Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Ugly Truth: Recycling Is Not the Answer

some of the 84 discarded bottle caps found
As I walked down the beach I tried to focus on the beauty of the ocean. Looking to the sea it was so majestic, so beautiful, just like a picture on a postcard, this was the image I would often see on tourism advertising. But the ugly reality was behind me...plain to see and impossible to ignore.

Clockwise from left- beach plastic washed for recycling, litter as far as the eye can see, plastic among driftwood.
It was nice to imagine for a while that all was well in the world, but the reality is stark and shocking, if you just choose to see it and accept it. You see there had been some stormy weather in Miyazaki the weeks prior, and the result was a lot of driftwood and debris washing ashore. The normally smooth sands were littered with literally forests of driftwood, some trunks were bigger than houses! Pretty humbling to see the sheer might of nature. But as you looked closer you could see the plastic rubbish strewn in between the driftwood; bottles, cups containers, toothbrushes, polystyrene chunks, sponges, gloves, ropes, plastic bags, tires and other single use and household plastic, all in various stages of decomposition.

How did all these household things end up here? 
The ugly truth is, we cannot contain our over-consumption, it is overflowing into our rivers and waterways and eventually the sea. Of course people didn't intentionally throw ALL of those things on the beach and in the rivers. While we may have the best intentions to be good citizens by separating our recycling and dutifully putting it at the kerbside, some of that kerbside waste is ending up in the environment. It may be only one toothbrush, 'one' bottle cap or 'one' plastic bag, but now multiply that by 124 million (Japan's population). Now do you see how recycling is not the solution to our plastic waste problem? We need bottles and packaging made out of biodegradable materials NOW. We need bans on single use plastic bags NOW. We need to change how we consume and dispose of things NOW. We are playing a game of catch up that we cannot win.

So how do we make the change happen sooner?

Consumer and retailer awareness and pressure. 

There is a severe lack of this in Japan; for example yesterday I watched as a lady bagged every single item she put into her trolley into a separate poly bag. Every single item! Regardless of whether it was already packaged in three layers of plastic it went in another bag- complete insanity! Meanwhile, somehow, I managed to take home two large bags of groceries without using a single plastic bag or poly bag. All my items arrived home undamaged, with no leakage, no problems.

I also saw four small mushrooms packaged on a plastic tray and wrapped in plastic, singly wrapped carrots, bananas wrapped in plastic inside a plastic box with polystyrene filler. There is no reason good enough to use this much single use packaging. None. I also had to make the cashier remove an item from a poly bag despite already voicing my wish for no plastic.

Whenever you can, tell your local supermarket, grocer, cafe, baker, restaurants, clothing shops, city officials, big corporations, that you want an alternative to single use plastic. Email, post on social media, write a letter, talk to people (I know this is the scariest action but it's surprisingly easy once you start, I promise).

Lead by example until you are VISIBLE. 

Fruit & Vegetables- naked as nature intended
Take your reusable bags, cups,containers and straws. Choose the unpackaged or non-plastic packaged item at the supermarket. Pick up that bit of rubbish that's in the gutter, in the parking lot, by the river, or on the beach.

Maybe someone will see you and stop, and think...that is the beginning.

Not hard to see how the rubbish starts here 
...and ends up here.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Convenience for Convenience's Sake?

What would Grandma and Granddad have done back in the day?

This is a question I often ponder when I'm thinking of ways I can reduce my waste on a daily basis. 
My grandparents were so frugal and modest in their lifestyle that the electric company once knocked on their door just to see how they managed to survive by using so little electricity! 
While I'm still far far away from that level of conscientiousness I still find the 'old way' of living fascinating and inspiring, particularly with my current mission.

Modern living has become much faster, busier, and instantly gratifying, where convenience is king. But are we just mindlessly consuming things we've been told are convenient when in fact the alternative really isn't that much more inconvenient anyway?

