With more plastic than fish predicted in our oceans by 2050, the sheer magnitude of our plastic problem is impossible to ignore. There’s the human  consequences including growing links between micro plastics and a raft of health and fertility issues. And then there’s the impact on our fellow species.  Who can stomach the images of beached whales, bellies filled with plastic, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the largest accumulation of floating ocean plastic, that is three times the size of France?

As we transition from fossil fuels to renewables, it’s inevitable that plastics which are made from non-renewable oil and gas, will also become a thing of the past (except perhaps in medical industry). But that process will likely take a long time, with the effects of our existing plastic problem hanging around for centuries. Plastic starts degrading after 700 years and will only fully degrade in 1000 years. Which means all the plastic produced by humans so far has yet to start degrading. So what to do?

Solutions to pollution

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The colossal extent of the plastic problem and China’s decision to stop taking our waste, means that ironically solutions are finally on the rise. From the  highly successful straws suck campaign to the EU ban on single use plastics, to Hobart leading the way as the first city in Australia now enforcing a ban,  there’s real change taking place and with encouraging results. In Australia that includes the 80 per cent reduction in plastic bags (some 1.5 billion of them!), following the ban on on single use plastic bags by our two big supermarkets, which is now prompting smaller retailers to take action.

Everyone from surfers to school kids are getting on board, including innovative local enterprise Clean Coast Collective who are empowering young people to take action with their Trash Tribe rubbish collection excursions to remote Australian beaches. On a grander scale, the world’s largest Ocean CleanUp is my biggest inspiration. Founded in 2013 by an 18 year old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, its goal is utilising purpose engineered equipment to remove an equivalent of 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.

And if you’re wondering what you can do at home, there’s a host of bloggers documenting the joys and challenges of  plastic-free and zero waste living. All of which is a very good thing. Because it’s going to take all of us and a lot more innovative ideas to turn this massive plastic problem around.

Make the switch: ditching plastic at home

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Recycling your plastic is better than nothing. However given plastic waste is stockpiling in warehouses across Australia and the overall pollution problems caused by plastic in the environment, isn’t it time to wean ourselves off this product altogether and embrace the alternatives? There’s already plenty of options to help you make the switch to plastic-free living at home. It goes without saying that these personal solutions need to be matched by huge shifts by industry and governments. But by making changes to daily habits you can be part of the solution now,  without having to wait for the rest of society to catch up.

Since its invention in the late 1940’s plastic has crept into almost every part of the family home (including your tea bags!). In our daily life, most of our plastic waste comes from the kitchen. To help transition your household to plastic-free living, here are my tips for the most effective habit and product switches.

Cook. The best way to prepare waste-free meals is by making them yourself, choosing fresh minimally-packaged ingredients where you can. Reduce the number of plastic containers entering your home each week by making your own yoghurt or cheese. (Check out my simple paneer recipe here). It’ll take a little extra time and effort in the beginning, but will benefit your family in more ways than one.

Eat at your local. If cooking is not an option, enjoy a better-tasting meal without the waste by eating at your local restaurant.  If take-away is a must, bring your own containers – most places won’t mind.

Buy in bulk. Reduce packaging by buying in bulk and split items with a shorter shelf life with neighbours or friends to avoid food wastage. Individually wrapped items and snacks are a waste nightmare—they’re also less value for money. Divide your bulk-buy dried fruit, nuts, or biscuits into portions yourself, and place in containers, recycled jars, or those clever partitioned lunch boxes.

Shop at your farmers market. Markets are a fun way to shop, The food is healthier, fresher, has travelled less miles to get to you, and is generally packaging free. There’s also a wonderful social aspect to meeting the people who grow or make your food. Don’t forget to take your own bags and containers.

Go nude. Make a commitment to buy the majority of your food ‘nude’ (think fruit and vegetables, and bread from the bakers).  Commercial food items are often overpackaged and usually less healthy. While you might not be able to eliminate packaged or processed foods, you can choose items that come in recyclable glass or paper packaging. Start with  buying butter wrapped in paper.

Plan ahead. Avoid those unnecessary last minute purchases and packaging nightmares by planning your meals. This will help you to eat better, and also reduce food waste, another huge problem putting serious strain on the environment. Make meals in bulk and freeze individual portions for future lunches and dinners.

