Are you worried about waste?
If so, join us on an epic adventure of plastic reduction, waste management and letting your wheelie bin get dusty from neglect!
In this episode you can hear all about one inspiring local who has tackled this challenge head on. Gemma has set herself the incredible challenge of putting her landfill wheelie bin out just once per year! Hear all about how she managed to reduce her waste through making different shopping decisions and lifestyle changes.
Inspired by Gemma, Allie is up for this challenge and her first goal is to reduce the frequency of putting her bin out to once every 3 months. Follow her journey with this across this new season of Saltgrass and how she reduces what needs to go to landfill.
We are inviting you to join us and challenge yourself to reduce your waste and measure this by how many times you put out your kerbside bin.
If you normally put it out every week, see if you can put it out once a month.
If you put it out once a month, see if you can put it out every three or six months.
Find out more: Join us to swap notes, resources and tips and ideas.
This episode was created in 2023 and was created with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation.
Our transcripts are created using both speech recognition software and human transcribers, and though we do our best to avoid errors they may occur. Please check the audio before quoting in print.
Some sounds in the podcast may not translate easily to the written word, we describe these when possible. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible.
Bird calls and guitar music play as Allie speaks.
Allie Hanly: Welcome to season five of Saltgrass, a show about how salt of the earth people can work at a grassroots level to affect positive change in the climate crisis. This is our first episode of the new season, and we’re going to have all of our usual diverse themes emerging over the next few months, including community-led renewable energy supporters, sustainable farming, Indigenous-led climate solutions, activism, and community building.
But we’re going to have a theme that will echo more strongly than the others this season, and that is waste. I often personally struggle with the conflict I feel between the need for massive widespread change that is only possible at a federal level and with international cooperation, and a shift in consciousness from corporations that just seem untouchable.
The big news and the big solutions around the climate crisis can often make the day-to-day household level stuff seem quite insignificant. Recycling correctly and trying to buy less stuff in plastic can feel kind of pedantic and maybe a little bit pathetic against, you know, the scale of all the rest of that stuff.
But I also know that that stuff matters and that it is by building momentum as consumers and as communities, that we kind of force the hand of those seemingly untouchable mega players. So, when I saw something about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, We Are the Weather, I just had to get myself a copy.
It’s a couple of years old now, but I still feel it’s relevant. He focuses a lot on what impact our choices around food and eating animals can have. And I get that. But actually, the point he’s making is broader and I think it’s important to keep in mind when sweating the small stuff and feeling consumed by anxiety about the big stuff. So, here is a quote from near the end of the book.
Yes, there are powerful systems, capitalism, factory farming, the fossil fuel industrial complex that are difficult to disassemble. No one motorist can cause a traffic jam, but no traffic jam can exist without individual motorists. We are stuck in traffic because we are the traffic. The ways we lead our lives, the actions we take and don’t take can feed the systemic problems, and they can also change them.
Although it may be a neoliberal myth that individual decisions have ultimate power, it is a defeatist myth that individual decisions have no power at all. Both macro and micro actions have power, and when it comes to mitigating our planetary destruction, it is unethical to dismiss either or to proclaim that because the large cannot be achieved, that the small should not be attempted.
We do need structural change. Yes. We need a global shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. We need to enforce something akin to a carbon tax, mandate environmental impact labels for products, replace plastic with sustainable solutions, and build walkable cities. We need structures to nudge us towards choices we already want to make. We need to ethically address the West’s relationship to the global south. We might even need a political revolution.
These changes will require shifts that individuals alone cannot realise. But putting aside the fact that collective revolutions are made up of individuals, led by individuals, and reinforced by thousands of individual revolutions, we would have no chance of achieving our goal of limiting environmental destruction if individuals don’t make the very individual decision to eat differently.
And, of course, he is talking about food there, but relevant to waste generally. So, today’s episode is our starting point, and across the upcoming season, we’ll come back to the topic of waste: how to avoid it, how to manage it, and what to productively turn it into. There are many people in my local community working on this theme, and it feels timely to delve a little deeper, especially if I’m going to commit to doing the Wheelie Bin Challenge, and I’ll tell you more about this later.
I’ll also be sharing lots of tips and thoughts on social media. Speaking of which, this season, thanks to some extra funding from the Walkley Foundation and the Meta Public Interest Journalist Fund, I’ve got someone working with me on the socials, so you’ll possibly hear or see a difference in the posts on the Saltgrass channels, and you’ll also see a lot more of them. I’m looking forward to working with my friend Karla, who’s been a long-term listener of the show and is now able to support me in doing a lot of the stuff I always wanted to do with Saltgrass social media, but I never really had the time or capacity to do it before now,
So, without further ado and to kick off the new season today, we have a delightful kitchen table chat with Gemma. She’s my neighbour, my partner in compost collection, a workmate in my day job, and she’s also the inspiration for my current mission to reduce my household waste and what I am now calling the Wheelie Bin Challenge.
You see last year she set herself the challenge very quietly, as is her way to reduce her household waste to the point where she would only have to put her curb side bin out for collection once in a whole year. I thought it was a brilliant way to ease into a level waste or even a zero-waste lifestyle. And all year I was checking with her to see how she was going. Now I’m going to attempt something similar, maybe not as ambitious as what she set for herself. And also, I’m going to take the opportunity to share the journey and see if anyone else wants to join in. So have a listen to this chat with Gemma, and if you feel inspired, then maybe you too could take on a Wheelie Bin Challenge with me this year.
Find out more about it on the Saltgrass podcast website. Of course, as ever, before we begin, I want to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Djaara Country, the home of the Dja Dja Wurrung. They have been zero waste ecosystem guardians and custodians of this land for countless generations and continue to lead the way and generously share their wisdom on how to live here better. I give thanks to them and honour elders past and present. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.
Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.