Perhaps my favourite example is plastic wrap. It's been more than seven months since I last used plastic wrap...gee that sounds like something out of Single Use Plastics Anonymous! This makes me think that plastic wrap could be, in fact, completely replaceable, gasp! A simple overturned plate or bowl, a reusable silicone lid, beeswax wraps, or even a reusable container or Ziploc bag are all viable alternatives to wrapping things in plastic. We've been sold an idea that we must have this in our lives when in fact the reality is we more often than not do not.

Here are my top five tips for getting rid of single-use plastics in your life:
  • Take a reusable shopping bag- you can roll up two lightweight cotton bags to fit snugly in your handbag or backpack to take everywhere with you. If you can make your bags out of old t-shirts you get extra brownie points.
  • Refuse the produce poly bag- these seemingly harmless little bags send my blood pressure soaring every time I see them as they are forced on consumers at supermarkets at almost every opportunity. Reusables can be purchased online or you can make your own out of old net curtains, or funnily enough you can just put things straight into your bag or wrap in a handkerchief or tenugui!
  • Skip the straw/lid/takeaway cup- it's so much nicer to drink out of a proper cup and it keeps a gazillion takeaway cups out of landfill or the incinerator. Invest in a good cup you can carry with you, and AGAIN do you really need that straw? For Japanese phrases to use look here.
  •  Take your own containers- just ask your local grocer/butcher/fish mongers/takeaway if they will fill your container, you may be pleasantly surprised just how easy it is. The worst that can happen is they'll say no. Keep the containers in the back of your car so you have them handy.
  • Substitute plastic for glass/paper/metal etc.- this is possibly the most challenging one of all, it takes time and effort to seek out your favourite products at the supermarket plastic-free. You may need to go to different stores and the alternatives may be more expensive, so you'll have to weigh up your priorities. Also think about whether you can reduce the use of plastic packaging by making things from scratch.
In the end if you must buy plastic (yes unfortunately sometimes it's inevitable), try and pick the sturdiest container so that it can be re-purposed or recycled (the denser the plastic the more likely it is to be recycled). 

Lastly, don't forget to keep all your reusables hygienic folks.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Ocean Is Dying While We Wait

Just weeks after experiencing a devastating earthquake in my own hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, I watched in shock and horror at images of the catastrophic tsunami that engulfed Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, sending it into meltdown and sweeping away whole cities. That day the world witnessed the sheer might of Mother Nature and as many as 20,000 poor souls perished in an instant. It was utterly terrifying.

Sometime not long after March 11, 2011, I decided to drastically reduce the amount and type of seafood I consumed. Up until that point I had considered seafood an essential part of a healthy diet and enjoyed an array of delicious treasures from the deep blue. But in the weeks, months, and years following the initial disaster it has become apparent, contrary to what the media would have us believe, that the radiation threat is far from under control. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant has not stopped leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean for more than six years now, and the future stability of the power plant (and our oceans) is precarious to say the least. We went from a household that consumed seafood at least twice a week to now only a handful of times a month.

We humans have a long history of irradiating our beautiful oceans. From nuclear testing in some of the most pristine environments,such as the Marshall Islands, to the dumping of nuclear waste far into the ocean's depths, 'out of sight, out of mind' has become firmly ingrained in us as a species.

While radioactive water continues to leak from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, with no effective solution in sight, another more visible yet equally insidious problem continues to threaten our oceans and our health, perhaps even our survival. Yep, you guessed it, plastic. See the thing is, wild-life and ocean-life cannot discern between food and the broken up bits of plastic now ubiquitous in its habitat. As a result sea-birds, whales, seals, turtles, fish, and even plankton are ingesting our plastic waste that accumulates in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and then DYING! Fish that are spared a slow and painful death from starvation (as surprisingly plastic cannot be digested) are likely to end up on our plates as food, so the chance we are indirectly ingesting micro plastic is fairly certain. Our careless disposable mindset has come full-circle to bite us in the arse!

It's fairly well known that the chemicals used in plastic (ALL plastic, even 'BPA-free' plastics) are bad and can play havoc with hormones as well as releasing carcinogenic dioxins when burnt. Yet despite this, manufacturers continue to churn out disposable plastic at an unprecedented rate, and most of it is NOT recycled. Our consumption of these disposables is also on the rise, and it has to stop, the alternative is simply too scary to contemplate. We are literally killing our oceans, and in the process ourselves.

