Plastic Free July - Week 2
Interview with Rebecca Kelley
A little bit about Ms Kelley. She is probably one of the smartest people we know. She is a PHD candidate in Reproductive Biology at Melbourne University. Ms Kelley is environmentally minded and was one of the first people we knew that participated in the Plastic Free July Challenge. She kindly took the time to share her experiences, knowledge, the highs and lows and finally her tips and tricks on how to survive the challenges including how she faced that time of the month!
We hope you will enjoy her open and honest insights into her life during and after the Plastic Free July challenge.
RK= Rebecca Kelly
NF= Nadia Foti
NF: Why did you decide to do the plastic free July Challenge?
RK: It was totally on impulse. I hadn’t heard about it before and something popped up in my Facebook feed and I thought, “That’s a good idea”. I didn’t really think it through before signing up about how hard it was going to be. I thought, “Oh I don’t use disposable coffee cups, I don’t use straws, this will be a good incentive for me to remember to bring my bags to the supermarket", but I didn’t realise how invasive plastic is in every single aspect of our lives and how difficult it would be to avoid. So it wasn’t a carefully thought out thing, but I am really glad that I did it as it really opened up my eyes to how much disposable plastic there is everywhere and how hard it is to avoid.
NF: It’s true, very true. When did you first do Plastic Free July?
RK: It was two years ago, so 2015.
NF: Have you been doing it every year?
RK: No, I haven’t, but just that one month of trying to avoid plastic has permanently changed the way I do some things in my daily life.
NF: What did you learn during the process and what were the most difficult obstacles you faced?
RK: I learned a lot actually, for example, I didn’t know cans are coated in plastics.
NF: Oh no, I have been using canned vegetables, what do you mean they are coated in plastic?
RK: The inside of the cans are coated in plastic and it contains BPA. I also didn’t realise that milk cartons are coated in plastic and disposable coffee cups can’t be recycled. I also learnt about composting, which I hadn’t really thought about much before. We had a compost bin when I was a kid but I hadn’t really thought of it as being important apart for anything other than for your own garden.
NF: So did you start making your compost at home because of Plastic Free July?
RK: Yes, it was a direct consequence of Plastic Free July which opened my eyes to all this waste we are creating and what happens to organic waste when it goes to landfill. I hadn’t realised the consequences of that, I really thought that anything that was organic or biodegradable that went to landfill was totally fine but NOPE! When organic waste is dumped in landfill, sometimes it doesn’t break down at all, or it decomposes anaerobically and produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas.
NF: Now for the big question I wanted to ask, how did you approach that time of the month?
RK: Yeah, that was something I hadn’t thought about when I started Plastic Free July. And I did some research into what other people do though zero-waste blogs, and what seemed like the best option for me was a menstrual cup. There are other things you can do like using reusable cloth pads, menstrual underwear that you can buy, everyone is different and prefers different things but for me, the menstrual cup was what I preferred. There are a few different types and there is a really great website (see below) that compares the different menstrual cups available in Australia to help women pick the right option for them. I chose the Juju cup because it’s made in Australia. That website also has good instructions for using and cleaning the cups.
NF: That’s fantastic
RK: Yes, then the menstrual cup lasts for about 5 to 10 years. So there is no waste during that time until you need to replace the cup. The way it works is sort of similar a tampon, except for that it is a silicone or rubber cup that collects the blood rather than absorbing it. You sort of scrunch it up a bit and insert it the way you would a tampon, and then let it go and it goes back into a cup shape. Depending on your flow it can stay there for up to 12 hours.
NF: That’s a long time, can you sleep with it inside, and is it comfortable, can you feel it?
RK: You shouldn’t feel it if it’s been inserted correctly. If you do maybe it’s not fitting right. You maybe sort of aware of it but no you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
NF: I’ve heard a lot of horror stories of women when they try to take it out it gets a little messy…
NF: Do you wash it with soap or anything?
RK: Nope just hot water. Then reinsert it and you’re ready to go. Then at the end of your cycle, you just need to boil the cup in a saucepan on the stove for 5 mins. Then you can store it until the next time.
NF: After your experience with the cup, would you use this again?
RK: Oh yes, I have been using the cup since Plastic Free July two years ago, except while I have been pregnant obviously. But yeah I really like it, it’s more convenient than a tampon because I have to change it less frequently.
NF: Can you go swimming with it?