Gemma: I can’t remember when I decided to do it. It’s probably something I’ve thought about doing a lot. But while taking the bin out, I just thought, well, I don’t actually take the bin out very much at all, I wonder how often I do take the bin out? Yeah, I just thought, “oh, I’ll see how long I could go.” I reckon I could go a year as I was probably taking it out once every two and a half, three months. It was just a guess.
Allie: Yeah, right. Because that’s like, I maybe put it out every couple of weeks, but it’s more because there might be something a bit stinky in there and I just want to get it out, not ‘cause it’s full.
Gemma: That’s a really good point because I think some people just put the bin out every week regardless of how much is in there, because they don’t want, you know, the smells or whatever is going on. It’s just part of that routine to put the bin out and keep it empty. Whereas I just would wait until it was two thirds full and I’d be like, ‘oh, I’ve got to remember to put the bin out soon.” Or occasionally if there was something that might be smelly, I’d think, yeah, I’ll put the bin out.
Allie: And had you already, in your life, been thinking about reducing waste and how not to have as much stuff that becomes waste. Had that been a habit for a while to think about those things?
Gemma: Yeah, definitely. I feel like that’s always been in my awareness. I was thinking about this the other day, that when I was growing up, I remember going shopping with my dad and I would want to buy things, you know, bags of chips or things other kids had at school, at recess. And I’d be like, I want that. Or even Muesli bars or something. And he’d just look at me and go, “no, too much packaging.” And he wouldn’t buy it and he would just refuse to buy it in the supermarket because there was too much packaging.
Allie: And did he then cook you muesli bar equivalents?
Allie and Gemma laugh.
Allie: Because he was single parenting you, we should point that out. Yeah.
Gemma: Yeah. No, there wasn’t a lot of home-baked goods. There was probably just ‘no name,’ you know, cheap sweet biscuits and fruit was, yeah, they were snacks, but he always carried a basket and he always loaded the shopping back into the trolley when he did a big food shop and then went to the car and just loaded it into like baskets in the back of the car. And then when he’d do a smaller shop, he’d just take his hand basket, which I found very embarrassing as I became older and a teenager! I didn’t want to be seen walking around with my dad in his crazy outfits.
Allie: What do you think was behind it for him?
Gemma: Yeah, that’s a good point. I don’t know where his awareness around those things came from or when.
Allie: Because, my mum is very frugal with waste. She will keep everything and never throw things out, and it’s not a hoarding problem, it’s a not wanting to waste things thing. And I feel like she learned that from her parents who were in the Great Depression and everything was a resource and everything was valuable, and there’s a real sense of an old-fashioned sense of ‘waste not want not’. And this inbuilt sort of frugality as just a virtuous good thing to do. And so, mum would wear clothes until they’ve got holes in them, and I might buy a pair of sneakers and just dislike how they feel, or go off them and she would wear them until they’re scraps, you know?
Allie: And she was also the person who would eat things, you know, and keep things in the cupboard well past their ‘best-before’ date and still eat them. You know, which is all totally fine. She’s still alive and kicking. None of that killed her. Laughter.
But I feel like the mentality there is not so much about how we live in a world that’s full of plastic and we need to do something about it. It’s much more. Before plastic was even invented, people knew how to live frugally and did that. And so, I’m really aware when we talk about waste and stuff, how these attitudes are coming full circle. It’s like we’ve had two generations that have had this luxury of lots of packaging and lots of products and lots of material stuff, but before that, humanity lived without that stuff for a very long time.
Gemma: I feel like maybe for my dad it came from a different place, but I’m not sure, maybe there was something of that there too. He’s always questioned how he lives his life. You know, he’s been a vegetarian most of his life and mostly for environmental reasons was my understanding growing up. And when I was born, he and my mom were on a macrobiotic diet; they would go to the wholefoods shop and, you know, buy bulk brown rice and, and all their stuff. And I’m sure they had very little waste and were just really thinking about their impact on the earth at that time.
Allie: That’s a sixties, seventies kind of hippy child, like, moment in time as well, isn’t it generationally? That definitely wasn’t my mum. She was much more mainstream, but they sort of arrived at the same place in terms of waste somehow.
Gemma: Yeah. No, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Yeah. But I just remember he also didn’t drink alcohol. He’d even go to the pub with his friends when he was young and have a lemon squash, but wouldn’t really go very often ‘cause it wasn’t much fun when all your mates are drunk and you’re not.
He just never did things just because other people did them. He always questioned whether that actually felt right for him. So, I feel like that came from a similar place with the packaging on food and plastic use and he just always lived pretty frugally. I guess he needed to because, yeah, two kids, single dad, and he worked. But I feel like some of my awareness has come from that. Which I didn’t, you know, realise until I started to think about it, but it’s kind of always been there. Just that awareness.
Allie: Yeah, and I love that he was doing that from a position of just questioning everything, which I feel like so many people are doing now.
All right, so you were aware that you weren’t putting your bin out very often and so this is excluding recycled, ‘cause in our Shire we have a fortnightly recycling collection and a weekly collection of waste that will head to landfill. We’ve also had such a topsy turvy journey with our recycling recently, there’s been lots of changes and lots of questioning of where it’s really going and is it really being recycled and all that sort of stuff. But at the moment, you’re trusting that what can be recycled is going to go out into the recycling streams and take their journey. And you were focusing on what was going to landfill.
Gemma: Yeah, I was. And while I still had a kind of secondary awareness of what was going in the recycling and how often that bin was going out too, and trying to reduce that. For example, this year I’d switched to buying glass milk bottles, which I would’ve done earlier if they were more readily available. But now they are, which is where we live here, which is so good. Yeah. But no, that’s not been my main focus. Just landfill waste at this stage. One thing at a time. Laughter.
Allie: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I absolutely think that’s how you should do it, is one thing at a time, because the idea of doing everything all at once is just overwhelming, and that stops people taking action. Yeah. So, one thing at a time is really important. So, you decided this around New Year. At the start of 2022?