So will you wait for the government to do something? I mean surely if it's that bad they'd do something right? Right?! Or will you join the worldwide movement to stop the use of disposable plastics? If you want to wake up from the slumber, and take action for a better world, here's a good place to start: Plastic-free July. You can lessen your family's consumption of disposable plastic and petition local businesses to do the same.

You don't have to wait for an 'event', let's not waste any more time, now is good.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Practical Steps to Using Less Plastic

"Plastic is a brilliant invention" you say?
      Why yes, yes it is.

"Why would you throw away perfectly good usable plastic?"
      Well if you have any sense you wouldn't!

Like anyone who has recently embarked on the perilous journey to avoiding plastics, I have a heap of plastic-ware in my kitchen and around my house. So what should I do with it, I mean I must be a hypocrite if I'm still using all this plastic stuff while telling others we need to avoid it, right?
Well not quite. If I was to throw away all the plastic things I've accumulated I would only be perpetuating the problem of plastic polluting the environment. And besides a lot of the items still have a long and useful life ahead of them, why would I be so wasteful as to throw them out?

All Rights Miyazaki City Koho Publication

It's easy to get caught up in appearances and making sure you 'look the part' of the eco-warrior. Especially when you are 'guilt tripped' into buying the latest plastic alternative items. I'm in a few plastic-free/ Zero Waste support groups on Facebook, and if I had a dollar for every time that people are chastised for using reusable plastics or heaven-forbid suggesting an item that contains even a shred of plastic, well I'd be one rich lady!

There are however some real health implications of using plastics for food storage, so phasing out their use is certainly desirable. Knowing the different types of plastic can be useful when deciding on how to reuse or re-purpose plastics.

It may be possible to cutout all plastic items, but unfortunately it's not convenient, practical or fun. You can compromise. Here are some really easy things you can do which will make an impact and also make you feel good about refusing and reducing plastics, particularly single-use plastics:

  • REFUSE. Take your own reusable shopping bag. I have two rolled up in my handbag and a couple in the car. Get in the habit of telling the cashier that you don't need a bag. If you live in Japan you can say 'fukuro ga arimasu' I have a bag. Or 'biniru bukuro ga iranai desu', I don't need a plastic bag. To refuse the produce poly bags say 'pori bagu mo iranai desu', I don't need a poly bag either.
    Reusable produce bags
  •  Stop wrapping things in clingfilm! You can use plates and bowls to cover things. Or make use of all those Tupperware containers you're NOT going to throw away. There are also wrap alternatives such as beeswax wraps, that are pretty easy to make too.
  • Take your own containers to the supermarket/ butchers/ grocers. Yes they can be plastic just make sure they're clean and reusable. So far I've had no trouble at my local shops. The takoyaki guy even graciously squished all the takoyaki into my container last Friday! And your own containers are much easier to handle than some of the ones offered at the deli section of the supermarket.('koreni irete itadakemasuka?' Can you put those in here for me?)
  • Ditch the straw and ask for real cups. If you're dining in at a cafe skip plastic lids and straws and cutlery ('futa to sutorou ga iranai desu'=  I don't need a lid and straw), and ask if they have real mugs/ glasses (futsuu no magukapu/garasu de onegaishimasu'). Or if you can be bothered, take your own reusable cup. If you really need a straw (do you really need a straw?) there are glass, steel, or paper ones available too.
    Take your own cutlery/straw
  • REDUCE. It's near impossible to refuse all plastic in this day and age. Start small, every little bit counts. Plan meals to avoid using ready made sauces. Eat more fresh fruit and veges and less processed stuff. Source items packaged in glass/paper/tin.
    Plastic package free sunscreen, shampoo/conditioner, facewash

  • REUSE. It doesn't matter how many bags I refuse I still somehow manage to accumulate them passively from friends and relatives via gifts etc. So if I give you something in a plastic bag, don't judge me, I am reusing it and would be most grateful if you would do the same. Find an alternative use for plastics that aren't recyclable and that would otherwise end up in landfill/ incinerated. You can also save empty spray bottles to make your own cleaners as well as jars and containers to re-purpose.
  • REPAIR. Self explanatory. Like your grandparents used to do!
  • RECYCLE. When you have no need for a plastic item anymore make sure it's recycled properly in your city's garbage collection, or better yet give it to someone who has a use for it or donate to a second- hand shop.
Now go forth my friends and rid the world of disposable plastic one piece at a time!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Are You Hooked on Plastic?