RK: You can do anything with it that you would normally do with a tampon. I think they are really great, to be honest, and I know they are not for everybody, I read stories on the internet where people have tried it and hated it but I think it is great and I can’t think of a single reason why I would go back to using tampons.
NF: Fabulous. During your time doing Plastic Free July where there any fails? Or any great wins?
RK: Ha ha yes! Definitely some fails. I don’t know about great wins, but I tried some new things that were fun. I’m not usually much of a cook, but when I found I couldn’t find some of my usual favourites plastic-free I tried making them from scratch as a fun challenge. I made my own yoghurt which I hadn’t done before.
NF: That’s cool! Was it easy?
RK: Yes, very easy! You just heat the milk up and add some yoghurt start-up culture, or you can use yoghurt you already bought. Then you just need to keep it at a nice temperature for a while and that’s it basically it.
NF: So you can use your old yoghurt to keep making more and more and more?
RK: Exactly. I made a few other things like coconut milk from a coconut.
NF: Really, like an actual whole coconut?
RK: Yep, the full coconut. It wasn’t that easy but it wasn’t that hard either. I just mashed up the coconut flesh then boiled it, then drained it in a tea towel and that was basically it. You could do this more easily using dried shaved coconut!
RK: I also made soy milk and tofu from soy beans, and I made peanut butter for the first time and I LOVE peanut butter.
NF: How did you make the peanut butter?
RK: Oh that’s the easiest thing in the world! You roast the peanuts for 5 minutes and then you put them in a food processor. And that’s it.
NF: Do you add any salt or flavouring?
RK: You can add salt, there’s no need to add any oil as the peanuts already have natural oils.
NF: Was it cheaper to make it yourself rather than store bought?
RK: Hmm I don’t know, I didn’t compare the prices. It would depend on where you bought your peanuts, I guess, and whether you normally buy basic supermarket peanut butter or fancy organic stuff.
NF: How was the tofu?
RK: Oh the tofu was really good. It was labour intensive enough that I wasn’t about to start doing it every week. Because you need to soak the soy beans overnight, then make the soy milk then make the tofu from the soy milk. But it was delicious. If someone would make me fresh tofu every day I would be very grateful! Another win was finding milk in glass bottles. And each time I found a new way to avoid plastic it felt like a win.
NF: These all sound like great outcomes from doing the challenge. What were some of the fails that you encountered?
RK: My fails were often communication problems with people in stores. When I would go to the market with my containers to buy meat or cheese or olives for example, I would try to explain what I wanted and why but sometimes the person serving me either didn’t understand or couldn’t be bothered. For example, they might give me my meat in my container, but they would pick it up with a plastic bag or glove instead of tongs. Or they were really confused or annoyed by the idea of weighing my container before putting the meat in, because it’s not what they usually do. Or, a few times, they just put the meat in a plastic bag and then put it in my container!
RK: Part of solving this is just better communication with the people in the shop, and part of it is choosing where you shop. If you’re the only person who ever asks for no plastic and they don’t know why you’re doing it, it can be confusing and takes more explaining if you go to the same place every time, it becomes easier and you know what to expect from them, or if they’re the sort of shop that gets a lot of zero-waste customers they’ll be more relaxed about accommodating you. Same applies to take-away food using your own containers.
I also had failed with things that I wasn’t expecting. For example, ordering a soft drink in a restaurant and it would come with a straw in it because I hadn’t anticipated that they might use a straw so I didn’t think to ask. Or buying something like a pie from a bakery and it comes in a paper bag, but then I’d open it and find a plastic fork inside. It’s like AHHH I didn’t think they were going to do that. So surprises like that is where I often failed. Or at the supermarket, I remember buying frozen spinach in a cardboard box, and there are some brands that only have the cardboard box and some that have a plastic bag liner then the spinach inside. But you can’t tell from the outside of the box.
NF: Do you think that when people in shops got to know what you were doing, did it help them with how they operated their business and habits with the use of plastic?
RK: No, usually the person serving you doesn’t have the power to make decisions to change things. That said if enough people start doing this when they shop it will change the way stores do business. And if you get to know certain shops and the way they do things, it makes life a lot easier. You know that they use tongs instead of a plastic glove, for example.
NF: Do you think your efforts influenced your friends, partner or family?
RK: I got a lot of support and interest from my friends on social media which was really nice.
