Zero-waste is a goal for so many of us who want to lower our carbon footprint as we re-think consumption, single-use plastics and developing more eco-friendly habits.
Today, I speak to Zero-waste advocate Erin Rhoads who is sought-after speaker and community activist, on a mission to engage with individuals, business, and government to redefine what waste is and how we can create less of it. She is the author of two books, Waste Not and Waste Not Everyday, runs a blog called The Rogue Ginger, and has co-founded impactful environmental groups.
Today, Erin provides some wonderful insight on the environmental benefits of a zero-waste lifestyle, how to start, appreciation of the makers of our things and dealing with eco-guilt.
You can find Erin at The Rogue Ginger and below are the educational and app resources she mentions in the episode.
Angela: Erin, thank you for joining me on PROTECT. Could we begin with how you began your zero waste lifestyle.
Erin: I began my zero waste lifestyle, probably a year after I went plastic free. So the year before I had watched my first eco-documentary and that really changed my life – changed how I saw the world and how much I needed to do to tread more lightly and reduce my impact and yes I started just started reducing my plastic. Step by step, not in one overnight swoop or anything like that and it was after a year of getting my plastic pretty low and I decided to re-watch that documentary which was the Clean Bin Project – I highly recommend it. It’s super funny and highly relatable I think. And then I rewatched the documentary to encourage me for another year. They kept bringing up this term called zero waste which I’d forgotten about. I think after watching the documentary I really started to focus on plastic so I decided to look up what zero waste was and I discovered some blogs in the US, one in particular was then through Fort Negrita I found some other zero waste blogs as well, one of which has sadly closed down, and I decided that this plastic free lifestyle I was living was pretty much all the steps that you do to be zero waste which is reducing and reusing and trying not to buy things and buying things in bulk, repairing and composting and recycling as a last resort. So I just decided, “Oh, I’ll try and focus on all of my waste,” and as I started I realised that I had already been doing that but I didn’t call it zero waste I suppose. I was just trying to tread lightly, kept writing about it and then me and my husband started to call ourselves zero wasters and plastic free zero wasters just to scare our friends even more and we’ve just been doing this ever since. We’ve loved it.
Angela: So did you find it as challenging as you thought it might have been?
Erin: I think zero waste, no because I guess we’d had that practice run being plastic free. I think when people do go zero waste the first thing people focus on is your plastic, because when you look into your bin, at home that is what makes up a lot of what you put in there and when you go shopping each week it’s usually to fill up your kitchen and that usually comes in plastic packaging so its quite natural for people to focus on that plastic and I think when we’re out and about getting lunch or dinner or even breakfast we’re using single use plastics as well so it’s an item we see people constantly with.
I think focusing on that first made the transition to zero waste easier and I think also with any of these environmentally consumption lifestyle changes it’s not really about the materials and the waste and all that that’s changing, it’s also your mind. A thought process where you really learn to slow down and think about the decision you’re about to make or the purchase you’re going to make and if you should, is it worth it is there another option so you start to like pick up apart a lot of the options we’ve been told is needed or necessary to lead these lives and we find it’s not so I think to me the hardest part when I look back was undoing all that stuff I was told I need to do and learning to reassess and not just react like – I see a picture in a magazine or I see a billboard or a commercial and I reactly go and buy that thing to make me happy instead I look for other things that make me happy that aren’t so based on consumption really.
Angela: Absolutely. I think that mindset is the way forward. So you’re saying people can start reducing their plastic and I think a lot of people know they should go zero waste but not always sure why they should. Can you offer environmental benefits people are contributing to when they do try to follow this lifestyle?
Erin: Of course. I always love chatting with people and there’s that huge narrow focus on solar – we just need to go solar, solar, solar. Switching to renewables is important but I always say to people that we need to switch to renewables and I get that but why don’t we have a conversation about our energy use instead and why we need all this energy and why we’re shipping this coal to China and all this stuff and I think a lot of energy is used for manufacturing goods. So if we stop manufacturing as many goods or turn the other way to repairing, then we’re going to reduce that energy need down. So I think that’s a very important step in helping fight climate change as well. Shopping second-hand and repairing.
I always like to talk about the people that make our things. We’re able to go to some stores and buy clothing, electronics and homewares so fast and so cheap and you’ve got to wonder if the people who made these things are getting paid correctly and we know especially through this COVID-19 that a lot of garment workers and smaller factories and larger factories were not paid correctly and never have been and it’s just really sad that we don’t value the people making our things and we don’t value the things themselves. They’re so cheap literally that we can throw them away and go buy another one. How that might affect someone. Affect a community. I think of a mother who’s just trying to get by and make something for their children and we’re just not valuing that time they spend away from their kids and this convenience stuff for our lives so that we can spend time with our families but we’re doing at the detriment of someone else. There’s that real disconnect so I just want to remind people that people make our things and when we really look after our things it’s a way to say thank you to someone that we might not ever meet and say, “we value your hard work that went into making this thing”. So I think it’s about looking at our consumption and who makes our things and the impact of making our things has on the environment
Seventy per cent of the waste a product makes is during that manufacturing, the mining and the processing. So little of it is left when we go and throw it away. The bulk of it is during that manufacturing so if we stop buying so much stuff it would have a huge impact on the planet. You have many climate scientists who advocate for this but because it would require a huge shift in our economies its not really focused on I think because it would require society to shift in quite a big way and I don’t think a lot of society are ready for that.
