Waste not

Waste not

Plastic has a very low value in the market, and it costs a lot to separate-out for re-use. It’s almost as cheap to make new ‘virgin’ plastic, so that’s what tends to happen. A lot of plastic is potentially recyclable but doesn’t get there.

Waging war on a plastic world

A conversation with Erin Rhoads 

by Paul Freedman  

We’ve probably all shuddered at those horrifying pictures of starved sea birds and turtles with stomachs stuffed full of plastic waste; dead
dolphins caught in discarded fishing nets; or the huge swirling morass of rubbish in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We’ve probably all shuddered at those horrifying pictures of starved sea birds and turtles with stomachs stuffed full of plastic waste; dead dolphins caught in discarded fishing nets; or the huge swirling morass of rubbish in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We see it and think, “It’s awful, but what can I, a single individual, actually do?”

Answer ... more than you might think!

Recently we heard Erin Rhoads from Melbourne talking on RNZ National about her new book, Waste Not. Erin has an amazingly positive message for those of us who feel ... well ... rubbish about all the rubbish! She’s a one-woman anti-waste campaign, and she’s making a difference!

We just had to catch up with Erin and ask her where her inspiration comes from.

GRAPEVINE: You say in your introduction that you went from being a “poster girl for how to create rubbish”, to being a motivator who’s regularly asked to give talks on avoiding it. What happened?

ERIN RHOADS: My sister (whom I should thank for all this!) called me one day when I was laid up with a very bad cold. I asked her for something inspiring to watch. She recommended a documentary called The Clean Bin Project she’d just watched. It featured a Canadian couple who’d challenged themselves to buy nothing new and create no rubbish for one year.

I’d never watched an eco-documentary in my life. If anyone had suggested watching An Inconvenient Truth or discussing climate change, I’d have said, “Go away! – Too boring!” Anyway, I watched the trailer, which seemed good-hearted and actually funny. (What really influenced me, I suspect, was that the lead actor had red hair, and us ‘gingers’ like to support each other!) So I settled in to watch it … and I was just blown away by how our choices as individuals have such a devastating impact on our planet!

I’d been to places in India and South East Asia and seen gutters full of plastic waste and rubbish and thought, “How can they bear to live this way? I just don’t get it!” But it wasn’t till I’d seen The Clean Bin that I thought, “Right! I’m not dumping plastic into waterways or putting rubbish into the environment anymore! My buying all this plastic contributes to the problem. It’s time to make a change!” 

I wanted to quit this cycle where we all just consume and dump mindlessly. Unsure what to actually do, I jumped on Google and asked, “How can I reduce my plastic use?” Up came Plastic-Free July – a challenge to try and avoid plastics for one whole month. The aim was to help people develop new habits about waste by using the re-usables and avoiding the single-use plastic bags. So, I did that and … well ... just kept going!

GV: There’s loads of people spreading doom and gloom about the mess the world’s in … plastic pollution, animals going extinct, global warming! You have a gentler take on our own personal responsibility, don’t you? 

ERIN: My mantra is just “Do the best you can, with what you have, where you are!” I’m light on blaming because I used to be those people who wouldn’t read articles about climate change and waste!

When we’re talking about these huge world problems, the tendency’s to say, “The Government has to fix it”. There’s seldom a focus on individuals and what we can do. I wanted to be able to convince people that our individual actions matter. Whether it’s writing a letter to a company, engaging with your local MP, or even engaging with the staff in the local café to suggest maybe they should stop using plastic straws … Every little bit helps!

GV: Well, obviously you ‘made it’ to July 31st and beyond. So what’s been the hardest thing about waging war on waste?

ERIN: At first, the hardest thing was learning new habits. Just buying the re-usables was easy. Taking a basket to the shops – we’ve done that forever! But undoing the habits of buying wrapped stuff and slipping the wrapper in the bin ... avoiding that was harder. “Do I really need this or am I just being sucked in by all the hoopla and marketing?”

GV: Not all plastics are equally harmful, are they ... what’s the worst?

ERIN: Much to my surprise, I discovered ordinary old PVCs are among the worst. (That’s poly vinyl chlorides.) They’re the ones that emit the worst gases. They’re used to make things like plastic raincoats, squishy plastic toys and shower curtains. Manufacturers are now finding ways to recycle PVCs, but unfortunately with lots of these plastics, they’re actually down-cycled … meaning they’ll only be recycled once. Then their life’s over and they end up in landfill.

