Low waste living is hard AF

It’s Plastic Free July but Josie Adams is taking it a step further, attempting to be as low-waste as possible – minimising plastics, emissions and even recyclables. This is the first instalment of her diary tracking the challenge.

It’s fair to say I’m lower-waste than your average Joe. I drive maybe once a month, and I’m pretty vegan (I have been known to eat the odd egg). When the low waste July challenge was floated, I thought I’d have this in the compostable bag.

I was wrong.

Day 1

It’s Monday, 1 July, day one of the single-use plastic bag ban, and a copy of the daily paper has turned up at the office double-wrapped in plastic packaging. My editor Toby Manhire hoists it high and yells “is this illegal?” My heart swells with pride. I am in a supportive environment.

I’ve prepared well today. I came here on the bus, I packed lunch in a ceramic container, and I’m ready for my coffee. I’m not going to buy a keep cup. No, it’s day one and I’m feeling hardcore. I take the single mug I own into the cafe directly below the Spinoff office. 

If you don’t own a mug, many cafes are part of the Again Again cup scheme, which provides a reusable metal mug for $3. Metal is not the most eco-friendly substance due to its production methods, but it’s better than plastic. My personal mug is ceramic, sculpted from clay scraped out of a Kumeu deposit and fired in a local kiln.

Metal Again Again cups are available for use at cafes across the country.

I’m absolutely crushing this. 

So far, I have created no waste: no paper, no plastics, and bus-only emissions. 

By 4.45pm I’ve been riding the morally superior wave for almost eight hours. Now, the wave is breaking. I’m shocked to discover the Spinoff does not use compostable bin liners. What kind of example are we setting for our readers?

Obviously, the best environmental choice here is to line your bins with nothing. In an ideal world, we would all empty our rubbish buckets (made of wood or clay) into a compost pile having used no single-use plastic. We do not live in an ideal world. We need bags to move our plastic-strewn rubbish from an office kitchen to the bin which will be taken away by a truck to be left in a landfill.

One thing you can do to make this process a smidgeon more eco-friendly is to upgrade your bin liners. A word to the wise: ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ aren’t the same things. Biodegradable products break down into tiny pieces of plastic waste that we can’t see, but smaller flora and fauna can. It’s not good.

Compostables are becoming more accessible. At one point, ‘compostable’ meant ‘you can take this to one of 30 composting stations in the entire country.’ No more! Home compostables made of corn and other starches are now readily available at most supermarkets.

You have no excuse, Spinoff.

Day 2

I take out the office recycling and am sad because recycling is a big scam. Some of the boxes and bottles you carefully sort into a recycling bin are shipped off overseas for others to deal with. We can recycle some plastics, glass, aluminium and cardboard here — but anything with a 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 in its little recycling label has to be sent overseas for processing. 

Forget about what happens to the waste at the end of its life; the emission costs of shipping them overseas are enough of an outrage.

In search of hope, I give Kelly McClean a call. She’s a sustainable packaging project manager at Foodstuffs, which owns New World and Pak’nSave. I want to know what suppliers are going to do since the government won’t force recycling. “I think the next shift we’ll see is toward reusables,” she muses. “So you can buy a product once and re-seal it, re-fill it, and so on.” 

McClean loves her job, but it’s not always easy. Getting consumers and suppliers to be as passionate about the environment as she is can take some work. She’s intrigued by advances in bioplastics and fibre packaging, she’s all about reusables, and she is investigating home compostables. She hates waste and if plastic must be used she’s devoted to finding another use for that product. 

Today I forgot my lunch. I came home from work starving and realised I couldn’t buy protein. It all comes in plastic. Loose veg, no problem; loose grains, it can work; loose protein, not without going hunting. 

Tinned lentils and chickpeas are relatively sustainable, but I’m trying to avoid creating any waste at all. I discovered later in the week that if you’re looking for low-waste carnivorous protein, North Island New Worlds allow you to BYO containers to their in-house butcher, deli, and seafood sections. 

Tonight, dear readers, I am making seitan. It’s my only recourse. No plastic is involved in getting it from the store to my stomach. I buy a few scoops of vital wheat gluten from a health shop, and add some spices and water. People compare the finished product to steak. It is nothing like steak.

This is what seitan is meant to look like. It is not mine. Mine made the camera melt.

The wheat meat slices come out as flappy, rubbery frisbees. They wobble over each other like sentient placentas. I fry one like a steak, with butter and salt, in an attempt to make something palatable appear. It never does. Seitan is the spawn of car tyres and barbecue dust and I think I have aged my jaw a whole decade trying to eat 10 grams of it.

It’s bizarre that I can’t find protein sans plastic. I thought that at least soy-based products like tofu and tempeh would be available; isn’t there some crossover with alternative diets and alternative lifestyles? Turns out, no! The majority of people on alternative diets are bougie arseholes who care more about their gut’s flora than the Earth’s. 

Day 3

My wasteful boss Duncan Greive outs himself as a fake friend to the Earth when he hands me a printed-out ticket to a musical. After the show, I will papier-mâché the ticket into a globe and set it on fire to show him what’s up.

