Swimming Against The Plastic Tide



Welcome to the disposable society. Here you can use something once and throw it away – never to be seen (by you) again. Your house is clean and organised, and once or twice a week you simply take out that pesky rubbish and clutter and leave it on the sidewalk to blissfully disappear into the ether. Out of sight, out of mind.

I am one of you. I unpack my groceries, throw the plastic bags in the bin. Then I unpack my food for cooking – and throw the plastic packaging in the bin. Toiletries and beauty products are finished – bottles in the bin. Poof! Like magic they all disappear. Then I watch the news or read an article online and scary and depressing statistics make my heart sink. By 2050 the ocean will have more plastic than fish. Killer whales are found beached with their stomachs full of trash. How horrible. How could they? Who put that plastic in the ocean?

I did. You did. We all did.


Plastic. Never. Dies.


For some illogical reason, humans are putting nearly all of our temporary or even one-time use commodities in packaging that is designed to last forever and ever and ever. Plastic. Never. Dies.

The plastic and trash we throw away in our homes is like the elephant in the room. We know it’s bad. We don’t like doing it. We just don’t know what else to do, so we tend to ignore it. As we move into a future of an ever-growing human population, this use-and-dispose culture is becoming impossible to sustain and it’s time to start looking at different ways of living.




There’s been a lot of talk about a zero waste culture. In fact, zero waste is starting to emerge as a trending term. Some might suspect this entails one or two hippies with a lot of time on their hands, making everything out of coconut oil and riding their bicycles to farmers markets to get milk in glass bottles. It’s definitely not. It’s something we should all be working towards, in our countries and in our communities.

The town of Kaimutsu in Japan has spent the last thirteen years trying to become the country’s first zero waste community by 2020. Individuals have to wash and sort their own trash before delivering it to the recycling plant where it is deposited into the correct bins. This was initially a huge challenge for the residents, but has now become the norm. The community now boasts an eighty percent recycling rate, with only twenty percent of trash heading to the landfill. This community is setting an example that shows if governments and authorities get on board, we can work towards more sustainable ways of living.

However, to most of us, it still sounds like a lot of hard work. Who has the time? I have been curious about reducing waste for some time, and my conscience has been encouraging me to explore it more and more. A five day zero waste challenge sounded like a good place to start.


Trying to go zero waste all in one go can be an overwhelming concept.


So, full disclosure is that I didn’t manage to go fully zero waste in my 5 days, but I did manage to decrease my consumption and waste dramatically and reducing has become my new addiction.

Trying to go zero waste all in one go can be an overwhelming concept. As I looked around at all the things in my home I needed to address, I knew I wouldn’t get it done in 5 days. Instead, I decided to focus on the main evil – plastic. I know I consume and discard way too much of it and I tried to find easy ways to reduce that.

For four days before starting the challenge, I didn’t change anything about the way I lived. I simply created a separate bag for plastic only (that I did give to recycling) and I accumulated all the plastic I normally ignore and throw in the trash. After the first two days, the bag started to look terrifying. A household of two people, in four days, accumulated a full trash bag of plastic. That’s excluding our regular bag of trash.

Here are some of the items that landed in the bag:



While I watched in horror as the bag filled up I began to research ways to reduce. The first thing I did was visit www.trashisfortossers.com, the inspiring blog of Zero Waste icon Lauren Singer. Lauren is living a fully zero waste lifestyle in New York City. What I love about Lauren is that she is passionate about “living your values.”

Her blog gives tips on reducing waste and recipes for making your own cleaning products and toiletries that reduce waste enormously.

Since I only had 5 days to make this work I decided to start small. One of Lauren’s starter tips is to evaluate your trash. I did this and I chose five things to reduce waste that were not very difficult to adapt.

I made the following commitments to myself:

  1. No more water in plastic bottles.
  2. No more plastic shopping bags.
  3. No more paper napkins or paper towels.
  4. No more disposable coffee cups.
  5. No more plastic body wash and face wash containers.

These are the things I bought to get started:

Four glass water bottles to keep in the fridge ready to carry around with me at all times.
A small dishcloth to keep in my bag to use in place of paper napkins.
A reusable grocery bag for shopping.
A reusable coffee mug.
A bar of soap.
Potted herbs.

Day 1:

The very first thing I needed to do was hop in the shower and use my bar of soap. After years of using bottled body wash and face washes, it felt strange to simply use a regular bar of soap. It made me wonder when this changed. We definitely used ordinary soap bars when I was a child. Was there a specific moment in our evolution when we needed fancy and colourful packaging to enclose our soap? The simple soap bar smelled amazing, foamed up perfectly and it cost a tenth of the price. It’s going to last ten times as long too. I’m never going back. One tip I missed this time is to buy organic soap with no packaging or, if you are really committed you can make your own.


If I had to pick one thing you could easily do right now it would be this.


The next thing I was eager to try was my brand new coffee cup – ceramic and emblazoned with the inspiring notion, “Wake up and Live.” Bright and early I headed out to my usual coffee hole. I handed a cheerful server my shiny new cup and asked if he could please make my short cappuccino in it for me. While the other customers eyed me suspiciously he said, “No problem ma’am, you like to use your own cup?” The boiling water began to hiss loudly and the foam machine was whizzing away. I was excited to talk about my new endeavour so I said, “I’m trying to be more eco-friendly. You know, save the dolphins.” “Oh,” he nodded totally seeming to understand, “you want to go green,” he chuckled. “Exactly. Well, I’m trying,” I replied. If I had to pick one thing you could easily do right now it would be this. Nothing changed in my routine, it cost me no time on my coffee run and the cup itself was inexpensive. It also didn’t inconvenience anyone. In the end it was a small change that came at virtually no sacrifice but will save so much trash.Ruschka Du ToitDay 2:

In order to get my head around avoiding food packaging I visited a blog run by Bea Johnson called zerowastehome.com, which is said to be the blog that launched the lifestyle. Bea has been living a zero waste lifestyle with her family since 2008.