GV: I’d always thought that plastics marked as ‘recyclable’ (with the triangle of arrows) could be used over and over – like glass and metal. Not so?

ERIN: No – mostly only once.

Plastic has a very low value in the market, and it costs a lot to separate-out for re-use. It’s almost as cheap to make new ‘virgin’ plastic, so that’s what tends to happen. A lot of plastic is potentially recyclable but doesn’t get there.

When you collect waste glass the different colours are all jumbled together – the clear, the green and the brown; they won’t get turned back into bottles because the colour would be wrong. In Australia we turn our waste glass into sand for road construction or industry. If we separated our glass into its correct colours, we could recycle it indefinitely – back into clear or green or brown bottles. 

Paper is good. It can be recycled up to seven or eight times … ten, if the fibres are really good. 

Metal’s the best. Metal’s valuable and it’s more easily separated – if you buy stuff in metal it’ll always be recycled.

GV: I learned from your book that even tea bags can be pollution villains. They seem like paper but they actually have a thin coating of plastic so they can resist the boiling water. 

ERIN: When you realise they’re partly plastic, you can understand why they just don’t break down in your compost. So people are now asking these big corporates to stop using plastic in teabags. In the U.K. there are two large tea manufacturers that’ve bowed to public pressure, and now claim they’re going to stop using plastic. It shows how even powerful companies can be influenced to make positive changes, simply because of media exposure and mounting pressure from people like you and me.

GV: If most plastics are so very stable and long-lived, wouldn’t you think that putting them in landfill would be better than just letting them blow about the place as rubbish? 

ERIN: Well, that sounds good in theory … however, the thing about plastic – and one-use bags especially – is it’s very lightweight. (That’s why it’s so popular. It reduces the shipping costs over glass or paper.)

If your bin’s overfull, it blows out easily. Dogs knock it over and away it goes, around homes and streets and parks; then gutters and waterways; and then into the ocean. That’s how a lot of our rubbish escapes. We aren’t necessarily littering – it’s often incidental. Even when the garbage truck is picking it up, some escapes.

Here in Australia, we can recycle plastic bags if we return them to the shopping centres. I presume in New Zealand you have something similar?

GV: I think we used to send it all to China, but they don’t take it now and I suspect we’re just building up a huge backlog! Although some of our supermarkets have now stopped using single-use plastic bags, so at least that’s something. And, there’s been some talk from the government of a nationwide ban on these single-use plastic bags. Any similar talk from the Australian government?

ERIN: What happens over here is everyone says they’re going to do it, but first we have to have a committee to enquire into it … then produce a draft paper on the enquiry … then ask everyone their thoughts … then get back the information and collate it all ... and on and on and on it goes!

GV: Sounds not too dissimilar to here! When you were starting your journey as a recovering waste-a-holic, what websites did you find most helpful?

ERIN: After I’d done a year of living plastic-free I decided to watch that original documentary again (The Clean Bin Project) to remind me why I was doing all this. They talked a lot about the zero-waste lifestyle, so I looked that up and found a wonderful website called Fort Negrita. In living out this lifestyle of no waste, the website’s creator, Anamarie “Ree” Shreeves, managed to fit all of her rubbish from five months into a jar! This then helped her track how much waste she’d generated in the past and where it came from. So I thought, “Wow! That’s living out all the same principles I aimed for. Maybe I should adopt this zero-waste thing and start tracking my rubbish.” 

So I did!

She was a big inspiration to me, and through her I discovered Bea Johnson, who’d founded the zero-waste lifestyle movement. She has a website called ZeroWasteHome.com

GV: And did you get to the stage of measuring your waste in a jam jar as well?

ERIN: Well – not a jam jar as such. Someone wrote a book and quoted me as saying it was a mason jar, but actually I got it into a Moccona coffee jar – which is close! Now, I take that jar to schools when I’m invited to talk to the kids about zero waste. We go through it and try and imagine how we could change our world – especially shopping – so it’s not so wasteful. Kids do have brilliant ideas, that’s for sure.

GV: Such as?