Gemma: Yeah, I did. And so, once it accidentally kind of, slipped out to a couple of people, I thought, “oh shit, I’ve gotta do this!”
Allie and Gemma laugh.
Allie: Witnesses!! Accountability!
Gemma: I’ve said it now. Yeah. But I think I was also really happy to do it. I just love a challenge and I guess I’ve come to…sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by all the things going on in the world that feel a bit overwhelming, in the ways that we are living that feel like they’re just not sustainable with life systems surviving, I’ve come back again and again when I do get a bit stuck in that overwhelm and feeling that grief, that really big grief, I just come back to living the life that feels right for me in my home. Because I feel like that is the way I do parenting and the way I just live my life is my activism, in a way, and it’s not that I’m doing it hoping that other people will see it and do it too, although that might be good.
I’d love to be doing so much more than I am, but just have a minimal footprint, I guess, and living the way I think feels more in line with my values is the best I can do. You know, something that my mind just really struggled to comprehend was, when we have this waste plastic and this rubbish that goes into the bin, where is that going? And I would just imagine this big hole in the ground that’s just getting filled with stuff. And if there’s something that feels just so wrong, not even my mind comprehending it, but in my body, you know, there’s almost a really physical response to that that’s just, whoa, there’s got to be an alternative.
So yeah, that thing of out of sight, out of mind, put it in the bin; it smells, get it away and don’t think about it anymore. That’s easy. That’s normal. That’s the way we live. It’s something that I’ve often felt just aware of where, yeah, where does that go? And it doesn’t just disappear.
Allie: That is why people have been talking about circular economy. I think people are getting more and more aware of that on both ends from how’s it produced and then how it’s disposed of. And it’s that whole thing, “YIMBY” – Yes In Our Backyard. Why should we send it away? Why should we send our recycling to China as Australia has done for decades, and just sort of wash our hands of it?
it’s like what we were doing with our wheelie bins on a household level, the nation was doing at an international level, it’s like,” oh, well it’s on a ship and now it’s gone to China, we don’t have to think about it anymore.”
Laughter, Gemma murmurs agreement.
And it’s a great thing that China stopped taking our recycling. It’s a wakeup call and it’s forced our hand a bit to take responsibility and it means that there’s lots of ‘um-ing’ and ‘arr-ing’ and thinking at a national level, at a state level. and a council level. And I know our council’s really working on how to deal with organic waste in landfill and how to deal with our landfill site here, that is at capacity, and so they ship it to a different shire, or a different council. It’s a really complicated social problem.
Gemma: Definitely. Definitely. And you are talking on that big scale, and I feel like this is happening at all these different scales, you know…
Allie: The same thing’s happening.
Gemma: The same thing’s happening. And so, for me, for it to not feel like that overwhelm of, “oh gosh, I can’t figure out the nation’s problems or the world’s problems, it’s too much.” I just scale it back down to where I live right here, in my home. And in the past. I mean, I used to have like these dreams of having a sustainable kind of property and being really self-sustainable and then realised that that’s kind of missing out on the community side of things. That would be a bit isolating and a bit impossible. Laughter.
Allie: And isolationist, which is what you were saying about the community side of things. You stepping away from society to do it better than everyone else, but actually you need to be in the thick of it, and be part of the soup. And if you are neighbours like me, we work together, and you mentioned it at work—I was maybe one of those people that you were like, “oh no, now I’ve told people, I have to actually do it—I got excited when you said that and I hadn’t thought of it, you know, and I’ve been doing sustainability podcasts and worked at sustainability group and I just hadn’t thought to actually measure how much waste I’m getting rid of and make that a marker for doing better.
I did Plastic Free July, in 2018 with Mel and Rachel for Saltgrass, and we discussed cutting out plastic just for a month and there’s two episodes on that at the start of the month and the end of the month. And that kind of gave me the idea of talking to you on the podcast ‘cause I’m like, let’s do a before and after. You’re at the after already, ‘cause you’ve done a year of it, but I’m at the before. Laughter.
So, it’s kind of like, “okay, well let’s do a challenge” because I found the Plastic Free July thing really informative and talking to people, even if it was just Mel and Rachel, was really helpful as well to see what other people’s challenges were in terms of achieving it, and give each other ideas about where you can get stuff without the plastic packaging.
And of course, plastic is only just one component of what goes into your bin. But I found there were a couple of things that really stuck for me in terms of habits I picked up in that month that have stuck, others I reverted at the end of the month, and that’s okay. But I do think if I’d done Plastic Free July every year, I would’ve gradually picked up more and more habits. And again, it’s that thing you were saying about just one small step at a time makes it not overwhelming.
So, plastic must be a large component of what you are trying to keep out of your wheelie bin waste.
Gemma: Yeah, definitely, and that would be the main thing and mostly from in the house, but also the garden at times: there are old plastic buckets that just deteriorate. Sometimes there’s the standing at the bins thinking, is this recyclable or not?
Allie: Yeah, that’s a whole topic too, because there’s a lot of ‘wish-cycling’ that happens. And I’ve actually spoken to the guys at Veolia who service our shire with recycling and waste collection, and they call it ‘wish-cycling’ because a lot of people put stuff in the recycle bin just hoping that it’s recyclable, and then they have people picking out the stuff that can’t be recycled and putting things into the correct stream, so that it can be recycled. But ‘wish-cycling’ is something that, again, it’s us just hoping that you know, it’s another version of a way, but it feels better than…
Gemma: Yeah, no, I’m so guilty of that. I stand there and I put something in the recycle bin and I go, “oh, I don’t know if they’re going to pick this out or not.”
Allie: Yeah. Well, I mean it’s really interesting ‘cause I think there’s so many different types of plastic and they all get recycled differently. Because we have those little triangles with the number in it that indicates what sort of plastic it is. And only three of those get recycled and the others don’t. And so, you need to know which numbers you’re putting in. So that’s a whole other topic: what can and can’t be recycled.
