Waste Warriors

Waste Warriors

A single mason jar — that’s how much trash Bea Johnson, her husband Scott and their teenage sons Max and Leo produce in a year. Dubbed ‘the priestess of waste-free living’, Bea, a French native who transplanted to California, has inspired millions around the world to adopt her zero waste lifestyle, in which she sends virtually nothing to landfill.

Recycling — a sticking plaster?
It’s no secret that our addiction to single-use plastic is wreaking havoc with our environment. Recycling is often touted as the solution to our trash woes. But given that it’s not always clear where or how an item should be recycled, it’s far from a long-term solution. As Bea points out, “Once that piece of plastic leaves your home, you’ve lost control of it.” Plus, she adds, “Recycling uses a lot of energy!”

(South Africans are not great recyclers anyway. Of the approximately 108 million tons of waste we generate annually, only about 10% is recycled. The remaining 90% ends up in our landfills — toxic garbage dumps which are fast running out of airspace).

Recycling helps, but more important is to generate less waste in the first place.

So, while the rest of us put bags of trash out on the curb every week, how does Bea whittle her annual waste down to a single jar?

By following, in strict order, the 5R’s, which have become something of a mantra for aspiring zero wasters — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost). For tons of tips on how to follow the 5R’s, check out Bea’s Zero Waste Home site where she spells it all out clearly and comprehensively.

Sounds daunting, right? But Bea is on a mission to blast through misconceptions that zero waste living is expensive and unattainable. “By buying bulk and eliminating packaging, you can save at least 15% of your monthly grocery bill,” she advises.

Once you start refusing what you don’t need and reducing what you do, you naturally accumulate less, she explains.

Plastic free groceries
What a plastic free grocery shop looks like, complete with reusable shopping bags. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com
SAMSUNG
Bea’s super organised package-free pantry. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com
Bea's bathroom essentials
Bea’s bathroom essentials. Her and her family brush their teeth with bicarbonate of soda and nothing else. Photo credit: ZeroWasteHome.com

Bea is living proof that by declaring war on waste you needn’t compromise on style. With her endlessly versatile 15-piece capsule wardrobe — check out One Dress, 22 ways and 50 ways to wear a men’s shirt — Bea exudes an enviable Parisian chic. Her clutter-free home is a gorgeous, calm, light filled space that looks like it belongs in the pages of a décor magazine.

Bea's minimalist home
Bea’s minimalist home in California. “My family buys way less than before. In the past, if we went somewhere, we bought souvenirs. If my mother-in-law visited, we went shopping. We were constantly adding to our household’s inventory. Now, we’re happy with the amount of things we have in our home and we don’t add to it,” she says. Photo credit Connie Mirbach.

Bea Johnson in South Africa
Bea toured South Africa last May, giving the country’s burgeoning zero waste movement a major boost. Inspired by the 5R’s, Colleen Black of Life Lived Simply has been living waste free since early 2015. If you’re curious about how to dispose of your contact lens containers, what to do with your EcoBricks or where to get beeswax wraps, the Zero Waste Journey in South Africa Facebook group, founded and managed by Colleen, is a trove of ideas and solutions. It’s becoming the go-to online hub for South Africans wanting to live greener and tread lighter.

Colleen with her jar
Colleen Black with her single jar of trash

Opting out of the consumer madness that characterises modern life can be liberating. But those paving the way counsel that you can’t overhaul your life in a day. It’s a journey, one that requires patience.

Jade Khoury of Low Impact Living, an organisation that run eco-awareness workshops, has been living waste-free for many years. Her advice? Take it slow, and have fun doing it. “It didn’t happen overnight. It took a few years,” she says.

Jade Khoury
“Evaluate where your packaging accumulates — say stationary, or take away food for example — and tackle one thing at a time. Our brains are wired for comfort, so it has to be attainable, otherwise you’ll find a million excuses not to do it,” says Jade.

And, something echoed by eco-warriors everywhere — don’t beat yourself up when you fail, which is inevitable. “Be compassionate with yourself. Find solutions that are fun and creative, rather than feeling guilty, or deprived,” Jade advises. “If you slip up, see it as an opportunity to side-step that issue next time.”

It sounds like it’s worth persevering. That paring down your life in this way is not just gentler on the planet, it’s transformative, spilling over into every corner of your life.

“There are so many perks to this life,” says Jade. “It’s healthier. You remove a lot of the toxins and (heavily-packaged) junk food from your life. By choosing to cut out packaging, your start shopping differently, more directly. And that brings up a lot of opportunity for conversation and human connection, a sense of community.”

