I last put out my rubbish bin in October 2011

Note: the image at the top of the article shows all rubbish accumulated over five years.

By Peter McGlone
Tasmanian Conservation Trust

I last put out my rubbish bin in October 2011. Yes, seven years and I have not put the rubbish out once at home.

In October 2011 a friend of mine, Robyn McNicol, did a marine plastic pollution art project with Taroona High School called ‘Plastic Swirl’ that aimed to increase awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean. It affected me so much that I wanted to see if I could stop producing plastic and other waste. I decided to stop putting my rubbish bin out and:

·        stockpile everything that was not allowed in my council recycling bin or disposed of onsite;

·        avoid or reduce consumption (what could I stop buying or buy less of?);

·        looked for a substitute that was reusable, compostable or recyclable.

This project only dealt with solid waste generated at home and take-away food consumed at work but not waste generated at cafes or by family or friends.

Big changes

The first thing I did was to ensure that no compostable materials ever got thrown out. I had always disposed of garden waste at home, burning woody material and composting or mulching the rest. I had always composted vegetable food waste at home but introduced a compost bin at work and took it home each week. I stopped throwing away any meat or fish waste and either fed it to the dog or burnt it (for heating or cooking). In hot weather animal waste needs to be stockpiled in the freezer. I collected contaminated cardboard and paper take-away packaging from home and work and used it to start the fire (this can also require stockpiling in hot weather).

The second thing I did was to stop shopping at large supermarkets such as Coles and Woolworths. I have visited them three times in the first three years and not again in the last 4 years. Supermarkets encourage you to buy lots of things you don’t need and buy larger quantities than you need, leading to waste. They also cannot survive without outrageous amounts of packaging. 

This project involved a lot of effort to wash every item of packaging that food had come in. Worst of all is plastic packaging that fish, meat and cheese come in. It took a bit of work but you get better at it and it forces you to not let things go off. 

What was left after five years?

After five years I put together all of the waste that was not acceptable in my kerbside recycling bin, that could not be composted or safely burnt or reused and photographed it, weighed it and counted it. I have separately weighed my waste for the least two years to see if there are improvements compared with the five years (see later in the article).

After five years, the first thing I noticed is that most of the waste was PLASTIC. Three quarters by weight (95 percent by volume) was plastic and one quarter non-plastic (mainly metal caps from bottles and jars). After five years I had produced just 47.61 kg of waste that normally would have gone into the rubbish bin. I could have almost fitted it all in one rubbish bin.

I was able to recycle and reuse more waste that was not acceptable in council recycling bins, including taking about half of the food packaging to RedCycle (more than 2kg), the plant pots to Mornington Reuse Shop (5.6kg) and garden bags to a local person who sells horse manure (5.2kg). This reduced my total waste to 34.18 kg. So I was pleased with averaging only 6.8 kg of waste per year.

For a more detailed breakdown of waste types see the table at the end of this article.

table 1.png

Did I improve in the last two years?

Yes, I got to about half the amount of waste compared with the first five years. In the last two years and four months I accumulated just 13.93kg of waste which could not go in the recycling bin which is an average of 6kg per year. After taking some food packaging to RedCycle, plant pots to the reuse shop and soft plastics to Envorinex (subject to verification of plastic type) the total was reduced to 7.73kg or 3.3kg per year.

Can I get to zero waste?

Yes, but only if I stop wearing clothing and give up most luxuries. Even if composting was a real option, there is only a limited range of entirely natural fibre clothes and no underpants that I can find. I can convert entirely to reused clothing (except for underpants and socks) but these are eventually sent to landfill.

Outdoors, I am close to zero (in terms of single use items) and can get there if I buy manure in bulk. There will be waste produced as durable plastic items wear out and I cannot guarantee that reused plastic pots are recycled at the end of their life.

Many improvements are not entirely within my control. I will lobby the hardware stores to investigate recyclable packaging for tools and fasteners.

To get to zero with food packaging at home would require me to trust RedCycle (and I am not willing to do so without independent auditing). But if RedCycle are proven to be a trusted recycler and I align my shopping with what they accept I can get close to zero food packaging waste.

I will transport stubby wrappers to Envorinex at Low Head, if I can confirm the type of plastic is recyclable, and encourage them to establish a collection service.

I will find out if health regulators will allow me to buy fish, meat and cheese without plastic wrappers and that will eliminate all plastic bags.

There are a few luxury foods e.g. cheese and chocolate in metal foils and non-food items such as CD’s and DVDs (that come in a thin plastic wrapper) which I am unwilling to do without. I will continue to accumulate metal caps and lids until there is a use for them.

Conclusions and lessons learnt

Look beyond food packaging to reduce waste. While food packaging was much more noticeable, numerous and irritating to clean and store, plant pots and manure bags amounted to a similar amount in weight of plastic and could to my surprise be reused. Also, remember that half of what most people put into their rubbish bin is compostable food or garden waste.

plant pots.jpg

There is no trusted means of recycling most plastic films, bags and food wrappers. RedCycle takes some of these and some is probably recycled. Many other types are not currently recycled anywhere. Envorinex can use some soft plastics but it is uncertain what type of plastic stubby wrappers and some plastic bags are made of and there are no collection services or drop-off depots.

Many plastic bags and films are not recyclable anywhere and knowing which are recyclable is not easy.

Many plastic bags and films are not recyclable anywhere and knowing which are recyclable is not easy.

Is RedCycle to be trusted? RedCycle has collection bins in Coles and Woolworths supermarkets in Tasmania but I am unconvinced that this program recycles all items it collects. To be fair the RedCycle web site says that it aims to recycle all appropriate items into useful products but it depends on demand and stockpiling is expensive. Over the last seven years they have also greatly expanded the range of items that are acceptable. The web site gives vague advice about how clean packaging needs to be and contamination by food is highly likely. Most times I have visited the RedCycle bins they have unacceptable items including polystyrene which may make the entire bin unusable. 