Gemma: And it seems to change over time as well, so, if you’re not up to date with what’s the latest?
Allie: Yeah. And I remember how shocked I was that Tetra packs, like our long- life milk cartons, which say recyclable on them and give a big green tick and all that fun stuff, they are not recyclable in Australia at all. And that’s when I stopped drinking oat milk and went back to dairy milk because you can get dairy milk in glass. But our local milk situation is a bit special because we’ve got several options of getting milk in glass, and then you return the glass to the supplier and they reuse it rather than the glass going into the recycle bin and getting broken and becoming a hazard. So that’s one of the reasons I went back to dairy milk because the packaging was in alignment with what I feel okay doing.
Gemma: Yeah, and I feel like this is, it is just reminding me that it feels like a very privileged position to be in, to even be thinking about all of this and buying, you know, cow’s milk in glass…
Allie: And having a dairy just down the road that does that for us.
Gemma: Yeah. Yeah.
Allie: But also, like having the time to wash the bottles and take them back and having the physical capacity to do all that stuff. There’s lots of layers of privilege there, absolutely.
Gemma: Yeah. I really feel aware that there are a lot of people that are surviving, you know? They’re surviving day to day, week to week. And it’s probably not up the top on their list of considerations to do something like this.
Allie: Totally! yeah. But I think that’s where the Wheelie Bin Challenge is really good, because you pick your level. And so, your initial challenge to yourself was to do it for a full year.
Gemma: It was yeah.
Allie: And then you realised you probably needed to put it out at the six-month mark! Laughing.
Gemma: I did. And that’s what’s ended up working is, yeah, twice a year. So, I did it at somewhere around June, July, and it is just about full now, and I’m about to put it out at the end of the year now.
Allie: But what I’m encouraging people to do, if they want to think about this stuff, is if you put your bin out every week, maybe put it out once a month, see if you can last for a month. And so, it’s a really flexible goal that you set for yourself to try and see.
When I do it, I’m going to try for a three-month; that’s going to be my first goal, but I’m going to spend the first three months observing actually how often I put the bin out. So from January through end of March, I’ll just observe myself and my wheelie bin and then April, May, June, I’ll try to not put it out until the end of that three-month period. And then I will hopefully set larger goals for myself. But I just thought, if I’m inviting other people to come on board and try it as well, to just do it in stages.
But that idea that some people just don’t have capacity: financially or physically or time-wise to do all of these things… Like the idea that you can never buy muesli bars again, and then suddenly you have to bake them, which your dad didn’t do, you know?
Gemma: No, no. Obviously I love baking, that’s fun for me.
Allie: But also, the idea of if I want oat milk, I could make my own oat milk, but when you start thinking about it, you then make a list of 15 different things that you’re suddenly doing at home and all of them take time and energy and you don’t know how to do them yet, so you have to figure out how to do them. And there’s heaps of online resources if you want to start making your own anything, there’s so many people giving instructions and showing you how to do stuff. It’s all possible, but not everyone has the time for that, or the resources or the physical capacity or you know, so there’s lots of reasons. I’m trying to build in flexibility for what people can actually achieve with it.
I don’t want to set anyone up to feel like they’ve failed either, because my experience with the Plastic Free July, as I said was that some of those habits stuck. And just doing it once I’ve changed how I do my periods, and I’ve changed how I do my milk. There are just a few things that have shifted and also it’s just raised my level of awareness. Every time I buy something in plastic, I’m aware of it now; it’s not unconscious anymore, but I’m not going to beat myself up because we live in a plastic-encased world, and I think as individuals, we don’t have the power to change that immediately.
We can advocate and we can talk about it, and we can change our habits and change our consumption, which then forces companies hopefully to change. stuff, but at the moment we live in a plastic-wrapped world, and there’s no point in getting hung up on that. I actually read this really cool thing saying, the Wright brothers who invented the airplane, they rode in a car and whoever invented the car, spent their whole life riding a horse, and whoever invented solar panels, consumed coal and fossil fuel power to be able to invent solar panels, you know, so, there’s no point in being super hard on yourself if you are being the change. The change is necessary because the world exists a certain way, which is plastic-wrapped right now. And for us to be the change we do have to live in a plastic-wrapped world for a while.
Gemma: It feels almost impossible not to and remain a participating member of society.
Allie: Yeah. And so often you get people going, “oh, well, do you do everything perfectly if you’re preaching?” Not that…I never want to preach, but if you are advocating for a certain type of societal change or shifting of habits or whatever it is, and people push back and go, “well, are you doing everything perfectly?” And no, I’m still driving a petrol-powered car and I still have lots of stuff, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and change is a process as well.
Gemma: Yeah. Yeah. There’s so much psychology in all of this, I think, and that’s where we get really stuck and feel quite powerless when we are judging ourselves. That’s not a helpful place to be. So, I found it really helpful as I’m bringing that awareness in to see it all as information. Having that plan to go 12 months and only putting that wheelie bin out once for the year and then getting to the sixth month mark and saying, “oh my gosh, I’ve failed, I’m not going to make it.”
And then realising, okay, no, I’ll just do two. So yeah, there’s been so much information in that for me, like I’ve become so much more aware of what other things are going into that bin, what can I change, what can’t I change yet?
And also, anyone who wants to do this challenge, everyone’s situation, I think is going to be different depending on their lifestyle and who lives in their home. So, for me, I have two children and one of them is just an inventor and she makes things all the time. And she loves stuff, yeah, she loves stuff! and I try and bring awareness and we have lots of conversations about it, but I’m also not going to stop her from spending her money on things, or receiving gifts that are covered in plastic. And yeah, so, I have to account for that and that’s helped me to just realise I’m doing it in this environment, I guess. This is what’s possible. I just think that’s so interesting. What comes up, it’s just greater awareness.
