Australia is one of the largest producers of waste in the world, with 21.3 million tonnes of waste going to landfill in 2007. Someone who is striving to reduce the amount of disposable plastic in her life is blogger, educator and zero waste expert Erin Rhoads, aka The Rogue Ginger.
Global Citizen: So Erin, what does it mean to live zero waste?
Erin Rhoads: For me, living zero waste is making conscious decisions to not create rubbish that would end up in a bin destined for landfill. I do this by asking myself simple questions and following the zero-waste philosophy of refusing, reusing, reducing, repairing, sharing, picking items that break down easily, investing in moments not things and recycling as a last resort. It's basically living how our great-grandparents used to live.
What first sparked you on your journey to living more mindfully?
As cliché as this sounds, it was a documentary ("The Clean Bin Project") that inspired me to live mindfully. The film highlighted how much unnecessary waste we produce and its negative impact on every living being on this planet. Prior to viewing the film, I was not aware of my impact and definitely not an environmentalist or greenie. But once that movie finished, I began searching for ways I can reduce my plastic and that's when I discovered Plastic Free July ... and the rest, they say, is history.
What were the biggest challenges getting started? Was there something in particular that was hard to give up, or an embarrassment or hurdle you had to overcome?
The hardest challenge was changing my habits. Remembering to take my own cloth bag when I went food shopping instead of using plastic bags or packing my reusable water bottle into my handbag. I had to undo years of old habits and relearn new ones. These days, the new habits are second nature to me.
Nothing felt too hard to give up, an embarrassment or a hurdle because I knew that while my requests to have my food put into my own container might sounded bizarre at first or telling my friends I was going to live zero waste, came from a place of kindness and love. It was not to make peoples' lives more difficult or challenge unfairly a store keeper at all. I think that's something a lot of people worry about, is making people feel uncomfortable. I discovered it's OK to speak up and to never feel embarrassed to do so if your intentions are for something good.
When you think about it, there is plastic in pretty much every aspect of our lives. For me, I am very aware of the amount of single-use plastic in the food we consume. How has living waste-free changed how you shop, cook, and eat?
How I buy my food changed a lot and my relationship with food shifted, too. I still do the usual weekly shop, mainly gathering vegetables, fruit, and bread. I now buy it from my local farmers market using my own cloth bags. Then, once a month, I'll visit a bulk food store to stock up on the dry goods like nuts, rice, pasta, beans, lentils, flour, and other items including olive oil, tamari, honey, peanut butter. When I go to a bulk food store, I buy everything in my own jars or cloth bags. Bulk stores allow me to reduce my packaging as everything is unpackaged. It's the complete opposite of the major supermarkets. I get to choose how much I need or don't need. So there is less food waste as a result. Because I have to take my own jars or cloth bags, my shopping trip is planned out so I have every container needed. There is little chance of me being wasting money on food I don't need.
Over time I have noticed that I eat more vegetables and fruit. Rarely will anything processed make its way into our pantry. So my eating habits have improved. I'm also more aware of waste now, making sure to use up as much of my food as possible and compost all my scraps.
Read more: Airline Food's New Purpose: Feeding the Poor in Australia.
There are obviously some very serious environmental impacts from the disposable lives most of us lead. So much plastic ends up in landfill, enters our waterways and oceans, and is swallowed by wildlife. Were there any other compelling impacts that motivated you to cut down on plastic?
Learning where my stuff is made, the conditions it can be made under, and how the production impacts others propelled me to really focus on being a kinder consumer. When you learn that land and water is polluted by harmful chemicals, affecting a communities drinking supply and their ability to grow food, all for assumed convenience, made me realise how I spend my money here can damage or improve someones life in another country.
We’re excited for the release of your first book, "Ginger and the Plastic Pirates" next year. Can you share a teaser with us about what we’ll discover inside the cover?
Thank you, I'm excited, too. "Ginger and the Plastic Pirates" is an Australian children’s story that will (hopefully) spark conversations between parents and kids on why we need to reduce our plastic consumption and how to do it. There will be interactive elements that the whole family can use.
Most people think living sustainably is too hard or inconvenient. What are your top 5 simple tips for global citizens who would like to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives and live more sustainably?
- Say no to plastic bags and invest in a reusable cloth bag.
- Take 10 minutes out of your life to sit down and enjoy a coffee in a regular mug. Not only do takeaway coffee mugs have plastic lids, they can be lined with plastic. Who wants to be drinking hot plastic with their coffee?
- Pull out the reusable water bottle that is sitting in your kitchen cupboard and start using it!
- Decline a plastic straw in your drink.
- Set a reminder in your phone to help you remember to bring a cloth bag, reusable water bottle, and to say no to plastic straws. Using my phone and sticking notes around the house helped to make the above changes. It takes around 30 days to create new habits and in that time, we each can forget from time to time. But having constant reminders really does help and before you know it, saying no to plastic bags and pulling out your own cloth bag will be completely normal.