At home

Guest Contributor Emily Dowding-Smith shares with us her nearly plastic-free journey during Plastic Free July

What’s Plastic Free July all about?

4303602_origPlastic Free July is nearly over and here’s my nearly “plastic free” update. My colleagues and I at the Sustainable Business Network decided to try and walk the talk this month, by participating in Plastic Free July.  On the work front that is quite easy. It’s really at home where the plastic heart is for me. Rules of the game in this house were simple – avoid all plastic purchases for the month but keep any wrappers from previous purchasing decisions.  It’s a little cheesy in a “hug a seal” kind of way, but my motivation for taking part is purely ocean focused.  I cringe at the thought of turtles trapped in plastic in the ocean and the knowledge that fish cannot swim backwards, so once inside our plastic pollution, they’re stuck.

How are we tracking?

So far we have bought a block of cheese (which is wrapped in plastic), had a few beer bottle lids (cheeky things, they have a plastic lining!) and my disposable contact lens cases.  The rest of the items that feature in our “Dilemma Box”* are hangovers from former, less thought through purchases, or gifts from people that we inherited, including our house mate’s loot. In our household we decided to include all plastic, not just the recommended single use, in order to better understand our consumer impact.

*A dilemma box is a nice way of collating those little plasticy items and reflecting on them.

Top dilemma items

  1. Plastic wrapping for a pack of EarthCare toilet paper, that’s a tricky one!
  2. Plastic around cheese – we love cheese!
  3. A plastic sleeve that arrived around a card someone sent us. 
  4. A restaurant served us miso soup in takeaway cups, even though we were dining in. Damn we wish it was in bowls…  So the lids made it into the dilemma box
  5. Beer bottle lids have plastic inside, after discovering this we switched to wine. (Not to mix up Dry July with Plastic Free July and complicate life further)
  6. I’m allergic to hard contact lenses, so I use disposables and those nasty little things add up my plastic impact

Key learnings

There is always a trade-off dilemma item for us was milk bottles. We avoid Tetra Pak because this isn’t recycled in New Zealand, so plastic bottles from milk are a common item in our fridge. This month we joined a friend on her milk run. She is part of a milk collective that orders weekly and gets farm gate raw organic milk from Drury, South Auckland, in their reuseable jars. Trade off: For us this meant driving a good 15 minutes from our house to collect milk once a week.  We usually don’t drive during the week so it seemed a little silly that we were suddenly driving for milk! Regardless, Plastic Free July gave us the chance to try raw, local, organic milk and avoid added permeate (watery by-product of milk processing. Some dairy companies add it into milk to dilute or substitute the protein levels throughout the year).

Sometimes plastic is useful: In healthcare products in particular, it keeps things nice and sealed.

Buying in bulk helps to avoid plastic – Photo: Emily Dowding-Smith

We need to be more organised: Glass jars for storing bulk items, buying ingredients to make your own food, like muesli, bread and tortillas, requires a bit of planning ahead.

Non-plastic items are often more expensive: Glass is heavier and more expensive. Even items like soap can be more expensive when wrapped in paper. This is a generalisation but the best example is cheese – we tried to alter our cheese eating habits by purchasing cheese from our local farmers market. But that ends up being $5 per 100 grams for local, organic cheese that I was hoping to be wrapped in paper. It was sold to us in aluminium foil! Oh dear…

There are plenty of plastic free treats available once you start looking - check out these Dr FeelGood ice pops made in NZ - Regram from @DoctorFeelGoodIcePops

There are plenty of plastic free treats available once you start looking – check out these Dr FeelGood ice pops made in NZ – Regram from @DoctorFeelGoodIcePops

You find fun new alternatives to plasticy items, it just might take longer: We made our own tasty granola, discovered cardboard wrapped ice blocks for a treat. And we have also been making our own tortillas from masa flour to avoid buying packaged ones. Fresh is best, super tasty and healthy.

Some things you can easily do without: In our case, yoghurt was an easy thing to forgo this month and we haven’t really missed it.  We haven’t had corn chips either and that is probably better for us!


Can you counter-plastic?

plastic offset (2)

Plastic sack found at the beach, an attempt to clean up to offset my plastic dilemma

I tried to offset some of the items in my dilemma box by picking this massive lump of plastic out of Cox’s Bay at low tide. Saving the fish from entrapment and cleaning up the harbour makes me feel a little better about my dilemma box even if it’s not quite the same… but you get my drift.





It’s a wrap!

In summary, plastic is everywhere and is damn hard to completely avoid.
It’s in all my electronic devices and items around me. Even if I can’t see it the plastic poltergeist floats in behind my food and health items from the production, manufacturing, distribution through to the shop. Even if I’m not wearing or using plastic directly it would have been involved in some part of my item’s lifetime.

But among all this, as a consumer, you do have the power to cut out the final layer by making conscious decisions.

The boxes that the crates of my bulk binned food arrived in New Zealand in would have been wrapped in plastic, but at least I’m not having plastic at point of sale or risking the wrapper blowing away.  This makes me feel a little better, especially as it’s those items that end up in our rivers and oceans.
The biggest thing Plastic Free July has given us is a discussion point and a way to alter some of our behaviours and check in on our habits, because everyone can improve, no matter how plastic-free their lives are.


