Towards Zero Waste: my journey to limit plastic pollution

by Eavan Brennan

marine litter

Plastic bottles littering the coastline in a remote part of Norway. Image: Flickr (Bo Eide)

Marine plastic debris has become an obsession of mine. A lifelong love of the ocean and marine creatures initiated my drive to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science; and when in 2014-2015, two cornerstone studies1,2 were published highlighting the extent of plastic pollution in the marine environment I had to say ‘no’.

Plastic is the solid by-product of crude oil.

It’s intricately tied to issues of fossil fuels, and exacerbates the already-severe environmental impacts of our carbon economy. Where the coral is bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the creatures whose habitat is being lost are simultaneously being strangled and starved by anthropogenic carbon’s solid cousin. It’s time to acknowledge that our solid waste is a part of solving the problems of the climate crisis, and put effort into reducing the amount of plastic in our lives.

Which is why I’ve been steadily eliminating plastic from my life.

Since 2015, I have refused single-use plastic, and spend considerable amounts of time trying to find alternatives to using plastic items. This is part of what’s known as the Zero Waste movement, where people try to eliminate all their inorganic waste.

There are a bloggers who are hailed as the most successful in doing this (note that they live in major urban centres). Like all professional bloggers though, they present their lives through rose coloured glasses.

Here, I’m going to present some tips that hopefully will persuade you to give the Zero Waste movement a try.

1. The Zero part is an asymptote

Can you tell I’m a scientist? Asymptote means that your function (in this case, your waste) approaches zero, but never reaches it.

The Zero Waste movement seems daunting because it sounds like you should quit cold turkey.

No-one who succeeds in living a near-zero waste lifestyle does it without failing. Personally, I haven’t figured out how to acquire milk in Canberra without plastic; I still upkeep my dental hygiene with a plastic electric toothbrush, my medication comes in plastic, and my sunscreen comes in a plastic tube.

electric toothbrush

Dental hygiene is important - Eavan uses a reusable electric toothbrush. Image: Max Pixel

The important thing is to keep the function on its trajectory: keep reducing all the time.

2. Single use food wrappers and coffee cups are very easy to eliminate

Food and beverage waste is very easy to wipe out of your lifestyle and never go back. This is good, because food and beverage waste makes up a huge proportion of Australia’s marine plastic debris3. Simple actions, such as bringing your own coffee cup or water bottle, eating in, or bringing your own food pocket (a biodegradable cloth bag) to avoid using a paper bag can drastically change how much waste your ritual generates.

Using beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap also keeps food equally as fresh.

beeswax wraps

Beeswax wraps are a reusable alternative to plastic cling wrap. Image: Edwina Robinson

3. Bulk food stores are your new best friend, so are jars

If you live in a city, there will be bulk food stores accessible to you.  

You can take your own drawstring bags or containers and buy most of your basic groceries (pasta, rice, flour, grains, lentils, chocolate etc) without plastic packaging, and then store them in sealed glass jars. In Canberra this includes the Food Coop, and Naked foods – both of which will supply you with food, as well as shampoo and conditioner, dishwashing detergent and laundry detergent without individual waste.

bulk food

Find your nearest bulk food store. Image: Flickr (Mattie B)

You can buy fruit and vegetables from most grocers, just avoid anything with packaging.

4. Sharing is much more powerful than preaching

Boycotting a dinner party because they cooked pasta from a plastic bag is not going to persuade anyone to make a change in their lifestyle.

Invite people over for dinner, and cook for them without generating any inorganic waste. I learned this the hard way. But after years of showing that my habits can last in the long term, my family and close friends are starting to change their consumption. Taking food wrappers is also a good conversation-starter with small businesses. It raises awareness is an unobtrusive way, but strangers have told me that I’ve made them think just by going about my regular ritual.

5. Life happens, but failure doesn’t mean you give up

Last year, I had a terminally ill family member and a best mate with severe physical and mental illness.

Naturally, my zero waste lifestyle was not high on my priority list for a few months. For this, I am grateful that I had already embedded habits of shopping that meant that I still refused single use items and a significant amount of plastic packaging.

Setting yourself challenges is a good way to see if you can do zero waste, but it’s better to just steadily accumulate habits, that in time you just don’t think about.

Set your own pace, and when things go wrong just keep trying as best you can.  

Getting started

If you’re interested in trying to reduce your waste, here’s a starter pack - most of which you can buy on-line from Australian shops by googling “zero waste shops” or making your own:

  • A metal drink bottle
  • A keep-cup for coffee drinkers
  • Carry bags/ baskets for your groceries
  • Glass jars with seals for food storage
  • Drawstring bags for groceries
  • Bottles for oil, vinegar etc.
  • Food wraps/ pockets to replace paper bags
  • Toilet paper made from recycled waste, in paper/ a cardboard box
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Second hand clothes
  • Pencils, not pens
  • Wool, not synthetic fleece

keep cup

Invest in a quality reusable coffee cup, like this one from a local ceramic artist. Image: Edwina Robinson

Remember, every small action to reduce your waste is a step in the right direction, just keep adjusting over time.

References

  1. Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L.C., Carson, H.S., Thiel, M., Moore, C.J., Borerro, J.C., Galgani, F., Ryan, P.G. and Reisser, J., 2014. Plastic pollution in the world's oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PloS one, 9(12), p.e111913.
  2. Jambeck, J.R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T.R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R. and Law, K.L., 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), pp.768-771.
  3. Cormack, L., 2015. Marine plastic pollution senate inquiry targets Australian ocean pollution, The Sydney Morning Herald.

eavan

Eavan Brennan is studying a Master of Science at the Australian National University, Canberra. Image: Edwina Robinson


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