By Michelle Hayes
My husband Ben and I once lived in a pretty standard housing estate – the kind that embodies the exact opposite of “sustainable lifestyle practises”, an estate where people have oversized homes (often facing west!), large energy guzzling air conditioners running night and day, not a rainwater tank in sight and barely a tree (gee, barely a shrub!) to be seen. Every Monday evening, we dutifully wheeled our wheely bins to the curb and around 5 am the next morning the garbage truck would swing past and take our waste away. Dragging the empty bins back up the driveway later that day, we often patted ourselves on the back for our contribution of a full bin of so-called recyclable materials, and we naively thought we were doing our bit!
Then around 2007 my family watched an animated video by Annie Leonard called The Story of Stuff. It’s a short documentary about the lifecycle of material goods. The video is critical of excessive consumerism and promotes sustainability. I highly recommend watching it. That animation opened our eyes and the changes came thick and fast from that moment on. In 2009, we set ourselves a challenge to not buy a SINGLE new thing for the whole year, with the exception of shoes and underwear! Even with a six and three year old at the time, it was surprisingly easy and taught us a great deal about what we could and couldn’t live without. It was also during this time we realized that our so-called Australian dream, requiring us to be mortgaged to the hilt, sucked! Especially when our current house epitomised all that we now thought of as detrimental for the planet! We sold up, moved in with my parents and put plans in motion to design and build a much smaller, affordable, solar passive house. But just when we found a suitable block of land… an opportunity to teach on Norfolk Island sent us in a whole other new and very surprising direction!
Coming to reside on Norfolk Island in 2010, to what we believed to be a pristine environment, we felt very fortunate indeed to call this paradise our new home. But there was one aspect of island life that came to be something of a shock…waste management! After learning about and seeing firsthand what happens at Headstone Tip, we struggled to come to grips with the complex waste management issues of island life. To learn we were burning and dumping our waste into the sea just felt shockingly appalling! We vowed to do everything we could to lessen our impact, immediately. We stopped using plastic bags and bin liners, we ditched plastic food wrap and snaplock bags, we swapped tissues for hankies and we bought 5 kilo reusable buckets of bicarb powder and citric acid and started making our own dish washer powder, laundry powder, deodorant and toothpaste. Our children transitioned to “nude food” lunchboxes for school and I promoted litter-free lunchboxes at Norfolk Island Central School. We attempted to grow a veggie garden and raise chickens for eggs.
When it came to grocery shopping, we picked items packaged in glass or metal over the same product packaged in plastic. But it wasn’t nearly enough and our determination to further limit our single use plastic proved to be almost impossible, that is until three environmentally aware Norfolk women opened a bulk food and eco products business. Finally, with the arrival of Prinke Eco Store, at the end of 2019 we found ourselves in a position to give plastic-free living a proper go. So, at the start of 2020, we set ourselves our biggest family challenge to date - to cease buying any food on island that came packaged in single-use plastic for one whole year!
Almost two years later I can report that not only were we successful at adhering to our challenge for the entire year, but we are now 11 months into our second year and it’s become our normal. I’m very proud to say we don’t buy any food items on Norfolk Island that are packaged in plastic, including tetra paks. So how do we eat you might wonder? Very well in fact. We buy our veggies and fruit from the Saturday markets. No, no frozen fruit or veg for us. We take a container to buy a freshly roasted BBQ chicken or piece of Pork (with crackling!) from Foodies once a week, we buy bread from various providers on island who are always happy to pop it in a paper bag, we take our own reusable containers for products we buy from the butchers…cheese, olives, meat etc and most other pantry staples we buy at Prinke Eco Store, our afore mentioned local zero waste bulk food shop. I don’t make many of my own products anymore because Prinke has most of them available and some of the products – laundry powder for example - are locally made.
What then are we still buying that IS packaged in plastic? There’s definitely room for more improvement. Naturally when you start shunning single-use plastic food packaging, you can’t help but want to eradicate plastic in so many other forms. And well truthfully, that has been difficult. Sourcing plastic-free pharmaceuticals, for example is quite challenging. We have also found it difficult to find hardware items without plastic packaging. And don’t get me started on synthetic fibres. Our family has a very long way to go in that department.
Yes, we sometimes go without (it’s difficult to source plastic-free cream, crackers and rice cakes for example), but we believe that what we are doing is important and we just can’t go back to living any other way. When you make a conscious decision to shun plastic, you start to see it everywhere! Our planet is in poor shape. Finite resources are being abused and wasted. The issues around consumerism, land clearing, poor waste management, pollution and climate change are all interrelated. I have grave concerns for our health and safety now and into the future.
What can we do to fix this? Imagine if everyone stopped buying food packaged in plastic! What message would this give to our food producers? Imagine how things might change? I’d imagine rapidly and for the best! I want my own children and the students I teach to inherit a planet in better condition than it is currently. And I want to show others that everyday people can make a difference. Shopping this way is quite empowering!
I’m the first to admit that it does take a little planning and preparation, but with strategies such as always keeping a supply of jars and reusable containers in your car, you will be surprised by how quickly your new habits stick and boy will you notice the difference in your garbage bin each week. We visit the Waste Management Centre every few weeks to dispose of our metal, glass and paper waste, but months go by before our general waste bin needs emptying.
I encourage you to start buying plastic-free alternatives. Look for products in paper, glass or metal. Check the label/packaging to find out if that product is truly recyclable and not just ‘green-washed’ to look like it is.
Our future generations are expecting us to protect our planet, and although it can be difficult at first to change ingrained habits, over time it gets much easier. Ultimately, we need to consider the true environmental cost of any product we purchase, and then ask ourselves:
"Do I really need this?"
* Michelle has some great recipes for home-made products such as laundry powder, dishwashing powder and surface cleaner on her website Norfolk Exposure.
** Michelle also recommends this book: A Family Guide to Waste-Free Living.