My co-workers are Uber-ing from the office to the ASB Waterfront Theatre, but I can’t. Low-waste means low-emissions, so I take the bus to Victoria Park and Lime the rest of the way. Soaring through the twilight park, wind and spittle flowing through my hair, I feel at one with nature. This is why we do it: the resplendent fields of electric scooters, the free-wheeling seagulls, the ants I crush under my heel. This is the future we fight for.

I arrive at the theatre and a plastic glass of wine is handed to me. Plastic! Glass! It makes no sense. This is a sad romantic musical at the ASB Theatre, not a Cher concert. When I cry during the show, it’s for the Earth; not for the star-crossed lovers of Once.

“If it’s not necessary, don’t use it,” is McClean’s advice to designers. She has a ten-point list of how to prioritise eco-friendly packaging and make it work for the business, but that single sentence is often what it boils down to. She says that my experience is one a lot of people are having: consumers want to be better, but don’t know how because the options just don’t exist. “We’re in the middle of a culture shift,” she says.

She agrees with me that the culture shift is one that should extend to the higher-ups. Sure, every little bit helps, but an individual has an infinitesimal amount of influence compared to businesses and councils. The ASB Waterfront Theatre and tofu suppliers alike can change the world.

I feel like I’ve been trapped in a post-apocalyptic shadow realm that no-one else can see. Every time I reach out to grasp a moisturiser, the plastic bottle it comes in slips away from me. When I go to buy cereal, the box shreds itself into a thousand plastic-lined pieces. 

This week had started out so well.

Day 4

My co-worker asks me how much waste I’ve created this week. I have created none. How do I do it? By consuming nothing. I am purity itself. I am also wasting away. According to McClean, the New World in Long Bay is as cutting-edge as it gets for eco-friendly supermarket shopping. They’ve got reusable produce bags, and you can BYO containers for the deli, butchery, bakery and seafood sections. I am desperate and starving, and therefore willing to take an hour and a half of public transport deep into the North Shore.

Marcus Te Brake and his wife, Alex, opened this supermarket only five weeks ago. They give me a sought-after Long Bay shopping bag; they’re thin on the ground. They also tell me about MUBs re-usable produce bags: they’re lightweight bags that can be used for produce over and over again. Because of the mesh, you can wash produce in them, too. Only a few New Worlds currently have them, but they’re a pretty cool innovation. I take five.

I go for a shop, and am stoked to leave with a bag full of veg, some deli goods, a toothbrush, and some bread – all with nary a piece of plastic in sight.

Three eco-friendly bags available at the Long Bay New World (Photo of MUBs: MUBs).

Growing up next to the ocean, Te Brake has been a lifelong champion of keeping New Zealand clean and green. We rage together about the great recycling scam. “Have you seen what goes into those transport ships?” he asks. “It’s basically just crude oil. You can see smoke behind them for miles.”

As we walk around his store Te Brake whips out his notepad to write down every low waste problem I’ve been having; he wants to solve them. He says the uptake on BYO containers has been a little slow, but he’s still hopeful. He really believes Foodstuffs stores can be the change they want to see. I hope customers want change as much as he does.

The coming months will be a test of consumers’ keenness for the BYO containers scheme; it’s now been launched in all North Island New World, Pak’nSave and Four Square stores. It surprises me that more people don’t know about it. Now you do, and you should make the most of it.

Day 5

I have a small cough and am offered a Strepsil by a colleague. I’d bloody love a Strepsil, and it breaks my heart not to be able to partake. They come in plastic and foil! Listen up, Big Pharma, re-usable medical pottles are an absolute must.

On an individual level, medical waste doesn’t feel like it’s causing that much harm. More broadly speaking, it’s a huge problem. Hospitals have tonnes of pills, needles, containers, and so on they can’t recycle. It’s all incinerated. In New Zealand, pharmaceutical waste alone adds up to 60 tonnes annually. I can’t take medicine and be low-waste. This is an inconvenience for me, but much more serious for so many others living with chronic illness or pain.

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Looking for a pick-me-up, I turn to my promotional emails. There’s one from Glassons about a sale they’re having, and the prospect of a little retail therapy momentarily brings me joy. Just as quickly, my joy is ripped away. I am not allowed to buy any new clothes this month. Perpetuating fast fashion is very bad for the environment. I’m wearing Zara today and I hate myself.

If I’m to continue this low-waste lifestyle, my fashion choices are limited. I can buy from local designers (who use locally-made materials) or buy second-hand clothing. I’m on a writer’s salary, so I won’t be visiting Maggie Marilyn. Instead, I will collect clothes the old fashioned way: going to friends’ houses and assuming that whatever’s on the floor is for the taking.

It’s the end of the week, and I’m ready to wallow. Post-work drinks mean I’m back on the Ketonics — they’re the most recyclable booze in the office. My post-waste landscape becomes more bizarre every day.

This article was created in paid partnership with New World. Learn more about our partnerships here.


New World is doing their bit to make a better world and is leading the way to less plastic and waste, all thanks to New Zealanders. They love how Kiwis have made sustainable changes, but there’s more to come in their sustainability journey. Keep up with New World’s #PlasticFreeJuly efforts at https://www.facebook.com/newworld/

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