Short musical break: bird calls and guitar.
Allie: What were some of the things that surprised you the most or made you go, “oh, this might not be possible” ‘cause you just hadn’t thought of it when you initially came up with the idea.
Gemma: Well just that in particular, having that daughter, like when we’d clean, you know, she’d clean her room and we’d go through our stuff and be like, “whoa, that’s all rubbish!” And we’d have to like pull apart these projects she’d done and be like, okay, well that can go, that is the cardboard that goes in there that’s got to go in the bin, all that tape, and, you know?
Allie: Yeah. I love by the way, how much you support her and because that’s her creativity, that’s her brain firing, it’s a beautiful thing. But you know, just then having those conversations around, “okay, well, do we need to use the plastic component or can we do something else?” Or you know…
Gemma: Yeah. Like, my kids know I hate glitter. I’ve always hated glitter.
Allie: You can get compostable glitter, I think.
Gemma: Yeah. I did just recently see that, actually.
Allie: Glitter is a magical thing!
Gemma: It’s amazing, but it’s just a pet hate of mine. Yeah. I hate glitter. Anyway, so my kids know that. I’m like,” yeah, enjoy glitter, but not in my home.” Laughter.
If that’s been possible. They have managed to have glitter recently for some reason. So, then we can see how when it goes on the floor, then it contaminates all our sweepings. Because this is not compostable glitter, this one (but I have seen that since this happened). And yeah, they can see that that can’t go in our bucket to be composted now. That now has to go in the bin.
Allie: In the bin.
Gemma: Yeah. And so, I guess I’m, yeah, they’ve got a lot more awareness of what goes in the bin now too. So, there’s great conversations that we have around that.
Allie: I keep on thinking about what if I finally clean out the garden shed? which I’ve been meaning to do for ages, and I finally want to do it. Do I just hold off until the end of the three months or do I just do it and wear the consequences? You know?
Gemma: No, there are things in the garden have been a big one actually: Potting mix bags. I like to propagate plants, and so then I end up with potting mix bags and when we’re doing recycled plastic, you know, so they might be able to be washed out and recycled, but now…
Allie: And were you doing that? Were you rinsing them out and putting them in the soft plastic recycle?
Gemma: No! Laughing.
Allie: No, because I mean, the thing for me is like pet food: I don’t enjoy handling meat, I’m mostly vegetarian and have been for a very long time. I don’t want to wash out all that scuzzy meat stuff. And again, that’s where it’s like, okay, well how much time? And what are we really asking of people? But that’s where the individual choices have to come in.
Gemma: Definitely, and I’ve been willing to do that mostly, but that’s been an extra, I don’t know, an extra thing for me to do is to really wash out and clean food packaging that can’t be recycled. And then I even like have a little line that I peg it out on and then let it dry and then before it can go in the bin, because otherwise…
Allie: And you’ve been doing that with the little sachets that absorb the meat juice? I remember you saying that, even keeping them and letting them dry.
Gemma: Yes, I don’t come across them often, but I do have them occasionally and I’ll let them desiccate, you know, dry out somewhere first before I put them in, otherwise they would stink and…
Allie: and also, just be plump and fat.
Gemma: Yeah. And putting wet stuff in the bin is not great. And you do get lots of those also in other packaged dry goods, those moisture…
Allie: The little sachets of silicon or whatever they are…
Gemma: Yeah. And even in say like a little jar of vitamins you’ll get it. I mean, we could go down to this. This is all the stuff you become aware of if you haven’t been aware of it. Yeah. But I feel like this stuff’s been in my awareness for a long time, a lot of it anyway.
Allie: Yeah. But you don’t realise how often you go, “oh, that thing again”, and then you put it in the bin.
Gemma: I think it is just another level of awareness. So, when you said, that was, I don’t know, surprising that you hadn’t thought about how often you put your bin out, and doing it, maybe doing it less, challenging yourself to do it less, I guess I feel like that’s just been in my awareness for a long time. I’ve been monitoring how often I put the bin out for years and years. And you know, I lived in a desert Indigenous community in Western Australia for a short while, and so you don’t have waste services out there. You know your tip’s right there and you see everything and some stuff just gets burnt and it’s all there.
And I also lived out of town, on the outskirts of Bendigo where there wasn’t a waste service there either. So, you had to collect all your waste and recyclables and…
Allie: … take it in yourself
Gemma: …every now and then. Fill up the car and take them to the tips. So, yeah, I don’t know. I feel like there’s just been that awareness has been there for a long time.
Allie: Yeah. But it wasn’t until you did this Wheelie Bin Challenge that you really…
Gemma: Yeah, that I’ve dropped into another level of…
Allie and Gemma laugh.
…yeah, of information and pushing myself a little bit further. And I guess personally for me, I see two landfill bins a year going out from my place, and to me that’s way too much! Laughter.
You know, well, I mean, ideally, I’m moving towards zero. No, I don’t know, maybe zero is a bit optimistic, but…
Allie: Yeah, I think zero depends very much on what recycling we have available to us.
Gemma: Oh yeah, definitely.
Allie: You know, so, like, we recently lost our soft plastic recycling. I’d already talked to you about this and decided to do this challenge in the new year. And then we lost our soft plastic recycling and I went,” oh no, that’s going to make things a lot harder to keep the Wheelie Bin Challenge possible.”
But you know, the rest of our recycling as well, what is possible? Because these days you get toothbrush recycling, you get, like toothpaste tube recycling as long as it’s the right brand going to the right, you know. There are all sorts of really random things that are possible. And then if you get your more ethically made stuff, like the corn plastic or whatever, it is not recyclable.
So, do you actually go for a regular plastic because it can be recycled or do you go for the other stuff? I don’t know!
Gemma: It’s like it’s an absolute mine field sometimes when you…
Allie: Yeah. There is a lot of thinking involved. And that’s another thing that a lot of people don’t have the resources to put that much thought into, they just actually need to get life done.