What does a world without plastic look like?

There are fewer and fewer people who are able to answer that question. After the mass production of the plastic bag and explosion of plastics onto the consumer market in the 1950's, plastic has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. Imagine walking along an urban beach and not seeing a single scrap of plastic, walking down the street and not seeing plastic rubbish discarded in the gutters and drains.

No doubt life was very different pre-plastic, when working your land, providing for your family, and living within your means were considered the norm for many. A time when things were slower and simpler. But my how times have changed in a relatively short time frame. For better or worse the invention of plastic has made life a lot more convenient for our time poor, money rich, consumerist society.

Things that used to be crafted from wood, clay, steel and glass are now plastic, extruded and churned out on a line for immediate consumption, with many items literally only used momentarily before ending up in the bin. The much-loved plastic shopping bag is used for a whopping 12 minutes on average, before being unceremoniously discarded.

There was a time when plastic items were expensive and treasured, a wonder of science and technology, take Tupperware for example. But now it's so easy and cheap to get plastic ware that we literally throw it away after a single use with barely a second thought!

Fruit in Japan
Fruit in NZ
It's doubtful that our addiction to plastics is a mere accident or natural progression. On the contrary I believe we have been conditioned and manipulated to use and accept plastic without question, and despite increasing calls for decades to find alternatives to fossil fuels and their byproducts, we are consuming more and more plastic with no tangible end in sight. A world without plastic pollution and fossil fuels is still a fantasy.

I was an eighties kid so I grew up in the 'plastic fantastic' age, when plastic was marketed as a new-age wonder of technology and plastic toys were being constantly pushed onto kids that had to have it all. Now there are fewer and fewer options for non-plastic items, or items not wrapped in plastic packaging, and more often than not when I ask retailers why there are no alternatives they look puzzled and have to think about an answer or some kind of excuse. The number one reason I'm given for fruit and vegetables being wrapped in plastic, is hygiene.  It seems a bizarre reason when you consider that vegetables are grown in dirt and manure! Not to mention that most people wash their produce before consuming, or that the majority of Japanese people don't eat the skins on their fruit and vegetables, even peeling individual grapes?!

Manufacturers laughing all the way to the bank.

With the oil industry under increasing threat do you think it's a coincidence that we are being pushed to buy bottled water while waterways are increasingly polluted? That everything comes in plastic because it's just more hygienic? Or that we are given no alternatives because they are inferior? Just think about those reasons for a second. On one hand we are told we must reduce our carbon footprint, while on the other hand manufacturers continue to churn out more single use plastic, and encourage us to buy more, more, MORE polluting products.

Take a look at the example of disposable and 'reusable' razors. Today I went to buy replacement cartridge heads for my lady shaver, which although still has some plastic parts is somewhat less than the disposable versions. The manufacturer gives me one choice of replacement cartridges in a small cardboard box, at 598 yen for two. Or instead I could get a pack of four disposal plastic razors in disposable plastic packaging for 198 yen. So essentially in trying to avoid plastic I have to pay three times the price?! Some will argue the quality is better but in my opinion that is absolute garbage. If anything I would say the replaceable types blunt quicker. Manufacturers must sit around the meeting room table rubbing their hands together while they laugh and laugh at our gullible stupidity.
Barring going au naturale (which will probably get me even more weird side glances), there's waxing of course (if medieval torture is you're thing), or other expensive and involved permanent hair removal options. But seriously, my next non plastic investment will probably be a metal safety razor with replaceable blades, for a fraction of the cost. You have to wonder why these much more environmentally friendly razors have been replaced by inferior plastic versions, don't you.

