterbox.
Occasionally, I do have to remind myself, “it’s a journey” and to just keep chipping away at it, a little at a time.
What about you? What are you sending off to landfill?
Go take a peek in your bin…and share your rubbish shame! :).
“It’s too soon!” I hear some of you shouting. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Christmas is ten weeks away and, as some people like to get their festive season organised sooner rather than later, I thought that now would be a good time to start this conversation. As for me? Thankfully, I don’t have much to organise because Christmas is generally pretty relaxed around our house.
A few years ago, before I’d heard of zero waste, I watched a documentary called “Manufactured Landscapes”, a stunning meditation on the damage wreaked by industrialisation that follows Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky as he shoots landscapes that have been changed by large-scale human activity. It was a sobering watch.
The opening shot of that film really stuck with me. It was a tracking shot, through a super-sized Chinese factory (one kilometre in length) in which 23,000 employees make most of the world’s irons…and this shot went on f.o.r.e.v.e.r.
Well, only five and a half minutes really. But it felt like a looong time (kudos if you manage to watch it till the end). And it got me thinking about the stuff that I buy…and all the other people on the earth buying stuff (side note…have you ever seen a real-time world population clock?…rather frightening).
Shortly after watching that documentary, Christmas season rolled around and I had a conversation with my dad about an idea I’d had. “Hey dad…I don’t know about you guys, but we have enough stuff…we don’t need any more stuff…and if we did need more stuff, we’d go out and buy it ourselves. So, how would you feel…if, this Christmas, instead of buying each other stuff…we bought each other “experience gifts”…you know like massage vouchers or dinner out at a restaurant or something like that?” My dad thought for a moment or two and then replied…”or we could just…buy nothing at all”. Silence, while I processed this novel concept…and then jubilation. “Yes!!” Brilliant!
So, after getting the okay from the rest of the family, that year we had our first Buy Nothing Christmas.
And it was so. freakin. AWESOME!
No scrambling to figure out what to buy my brother who generally made it pretty obvious that he wasn’t that stoked with gifts I gave him. No more working out what the hell to give my dad, an uber practical guy who, in reality, was happy to receive a pair of socks and a box of scorched almonds (I really didn’t want to go through another Christmas giving socks and scorched almonds). No more finding homes for gifts that I would receive but had no use for. No more wasting money on giving family members things that they didn’t actually need and that would just add to the clutter in their lives. No more stress.
It was a revelation.
Instead…we ate delicious food, we spent time with each other, we played games, we listened to music, we went for a walk and played tennis, we relaxed. And we agreed that the idea of buying nothing at Christmas time was pure genius.
Now, one thing to note is that we do have kids in our family. And we didn’t want a tiny riot on our hands. So we decided we would still do gifts for the kiddiewinkles. But instead of buying new trinkets, we opt for homemade, second-hand or experience-based gifts. We’ve given indoor rock-climbing vouchers, homemade stilts, trampoline park vouchers, second-hand board games, homemade building blocks and personalised memory card games. The coolest gift was the one we gave our then-four year old nephew, Cooper, the first year we did Buy Nothing Christmas. We scoured our neighbourhood for used cardboard boxes and then, my husband and I, spent the morning constructing a giant rocket in my parents’ backyard.
Granted, Cooper only played with it for a matter of minutes…but building that thing was so much fun! And weirdly, just recently (years later), out of the blue, Cooper said to me “Aunty Kristy…do you remember that giant rocket that you and Uncle Davian made for me that time for Christmas?” Amazed he remembered, I replied “yeah?”….and Coop says “I should have played with that more. That was really cool”.
And, just in case you’re wondering, where does Santa fit in to all this? Well, before our daughter was born, my husband and I had a conversation about whether we wanted to teach her about Santa and we both concluded that, while we wanted her to experience the magic of Christmas, the idea of telling her that this guy flies around the world giving presents to everyone didn’t really fit in with our feelings about consumerism (or honesty). So, we explain that Santa is a “pretendy story” that people like to tell at Christmas. And instead of focusing on Santa, I discovered an alternative.
Every year, on the first day of December, two little people (Christmas Pixies, as we like to call them) arrive on our doorstep with a note explaining who they are and what they’ll be doing for the coming weeks. Every day, up until Christmas, they appear somewhere in the house with a new note suggesting a fun activity that promotes generosity and kindness.
“Let’s bake some cookies for the neighbours”.
“Let’s collect some of your toys and give them away to the local children’s hospital”.
“Let’s donate cat/dog treats to the animal shelter”.
And our daughter LOVES it.
Christmas magic – tick!
Teaching my little girl how to be an awesome human – tick!
And zero waste – tick!
The other thing we’ve changed in the last couple of years, is our approach to Christmas food and this is one area where we’ve seriously simplified. The tradition in years gone by was that we would have Christmas at my folks’ place and, every year, my mum would take on the role of head Christmas chef (as mums often tend to do). She always claimed to enjoy it and every year churned out an obscene amount of delicious food for Christmas Day. But, the reality was, it exhausted her.
So, for the last few years, we’ve taken our Christmas show on the road, choosing a scenic spot away from the city to park up my parents’ campervan and spending Christmas Day enjoying the great outdoors. Taking my mum away from her kitchen, her “nuclear-war ready” pantry and her myriad of kitchen gadgets has made us simplify significantly. Now, instead of mum cooking absolutely everything, everyone brings a plate to contribute to the Christmas feast. And last year was the best.
We were all in the campervan, staying at beautiful Kawhia. I was preparing some food, everybody was pitching in and we were nearly ready to eat. And, just as I was adding the finishing touches to the meal, I turned to mum and asked her “so what did you make?” She paused for a moment and then…dawning realisation. “Nothing!”
“Good work!” I replied, in all sincerity, and gave her a high five.
Because I don’t think Christmas should be about stress. It shouldn’t be about expectations, it shouldn’t be about maxing out your credit card, it shouldn’t be about waste. It should be fun. And it should be about relaxing and spending time with people that you love. Which is what I plan to do this Christmas and all the ones after it.