Gemma: And do you have time to stand in the shop for 10 minutes with each product, weighing all this up. Laughter.
Allie: And I think as someone who’s chosen to be vegetarian for majority of my adult life, I actually am quite accustomed to standing in the shops and reading packages and trying to figure out what’s in stuff. And so if that 10 minutes in the shops helps you understand and reduce your waste and that makes you feel better in a big way about the world, maybe that 10 minutes is well spent. Allie laughs.
And I think the more people talk about it and the more people share what they’re doing and what they’re thinking about it, the easier it is to then do it yourself as well, because someone else has done some of that thinking for you. Which is part of the reason I wanted to discuss and spend time talking about this stuff, ‘cause I think it’s helpful. And once you’ve done that thinking for the first time, then you know which brands you’ll buy and how you’ll manage that sort of stream of purchase through to waste kind of stuff.
And also, having good composting systems has given me the courage to take this on because I don’t have any organic matter going into landfill, which makes it less stinky and just less stuff going into the bin. Whereas a lot of people who still put their veggie scraps or you know, stuff that’s gone off in the fridge, if they put that in the bin, the Wheelie Bin Challenge would be a massive challenge.
Gemma: Oh yeah.
Allie: And composting is a whole other world of information, knowledge, practice. And for years I tried composting and I did it very badly. And it’s only because we now have YIMBY (Yes in my backyard community composting hub) showing us how to do good composting that I feel really confident with my composting. And you and I are compost partners.
Gemma: Yes, we are. Laughter.
Allie: So, that’s a whole other episode that I’m going to do. So, yeah, YIMBY is a local composting initiative that is facilitating and encouraging and holding people’s hands to compost better, but also to collect compost from their neighbours, so their neighbours are not putting organic waste into landfill. And we will do a whole episode on YIMBY, so anyone who’s listening will get the full brief on that. But yeah, knowing that I have a good system for organic matter that is not going into my landfill bin or my wheelie bin helps me feel like it’s possible as well.
So, there are a few barriers. So, if it was three years ago and I wasn’t strong on my composting, I don’t know that I would…I tended to just chuck stuff in a pile in the garden and let it sit.
Gemma: Just did kind of slow compost. Slow cold compost.
Allie: But I didn’t know about putting different carbon and stuff, you know? Anyway, I guess that’s what I’m saying is there’s going to be different barriers for different people coming into this. And also, where you live makes a big difference. We’re very lucky to have lots of wholefood shops, like a really strong wholefood take your own container and fill it shop right in town and we’ve got, as we said, the glass milk and the other things and other people just don’t have that nearby.
Gemma: Yeah, that’s very true. So, each person’s going to have their own challenges and things they’re working with within their house, but also community-wise and what’s available.
Allie: Yeah, who you share your house with, be they animal or human, are going to have a big impact as well. So yeah, feeding animals and taking care of their waste. I have a doggy compost pile. It’s separate to my human food compost pile and until I figured that out, that was just something that had to go in the bin. And then six-months-worth of dog poo in the bin is just, like, not something you want to deal with. So that’s a whole other topic, how do you compost dog poo.
But if you live in an apartment and you don’t have capacity to compost, what are you going to do with your dog poo? I guess you can put it in a bin as you walk the dog. But you know, there’s different factors: having kids or having a partner who does not want to participate, would change the dynamic.
Gemma: Yeah. It’s not going to go well for your relationship if you’re imposing this on other people. Yeah. And they are unwilling.
Allie: Yeah, totally. And the other thing that you mentioned was zero waste, which is a whole movement. There’s quite a few people out there who are really ‘gung ho’ zero wasters, and you see them and six months of rubbish is in a little jar. I’ve often looked at that and gone, “oh, wouldn’t that be nice” But I’ve never felt like I could actually achieve that anytime soon. And so, I didn’t try. Whereas I think this is the middle step. Which I think if you have the idea of maybe wanting to be zero waste, this is the stepping stone or the bridge across, and you can just do it a little bit by little bit.
So do a one-month challenge first, and then a three-month challenge, and then a six-month challenge. And then a one-year challenge, and then a two-year challenge.
Laughter. And by then you’re pretty much living zero waste.
Gemma: It’s definitely the way to go. Yeah. When I’ve seen things like that, people who don’t put a bin out at all or a little jar after 12 months, I find that so fascinating and I’m curious and inspired, but it’s not realistic for me at this stage in my life.
Allie: Especially with two kids and chickens and Guinea pigs and…
Gemma: Yeah. It’s factoring everything in. Everyone’s situation’s going to be unique. So, I think that’s why it’s good not to compare. You know, be inspired but yeah, don’t compare because we’re all coming with different situations and challenges.
Allie: We were talking earlier, and I would like to go back to that just a little bit about you having your kids involved. Kids have got friends and maybe they want what their friends have got and you can’t impose too much. Well, you can, you could do what your dad did…Laughter.
But there’s peer pressure and there’s, like, you know, wanting what your friends have got and wanting to fit in. And as a teenager or a young person, it’s a real thing. It’s a real dilemma.
Gemma: Well, I guess I feel like it’s really important that I’m respecting them being on their own journey with living the way they want to live. So, it is a bit of a dance and a compromise between what I value and the way I want to live and sharing that information with them, but not imposing it upon them. I want them to come to, you know, I mean, naturally they’re going to share some of those values just because they are my children and this is the culture that they’ve grown up in and they’re interested and they’re curious, but they’re also, yeah, they just want to have fun sometimes they don’t want to think about every little thing. So, I don’t know, it’s just respecting them as people on their journey. I have to check myself sometimes about not being too pedantic. Like, come over here and look at this dust pan of, you know, stuff…
Allie and Gemma laugh.
…and help me pick out these little bits and put them in the bin. And so yeah.
Allie: It’s a balance.