Her ethos revolves around what she calls the five R’s. Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (in that order.) She is proof that you can do this with a family and that it is sustainable to live this way. I decided to follow some of her tips when doing my food shopping.

Instead of buying food from the grocery store, I ordered my organic vegetables and meat online. They were delivered in a cardboard and polystyrene box. I will keep these for the next delivery when they are returned to the merchant and rotated into the system. This was a really easy, time saving and health-boosting change. The only disappointment was that some of the food was in plastic wrapping. The meat was wrapped in cling film and polystyrene and it made me realise that visiting an organic butcher is a better choice as you can take your own containers or cloths to wrap your meat in. Most of the vegetables, excluding the peppers and tomatoes, were not packaged though so there was a definite plastic saving.

When I made dinner I used some of my new potted thyme. Not only did it feel good to pick my own herbs out of the pot, I completely avoided the wasteful plastic packaging I normally get my herbs from.

Tip: Grow herbs in pots in your kitchen instead of buying them in plastic packaging.
Tip: Grow herbs in pots in your kitchen instead of buying them in plastic packaging.


Saving trash can also lift your mood.


Day 3:

When the bottled food in my fridge is finished, I normally throw the glass jars right into the recycle bin, but the genius of using them to store food is just so good. Once again, grandma had the right idea, saving jars and storing things this way. I really can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. It doesn’t cost you any extra money and your containers are automatically in different sizes. So jars of peppadews, olives and pickles became re-purposed lunch tins and freezer containers to be used instead of Tupperware or plastic bags. Knowing that I was saving trash and also avoiding the toxic BPAs and chemicals that are held in plastic storage containers made me feel happy. Saving trash can also lift your mood.

Repurpose glass jars instead of buying plastic containers.
Tip: Repurpose glass jars instead of buying plastic containers.


Fresh breath is a sacred gift of modern day humanity and I was nervous to risk it.


Day 4:

My tube of toothpaste had finally come to an end. This was something I had been dreading. It was time to take the plunge and make my own toothpaste. This was the biggest step out of my comfort zone. I am a fervent believer in the miraculous powers of coconut oil, but believing that mixing it with bi-carbonate of soda and some mint oil was going to get my teeth clean was a stretch for my love of the stuff. Fresh breath is a sacred gift of modern day humanity and I was nervous to risk it. The toothpaste was dramatically different to what I am used to. It tastes quite salty and it doesn’t foam, which is a bit of a shock to the system you’ve been used to for the better part of thirty years. However, my teeth did feel clean and the taste was minty and fresh. All in all it’s not too bad. Toothpaste tubes are very difficult, if not impossible to recycle. Also, there are a number of ingredients in most toothpastes that you probably don’t want in your body, namely the stuff that makes it foam. Reducing waste automatically makes you choose healthier, more organic options.

shopping bagDay 5:

I ventured out to buy something in bulk. I decided to go with nuts, since we eat a lot of them in my house. We normally purchase the pre-packaged almonds that are in a plastic bag. I packed one of my newly recycled glass jars and headed out to the veggie store. I went over to the nut dispenser and put them straight into the glass jar, instead of the supplied plastic packet. This did cause confusion with the shop assistant who was concerned that I would be paying for the extra weight of the jar and wanted me to take the plastic bag. I explained to her that I was trying to avoid plastic for the sake of the environment. She was very helpful about it and went to look for something we could use to weigh the nuts. Eventually she found a light metal bowl that they use to weigh spices and weighed the nuts in there. To avoid this situation, which did take up the time of the assistant, I would take a light container, like a bowl or a cup along for weighing before transferring into your jar. I did have to re-explain the situation briefly to the cashier, who looked extremely concerned when I handed her the peppadew jar full of nuts, but in the end my strangeness was accepted and I was let through without too much hassle.




Trash that I did not create or throw away in my 5 day challenge:

9 plastic bags were saved by me using my re-usable shopping bag and 3 from ordering organic food online – total 12 plastic bags
5 glass jars are now food containers
6 plastic wrappers / containers for food from buying non-packaged organic produce
6 plastic water bottles
1 new tube of toothpaste
1 bottle of face wash
1 bottle of body wash
3 x disposable coffee cups and 3 x plastic lids.
5 paper napkins and 3 paper towels
A plastic container of thyme
1 plastic bag for nuts

When I first decided to do the 5 day challenge, I really didn‚Äôt know what a life changer it was about to become. Reducing waste has many unexpected spin offs. I have already become more conscious of what I am consuming and how much we discard without thinking. I have started to research recipes to make deodorant and face moisturiser ‚Äì all of which will now be organic, chemical free and home made. You can‚Äôt buy junk food that isn‚Äôt in some kind of plastic or synthetic packaging so you don’t buy junk food at all. I have loads more to do before I can say I am living a zero waste lifestyle but I never want to go back on the changes I‚Äôve already made. Small as they may be, the difference is already huge. I feel like I have taken the first step to living my values.


Illustration by Ruschka du Toit 



1 Comment
  1. Wow- food for thought!! I have to be honest I was most distressed when I read about the whales that were beaching themselves in Hamburg and the cause was identified as starvation due to their stomachs being too full for their normal diet because they had ingested plastic waste. I never for one minute thought that I might have also played a role instead imagining it was “others” and even sailors. Good article and certainly a wake-up call. I am now inspired to attempt my own challenge.

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