ERIN: Well they ask why do we have all those little plastic price tags? Why not have the price on a tag held by a safety pin and take it off before leaving the shop?! Receipts are bad too. They can have plastic in them. Kids say can’t we just have the price on the computer? And if we can, we should avoid printing out the receipts. 

GV: You were dating your now-husband when you started your war on waste. Now you’re married with a child. Has this made your anti-waste activities harder?

ERIN: I think the only difference is being very aware of your energy levels and your time. Whereas before, I could spend time making things that I couldn’t find plastic-free from scratch – now I have to plan that more carefully. But these days there are lots more people making this stuff plastic-free or with not too much wrapping – so that’s lucky! With my son, I don’t really think it’s been too hard a transition ... yet. But that might be because he’s still quite little and I can still make a lot of his decisions. I can foresee it getting a little bit more difficult as he gets older and wants things.

GV: You’ve moved beyond just looking at plastic waste and pollution and moved into the area of eating food that’s healthier ... growing as much as you can in your own garden and composting waste. Was that a major change for you?

ERIN: I grew up in the countryside and my parents always had a compost. Our garden produced lots of nice vegetables. So I’ve always been a bit of a gardener. And when I began the living-plastic-free challenge, I was staying with someone who was growing veges in pots on her balcony. She told me about composting facilities available in our block, and that helped reduce my garbage output quite a lot. 

Growing vegetables isn’t difficult and doesn’t take that much time or energy if you grow simple things like herbs and greens like silver beet. It’s really rewarding getting a tasty meal from your backyard garden.

GV: One of your off-hand comments in the book was that you hoped you’d be able to maintain your plastic-free life without losing all your friends! Did you manage that?

ERIN: I did! I even managed to convince some of them to make changes as well. Simple things like using beeswax wraps instead of cling film. Some of my friends with babies started using cloth nappies too. 

GV: Talking about eco-friendly nappies, one of the surprises I got from your book is that while some nappies claim to be bio-degradable, they only break down properly if they have access to plenty of oxygen. So putting them in the landfill bin – that’s a no-no, right?

ERIN: Exactly. If the nappies you’re using claim to be bio-degradable, they really need to be separated out and sent to a facility that’ll allow them to break down. Otherwise – if they have plant-based fibres in them and they end up in a landfill – they’re just going to add to that toxic methane gas problem. I know people choose these because it makes them feel better – but, honestly, MCNs or modern cloth nappies (that you wash and re-use) are fairly easy to use. It only takes me a few minutes a day to clean my son’s nappies.

GV: We all remember those images of dead turtles or sea birds that’ve starved to death while their stomachs are packed full of plastic waste that they thought was food. But in many ways, it’s the plastic waste we can’t see that’s just as harmful, right? 

ERIN: Yes. When our plastic gets into the environment, it breaks up into microplastics. Whenever plastic gets into the environment it becomes a magnet for all the other toxins put into the ocean. Think of DDT, or other volatile chemicals … they attach themselves to the tiny bits of plastic. The fish eat them. Then a bigger fish eats the smaller fish and so on up the food chain, with the toxins getting more and more concentrated. It ends up, finally, on our plates. Now, DDT has been banned for a long time – decades. But it’s still in our environment – we’re still living in contact with it. Plastics are in our food; in our honey; in our drinking water. Marine filter feeders concentrate it too – like your oysters and mussels. It’s scared me off eating practically anything from the ocean really; I just don’t know what I’m eating! 

Also try and reduce the amount of washing you do of synthetic materials. Because little bits of those fibres come off naturally in the wash. It seems like just a tiny amount, but it’s actually huge.

There’s big stuff too – like abandoned fishing nets. Have you seen images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Forty per cent of all the garbage in that waste mountain is from fishing nets and other plastics used in fishing. What can you do about that? Don’t eat fish caught with nets. Choose brands that are caught with lines and poles. Or stop eating fish.

GV: Tell me about the five ‘R’s you’ve found helpful: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.

ERIN: This is a mantra for the Zero Waste lifestyle. REFUSE is asking, “Do I really need to have this thing in my life? Do I need to buy it?” If not, you refuse it.

REDUCE means lowering the amount of plastic and packaging that we accept – perhaps even looking into our own
lifestyles … “Am I holding onto something that I’m not using, but that someone else could put to good use?” Maybe donate things to a charity store or sell on-line. 