“The best thing about this lifestyle is the simplicity,” enthuses Bea. “The less you have, the less you need to clean, dust, maintain and eventually repair or discard. It’s made me grateful for everything we do have, and it feeds my creativity daily, as I’m always searching for solutions. We’ve discovered a lifestyle based on experiences rather than things. A life of being rather than having. And that’s what makes life richer.”

Bea and her family
Bea with her family. “Because of the money we’ve saved from the zero waste lifestyle, we’ve been able to afford things we couldn’t do before. We’ve gone snorkelling, ice-climbing, swum with humpback whales, gone skydiving. My kids have travelled to 20 countries. It’s brought us closer as a family.” Photo Credit: Stephanie Rausser.

Need local inspo?
Check out these South African Instagrammers showing us how it’s done. Left to right:
Shannon Goodman — @journeytozero_
Alex Radlinger — @zerowastejourneycapetown
Khaya Alexander — @wastelessafrica

Also check out:
Nude Foods — Plastic Free Grocery, Cape Town.
Wild & Waste-Free Co-Op — For your zero waste starter kit. Glencairn, Cape Town.
Faithful to Nature  Online Organic Shop (you can apply a plastic-free filter).
Shop Zero — Zero Waste, Plastic Free Lifestyle Store. Woodstock, Cape Town.

*Featured image credit: Connie Mirbach

A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam

A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam

‘Just where you are — that’s the place to start.’
— Pema Chodron

The single biggest lesson I’ve learnt this year in trying to live more sustainably? It’s a marathon, not a sprint. With this in mind, my ploy for 2018 — don’t get down about the state of our planet (it’s so easy to sink into that). Instead, relish the journey and celebrate the changes we make, however miniscule.

I’ve absorbed a huge amount this year, sometimes the mind boggles. Here are some of the standout words, images and voices that have uplifted, inspired, provoked serious thought, or left me haunted…

Carl Sagan’s timeless and beautiful Pale Blue Dot.

 

George Monbiot’s incisive writing. A political and environmental activist, he gets to the crux of where we might be going wrong, with his thoughts on our materialism particularly powerful. Have a read here and here (it’ll make you not want to buy anything ever again!).

 

Steve Cutt’s animations. These are bleak and will most definitely haunt your day, but so cleverly done:

 

The high priestesses of the Zero Waste movement
Whittling down our annual household waste to a single glass jar is most likely unattainable for most of us, but for inspiration, tips and some good old eye candy, check out the sites of Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home and Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers.

Locally, there are some serious movers and shakers spearheading the zero waste movement:

  • Colleen Black of a Life Lived Simply
  • Jade Khoury of the Wild and Waste Free Co-op
  • And the bright young things on Instagram showing us how it’s done:
    @journeytozero_
    @zerowastejourneycapetown
    @wastelessafrica
    @shopzero.sa

 

2017 also saw the opening of Nude Foods in Cape Town, a plastic free grocery store. Can’t wait to check it out.

Zero waste is going to be where it’s at in 2018!

Who or what has inspired you to tread just a little lighter this year?

 

The Worm Whisperer

The Worm Whisperer

A friend recently asked how to get started with worm farming and, honestly, I couldn’t answer, as my brother set it all up for me. If there’s a guy who knows a thing or two about worms, it’s him. Being knee-deep in worm muck is his happy place.

He helped me put together this handy how-to for anyone keen to get started. Be warned though – it’s addictive. Once you harvest that first batch of black gold, there’s no turning back, you’ll never throw your food waste in the bin again. Here we go…

What your worms will need

  • Like us, worms need oxygen to breathe, which they do through their skin.
  • Darkness. Too much exposure to light slows down the decomposition process; it might drive them away or even kill them.
  • Organic waste (balanced between ‘greens’ such as fruit and vegetable waste and ‘browns’ such as egg cartons).
  • A temperature of anywhere between 10 – 35 degrees celsius. They tolerate cold better than heat, so your bin should never be in direct sunlight.

Choosing a bin
A number of options are available — from fancy shop bought systems to a plastic tub with holes punched into the lid. Plastic bins are probably easiest and most convenient because they’re durable, lightweight and easy to come by (though try use food grade plastics to prevent chemicals leaching into your compost). One drawback of plastic — the air flow isn’t good so you’ll need to manage your feeding schedule carefully to prevent anaerobic conditions being created.

Wooden bins provide the best aeration for your system (again, look out for pressure/chemical treated woods). Other options such as cinder blocks or bricks work well too but are cumbersome and fairly permanent.

