Reusable Nation: Melbourne couple's journey towards being zero waste
Every year almost five trillion plastic bags are used, approximately 2.12 billion waste is dumped in landfills, and the average Australian household produced nearly a tonne of garbage. In the face of these disturbing statistics and geopolitical changes – China’s implementation of the National Sword policy that ended its practice of accepting plastic and scrap metal for recycling from other countries- embracing the zero waste movement seems ideal, noble even.
The zero waste movement founded and made famous by Bea Johnson and other vocal proponents respectively, exhorts people to modify their consumption and purchasing behaviours by quitting single-use plastics, using reusable packaging, going organic, buying local goods, and opting for Do-It-Yourself (DIY) beauty and cleaning products, among others.
However, the movement’s laudable ideals do not insulate it from criticism, with many arguing that it is just a sleeker, more modern avatar of habits practised by our ancestors. While others point out that the movement is not inclusive enough; how can those with debilitating diseases, living with differently challenged family members and kids, or cash-strapped students, and families without steady incomes participate?
To make the movement seem less daunting and more accessible, Melbourne based couple Vicky Ellmore and David Meadway started their website Reusable Nation. The site encourages more people to join the movement while documenting the duo’s trials and tribulations as they make their journey towards being zero waste. Their blog posts and social media pages include information about waste reduction and provide easy, simple alternatives to waste producing products.
In conversation with TAL, 35-year-old Vicky speaks about the circumstances that led to them adopting a waste-free lifestyle, its implications and challenges, and the need to continually improve their waste reduction methods.
What is Reusable Nation all about and why did you decide to start it?
My husband and I started Reusable Nation to inspire and help others to reduce their waste generation. Through our blogs and Instagram posts, we want to show how less waste can be sent to landfills, provide useful alternatives and practices to help others find the option that best suits them.
We also use our platforms to share what we have learnt along our zero waste journey - and what we are still learning.
What prompted you to embrace the zero-waste lifestyle?
Watching the informative documentary A Plastic Ocean! Before seeing it, we thought we were doing all the right things – being environmentally conscious by not littering, using reusable shopping bags, recycling, and turning off lights and fans when not in use, and also keeping our water consumption to the minimum. But, the documentary was a gamechanger and helped us realise that – despite our perception – we were not doing nearly enough. That prompted our immediate embracing of a zero-waste lifestyle. We knew we had to do better!
Before embarking on the zero-waste journey how environmentally conscious were you?
Coming from South Africa, I have always felt very connected to nature, and would spend a lot of time exploring it as a teenager. My parents and other family members instilled in me the need to respect and protect the environment around us. I have always been an animal lover too, and have been mindful of my conduct towards them.
David was probably less eco-minded before we started our zero waste journey. His hesitation stemmed from the observation that convenience would have to be sacrificed when committing to the movement – a fear shared by many. Gradually, it became easier for him to become less wasteful.
We've always done the basics, but were not actively seeking solutions to do better and reduce our negative impact on the earth further.
Please take us through the various changes you have incorporated in your life since you started on this journey?
There are so many! We didn’t change everything at once, but started tweaking our habits slowly. We began by removing the big plastic polluters from our lives - single-use shopping bags, plastic cutlery and cups, plastic straws, disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles.
We started buying fruit and vegetables that were not wrapped in plastic, using reusable produce bags and choosing products that came in glass or metal containers. We sought out bulk food stores near us and started taking our own bottles to fill up at these stores, and bought all our dry goods, oils and cleaning products package free. We have also started composting all our food waste - which alone made a massive difference to the amount of waste we sent to landfill.
If everyone just started composting, it would make an enormous difference to the level of carbon dioxide emissions of our landfills.
In the beginning, was it difficult to stick to the rules of the zero-waste movement? What were the habits/products most difficult to give up?
We are lucky to live in an area in Melbourne that makes going zero waste quite effortless, so adopting this type of lifestyle was not difficult. The hardest part was getting into the habit of remembering to carry our reusable shopping and produce bags and coffee cups. Slowly, we got the hang of it.
Personally, the thing I found most hard in the beginning, was speaking up and asking for something to be done differently like refusing to accept single-use items from shopkeepers and takeaway joints. We both are quite easy-going and don't like to be difficult, but we had to learn not to be afraid to take a stand when needed. It took a bit of courage initially, but it became easier over time. Also, many did compliment our attempts, and that encouraged us further.
What products have you stopped using entirely? And, what are the substitutes you’ve opted for instead?
The list of things we have stopped using is ever growing, and this includes:
· Plastic shopping bags
· Plastic produce bags
· Disposable coffee cups
· Disposable straws
· Paper napkins
· Tissues (me but not David)
· Disposable razors
· Pads and tampons
· Plastic toothbrushes
· Spray deodorant
· Body wash
· Liquid shampoo
· Baking sheet paper
· Sponges for dishwashing
· Bathroom cleaner / kitchen cleaner / glass cleaner
· Tea bags
· Uber eats
We use reusable or unpackaged versions of all of these:
· Reusable shopping bags
· Reusable produce bags
· Reusable coffee cups
· No straw or a steel or bamboo straw
· Fabric napkins
· Hankies (me but not David)
· I no longer shave, and David has an electric shaver
· Period underwear and menstrual cup
· Bamboo toothbrushes
· Deodorant paste
· Soap bar
· Solid shampoo bar
· Silicone baking sheet
· Beeswax wraps
· Croqueted cotton cloth and bamboo fibre scrub
· One general cleaner for all surfaces and DIY vinegar cleaning products
· Loose leaf tea and a tea strainer
· We either go out and eat in the restaurant or go get a takeaway in our own container.