So what can we do about this conundrum?

Be vocal.
There are many household things I've successfully and fairly easily replaced with non plastic items, pantry items and hygiene products for example. But I often have to hunt for things, it requires effort, and sometimes I just don't have the time or the money. We need retailers to provide more options, and if we don't tell them we want it then how are they going to know there is a demand, or that we even care? So my advice is email your local supermarket or talk in store with the manager directly (if possible), whenever you have the time or inclination. Ask retailers if they have alternatives, and if they don't then why not? Kudos has to go out to the rare gems who are addressing the problem head on, like the fantastic Kiwi business Innocent Packaging that sees the value in being a business that supports sustainability.

Start to question your own habits.
So many things we do on a daily basis have just become force of habit. Sometimes we do things because we are told to, or perceive that everyone does things a certain way so we must also.
Do you really need that little plastic bag to go inside a big plastic bag? Or could you just carry it to your car and put your purchase in your eco-bag? Do you really need plastic bin liners? Or could you use paper or fold your own? Do you really need plastic food-wrap? Or could you put a plate or bowl on top instead, or transfer to a reusable container? Do you really need those plastic net things to put in your kitchen sink catchment? Or could you just empty it out directly in your compost or bin every day and wash it? Are you buying into the marketing hype or just doing things because everyone else does it? Think about what motivates you.

I've been careful to try not to push my agenda on people, as it's not my goal to guilt people into feeling they have to stop using plastic. At the end of the day I realize people are busy and will reach for the most convenient and cheapest options, and for that reason conscious consumerism will fail and is a fraud as long as manufacturers continue to get a free-pass for using unsustainable materials. It's a gloomy and sickening realization when you find out you've been naively manipulated for so long. We can turn it around though, but boy oh boy have we got a lot of work to do.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Tips for Plastic-free Travel

If there's one thing I've learnt during my journey away from throw-away plastic consumption, it's that at least a little bit of effort is required, and in fact, sometimes a bit more than that. But you do need to care, you need to prepare, and sometimes, for your sanity, you need to cut yourself some slack!

Some things are so easy to give up, like plastic shopping bags, easiest thing really it's surprisingly simple, you just have to remember. However, other things require a bit more thought and planning.

On a recent trip home to New Zealand I learnt a thing or two on how to avoid single-use plastic when travelling on long-haul flights. Here's what I prepared on my Air NZ flight with two rugrats in tow:
  • Trusty insulated travel mug
  • Drink bottles for the kids
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Reusable cutlery (of the non-lethal kind)

As you go through security you will need to open all the drink bottles/mugs to show that they are empty (or if it's a small child's bottle, that the contents are indeed just water/consumable liquids). 
For this reason it pays to have all bottles easily accessible in or on your hand luggage to save a lot of rummaging.

The drink bottles were by far the best thing to take as it meant no spills, and the kids had plenty of water to keep them hydrated during the flight. My mug was also well used, but there were a few times when it wasn't accessible (sleeping kiddies are good like that). I was still able to ask for a reusable cup though. If you take notice, they have two options for cups on Air NZ flights, and the reusable cups are a bit bigger so that's an extra bonus. It pays to ask, sometimes you'll be surprised that there are alternatives available.

If you forget your cutlery or just can't be bothered, don't fret, you can use one set of plastic cutlery, then use the antibacterial wipes for cleaning or wash them in the bathrooms to reuse for your next meal. The cutlery is pretty good quality, so you can take it home to reuse again, or use this ingenious idea to stop cat's from crapping in your vege patch!

I'll be honest, travelling with kids on my own was exhausting and towards the end it all became a bit 'too hard basket'. I did succumb to accepting a takeaway cup for my cup of tea on the last leg back to Japan on a domestic flight. Hey no one's perfect. Missing out on my fix because my travel mug was in the overhead locker was NOT an option by this stage!

One final tip, to avoid a drenching, remember that the air pressure on planes creates a bit of a vacuum when opening drink bottles with straws! Ehem....I managed to do this more than once.