Gemma: Yeah, it is and I really value respectful relationships too, so to me that’s probably a higher value. Yeah. I’d love to reduce my landfill waste even more, but I just accept that I really value my children doing their thing and respecting them having more choices and not imposing it upon them. So that means that I’m not going to reach the goals, maybe I want to, you know, reach for myself. Yeah. That’s the reality…Laughter.
Allie: Yeah. And that means, I mean, you value having a good relationship with your children! And actually, you know, relationships ultimately are a bit about compromise. And you have to meet them, they don’t just have to meet you.
Gemma: Definitely. Yeah. And I think I have a tendency to be quite idealistic, or I have been, and more and more I’m just coming to accept the reality of the situation I’m in. That, you know, it might be quite far from my ideals, and making peace with that; making friends with my mind. Laughter.
Allie: Yeah. I love that. Laughter.
What are you planning to do this year in terms of setting goals for yourself for the Wheelie Bin?
Gemma: Oh, yeah. I feel like having just said that, talking about the reality of my situation, I feel like I’m probably just going to do the same again. Six-month. I just feel like that’s what’s achievable right now. It’s still a challenge, but it’s not so much of a challenge that I can’t achieve it, and that’s what I’ve learned from this past year. That’s probably where I’m at, yeah. And nothing’s going to radically change in the next 12 months as far as I can tell from here.
Allie: Going back to the start, when you set yourself this challenge at the beginning of 2022, did you change some of your habits dramatically or were you already there and you just did a few things differently?
Gemma: I didn’t do anything radically different, but I thought about it all a lot more. Sometimes it’d be just depending on how financially okay I felt at times as to what I might buy. Whereas now I’m almost a hundred percent I buy my cow’s milk in glass, whereas in the past I’d alternate, maybe it was half and a half, ‘cause some days, well that was a lot more expensive and I didn’t feel like I had that much money, but.
Allie: And some days the milk in glass is just not available. And then you are left with, “okay, so do we have no milk?” Or do we get the plastic container, which can actually be recycled? And is that okay? Because it’s recycling, but you know, it’s still not ideal, I guess. But what you’re saying is doing this challenge helped you sort of commit to some of those decisions.
Gemma: Yes. I think that’s what I’m trying to say: just became more habits. And just seeing where I wanted to change something. So, I would just then notice every time, say I put that thing in the bin, “ah gee, I want to figure out an alternative for this.” So, it would just start to get me thinking and looking and so, as I’m out and about, I’m noticing what other people are doing. So go and visit a friend and you see what they do and “Oh wow. Yeah, there’s an alternative.”
Allie: Yeah. I think it’s that awareness raising exercise that lasts for six months or a year. Is that you are paying attention to it for that long, and even if it takes you the first six months to get your head around one of those issues, then you’ve got it down for the next six months.
Gemma: Yeah, I guess just seeing it as that long term plan is really helpful. It will be interesting at the end of this next 12 months, what I might feel ready for then. And also, I feel like everything in terms of recycling and waste is a really big topic at bigger scales at the moment.
Allie: Yeah, state and federal government levels.
Gemma: Definitely, yeah. And whether it’s just the algorithm that I read articles about this, it’s a pretty hot topic and things are moving quickly and we are realising that there’s a big problem. Big, big problem. And things are needing to change. So, you know, what does that environment look like in another 12 months? I don’t know.
Allie: Yeah, I think it’ll be interesting to see what that looks like in three years or five years. What services will suddenly be available then that just aren’t now in terms of repurposing or recycling items? And I think the ideal society would be anything you buy can be then taken apart at the end of its life. And every component gets reused or recycled somehow. And even up to, like, a car, we should be able to recycle our cars and, like, take the doors off and take the plastic panels off and separate them, but they just get crushed at the moment. And upgraded, everything should be able to be upgraded, especially the mechanical products in our life that are, like, we’ve got e-waste recycling, but I don’t actually know what that means in terms of what happens to all the separate components.
So, I think there’s a lot of people thinking on these levels, and I find that very encouraging. But it’s about manufacturers then creating things that are easy to take apart when it’s at the end of its life, then we would have a really nice flow.
Gemma: Mm. Yeah. It’s just thinking…it’s looking at something, not just in the time it’s right in front of you, but actually what it’s life is.
Allie: Both ends, how it’s made and then how it’s disposed of.
Gemma: And it is a really different way of thinking,
Allie: And even, it’s great to get your clothes from Op shops and things, but these days, in terms of thinking about… okay, so if I wear the clothes that I’ve bought from wherever until they’re ready to go in the bin—which I generally do because I don’t love shopping for clothes—and I will wear things until they’re broken. I can’t send them to the Op shop in that state, so they can’t go back into the Op shop, so, what then? If it’s synthetic fabrics, all you can really do is put it in the bin. So now I’m thinking a lot about only buying clothes, even if they’re second-hand or if they’re first-hand, definitely buying clothes that can be composted.
And because we’ve got such a great composting thing going on, I’m like, all right, so I’m only going to buy natural fibres, and I’m not a huge fan of leather, so cotton and wool and linen, all of that sort of stuff. Only buy that stuff and how do you do that?
Gemma: But then what do you do about undies and the elastic embedded in the cotton?
Allie: Yeah, Well, if that’s just rubber, then rubber’s okay.
Gemma: Yeah. Is it?
Allie: Yeah, it’s from a tree. So, I figure it can go back into the environment, but yeah, is it actually rubber?
Allie and Gemma laugh.
Well, that’s where you then have to seek out your $40 a pair, boutique-made organic cotton whatever, but it’s again and again, it’s all those barriers of, like, “oh, every item I have to think about so much.”
Gemma: Yeah, so you’re reminding me of where I can just get overwhelmed by thinking about it all and just feeling like this is too hard…
Allie: And too expensive sometimes.