REUSE and RECYCLE … well, instead of throwing away things like bottles, find new ways to use them – or, at the very least, recycle them. Get your clothes or shoes mended instead of buying new ones. There are some great websites with fantastic inspirations. One called Kuttlefish.com is an online marketplace where people can up-cycle things very creatively and then sell them on.

And finally, choosing things that’ll ROT or break down naturally. For instance, the lipstick I buy comes in a cardboard tube, not a plastic one. Good compost needs brown matter as well as green to help the process, and cardboard is good brown matter. Good balance between green and brown stuff means your compost doesn’t smell too much and everything rots properly. There are lots of books and websites to help you compost well.

GV: When you looked more deeply at the nature of all the stuff coming to us wrapped in plastic, you became aware that sometimes the plastic outside was only one of the problems. What other sorts of stuff did you decide to try and live without ... or make yourself? 

ERIN: I began making my own mascara at one stage ... but no more – that was in the too-hard basket! I just tried to be more cautious and aware of ingredients I was using – checking I was using ingredients that would break down naturally. And I use bar soap to clean my house ... not just my body.

I’ll also use vinegar and citrus scraps to create a ‘citrus scrappy cleaner’. There are some beautiful and very helpful oils in the citrus skin which, when soaked in the vinegar, will give it some extra potency and prevent it from smelling too overpowering!

I use things like clove oil to combat mould … things like lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, or tea-tree oil for use as a disinfectant. I try to keep things as simple and single-ingredient-based as possible.

GV: Tell me about bulk buying. Is this less wasteful? 

ERIN: Yes! When I started this lifestyle I used to concentrate on vegetables. They were pretty much the only thing I could buy unpackaged. Then I discovered bulk food stores, where everything is unpackaged and you have to bring your own containers: jars, bottles, cloth bags and so on. You can choose as much or as little as you want – no plastic goes into the environment, and it saves money too.

GV: There are less obvious kinds of waste, aren’t there? In your typical suburban street with, say, 100 houses, you’ll probably find 90-or-so lawnmowers that get used maybe once a fortnight ... lots of hedge trimmers … leaf blowers … and so-on! Do we perhaps need to get more creative in the way we build communities? 

ERIN: Absolutely! We don’t all need to own these individual things. Instead we could lend them out to each other – share them. 

We’ve joined a toy library – so we can hire toys rather than buying them brand new. When I first heard about this concept I thought, “Oh there’ll be hardly any decent toys – and most of them will probably be broken.” Well, no! Turns out there were thousands of great toys and heaps of kids there, all having the best time you could ever imagine picking the toys they wanted … and they knew they had to look after them, too.

GV: Another idea you like a lot is buying second-hand stuff, right?

ERIN: Second-hand shopping is zero-waste shopping, and it encourages that circular economy to flourish.

It teaches you (especially since I’ve been doing it for six years now) that if you’ve bought something, you better look after it so its next owner can get as much pleasure and use from it as you have. We don’t give away damaged or useless stuff.

I always ensure that anything I donate is hemmed or has all its buttons intact, no stains … things like that!

GV: So for all us still sinful-but-sorrowful ‘wasters’ who admire what you’re doing and would like to do likewise, what’s our first step? 

ERIN: Step one is start composting. The biggest contributor to our bins is food waste. If we can keep food out of landfills, we reduce that harmful leachate and keep precious nutrients on our plates and in our soil.

Step two is to do a bin audit. On bin night, get a tarp and tip all the contents out. Divide it up – organics in one section; plastics into another. You’ll probably see a bit of a theme emerge. So if we see, say, a lot of pasta bags, then maybe we can buy pasta in cardboard or in bulk. The audit helps focus us on what we’re wasting – plus, you might find stuff that’s recyclable. 

Also, check your council’s website to see what they accept for recycling. We bin as much as 10% of totally re-usable stuff. Give yourself a chance to say no to plastic straws, plastic water bottles, plastic bags. Learn some new habits, and by the end of the month you’ll find it’ll be much easier to say no to that harmful waste.

Contact your local politician; write to companies; tell them how they can be a part of this war on waste because we need their help. We have the idea that if we speak up, we’re being disruptive ... or angry. But if we speak up respectfully, and share tips about what needs doing, we can make a difference. 

Remember, we should be coming from a place of kindness. We envisage a world where the next generation doesn’t have to pick up after us. Everyone has a part to play!