We have an abundance of two things at our house: wayward animals and mattresses.
Anyone who has ever been to our house knows you never know exactly what scene might greet you when you walk through the front door. Sitting at the kitchen island you will almost always find an assortment of children, often an injured or baby animal being nursed back to health, and usually an interesting guest or two who has dropped by for a few nights.
The scene that greeted me one afternoon in November 2017 was pretty par for the course. A few half-naked children, two baby ducklings in a cardboard box, and the friendly dread-locked faces of Hannah and Liam, from The Rubbish Trip (https://therubbishtrip.co.nz/).
Over the next few days we talked, ate, laughed, played with ducklings, and we helped them prep for their upcoming zero-waste talk. My eco-confidence was high. I am doing a good job, I thought. Earth-saving merit badge, yep, well on my way.
Then I went to Hannah and Liam's talk. My bubble was burst. Eco-confidence? Shattered. Earth-saving merit badge? No chance. I thought we were doing so well.
As their talk continued and I learned more and more, my dismay turned to horror when I realised we had been hosting the zero waste king and queen in our very NOT zero waste house for three days.
I was actually mortified when I thought about the bags of nacho chips we had out on the table for dinner, the crackers I had offered as nibbles, and don't even mention our cereal and muesli habit.
Luckily for me, Hannah and Liam are just about the loveliest people you'll ever meet and really don't have a shaming bone in their body. Because, after the talk, we all went back to our plastic-laden house, had some dessert, and not once did they cast a disapproving glance over the copious amounts of waste surrounding us all. But man, we sure did.
That talk changed the way my husband and I looked at our purchases. The next morning we decided to go zero-waste (or at least give it a good try). We each picked one thing that we thought we could focus on. We looked at our rubbish bin, saw the things that were making the most plastic, and started there. Then eventually, we added more and more.
Here are the first six items we saw as being problematic for us and how we are doing on our efforts:
Snack foods – Win
This was my first goal and I am calling it a definite win. Before our zero-waste project we would buy those $2 packages of crackers from Countdown by the armful. They were my go to for lunchboxes, diaper bag snacks, and the perfect vehicle for the occasional late-night Nutella craving. No judgement. In fact "cacky" was one of my son's first words. Again, no judgement. We also used to buy a fair amount nacho chips, bags of pretzels, and the occasional bag of potato chips.
At first I tried to solve this by making a ton of crackers and home-made pretzels. They are both actually really easy to make, and I still will do up a quick batch if I'm feeling particularly crafty. But I got pretty lazy pretty quickly, and to be honest the kids didn't seem to notice as crackers slowly faded out of our life completely. The solution for us came down to choice of products. We still get pretzels, but get them from the bulk bin. We buy popcorn from the bulk bin as well. And those two things pretty much are our major salty snacks these days.
Pasta – Fail
We eat so much pasta. So much. And I know you can get some pasta from the bulk shops, but they are just so expensive compared to the packaged kind. And I also know that it isn't that hard to make pasta, but have I mentioned how much pasta we eat? So yeah, pasta is definitely one of our main soft-plastic producing products around here still. But, I am hoping to work on it by borrowing an electric pasta maker from a friend. Or I guess we could just eat less pasta.
Bread – Win
Bread is easy to make, well kind of. But you know what is even easier? Buying unpackaged bread from the amazing bakers in our town. We do bake our own bread quite a bit, but when I am too busy, or just would rather not, it is so easy to buy bread without plastic. Our top choices are SourBros and Magnolia (The Green Party Bread) who are both at the market on Saturday, but when we are in a pinch we will get the bread from the bakery section at Countdown that doesn't come in a plastic bag. Too easy.
Chocolate Bars – Fail
We've tried the Trade Aid ones with eco packaging, but the cost and availability of them just don't meet my chocolate needs. Plus, it is hard to resist that Whittakers peanut butter block, am I right? So, I'm not saying this one is impossible, I'm just saying that there are a lot of Whittakers gold foiled wrappers in our rubbish bin still.
Toothbrushes – Win
Toothbrushes were my husband's first goal. We ordered a box of Go Bamboo toothbrushes immediately and haven't looked back. They seem to do the job just as well as our old ones (according to dentist), and it does feel good that we can just snip the bristles off and compost the handles.
Toothpaste – Fail
There are a few options for toothpaste that comes in recyclable tubes, but we haven't found one yet available locally that has fluoride. Our kids also don't like anything minty and finding a combination of non-minty but fluoridated toothpaste has proven to be a bit of a challenge. So, basically the kids are still on good old Peppa Pig.
We adults did try the fluoridated toothpaste tablets from Eco-easy and, you know what? They weren't half bad. Well, I suppose I should say they weren't bad for half of us. One of us thought they were great, and the other thought they were awful.
Those six things definitely aren't a comprehensive list of the changes we've made during the past 15 months, in fact that was just the tip of the iceberg. Because once we started looking at our purchasing patterns we realised that, with a little shift here and there, we could actually make a huge impact on the amount of plastic we brought home.
The most significant thing we did was to join a large organic co-operative to purchase bulk foods from. Now all of our flour, oats, beans, etc comes straight from the distributor in giant sacks. If we don't need the whole sack we split it with our friends. A little bit of planning can save all of us money and a huge amount of packaging.
We also changed our shopping habits to shop almost exclusively at bulk shops. We are lucky to have several in our town, and a bit of shopping around has helped us find the best deal on our most used items. If it isn't available at the bulk shop, we just take out of our normal rotation, and save that item for a treat.
So now, between buying large amounts wholesale, and going to bulk shops, the number of items I actually need from the supermarket is very small. This has been the most noticeable difference for us. Where I used to go to the supermarket once or twice a week and leave with a hefty shopping bill, now I usually go once a fortnight, if that. Not only have the ecological impacts been big, but we are saving a ton of money.
My main takeaway from these 15 months is that reducing plastic is a lot easier to do than I thought it would be, and that most items we were able to find locally without plastic. Quite a few plastic-wrapped items that we thought were staples for our family, we could actually live with out.
So, would I call us zero wasters? I'm not sure. We definitely still have a rubbish bin, but it certainly gets emptied a lot less frequently. I suppose I would call us "closer-to-zero wasters" who happened to save a bunch of money in the process.