Angela: Well, if you were to detail those stories, I think a lot of people would be ready. That’s a beautiful incentive to know that we’re contributing and helping communities like that.
Angela: So you and I are both in Melbourne, in our second lock down. One thing I have seen a lot of people – you will talking about repairing before – have gone down that path. They have returning to mending, they have returned to baking, they have returned to bulk goods so have you noticed that COVID has offered anything positive to the zero waste movement?
Erin: I think so. I’d say here in Australia especially. It was really interesting to see during the first lockdown that really quick jump to go and build gardens and at first it was done because people thought we would run out of food in Australia which was just a bit crazy but since then you’ve seen a lot of stories come out of that with people saying they’ve enjoyed being in the gardens and getting to know it and learning new skills so I think that’s been really interesting to see that people started gardening for a different reason but just kept doing it because they didn’t really have anything else to do and from it they’ve found this great sense of joy. Even if it’s just a little herb garden or some lettuce or basic greens but people have really embraced growing their own food which I think is fantastic. I think growing some food – I don’t think we have to grow everything especially in inner Melbourne. But just growing a little bit. It’s a great way to teach yourself that appreciation.
I just grew my first carrot and it took forever. It took such a long time. I pulled it out of the ground and sat there with my son and I was like, I’m really going to enjoy this carrot because it took us a long time to grow. I was trying to explain to my toddler. It gives you that appreciation for how hard our farmers work to provide us with the most basic necessities of human survival which is food. Without our farmers we’d all have to quit our jobs and start mini farms.
So I think gardening giving people a greater appreciation. I’ve seen that pop up in some articles actually that people now have a greater appreciation for farmers and what they do, getting out in all types of weather and giving us those basic necessities.
Angela: I feel like we definitely have a new appreciation for everything. But another question on lockdown behaviours. We’ve seen a lot of people stop the use of keep cups and reusable containers and for some of us it’s caused a bit of guilt so do you have any strategies we can use around that?
Erin: Yes, I completely understand both sides. If you’re a business owner and you’ve made the decision to not accept cups anymore. Sometimes, we need to look at it from their perspective as well. If something were to happen to their business that’s their livelihood. And they might have staff that depend on them as well so I do understand their fear and uncertainty around accepting keep cups. I don’t drink coffee so I’m okay but my husband is a huge coffee drinker and he hasn’t had any trouble with any cafes accepting his cup and he’s spoken to them about doing contactless pours.
Angela: That’s a good idea.
Erin: So there’s information on a website called Responsible Cafes. It’s an Australian initiative where they try and help cafes and incentivise customers to bring keep cups. They’ve got a lovely map and people can access it and see what cafes accept keep cups and they’ve also been working with cafes during this period to help them do the contactless pour. There’s been no evidence to suggest that reusable containers could spread it. There was actually a letter signed by I think over 100 doctors as well stating the same as well. But at the end of the day businesses have the final say of what they can and wont do so many of them have said no but others have been fine with it as well. So if you are having guilt just remember the decision is out of your hands and the business is trying to make the best decision by their employees as well because their employees might not feel safe either. One might have said, “I can’t come to work if this is how you operate,” or something like that so I do think things will return to normal and sometimes these cafes, or bulk food stores or delis might not have heard about doing contactless use with their containers so you can just explain it to them via email or over Facebook or something like that so they see it because they might not know and they might get more confidence if they see that others are doing it and if there is some explanation to it as well so I bet there’s lot cafes who are wishing they could do keep cups again – so just have those conversations with the places you’re having who aren’t accepting the keep cups.
There’s other areas we can focus on too like gardening. If you start growing some new greens you can reduce food mileage and the plastics that often come with herbs or lettuces and silverbeet and kale and stuff like that. Repairing and shopping second hand. There’s all these other areas we can make just as much of an impact as our coffee cups.
Angela: Absolutely. Well contactless looks like it could be the way forward doesn’t it?
Angela: So, specifically on shopping, beyond plastic are there any other package materials that we should avoid or is there anything that is a better alternative?
Erin: I think this depends so I would say apart from plastic, try to avoid packaging that’s both a foil and plastic combination. I think it depends on the level of each but because it’s together it makes it harder to recycle.
