A Family Guide to Waste-Free Living

The results from the election are disheartening. But in order to have hope we must make change.

And that change needs to start in our homes, our workplaces and our local communities. Perhaps the best thing to come from a disappointing election result is the motivation to do better on a grassroots level. To educate ourselves, speak out, speak up and not slip into the detrimental mindset that others will do the hard work for us.

“But I recycle,” just doesn’t cut it anymore. We can’t be complacent and believe that we’re doing enough because none of us are. And regardless of how you voted, we’re all in this together. We all need to do this work.

So, what next?

I’ve been buoyed to make significant, permanent changes. Personally, I’m going to seek out more plastic-free alternatives when grocery shopping (not an easy task while travelling), eat more plant-based meals and limit what we consume as a family (and always look for pre-loved before we buy new). I’m also going to read more, learn more, write to my local MP (this has proven to be one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals), follow activists and change makers on social media and subsequently unfollow those influencers who encourage excess.

Irresponsible consumption is one of the worst things we can do for the earth and one of the easiest changes we can make. Removing “must have” from our vocabulary is essential, as is adopting the mindset of our grandparents: “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

I’m stepping outside the safe bubble of convenience and ignorance because, quite frankly, I don’t have any time to waste. When my kids are grown up and they ask me if I did enough I want to be able to say: “Yes, I did all I could.”

If you feel like you need some guidance during this time, A Family Guide to Waste-Free Living might be just what you’re looking for.

Lauren and Oberon Carter and their three daughters started experimenting with waste-free living a few years ago. They were doing all the environmentally-correct things; creating a garden based on permaculture principals, composting and recycling. But they believed that they could do more.

“We set ourselves a target to produce no waste at all for the following fortnight. We made a conscious decision to avoid all single-use products. We lived as though such items no longer existed and it became a bit like a game. Plastic bags, bottled drinks, single-use straws and cups – and even metal cans – just disappeared off our radar, unless we had to actually refuse them…We developed a habit of remembering our reusable water bottles, shopping bags, coffee cups and straws, if we thought we’d need them. Even the kids were totally on board with it and so a waste-free life became very achievable. We were amazed. During the fortnight we accumulated no rubbish or recycling. Not one piece!And we did it without having to compromise on our standard of living. We knew we could never go back to the way we lived before.”

Inspiring, isn’t it. And I feel like the most important word in that paragraph is habit. Making change is about adopting and embracing new habits. And when we consciously stick to new habits they slowly but surely become our new norm. As Gretchen Rubin puts it: “By mindfully choosing our habits, we harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth.”

Lauren and Oberon have created a simple, inspiring handbook that educates and inspires. The ideas are delivered in a gentle and heartfelt manner yet overall it’s a powerful book that’s impossible to ignore.

I encourage you to read it or visit your local library and borrow it (if they don’t have it, request that they get a copy for the shelves!). If you want to make some meaningful change in your local community and have a little spare cash this week, why don’t you purchase an extra copy for your local cafe, your doctor’s surgery or your mother’s group. Read it, pass it on and share the message far and wide. I also have a copy to give away. Pop over to my instagram page to enter.

I had the opportunity to ask Lauren and Oberon a few questions after I read the book. Enjoy this Q&A:

Q. Research suggests that we become overwhelmed when faced with big environmental problems and instead of making changes we ignore the issue; a compassion fatigue, of sorts. What do you say to the people who feel like small changes aren’t going to help because the problem is too big?

A. Consider that millions of small, harmful, acts have created this environmental mess in the first place. If you multiply one person’s choice to use a single use cup, straw or bag out by the population of your city or your country or the whole world, then you realise that small acts can make a huge difference, for better or worse. So, we have to choose better, if we want to see broader-scale positive change. Also, your ‘small’ choices are seen by fellow shoppers, shopkeepers, business owners, friends, family and neighbours – and your actions may prompt those people to think and act differently. Lead by example, and your positive actions will rub off on others! In our experience, especially in a world where it feels like governments and corporations are controlling our destiny, it can be incredibly empowering to take responsibility for the choices we make, how our money is spent, and the footprint we leave. 

Q. What are 3 simple changes that we can make – today – that can reduce our waste and environmental footprint? 

A. Speaking in very general terms, we suggest these relatively simple changes:
–       Reduce meat and dairy consumption
–       Learn to compost, and
–       Avoid single-use packaging

Of course, the changes that are most effective for a given person will depend on their circumstances; their budget, geographic location, access to alternatives, and other factors. For example, for some people the biggest positive action might be to reduce reliance on cars and favour use other modes of transport. For others, it might be about reducing and managing food waste – this could start with the simple act of preparing a meal plan, to reduce the amount of food wasted. It is worth considering what aspects of your life might be causing the most waste or environmental harm (we have a bunch of waste audit activities in our book), and looking for solutions to tackle those.