Getting to zero plastic bags: I also intend to investigate if meat, fish and cheese can legally sold without packaging i.e. put into a reusable container and this would get meat close to zero plastic bags.

Consumers should demand a solution to unrecyclable tops and lids. We need councils to clarify whether larger plastic lids such as ice cream contain lids are recyclable as one council has told me. It seems that plastic food containers are taking over from glass so recycling the lids will become a bigger problem. Some plastic bottles have the lid attached to the bottle so can this be done with all bottles? The NSW Container Deposit Scheme accepts bottles and the lids attached so this would deal with plastic and metal bottle lids. But jars are not included in the CDS.

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There are a myriad of other smaller plastic items, many are hidden, that cannot be efficiently collected and recycled. My most annoying small plastic items are plastic seals around bottle lids, CD wrappers, clothing labels, price tags (even the Salvos connects the paper tag to the clothing with a plastic tie), milk and coffee cup linings, bread ties. What should we do with these? I don’t want to stop shopping at Salvos or stop buying Cranberry juice and CDs, so can we stop shops and manufacturers using them? Unless we can we just send them to land fill.

What are your most annoying plastic objects?

What are your most annoying plastic objects?

Why are hardware stores so far behind? If you buy tools or fasteners in hardware stores they all have plastic packaging but no plastic code? This is clearly where the shops owners need to put their foot down with suppliers. Presumably most are based in China.

Reducing packaging can improve your diet. I have also improved my diet by buying more fresh food and less processed foods in containers.

Some plastic and foil packaging is important. Prescription medicines and some over the counter medicines e.g. aspirin, come in plastic or metal to preserve them and stop contamination. First aid materials come wrapped in plastic which keeps them clean and dry. Safety equipment such as gloves, respirators and goggles are made out of plastic and some cannot be easily replaced by rubber e.g. rubber reacts with some herbicides.

Clothing is inherently unrecyclable and almost all of it eventually ends up in landfill if it is reused and repurposed. Reusing clothes as rags is great but they all end up contaminated and sent to landfill. All clothes get worn out and I bet that no one in Tasmania has a compost bin that composts hot enough to break down wool, cotton and other natural fibre clothing. In the future we might look to send natural fibres to industrial compost facilities but this would reduce the supply to the rag market. There are very few clothing items that are 100% natural fibres (most stitching and elastic is synthetic and many have metal zippers) and these contaminants will either need to be removed by the manufacturer (but most are moving toward including a few percent of lycra in all cloths) or by the compost facility operator. The War On Waste estimated that 1% of clothing, that is entirely synthetic, is currently recycled by some manufacturers but this involves transporting the clothes very long distances. 

Five years worth of waste clothing: not acceptable at reuse shops or for rags..

Five years worth of waste clothing: not acceptable at reuse shops or for rags..

The rag man is fussy: I have always given unwanted wearable clothes to the second hand stores and other clothes that could not be worn to St Vincent De Paul for use as rags. But when I made inquiries with St Vincent De Paul I realised that many items of clothing are not accepted as rags e.g. under pants, socks, woollen clothes, heavily stained clothing and entirely synthetic materials. Many people persist in giving away these unusable items and St Vincent De Paul have to pay to dispose of them to landfill. 

Avoid large supermarkets: Shops such as the Hill Street shops, IGA super markets and wholefoods shops such as Eumarrah, all tend to allow you an option to buy fresh foods without any packaging or to put them into paper bags or your own containers. They also have far fewer items (and dare I say more of them are essentials) which means you will buy less things that you don’t really need.

Target denser containers first: Some plastic food packaging is much larger and denser than plastic bags. I targeted these first and didn’t miss them: containers used for yogurt, margarine (which can be replaced with butter in paper), cream, pesto, take-away curry, take-away sandwiches and meat trays. So even if you cannot eradicate all plastic packaging you can easily make a big difference by excluding a few items. 

Target things that are easy to do without or have a substitute:

·        I converted to hard shaving soap which comes in a metal tin but lasts for years.

·        After wearing out my last sponge I converted to a cotton cloth.

·        I found that I could cope with wind up torches (one has survived for 15 years) and gave up buying batteries other than the ones I use for my phone and motor car (both are recyclable). 

·        I quickly stopped buying take-aways that were wrapped in foil such as souvlakis and had largely given up polystyrene. Over the seven years I have noticed these types of packaging are disappearing. Many shops now use paper or card board for take aways and this is definitely becoming more common. I got better at finding the take-away shops that wrapped sandwiches in paper. 

·        Plastic shopping bags were very easy to give up but some shops forced them on you. 

·        Over the first year I gave up food in containers that combined plastic with a foil sealed lid e.g. some yogurt brands, dips and pesto. I substituted some with glass jars which have unrecyclable lids and gave up others

·        I have slowly reduced my use of meat trays which are not accepted in council recycling bins or RedCycle but still buy meat and fish in produce bags.

Some things are best to just give up: 

·        I used to prefer soy milk but the foiled lined packaging is probably not recycled so I gave it up.

·        I very quickly gave up all sweets and over time gave up single serve ice creams and biscuits that included unrecyclable trays.

·        Over the first year I gave up potato chips that came in foil or foil lined wrappers but still bought some chips in plastic bags.

Some things that are harder to give up:

Most chocolates come in unrecyclable metal foils and I have largely stopped buying these. I occasionally buy chocolate in plastic wrapper which can be put into the RedCycle bins. I could not find a chocolate wrapped in paper and this is probably because it doesn’t preserve the chocolate well enough.

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