We no longer buy bin liners, using nothing instead, as without food waste, a bin stays relatively clean. And, instead of plastic dog poo bags, we use newspaper instead.
What about products like toilet paper, blister packs containing medicines, sanitary pads and tampons, plastic caps on glass jars, make- up, shampoo bottles, and similar products? Have you/or how do you manage to reduce these wastes?
We still use toilet paper but have switched to one that is made from recycled paper and comes without any plastic packaging.
We try and use medication that comes in glass bottles or pure aluminium packets, but sometimes we have to use the ones that come in plastic blister packs. This is some of the landfill waste that we still create. I use period underwear and a menstrual cup and find them comfortable and pleasant. I would recommend this switch to all women irrespective of their interest in the zero-waste movement, as it is more economical.
We reuse all the glass jars we bring into our lives whether they have a plastic lid or not. The only ones we still buy with plastic caps are Vegemite and mustard.
I don’t wear makeup daily and am still using makeup from before I went zero waste, but there are some fantastic natural makeup brands out there like Dirty Hippie that sell makeup in compostable containers. We use solid shampoo bars – one bar equals three shampoo bottles! They are pretty much just liquid shampoo without all the added water. You can also fill up your own container with liquid shampoo at some bulk food stores.
There is usually a solution for most of the waste we create, it just takes some research to find it!
Despite these changes, what are the challenges you continue to face?
Some things are out of our control like being given straws and paper napkins when we have clearly instructed against it, or, getting automatically printed receipts. These instances are unavoidable, and we go with the flow.
Other than that, we still use toilet paper, and David prefers tissues over handkerchiefs. We also find it harder to reduce our waste when travelling to countries that use a lot of plastic and aren’t as progressive in helping citizens reduce their waste as our neighbourhood is.
Living a zero-waste life can be overwhelming, and sometimes guilt-ridden. It can be challenging to go entirely plastic or Styrofoam free (especially in supermarkets). How does one avoid the guilt that follows a slip-up?
We’re big believers in celebrating the wins and focusing on all the waste we managed to reduce through our methods, rather than brooding over the slip-ups. We want to encourage people to do their best and understand that this lifestyle can be challenging. All we ask is that people take responsibility for their waste and start looking for solutions to live a reduced if not zero waste lifestyle.
We also recommend making switches slowly as trying to change everything at once can be overwhelming. Change one routine until it becomes a habit and then move on to the next one. If something is unattainable, don’t stress about it; just concentrate on doing what can be done. Don’t compare yourself to others and be proud of your efforts - no matter how tiny. If you do create waste; find out if it can be composted, recycled, or reused before discarding it.
It is not about perfection, and it is impossible for anyone to make no waste whatsoever in our current society. Zero waste is just a goal; aim for less waste and keep improving in areas that require bettering.
Do you consider the movement inclusive enough? What about those who are physically incapable of implementing numerous changes - the aged, students (short on cash), or the ill who cannot spend time cooking, or going to the farmer’s market to pick fresh food? Do you think the zero-waste movement gives them an opportunity to contribute?
I think it is important to acknowledge this lifestyle is not fully accessible to everyone. Everyone has different circumstances, abilities and difficulties. We are definitely privileged to be able to live the way we want - have steady incomes, reside in a neighbourhood that supports this kind of eco-lifestyle, are able-bodied, and don’t have children or elderly family members to attend to.
At the same, it is essential to recognise that this lifestyle is not ‘all or nothing’ – it’s about doing your best given the circumstances! Find solutions that work for you. I believe we can all do our bit; even if it is just choosing fruit and vegetables that are not packaged in plastic, or finding somewhere to drop off our food scraps.
It can be seen as expensive, but being zero waste can also save you money - getting discounts when using reusables, buying second-hand clothes from thrift stores, reducing food waste, and not purchasing unnecessary single-use disposable items. Also, food cooperatives provide bulk products at very competitive prices, a good option for those short on cash. The University of Melbourne has one, for instance.
For the time poor, some companies deliver fresh produce and dry goods in minimal packaging at your doorsteps. You don’t have to DIY things if you don’t have the time – you can buy low waste versions of most things these days.
Another way to make a difference is by being an activist and persuading big businesses and the Government to bring about changes you want to see like lobbying for the implementation of a Container Deposit Scheme in Victoria.
Also, we don’t do complicated cooking that requires a lot of DIYs, and occasionally treat ourselves with some homemade hummus, crackers, or nut milk. We snack on things that we can get zero waste and don’t take much effort to prepare like popcorn, pretzels, vegetables cut into sticks, and fruits. Also, meal prepping is a great idea and something we strive for, but never achieve though.
DIY cleaners and bathroom products only need to be made once in a while and are generally quick and easy once you have all the ingredients in hand. We don’t opt for takeaways usually, but when we do we carry our own containers. A lot of my lunches are bought out and placed directly in my stainless steel tiffin or fabric sandwich pouch.
What advice would you give to those who want to go the zero waste way, but are afraid to take the plunge?
1. Start simple, by choosing one change to incorporate and then slowly implement others.
2. Look for alternatives for the products you are currently using. Start researching a low waste replacement, and swap it when the former runs out.
3. Join a local zero waste community and get inspired by their work, and seek their advice. It is such a welcoming community! We have found the Zero Waste Victoria Facebook group invaluable.
What other changes are you planning to implement in the coming months?
We have started trying to grow our own food on our balcony and are focusing on buying local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. I would like to learn and create more DIYs. We currently compost at a neighbour’s via the ShareWaste app - which we highly recommend - but want to set up a worm farm in our apartment.