Setting up your bin

  1. Create a bedding of organic matter — torn up egg cartons, toilet rolls, shredded newspaper (avoid the glossy stuff) or store bought coconut coir. Soil directly from your garden will be too heavy for the worms and probably contaminate the bin.
  2. Add some food. You can include anything organic that will decompose — fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags. Don’t include meat, dairy or bones as this will attract pests.
  3. Let the bin stand for at least a week before introducing any worms.
  4. Start SLOW. People have a tendency to over feed in the beginning, but only add new food when most of the previous batch has been eaten. After a month or so you’ll get a feel for how quickly your worms can process waste.
  5. If you opt for plastic bins, a popular choice are stackable meat trays, as this allows you to grow your worm system as you go. Here’s how you do it:
    • Start with three (same-sized) trays. The bottom one will be for collecting any liquid run-off that comes out your bin. You can install a tap to help remove it.
    • The next level would be your feeding tray. This is where most of your worms will be, happily eating, growing and breeding.
    • If you want, add a third tray on top. This acts as a lid to keep out light and a means of separating your worms from your compost when the middle tray is full. The middle and top tray should have holes (about 6-8mm) drilled into the base to allow the worms to migrate to the top tray when the middle one is full.

Some Do’s

  1. Food waste releases moisture when it decomposes but a light sprinkle with a watering can will help ensure the entire bin is moist. But don’t over do it, you don’t want it soaked, as this will reduce oxygen in the system.
  2. Feeding: little and often is best. Anything from once a week to daily, depending on your level of involvement.
  3. Place the bin in a sheltered space, preferably covered, so it doesn’t get wet. Cover food scraps with shredded newspaper (hand-torn is fine); this helps keep fruit flies at bay.
  4. If you can, freeze your food scraps beforehand (allow to fully thaw before feeding); this will kill any fruit fly eggs and accelerate the decomposition process.
  5. If you add lots of egg shells, dry them out either in the sun or oven and crush them before adding. It’s not vital but will give your final product a better looking finish!

Some don’ts

  1. Check up on them too often. Constant disturbances will slow down their eating habits
  2. Place in direct sun
  3. Feed too much citrus, as it’s too acidic
  4. Feed pineapple and papaya seeds, as they can kill your worms. Rather save these for your traditional compost pile.

Troubleshooting

  1. Peek in your bin regularly (but not everyday). You should see rotting food and lots of worms wriggling about. It should be moist, and there might be other little critters crawling around. Common bin friends are springtails, mites (only a problem in excessive numbers), spiders, woodlice, the odd slug, small (not large) beetles, and centipedes (these can prey on worms but shouldn’t be a problem if you spot just one or two).
  2. Your worm bin is healthy if there is no smelly odour
  3. Conversely, it’s unhealthy if it smells bad! In this case it’s probably been fed too much and has gone anaerobic. Stop feeding the bin. Remove any uneaten food and gently turn your bedding in a few spots, adding torn egg cartons to neutralise it. After a week or so your bin should return to normal.

Sourcing your worms
Most good nurseries stock them. A small bucket of just worms (ie no soil or bin) will set you back about R350. If you’re impatient to get started or have some cash to spare, you could buy a ready-to-go system – ie the worms, already in soil, in a worm bin. That’ll set you back anything from R1,200 to R2,000.

Or, simply google ‘worms for sale in South Africa’ — suppliers change their prices depending on availability, so shop around for the best prices.

black gold
After months and months of cold composting we recently harvested two huge buckets of the most beautiful, dense, rich, organic compost, pictured above. Unlike hot composting, where you can harvest after a couple of weeks, with cold composting, it’s a much longer game, but still totally worth it.

Head over here for a step-by-step guide to hot composting. Here for the differences between a worm bin, a bokashi system and a regular compost bin. And here for a post on why composting is like therapy for me.

Why I quit Plastic Free July

Why I quit Plastic Free July

I flunked Plastic Free July. Quite spectacularly. I tripped up on the first morning (yep, didn’t even make it to lunch time), again in the afternoon and a few times soon after that.

I felt like a right tool as there’d been some build-up on my social media (a bolshy ‘Coming atcha Plastic Free July’ on my Instagram just a few days earlier). I picked myself up, dusted myself off and dived back in. Only to be scuppered by a wretched fizzer after my son’s swimming lesson and a moment of weakness, an inability to resist my favourite (plastic covered!) magazine.

