In a world dominated by plastic packaging there is a growing trend to live a “zero-waste life”, but the movement does not come without a significant cost.
And while some governments and councils are doing their bit to limit single-use plastics, individuals are jumping ahead of the curve.
But aside from investing in a reusable cup — and remembering to use it — what does it actually take to cut all waste out of your life?
Student life on a budget, with a conscience
Undergraduate student Kaitlyn Gillies has been known to take a container of food with her when meeting friends at restaurants.
For her, seeing a turtle choking on plastic in viral videos, was a catalyst for change.
But it was not the only factor — feeling the pinch of a student budget, she began living a zero-waste life out of necessity.
“The main reason I started was … I’m broke,” she said.
Ms Gillies had lived on youth allowance for much of the previous three years, putting most of it towards rent at the University of Canberra.
In seeking out markets that allowed her to buy just one of each vegetable and meet her tight budget, she started cutting down on the kind of waste others take for granted.
“I realised buying individual carrots, instead of a big kilo bag of carrots, was better for me, so none of my food went to waste and I knew that none of my money was going into the bin,” she said.
Instead, farmers’ markets became routine for the 21-year-old and a cardboard box could be filled with exactly what she needed for the week ahead.
Her tiny student dormitory room also caters to her new lifestyle, free from disposable items: a compost bin is installed in the freezer and glass jars of lentils and beans fill her cupboard.
Clothes picked up from op shops make up most of her wardrobe and she uses a sewing machine to make her own bags, which are filled with food bought from bulk stores.
Kaitlyn also started making her own makeup wipes out of polar fleece when she realised how many disposable ones her friends were throwing into the bin each day.
She soon started selling them or giving them away to those who wanted to use makeup in a sustainable way.
“I feel like in this day and age we’re still coming up with better options, more sustainable ways, more sustainable materials,” she said.
“It’s not about guilting people, because people tend to sometimes guilt others for creating waste.
“It’s about starting conversations.”
Overall, she said she had achieved her goal of eradicating waste from her life.
“I need to find something that I can just wash and re-use and never spend money on again,” she said.
Baby poo and homemade toothpaste
Alex Ford has always been careful to avoid plastic, but when she became a mother she realised her eco-friendly lifestyle was about to become much harder.
“Kids and babies create waste, and it’s because of the nappies,” she said.
“I did use disposable nappies to start with and then I went to cloth.”
The move to a more sustainable nappy option opened up her mind about other ways to reducing her impact on the earth.
“Because people don’t like yucky things, they take shortcuts,” she said.
“Then when you have to wash off baby poo, and you realise ‘I’m a mum now and this is what I do, and if I can do this, then why aren’t I using reusable wipes as well?’
“People will argue it uses more water, but they still have a cost in being made in the first place and a time cost in cleaning them.”
Ms Ford said it was impossible to live totally waste-free because of laws around food production and packaging.
For example, most meat comes wrapped in plastic for food safety reasons.
“I lived in South-East Asia for five years, so when I went to the market I dealt directly with the person — I saw the head, I saw the feet and knew exactly where it had come from,” she said.
“Coming back here it was a really big cultural shock for me to go into a supermarket and realise I had so much choice, but actually not much choice.”
She also started buying groceries exclusively from food co-ops and markets, and purchased her meat directly from suppliers.
In the habit of making her own things, she sourced and refined recipes for toothpaste, face oils and body moisturisers — even collecting rosebuds to be crushed into oil.
Starting out, Ms Ford said avoiding waste cost her more initially — especially by sourcing bulk items and ingredients — but it became cheaper over time.
“I guess when you set up investing in zero-waste you do have more of those initial costs, and they’re not just financial,” she said.
“They’ll be the time cost of learning a new skill, the time cost of actually seeking out the best place, researching.
“If you’re actually aware of how much plastic you’re buying, and then you realise that it can take up to 500 years to break down, you can start to make the change step by step.”
With bees and chickens comes a better way of life
Mike Lewi began living more sustainably when he and his wife Herlina Eneas welcomed the birth of their daughter Dominique.
The now five-year-old helps with weeding and harvesting in the garden, caring for their chickens, and maintaining their bee colony, which in turn pollinates their garden.
“I guess she doesn’t know life any other way — she loves being in the garden,” Mr Lewi said.
“We’ve got chickens and she loves running around with them.
“So the time we spend there is actually family time, so it’s not time away from each other.”
Like Ms Ford, Mr Lewi said one of the rewards of a life devoted to minimising waste was the time spent with family or investing in activities like gardening and making homemade products.
In the past year, the family of three has only taken their bin to the kerb twice.
Their life is not yet totally without waste, but it is drastically different to what it was when Dominique was a baby, Mr Lewi said.
“I’ve always been interested in the environment, but more so since I’ve had a daughter — more thinking about her future, and I’m studying environmental management too, so I know a bit more about resource depletion and the way the environment’s going,” he said.
While Ms Eneas was born and raised in Jakarta, the couple had grown increasingly despondent about the effect overflowing landfill and litter has had on the city.
“We almost can’t take [Dominique] back to her mother’s home town anymore,” Mr Lewi said.
While reducing plastic use was easier than expected for the family, Mr Lewi said the bigger challenges were finding affordable staple foods.
“We grow a lot of our own veggies — that cancels out the extra costs in the bulk food,” he said.
“But I think oats at Woolworths are about $1.50 but at the bulk store they’re about $5.”
He said they would also be avoiding disposable nappies when their second baby was born, after using them when Dominique was an infant.
Despite the smaller inconveniences of avoiding plastic and minimising waste, he said they were a more content family.
“My advice to others would be to be prepared — if you can get a whole lot of food prepared in one hit it will save you a lot of that time spent shopping at the supermarket,” he said.