Simplify. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s an abundance of cook books, blogs and recipes sites with plenty of simple meals you can make in minutes with a lot less waste. Compile a list of your go-to favourites and stock your pantry with the basics.

Delay your caffeine fix. Don’t have time to drink your coffee at the cafe and forgotten your keep cup? Then give it a miss. By waiting until you can relax somewhere, even for five minutes,  you’ll really  enjoy that coffee or tea. Better for you and better for the waste stream!

Transform your snack attack. It’s no coincidence that our plastic wrapped conveniences (think potato chips) are bad for us as well as the planet. Home made fries,  popcorn in olive oil and spiced roasted nuts straight from the oven are delicious. They’re also healthier and better tasting, while helping reduce packaging waste. And you’re way less likely to overindulge if you have to do all that work to prepare them.

Real tea not plastic tea. Sadly many tea bags contain plastic in the form of polyethylene. So go for real leaf tea (it tastes better!) in a pot, use a metal infuser or try re-usable 100% natural tea swags.  (If you can’t give up tea bags Lipton quality black, T2’s new teabags, and Twinnings string and tag bags are plastic free. Nerada tea are introducing new natural bags soon too.)

Bye bye bottles

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Special mention here has to be made on the staggering impact of drinks in plastic bottles.

According to information on the Earth Day website, “One million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021. Less than half of those bottles end up getting recycled. Eight million tons of plastic winds up in our oceans each year.”

This is clearly crazy, unsustainable and in so many ways avoidable. Here’s three solutions:

  1. Drink tap water. Countless articles show how bottled water is a huge marketing scam that’s entirely unnecessary in countries like Australia. If you’re truly concerned about the quality of your local drinking water insert a water filter on your tap at home and take water with you in a durable drink bottle.
  2. Get fermenting. If sugary soda is your vice, why not avoid the artificial variety and learn to make naturally fermented sodas at home (recipes coming soon!). From kombucha to jun to ginger bug, these naturally bubbly drinks can be stored in  re-useable glass bottles and are good for your gut and your wallet. Ice teas are also a great option.
  3. Switch your soda. Purchase a soda maker with reusable bottles and refillable gas canister and make your own bubbly water at home. There’s nothing more refreshing than squeezing in some lemons or limes, or making old fashioned lemonade.

After making the changes above, we managed to eliminate the need to buy bottled drinks in our house altogether (with the exception of wine and beer in glass bottles and soy milk) Think of the satisfaction of avoiding bringing all those plastic bottles into your home and the world when you do the same.

Your plastic-free household kit

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Make your household food and drink packaging decisions a once in a lifetime affair by purchasing durable items that can be reused for decades. Given these items also use resources and can be expensive, choose wisely and look after them to ensure they give you years of use.

You’ll also need to develop some new habits as there’s no point ending up with ten keep cups because you keep forgetting yours. Work out a system for putting them back in your bag or car, to ensure they are to hand when you need them. Here are seven essential items for your household kit (with links to ones Ive tried and trust):

  1. Cloth shopping bags–jute, hemp or recycled cotton are good choices. Avoid the petrochemical plastic versions with plastic linings the supermarkets serve up.
  2. Metal, silicone or bamboo straws–with cleaning brush and case for sipping smoothies, juices and cocktails at home or on the go. Try these for your next school fundraiser.
  3. Reusable stainless-steel water bottle. This Aussie company makes my fave bottles but theses ones are also swell!
  4. Keep cup for coffee–choose one made from insulated stainless steel, bamboo, or even recycled coffee husks!
  5. Cloth veggie bags for fruit and vegetable purchases. Try ones from organic cotton or recycled PET bottles or make your own in lots of sizes  from recycled fabrics.
  6. Beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap to cover leftovers. (Or pop a plate over a ceramic bowl!)
  7. Glass or stainless steel containers for lunches and storing items in the fridge

Don’t be shy in talking or writing to your favourite producers to encourage them to look for better packaging options. If they’re worthy of your patronage, they’ll love that you’re taking an interest.

Have fun! By making it a challenge and a game, you’ll find that rather than being a chore, going plastic-free offers all kinds of unexpected rewards.

More plastic-free tips next time!