Q. Why do you prefer the term waste-free as opposed to zero-waste?

A. The term ‘zero waste’ originated at a community and industrial level, within the waste management industry. It often refers to recycling at that level. It was adopted by people trying to reduce their personal waste and environmental footprint, and often attempting to reduce their reliance on recycling. We find the term helpful in terms of a goal or target for communities. But it can feel somewhat negative or unattainable for individuals. There’s often some waste along the way, and it can feel disheartening to realise that. For us, we like the term waste-free, because learning to live without making waste does feel somewhat freeing. We’re no-longer tapped into the systems that encourage wasteful consumption. We don’t have to think about what to do with our rubbish, or have the environmental guilt associated with that, because it’s so minimal. 

Q. What have your learnt about yourself through this waste-free journey?
 

A. When we initially decided to try living waste-free, we made a pact to commit to it for two weeks, and leapt into it together. It was a bit like ripping off a band-aid! We’d done a little research to prepare, and then addressed each question or problem as it arose. We found it so much easier and more fun than we expected! We learnt that we love problem solving and challenging ourselves. After the initial two-week period, we realised we couldn’t go back to making landfill waste, or recycling. And we wished we’d committed to reducing our waste sooner. We didn’t expect that living in this way would help us understand the food and products we choose better, or that it would bring us closer to local food producers. We didn’t expect that we’d develop a keener awareness of the seasons either, or feel more connected with nature. We’ve learnt that our lives feel richer for reducing our impact and we feel more self-reliant living in this way. 

Q. What are your thoughts on the current Marie Kondo decluttering phase? Is it just an excuse to get rid of practical items that could be repurposed down the track?

A. The recent popularity around decluttering has had positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, we have seen some useful discussions around consumerism, materialism, planned obsolescence and the concepts of needs-vs-wants. Also, having more people thinking more about their belongings that ‘spark joy’ might have the effect of building restraint when it comes to future shopping. However, on the down side, we have seen secondhand stores inundated with discarded household belongings – more than those shops can cope with. The message that there really is no “away” when it comes to waste, needs to be stronger. There is also a risk that many households will decide in a few years’ time that their stuff no longer sparks joy, and they might (if they can afford it) go out and replace it all for new stuff. Ongoing overconsumption might be an inadvertent negative consequence of this lifestyle.   

Q. What is your checklist when it comes to buying clothes and shoes?

A. Clothing waste is such a huge problem, but there are plenty of things we can do to minimise the harm that our clothing choices make. When we’re looking for new clothes for ourselves or our children, we always begin by looking for good quality second hand items. Our kids are particularly adept at this now and know to look for clothing made from natural fibres. We choose natural fibres because they will not release micro plastics in the wash, like synthetics will. Natural fibres are also compostable, so we can use them to suppress weeds in the garden at the end of their life, rather than sending them to landfill. If we’re choosing to buy new clothing, we again look for natural fibres, but pay special attention to how the fibres are grown, and the conditions the garments are made under. Organic cotton, linen, hemp, and wool are our preferred fibres, although some bamboo products can be made sustainably and we choose those occasionally. We chose Australian makers where we can, so we can reduce carbon miles, or we make clothing ourselves. We prefer simple and classic styles that will last. When it comes to shoes, we look for a simple structure that can be easily mended. We want our clothes and shoes to last for years, then be mended and last for years again!

So, our checklist when shopping is a series of questions: 
– Can I buy it secondhand?
– Is it made from natural fibres?
– Is it made sustainably and ethically?
– Is it made locally?
– Can I make it myself?
– Can it be easily mended?
– Is the style classic and simple – will I still like it in 5 years?
– Is it compostable at the end of its life?

Q. As a travelling family we have to be very conscious of how much weight we’re carrying (buying in bulk just isn’t possible)…what are your suggestions for minimising our waste?

A. Reducing waste while you’re moving around can be tricky because don’t always know what waste-free shops or services will be near your next destination.  If you’re able to do a little research beforehand, it might influence where you stay or visit, so that you can avoid really ‘wastey’ places, or locate shops and community resources that can help you reduce your waste. Reaching out to find bulk or package-free shops where you can shop with your own bags and containers, or community gardens where you can compost food scraps, can help. Eating local fresh food in each region can help too, and you get to taste the produce of each region you travel to, which can be really exciting! If your schedule is flexible (as in where you go, and when), then you can make choices to stock up when you can, to get through the trickier times. Planning ahead is key!  

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