I was surprised at how much people were interested to hear about how I was avoiding plastic and it certainly started a lot of conversations with friends about plastic and waste and I had at least a couple of people ask about menstrual cups afterwards, wanting to know where they could get one and what they were like.
NF: I guess that’s because you don’t hear about people who have used one?
RK: Well it’s not really something you would often talk about, I guess.
NF: So how else has Plastic Free July changed your habits?
RK: One thing is that since doing the challenge I now keep a foldable shopping bag in my handbag at all times and I always have a spork on me, which is a fork and a spoon on the other end.
NF: Was that from a camping store?
RK: Yep, it was. You can get lots travel cutlery from camping shops, organic shops, or environmentally-friendly online stores like www.biome.com.au. You can get some made from bamboo, silicone, stainless steel or titanium. As well as sporks, you can also get travel kits with a fork, spoon and a knife in a little container or travel chopsticks that split in half and have a screw in the middle to put them together
NF: It’s amazing to hear about all the small things we can do to make a difference. Even though the disposable bamboo chopsticks are biodegradable they still using resources and ending up in landfill.
RK: Yeah, it’s good to think about all the small things. But you can also drive yourself crazy doing that as well!.
NF: We’re not aiming for perfection; we’re just trying to make a difference.
RK: Yeah and I think it’s step by step. You can go from a conventional lifestyle straight to zero-waste, but it would be so hard. I think it’s better to warm up to these things. But doing this challenge of Plastic Free July is excellent in training yourself to put a ban on single-use plastics and forcing yourself to find alternatives. As I told you before, I thought I wasn’t using much single use plastic then when I did the challenge I realised plastic is everywhere. So doing this challenge is really interesting to see how much waste you produce and then you can address where it is coming from.
NF: What is some tips and tricks you can share with us about using less plastic?
RK: The hardest part is making new habits. Starting with research and preparation it makes things a lot easier. And being organised plays a huge part in becoming plastic-free or zero waste and not doing things on impulse. Like planning all your shopping, knowing what you want to buy, bringing all your containers. That makes a really big difference.
And being strict with yourself, saying no to yourself. For example, if you don’t have your keep cup, don’t have a takeaway coffee, or take 15 minutes have your coffee in the café instead. A part of it is also getting to know your local shops and where you can find plastic-free options.
We are lucky living in inner Melbourne because there are a lot of options for buying food and household products without containers in bulk. Unfortunately, there’s almost nowhere I’m aware of where you can get everything you need in one shop, and I know I certainly don’t have the time to go to four different stores to get all the things that I need in bulk. It would be great to be able to go to a store with all of my containers and bags and get everything in one go as you could at Coles or Woolworths. Instead, grocery shopping becomes a battle between convenience and time vs zero-waste principles, and usually I end up with a compromise. Soon I’ll have even less time because I have twins on the way, so it will be interesting to see how we manage to be as low waste as we can.
The other thing we haven’t discussed is cost, which can be a big barrier to choosing more environmentally friendly options. For example, in Melbourne, almost all the stores where you can buy dry goods, oils, and household products using your own containers are organic shops, and the prices are often way higher than the mainstream supermarkets. This isn’t a big deal if you wanted to buy organic anyway, but if you just wanted conventional staples without the packaging, it can be a real turn-off.
I feel that my plastic free journey is still continuing and it’s always a work in progress. As your life changes your needs change so it’s constantly evolving. There are a lot of people out there doing an amazing job at living zero-waste, and I’m just trying to take baby steps towards that. My hero is Erin Rhoads, who has a Melbourne-based blog on zero waste living called the Rogue Ginger: http://www.therogueginger.com/
We are so grateful to have had Rebecca's valuable insight into her experiences during Plastic Free July and beyond.
What did you think about Rebecca's journey? Was there anything in particular that you learned from her experience? Comment below to tell us what you think!
Next week, we have the pleasure of speaking to Laura Schuijers the founder of botanica bespoke. She creates boutique candles made from premium quality oils and natural ingredients that are hand made in Melbourne. In addition to this, Laura holds an impressive resume having worked as an Environmental and Planning lawyer an is currently a lecturer and tutor for sustainability, governance and leadership at Melbourne university.
Stay tuned for next week Thursday as we pick Laura's brain on the meaning of sustainability, tips on how can this be incorporated in our daily lives and how she creates the most beautiful smelling candles we have ever smelt.