In January 2013 Erin Rhoads moved to Melbourne and started an amusingly titled blog, The Rogue Ginger. Her plan was to document her new life. What she couldn’t have predicted was how radically different that new life would be. After a chance viewing of a Canadian doco, The Clean Bin Project, where she watched a Vancouver couple battle it out to see who could produce the least amount of rubbish in a year, she was profoundly affected. She could no longer see the world in the same way: plastic was everywhere and she felt compelled to do something about it. Erin signed up for Plastic Free July and started to document her own adventures into Zero Waste.
Seven years later she hasn’t looked back. She’s a sought-after speaker and community activist who lobbies for change at a grass-roots and government-policy level. Her popular Zero Waste lifestyle blog led to an advisory role on the ABC TV series War On Waste and she’s written two books on the subject. She’s also a regular sustainability contributor on ABC Radio.
We catch up with Erin to see how she’s coping with the current Covid Lockdown restrictions and to find out if we’re winning the War On Waste.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made over the last seven years and what have been some of the challenges?
I don’t feel there have ever been any big challenges or changes. Every step I took to reduce my rubbish was a tiny baby step – though there was an incident when I tried to make Zero Waste Worcestershire sauce at home early on… That was a mess and I’ve never tried again. If anything, when I have tried to replicate something because I can’t get it Zero Waste I now ask myself if I truly need it. Learning to let go of things and questioning what we need – I believe it’s the mindset shift that’s the hardest and more rewarding challenge in this movement.
The Zero Waste movement has gained a huge amount of momentum, which aspects of the movement appeal to you and which ones don’t you subscribe to?
It’s been amazing to see individuals wake up to the reality that our linear process of make, buy and throwaway is not sustainable. Watching people come together across the world, or in our local communities, to work together on how to change the system and set the foundations for something new is inspiring. What I haven’t loved is how brands are trying to jump in on the movement and are creating a lot of confusion as to whether they’re legitimately trying to make a change or greenwashing.
Now you’re the author of two books and you’ve become a passionate public educator encouraging others to reduce their waste. What have been some of the most interesting and surprising things you’ve discovered about Australians during your travels? How do we compare to the rest of the world when it comes to our waste-reducing efforts?
I love meeting and talking with other Zero Wasters around the country. At the start, I was really surprised by how community-minded individuals can get. After War On Waste [on ABC TV] I watched as hundreds of local groups appeared on Facebook to help each other and figure out a way to reduce waste collectively. Compared to the rest of world, I think we’re most similar to the UK. We like to think of collective solutions and I wonder if it’s because both countries produced TV shows to help carry the message. My brother lives Zero Waste in the US and says the movement is tiny compared to Australia or the UK.
How did you come to be involved with Zero Waste Victoria? What is it and what does it aim to do?
Zero Waste Victoria was born out of a Facebook group of the same name. At the time I was busy hosting sold-out talks and the Facebook group started by two passionate Zero Wasters was growing. It was great to see so many people attending talks or joining the group because they found out about the Zero Waste lifestyle through social media, blogs or the odd media article. [But] I wanted to create a presence outside of these areas and create a space people could talk face-to-face about reducing waste and see the everyday items someone might use living Zero Waste. So I decided to create an education stall at the 2017 Sustainable Living festival and asked for volunteers in the Facebook group to help me. The educational stall was then invited to attend other festivals and businesses. When the group became a not for profit I made the decision to step away. It’s been exciting to watch them flourish into what they’ve become today.
What was the idea behind your Zero Waste party kit and how has it evolved?
I created my own party kit after my child’s first birthday. I just thought it would be easier to have a pack for other parents or caregivers wanting to have a Zero Waste party instead of collecting all of the different items – because that can be the hard part – finding the time to locate all of the items to reduce waste. I also thought it would be great if there was a directory of all the party kits in Australia, as I knew there were others. When I began researching, I found this amazing directory in the UK called Party Kit Network. Instead of reinventing the wheel I reached out to see if they would be interested in expanding to Australia and they said yes.
I know that you aren’t afraid to call out greenwashing when you see it. What are some of the worst examples that really make you fume?
Where do I start? There have been far too many over the years and I think it might be time I start adding a workshop on greenwashing, because I predict this will get worse. The latest in greenwash is the launch of the new ASOS Design Circular Collection. In reality it’s 0.035 per cent of the brand’s 85,000-strong fashion offering that’s sold to 23 million customers across 200 markets around the globe, as reported in a recent article by Sophie Benson.
What are some of the community waste reduction initiatives that you’re a fan of?
Buy Nothing New, Good Karma and Buy/Swap/Sell Groups on Facebook have made it easier to swap secondhand goods or homegrown food easily, connecting us with our community. Recently there was a mobile bulk shopping option set up in my area that’ll be helpful for people who can’t get to the shops.
When I heard you speak in Sydney last year you talked about how recycling soft plastics by taking them back to the supermarket is pretty futile, because most of them end up sitting around in a warehouse not being turned into anything. Is that still the case? If so, do you think used single-use plastic will ever become a viable resource? Most of the plastic packaging dropped off at our supermarkets for recycling is now being used as a material in road base. To me, they are simply burying our plastic problem in asphalt and other construction projects. Since roads need continual upkeep I don’t see the problems of single-use plastics being addressed. While I understand something needs to happen to all of the plastic, I’m concerned many people have been too quick to applaud this idea rather than continue to address our obsession with plastic. Burying it roads is another out of sight, out of mind solution.
Has the Melbourne Lockdown been impacting your efforts to reduce waste? Has Covid made it harder to encourage people to reuse things?
The Melbourne Lockdown has not affected our ability to reduce waste. Our bulk food stores and local markets continue to accept our containers. We can compost our food scraps. The only area we can’t access is secondhand shopping for furniture or clothing at the moment, which is OK for us since we never shopped too much except for my son’s clothing.
Name three small things people can do right now that will make a big impact to help the planet:
- Buy secondhand or hire/rent/borrow what you need
- Compost, Compost, Compost (and even better if you can do it at home!)
- Repair, mend and fix the stuff you have
What do you hope the future holds for the Zero Waste movement?
I’m really not sure what the future holds. It’s hard to predict with the constant uncertainty. I would love to see more repair centres, more sharing, hiring and borrowing things instead of buying brand new, every house with a backyard to be composting and a system set up for apartment and townhouses that might not have space, less worrying about what our neighbours have feeling the need to keep up, more bulk food stores, cafes encouraging BYO containers and cups… I could go on but I might leave it there.
Thanks so much for your time Erin!
Photography by David Hannah. Courtesy of City of Melbourne