More beating myself up. And a healthy dollop of apprehension about our upcoming holiday (one where we’ll be on the move, staying with people and completely out of our routine).

So I decided to throw in the towel. At first it felt like copping out; like I was diluting my efforts for the sake of convenience. But it just wasn’t working and it was time for a recalibration.

Challenges such as Plastic Free July are not meant to be easy. I guess that’s the point – to challenge and even frustrate you, and, in this case, to create awareness around just how pervasive plastic is. Some people get it right, not just in July but Every Damn Day (check out the Zero Waste Home and Trash is for Tossers sites). We need the trailblazers and the purists — they show us what’s possible; their invaluable tips and tricks pave the way for the rest of us.  We may not succeed in completely emulating them, but it’s somewhere to start and we can do what we can, when we can.

My strategy moving forward? Pick a thing – one thing – and hone in on it until it becomes ingrained. Plastic shopping bags – it was a process but now I’m done with them; it’s overs cadovers; the reusable bags are now an effortless part of my routine. Ditto the glass water bottles.

Next up – straws! Sometimes we get it right and remember to say those three magic words (‘No straws, please’), sometimes we don’t. We’ll just keep at it, until, eventually, we remember every (or most) times.

Plastic toothbrushes and cosmetic bottles? I’ll get round to ditching them too, eventually.

Also, it’s important to keep some perspective. Slip up? Move on quickly and focus on what you have done. I’d done some wonderful prepping in June — sourced and started using my closest bulk store, invested in reusable produce bags and stocked up on my glass jars, so, in a way, Plastic Free July did it’s thing on me. I just didn’t want to be lugging around all that guilt every time my kids asked for a mint.

I feel wonderfully unburdened. I can ditch the guilt — and the plastic!

 

Ways of being

Ways of being

The anthropologist in me is always fascinated by alternate ways of seeing and doing. A writing assignment on waste management a few years ago was something of a turning point for me, as it brought home just how destructive our lifestyle of excess and waste is. It kickstarted a desire to tread a little lighter; to learn how to do things a bit differently.Since then, I’ve stumbled upon minimalism, the zero waste movement, urban farming, permaculture – whole new worlds are being opened up. These schools of thought all feed into each other, offering alternatives to our consumer-mad society, and I’m dabbling in them all as I figure out what resonates, what sticks, and what’ll get us closer to living just a bit greener and wilder in our sliver of suburbia.

In her food forest in the heart of the suburbs, Saskia Schelling of Urban Farmstead grows an abundance of fruit and veggies; it’s a thriving model of permaculture. Here she sheds some light on what permaculture is:

What is permaculture?
“For me that’s like asking ‘What is Life?’ ​The term Permaculture – Permanent Agriculture or Permanent Culture – was​ coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, then later taken on by Geoff Lawton and others.

Permaculture is a highly effective way to design for a future of abundance, not just of food, but in every sense of the word. ​It’s often defined as ‘the ​conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems and human living environments, which have the diversity, stability, and the strength of natural eco-systems.’

What this means is that ​permaculture design mimic​s​ nature in every sense – the natural laws, the organising principles and the patterns and interconnections that naturally occur in ecosystems.

Permaculture isn’t just about growing great organic veggies –  although of course it does encompass these things. Neither is it a ‘plug and paste’ solution (ie one solution fits all environments).

The power of observation​
The permaculture principles, one of which is Observation, need to be applied to each and every site. You ​need to observe the soil ph, the natural biomes, the plants, azimuths, contours, ​people, land uses, natural vegetation, and insects.

Part of the beauty is that the actual design and solutions appear out of the process. If you follow all the design steps systematically, the design seems to present itself miraculously. The layers and layers of ‘data’ gathered through observation are overlaid and this, together with the visions and wishes of the stakeholders, informs the mainframe design.

For example, after mapping and observation, it’ll become obvious that a soggy, marshy part of a property is not the best place to erect a house – instead, it may be the perfect place to build a dam perhaps, or plant water-loving plants.

Nothing in isolation
Permaculture also takes into account the economic, social and environmental aspects of a habitat. ​ It’s ​principles ​can be used​ to shift stale or ​stagnant working environments into healthy, vibrant, flowing, productive ones. It serves as a basis from which to make holistic, viable decisions, whether in corporate or private arenas.

The ​are three permaculture ethics which are key to healthy interactions with the earth and with each other. They are Care for the land; Care for the people; and Share the Surplus.

To read about Saskia’s super inspiring story and find out about upcoming workshops, see here. And to learn more about Permaculture in South Africa, have a look at Love Green Permaculture.