Gemma: Yeah. Yeah. So sometimes it’s just scaling back. Being gentle, accepting the reality of not going to do this perfectly, or I’m not going to be able to do it all yet, but staying on the path and not giving up
Allie: And also, just choosing one thing at a time to focus on. You don’t have to solve all of those things at once. But just pick the one that feels most interesting, or urgent or annoying. The one that bothers you the most. Pick that and figure out how to resolve it.
And so, I guess I was just bringing up the clothing thing because I’ve done multiple episodes on textiles, but I feel like because I’ve had those discussions with people about the textiles industry, that is something I’ve thought about, and so I’m already making that decision to only buy clothes that can be composted. So, thinking about the end of life as I’m purchasing, whether that’s from the Op shop or new, but yeah, you’re so right, it can be really overwhelming. If I tried to make a list of all the things that go into my bin, it would be easy to just go, “oh, I can’t, I’m not going to do it. I can’t do it.”
Gemma: Yeah, you’ve just brought up, say, for example, a pair of shoes. You know, I might get a pair of shoes from the Op shop and they’re already a bit worn, but yeah, very questionable materials that they’re made out of and what happens to them at the end of their life? And because they’re already half worn, you know, they might not have that long a life. So, really questioning, is it better to buy something that’s really new, but bloody expensive? But it will last for a really long time. Yeah. And these are the questions I’m asking.
Allie: And you know what’s what it’s made of because you’ve got the manufacturer’s information there.
Gemma: Yeah. And that’s very interesting. You can spend a long time doing, you know, looking into everything.
Allie: Yeah. Yeah. And as a single parent with two kids, you are buying clothes for them too.
And it gets really expensive to buy good ethical stuff. So again, I think that’s why it’s important to have a ‘choose your own adventure’, kind of set up with this, where it’s just, like, what feels possible for you right now?
And just try. And if you don’t succeed, that’s also okay. But at least it’s raised your awareness a bit.
Gemma: Yeah. I just feel to share when I was at University studying a Bachelor of Arts and Nature Tourism at Latrobe (University) Bendigo. We had a subject, I can’t remember what the subject was actually, but we had this trip that we did, which was called The Low Tech Trip, and it’s remained my favourite part of Uni and my favourite trip that we went on, because we went on lots of camping trips as part of that course.
But this was all about pretty much choosing your own adventure with a group and it was, how low tech do you want to go? It was walking to the spot you were going to camp and stay a couple of nights, and what food do you take? Just questioning everything we would take, how we would carry it, and bringing that awareness to what levels of technology we are using. And then we had to camp for a couple of days and then we walked back and it was so interesting because of course, for example, you light a fire and, I mean, how do you even light that fire?
There was lots of compromises of, “yep, we will take that. We’ll take that. No, we won’t take that.”
Allie: But you did it as a group, so you discussed it as a group.
Gemma: Yeah. As a group, it was very interesting, yeah, to do that as a group. And then I’m just thinking about seeing the impact you are having on that environment, on that place.
So, after a couple of days, you could see how much wood you’d used for warmth and cooking and it was, you know, it was just right there in front of you. And I guess I feel like that was so illuminating to me, comparing then my life where I would just turn on a switch on the wall and there’d be gas heating and where is that coming from? And light and so just that awareness of the impact we have and when it’s immediate and it’s right in front of you. I don’t know. It just brings so much awareness and such a contrast to when all the impacts I’m having might be, you know, in other parts of the world so far away. So that question of scale, I guess.
Allie: Which is again, back to “my backyard” phenomenon of, like, okay, so our government wants to frack in the Northern Territory to get more gas, so that us in Victoria can have heating through winter where it gets cold, but what’s happening to that environment up there? Like, what are they doing to those ecosystems and to that natural world so that we can have warmth? which we don’t even think about, and we just turn on the heater, because it’s easy and it’s not in our faces, because it’s so far away from us.
And again, with all our recycling going to China for so many years, we didn’t have to look at it. We didn’t have to think about it. And it was easy to not think about it because there’s so much else on your mind.
So much else happening in life. And that’s the privilege of being able to send it away, where our government just organises that for us. And we don’t have to think about it. Like that’s, whereas there are people in the world who are dealing with our crusty seconds on lots of levels. And again, textile springs to mind of, you know, there are countries that absorb all of the textiles and just create mountains and mountains of textiles waste, which then combust.
But this is the problem with our modern world, is that we’re sold all this stuff as conveniences and nice easy things to have and things that we want to have, but we don’t see the impact ‘cause it’s not in our backyard. If it was in our backyard, we might make really different choices.
Allie: And so that camping trip was exactly that, wasn’t it? Everything was right in front of your face.
Gemma: Yeah, it was so affirming of bringing it back to that scale of as much as possible be in connection to those resources and just seeing the impact that I have. That’s really helped me and stayed with me. So yeah, I feel like that’s part of my journey that got me here to do this challenge too.
Allie: That’s great.
Short musical break: bird calls and guitar.
So, there you go. This is the first of several episodes themed around waste and how we can manage it in our households and in our communities. Stay tuned for chats about community composting, Op shops, building with recycled stuff and zero waste cooking. I’ll be taking on a Wheelie Bin Challenge myself this year and invite you to join in as well. I’ll be sharing waste reduction tips on social media, and look forward to checking in with Gemma and some other low waste locals later in the season to see how we’re all going. You can find out more about it all on the Saltgrass website.
Don’t forget to get your Saltgrass ethical t-shirts, hoodies, stickers, posters, and puzzles, including the new Wheelie Bin Challenge designs at our merch store. Which is all produced ethically by Teemill, and I hasten to assure you, it all comes to you plastic free in paper-based packaging that can be recycled or composted. You can get there by going to the Saltgrass podcast website.
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This program was made possible with support from MainFM and the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at cbf.org.au.
My name is Allie Hanly. Thanks for listening.
Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.
Transcription by Robyn Walton