My top tip for avoiding messy surprises in your luggage when you reach your destination: 
  • Ditch liquid hygiene products and go solid.
You can get shampoo, conditioner, hair styling products, sunscreens, and moisturizers in bar form that require no plastic bottles. Currently I'm in love with Ethique, but my all-time favourite shop is Lush, who have a heap of scrumptious solid products to indulge in. The extra bonus with solid product is that you don't have to worry about the restrictions for carrying liquids on flights either. Win win.

Bon voyage :)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Plastic Free February: A Summary

When I embarked on the Plastic-free February challenge I wasn't really prepared for how it would change my life. There have been some hugely satisfying surprises and dismal disappointments, it has certainly been an interesting ride so far.

When I started this year it had not crossed my mind that I would turn out being a nut about refusing plastic! While I've always despised litterbugs, and have in the past been a fan of recycling, I guess my interest in environmental protection (like many) had been more of a personal, quiet interest. I thought I did my bit and that was enough. Wrong. After a month of refusing single-use plastic I realized that I, that we, can do so much more. But just like quitting anything, we have to care enough first.

So what is single-use plastic anyway?
Straws, takeaway cups, plastic shopping bags, plastic water bottles, food wrap, and general plastic packaging. Pretty much anything that you would use once and then throw away.

Where single-use plastic inevitably ends up.
Reuse plastic, don't throw it away.

There were various levels of commitment for the challenge, go cold turkey and quit the lot, or just choose a few. I decided to focus on refusing three: plastic bags, plastic bottles\takeaway cups, and plastic wrap. Not wanting to set myself up for failure, I felt these three were realistically doable and anything above and beyond that would be a bonus pat on the back.

For the month of February in total I refused 54 plastic bags, 20 plastic bottles or takeaway cups, and 3.8 meters of plastic wrap. Actually the wrap figure is likely much more as half way through I got so used to not using wrap that I got a bit slack at taking record!

I am probably most proud of the fact that I haven't used a single piece of plastic wrap in the kitchen since January, nor accepted a single plastic shopping bag. It is now getting to the stage that I am running out of suitable shopping bags to put recycling in (I have however found a few ways around this which I'll expand on in future posts).Overall our plastic waste has halved. We are now putting out a bag every two weeks rather than every week, and surprisingly, our general 'burnable' rubbish has also halved.  So it appears that in general we are consuming less and therefore creating less waste overall. This was not something I was expecting to be honest, but as I've found it extremely difficult to find any snack foods that don't come in layer upon layer of plastic, our consumption of such items has decreased considerably.

Another surprising outcome is a result of  what I like to call the 'plastic-free diet', Eating more unprocessed foods, and less in general due to few plastic-free options, has had a noticeable affect on my waistline. Turns out I've lost 0.4% body fat predominantly around my midsection, and can now fit into clothes that I had 'outgrown'...ehem...

It has not however been without it's low points.
 For example, having to constantly repeat my wish for no plastic bag, sometimes not once, or twice, but THREE times (no I'm not exaggerating I had to literally take an item out of a bag in front of the cashier on one occasion), or to go to a supermarket and find that ninety percent of the fruit and veges are wrapped in plastic, or to do a shop and literally not be able to find one single thing on your list that is plastic-free (but you're so tired and you have to feed the rugrats so you give-in...defeated). While refusing all plastic is ideal it's really not practical or realistic in modern Japan, as much as I hate to admit it.

Despite the setbacks though, probably the best thing that has come of this experiment is that I've now formed habits that will likely stick with me for life, like carrying a reusable shopping bag with me ALWAYS, and having backups, containers, a cup, and utensils in the back of my car. I used to have ten reusable shopping bags that I could never seem to remember to take to the store with I have two in my handbag and two in the car (oh OK and a couple in the cupboard at home!) and they are finally getting used A LOT!
Take a reusable bag or if you must, ask for paper

DIY reusable beeswax wrap

What I now see cannot be unseen...and it is shocking and incredibly frustrating at times, but also hugely motivating. For the most part I am embracing going plastic-free as a positive change, in fact I cannot think of a single negative thing that would stop me from refusing plastic waste whenever I can, and it feels good to be doing something.