Emily Dowding-Smith is the Transformation Leader for Restorative Food at the Sustainable Business Network. When she’s not trying to restore our food system and catalyse riparian planting on the Million Metres Streams project, she is a keen diver, bike tourer and ocean conserver recently snorkelling in the Arctic to raise awareness about sea ice melt and the impacts of climate change.


Earth HourEarth Hour is fast approaching – Saturday 28 March 2015.

You know the one where we’re all encouraged to turn off our lights for an hour on a Saturday night and consider power consumption on a global scale and more broadly our own environmental impact. Yeah, that one.

While Earth Hour gets a lot of criticism (mainly for being slactivism) I wholeheartedly support the movement. Not because of the perceived reduced power consumption for 60mins/24 hours, because really, it’s not about that.
It’s a pretty powerful (I assure you, pun intended!) planet-wide platform that has the potential to get people thinking and talking about their environmental impact in a positive and non-challenging way.


So, why should you be vampire hunting next Saturday, or anytime?

Vampire power

Vampire by Alvaro Tapia | | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Well, strictly speaking you’re looking for power vampires.

These vamps masquerade in the form of your innocent-enough looking electronic devices, sucking your electrical blood quietly – even in broad daylight and especially at night. They’re doing it right now. They do it while you’re asleep, at work, even when you’re on holiday. They’re costing you money, and creating an albeit small, but unnecessary load on the nation’s electricity supply (and I don’t know whether you’ve noticed but we’ve had a significant drought this summer and a fair whack of our national electricity supply comes from hydropower schemes #justathought).



What’s the issue exactly?

A fair amount of the items you have plugged in right now don’t actually require a continuous supply of power. Think: printers, phone chargers, laptop chargers, toasters, microwaves, media players, washing machines etc etc.
You will have heard of standby power. Most of the aforementioned devices utilise standby power. The device is literally holding power ‘just in case’ you turn it on to use. With some devices this is undeniably useful. Others it’s definitely unnecessary.
Take your printer for instance, if on at the wall, it will likely be in standby mode waiting patiently for a signal to be sent to it for printing today, tomorrow or someday. Meanwhile it’s slowly sucking your blood (sorry, power) and draining your wallet slowly but surely.


So, perhaps after you’ve turned your lights back on this Saturday night (or heck, why wait for Saturday?) why not do a quick whip around the house to see what reasonably can/should be unplugged (I’m feeling slightly guilty at the thought of at least my cellphone and laptop charger being unnecessarily plugged in right now… back in a sec!). And setup a bit of a system to ensure you actively and regularly turn these unnecessary items off at the wall.


There are lots of lifehacks to eliminate power vampires from your life. Here’s just a few

  1. The ole manual check. Literally flicking switches and pulling power cords.
    Let’s face it. This is time consuming and probably not how you want to spend your spare time. But maybe you can pick two or three things that are easy/could be draining a bit of power (think: TV/anything with a standby light/your cellphone charger) and choose to care about unplugging them when you can, and certainly when you’re heading away on holiday.
  2. #TheresAnAppForThat: Start to build a habit around vampire hunting and eradication. Set a reminder on your phone to start the habit off, or if you’re like me and need a little more active encouragement (and measurability) check out (and countless other apps) where you can setup daily/weekly reminders for good habits.
  3. Enlist the best! If you’ve got kids that are old enough to know how to deal with power points safely, get them involved, they’ll be the best vampire hunters ever! And you know they’ll keep you honest!
  4. And possibly the ultimate hack for the modern lifestyle: a smart powerbank.

    Just like your existing powerbank, but with better vampire slaying features.
    I was pleasantly surprised to see there are quite a few on the (NZ) market with varying degrees of awesome. Standard features tend to include a socket or two that are always on (for items you don’t want to turn off, think: fridge, home phone etc) mixed with sockets that will turn off with the flick of one switch, or even better with a remote control on the fancypants versions. They’re generally not that much more expensive than your average good quality surge protector powerbank at around the $30-$40 mark. I’ve read a few reviews that claim to save you the cost of the powerbank in the first year of use.
    Check out Jaycar, Powerwise or PB Tech and I’m sure they’re sold in countless other places too.

  5. When buying new hardware keep an eye out for energy efficient or smart devices that keep their blood-sucking to a minimum.


So, by all means, do turn your lights off this Earth Hour, while you’re candle-side ask yourself/your family/your friends what we can each do to minimise our environmental impacts. The first step is asking the questions, the second is ongoing action!

This Earth Hour I’ll be celebrating with my brother and his new wife at their wedding! #cantwait
While I can’t dictate what the lighting will be on this special occasion (don’t worry, candles have been suggested!) I will be offsetting the emissions from our 1300 klm round car trip by supporting the Million Metres Stream Project. Because it all counts.

Happy Earth Hour everyone!

I’m always keen to hear how others minimise their power consumption, so keep the conversation going by posting below!