"I'm not running around hugging trees." Photo: Stocksy
In 2014, Erin Rhoads embarked on a mission to live a life free of plastic and food waste. The 31-year-old Melbourne graphic designer has managed to fit the waste she's produced since then inside an old coffee jar: broken sunglasses, receipts (printed on thermal paper, which should not be recycled), those tiny fruit and vegetable produce stickers, plastic clothing tags and plastic straws.
Compare that with the amount of waste an average Australian household makes each year – enough to fill a three-bedroom home from floor to ceiling.
Admittedly, Rhoads doesn't have children and the pressure of shopping for a family – she lives with her partner.
But her commitment to a zero-waste, plastic-free lifestyle (she blogs about it at therogueginger.com) is impressive.
"I was inspired after watching [documentary] The Clean Bin Project, which is about a Canadian couple who made no trash for one year," she says.
The interesting thing about Rhoads is that she is neither vegetarian nor a card-carrying environmentalist.
"I work in a corporate 9 to 5 job in the city," she says. "I go out for cocktails and hang out with my friends. I'm not running around hugging trees."
So how did she reduce almost two years' worth of waste into a small jar?
PLASTIC NOT FANTASTIC
Initially, Rhoads says, giving up plastic was hard. But the facts presented in The Clean Bin Project were compelling.
"I learnt about the impact of plastic pollution on the environment, especially on an area called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," says Rhoads.
One study calculated that over the past 40 years, the volume of plastic debris increased 100-fold in this oceanic dead zone. That prompted Rhoads to ditch bin bags, cling film, beauty products and packaged goods.
Rhoads now uses glass and stainless steel containers instead of cling film, and takes a reusable water bottle, cutlery and cloth grocery bags with her when she goes out. She always drinks coffee in the cafe instead of ordering a takeaway cup.
She started making all her own beauty products, including blush (beetroot juice and gin) and mascara (activated charcoal, soap, almond oil and water).
"I kept my old containers and applicators and refill those," she says.
She doesn't use or need bin bags now because she doesn't create any waste.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Ditching plastic had unanticipated outcomes. "Going plastic-free is probably one of the best diets you can go on because you can't eat anything packaged or processed," Rhoads says.
"I was eating better and saving money. I saw the benefits straight away."
Rhoads does the majority of her shopping at bulk food stores, such as The Source, using cloth bags. "My sister made my cloth bags but you can easily buy them on eBay or Etsy."
As for meat: "I go to the butchers with a container and ask them to put meat in there," she says. "They are always supportive." Plastic milk bottles or yoghurt tubs are not an issue, as she doesn't consume those foods.
What does Rhoads pine for most? Vegemite (the jar has a plastic lid). "I really miss it," she says. "I even looked into making it but it was too hard. Apparently my house would stink!"
Australians discard up to 20 per cent of the food they buy, worth $8 billion a year. Keeping peelings and offcuts in the freezer to make stock and composting what you can't use are all ways to get the most from your purchases.
Rhoads has recently started regrowing vegetables. "If you keep carrot tops, fennel, celery and spring onion in water they will grow back," she says. Rhoads cuts off as much of the spring onion as she needs and returns it to a pot of water. She replants the other vegetables into her garden after keeping them in water for two weeks.
INVESTING FOR THE LONG TERM
A zero-waste lifestyle benefits more than the environment. "Once I decided to go plastic-free, it was a bit expensive," says Rhoads. "But I made investments in things that save money in the long run, such as buying a menstrual cup and cloth pads. Over two years, it saves me $290."
Rhoads also uses beeswax wraps, which retail for around $25 for a set of three, as a sustainable and natural alternative for cling film and plastic sandwich bags. "They can be reused over and over and save money," she says.
REDUCE YOUR WASTE
Take your own bags shopping – not just large tote bags, but also smaller produce bags.
Take your own containers to the butcher or deli.
Say no to straws, receipts and takeaway coffee cups.
Use the whole vegetable (broccoli stalks are delicious in a stir-fry and you can eat the dark green part of leeks).
Buy in bulk – it's cheaper and better for the environment.
Make a weekly menu plan and buy only what you need.