Glass. I have days where I don’t mind buying things in glass but I wish I didn’t have to that’s because while glass is great because you can reuse it, you might get to a point where you might have too many glass jars and you don’t know what to do with them and people don’t want to take them and you might have to recycle them and a lot of the glass that we do recycle does usually end up in road base or construction projects and that’s just because of the way we recycle in places in this country so it’s not ever been turned back into a glass jar. That’s very rare and then they’ve got to manufacture that new glass again and that’s usually done overseas and then shipped here so then there’s that footprint.
But I do know that the government is starting to invest really heavily in encouraging more recycled content so I think next year we’ve see a lot more of that glass being recycled back into glass. Paper is probably my favourite especially if you get it without too many dyes and stuff like that and looks like it hasn’t been treated too much. You can compost it, you can recycle it. Paper can be recycled seven to ten times which is quite a lot so… cardboard in your coffee cup. That’s a really high quality paper so if you ever do buy a coffee in a single use cup take it to a 7-Eleven and they have recycling tubes there. The plastic will be taken out and recycled like a soft plastic and then they’ll use that paper again to turn into paper or food packaging or something like that so paper is probably my favourite because it’s so versatile. I have so many glass jars at the moment because we’ve just started a bit of a diet for my husband and he requires certain foods so now I’ve got a huge collection of glass jars so I’ll be able to pickle foods but not everyone is into pickling and there’s only so many glass jars you can give away before people are like, “No, I’m okay, I’ve got it.”
Angela: And lockdown toddler projects are running out so…
Erin: That’s for sure. I’ve turned a lot of cardboard boxes into cars and aeroplanes and trains but back to the packaging, I think it really depends on the person. I never try to shame anyone because some diets might require more packaging than others such as gluten free or if you’re like celiac disease or something you can’t get around it so I think the best thing we can do I think is to write to these companies and ask them to make a change as well. You know, for so long it’s up to us the consumer to do better so I think we really need to push it back onto the businesses and ask them to innovate and make something that’s a bit more eco-friendly rather than us the consumer carrying all this guilt. It’s not fair.
Angela: So, one of the things I love about your content and your books is that you don’t push perfection on anybody, you’re also non-judgemental of where people are in their zero waste lifestyle so what advice can you give to people who may be starting out or people who really want to get serious about it.
Erin: My advice for people starting out is firstly get your mind ready for it. I think a lot of people just dive straight in without realising I guess their mind and thought process is going to be stretched and and expended a little bit. Don’t compare yourself to anyone. A lot of people compare their waste journeys to other people. I think it will be a lot harder if you’re comparing yourself to other people when people have different needs, have different points in their life. Zero waste for me when I had kids versus without kids is very different – completely different. Take it slowly and just remind yourself that if you’re getting a bit frustrated with the process or if something’s not working you can always try afresh the next day, you can always try again and to never take on so much eco-guilt that’s there’s big corporations with teams of people that design packaging as part of their job there and we can engage with these businesses and ask them to do better. People just feel so guilty for things that are out of their control and that’s because these businesses have for such a long time to put so much of the pressure on us to do the right thing and recycle right so I think they’re now starting to listen so I think we just need to keep up with it. Don’t feel shy about talking to a business. But my first advice is to always, always just look at your own life and don’t worry about anybody else’s and don’t make anyone feel bad as well because you won’t get anyone on side but if you are living in a household with people who might not get what you’re trying to do, sit down and watch a movie with them. I think that’s the best way to sit down and explain it without you looking like you’re nagging. The Clean Bin Project is a funny one, Bag It as well which is a really funny one by a comedian, A Plastic Ocean, those are my three favourite documentaries and it’s just a way for them to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing without I guess hovering around the bin, yelling at everyone, “Why did you put that in there?”
So, just always take it easy and never be afraid to speak up.
Angela: And I guess, finding your community because you’ve got a very strong community.
Erin: In Australia, since the War On Waste, the communities that have popped up around the country is so inspiring. Before the War On Waste there were small groups and there were hardly any dedicated to zero waste and then after that it just boomed across the country. There are so many sustainability groups and zero waste groups. I know we have a few here in Melbourne and Victoria that I love to frequent. And it’s just very helpful to know that you’re not alone and especially if you are living with people who don’t get it you can just go on there and talk about your wins and talk about something that didn’t work or you just need help locating something. It just makes the process a lot easier.
When I started, I had no-one to talk to. I had my little blog and I just kept writing on to help others and Australia. That’s how I helped my community grow but I’ve joined others since and it’s just been so exciting to see so many people become engaged and waste is a very sexy topic in Australia. We’re very lucky. My brother lives in New York and he says it’s the complete opposite over there it’s just not as talked about. It’s not an exciting topic over there yet.
Angela: That’s a shame. But it’s encouraging what’s happening here and like all movements, it will move.
Erin: It will. Definitely.’
Angela: Okay, thank you so much for your time today Erin. It’s been a delight to speak to you and I have learnt a lot.
Erin: Thank you for having me.