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Rubbish - who is responsible for making it and reducing it?


Many zero wasters keep their rubbish in a jar. It’s a weird concept. Someone described rubbish jars as a kind of waste taxidermy. Of course, living zero waste does not require any rubbish to be housed in a glass jar. Or kept in the home at all. I simply started to keep mine because a) I thought that’s what living zero waste entailed b) I could track what rubbish I was creating to make improvements and c) continued because it’s a great example of what can be achieved when I give talks on waste reducing.
Recently I have been wondering if it’s really setting the best example. Is keeping all the waste in my jar asking for change? Sure, it shows that with thought and intention, the consumers rubbish can be reduced. But now I am not as convinced that hoarding every little but it of it, in a glass home, is the way forward.

I do wonder if the zero waste movement is taking too much responsibility for the rubbish we don’t want to create. No one living zero waste wants to create rubbish, and we are forever trying to avoid it. For instance, I have several straws in my jar that I specifically did not ask for…but now are my responsibility. Why is it my responsibility?

The first month of my pregnancy, I was very ill. I couldn't keep anything in my stomach. Including water. It’s kind of scary. No food was staying down, which meant no nutrients. So I did what probably most new Mum’s do, and followed the doctors’ orders to buy a pregnancy multivitamin. I chose the most well-known brand, Elevit. They come in blister packs, that are made of half plastic and half aluminum, packed in a cardboard box. There was probably another multivitamin in a recyclable jar, but I grabbed this brand because I knew of it and I also could not be bothered sussing out another brand. At that stage getting out of bed was difficult. Trawling the internet or pharmacy for a more sustainable option was the last thing I wanted to do. My only concern was my baby and finding a discreet place to be sick after I left the pharmacy.

The brand I chose is the most popular and trusted pregnancy multivitamin in Australia. I know that I should have picked one that has recyclable packaging. And I take full responsibility that I did not. As I mentioned, my stamina for making a sustainable decision was non existent, so I went with what I felt was best for my body and baby. 

Not too long after this, the doctor discovered my thyroid was not functioning properly and I needed to get onto a medication pronto. Again I followed the doctors’ orders, and took the medication. This time it was packaged in aluminum blister packs. No plastic. Everything can be recycled. I didn't even ask or look for a sustainable packaged option.

I began to wonder why Elevit didn’t do the same, or use glass and plastic bottles. Each fortnight, I began emptying a blister sheet of Elevit, placing it into my jar, the same thought of 'why don’t they' floating in my mind. Then I wondered if we should always have to compromise our decisions because of packaging, especially when it comes to health? Is that truly fair? Will that make the big companies take notice?

Stuffing this rubbish into my jar is not going to push for any change. Elevit has been good. I can’t fault it, other than the packaging. But holding onto it, is not enough. I can help make a change and my rubbish can do more than sit there.

It's my responsibility to speak up if I want to see change.

So now I am saving up all the Elevit blister sheets, and I'll send them back to Elevit (Bayer) with a letter and suggestions on how they can provide better packaging. Because there are alternatives. They exist and they can make a change. It should not always be up to me.



Living zero waste is not just about making better choices for myself. It's demanding better choices for everyone. One of the most effective actions to reduce waste is asking for change at the source. There is not a low waste alternative to everything yet. But if I start speaking up, maybe one day there will be.  

I’m not just stopping at Elevit. In my jar are blister packs for Nurofen and Panadol. I know these can be housed in plastic bottles. I have seen it in the US and sometimes I see it here. Though now that option seems to be less available.  I have seen my own thyroid medication housed in aluminium, so why can’t they do the same?

I have airline tickets in my rubbish jar. I can send them back, explaining the risk of BPA on the tickets and asking for another option like digital boarding passes. My old mascara tube, the broken sunglasses, plastic food stickers...I can identify sustainable solutions for each. So I am going to let the companies know. 

I'm not trying to get rid of all my rubbish. I still have plenty left in that jar and no doubt, much more to take responsibility for in my future.

Imagine if we all started doing this? Having conversations that asked the producer to make smarter decisions rather than us zero wasters constantly avoiding items or stuffing it away into a jar. These companies might have never thought about sustainable options in the original design. They might not know about the zero waste movement. The responsibility of rubbish sits equally on the shoulders of both producer and consumer. I believe we are going to have to work together to make less rubbish, and for us zero wasters that just might entail speaking up. 

33 comments

  1. Bravo! Thank you so much for this brave post. You're so right in asking who's responsible for our garbage. Those of us who care often seem to shoulder more than our share of the guilt about choices for packaging that we didn't and wouldn't have selected. I really like your idea of *moving* things from sitting in your jar and making you feel bad and taking positive *action* by returning it to the company that chose it. Genius!! Thanks again for the inspiration :)

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    1. Thanks for the support. It's reassuring to know others feel the same way. Hopefully if enough of us do it, the demand will create change.

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  2. Congrats on your pregnancy. I hope you will write a lot about it. I am 32 weeks right now and despite the fact that I have been working on zero waste for years before I got pregnant I found a lot of my ideals difficult to uphold during pregnancy, so far. For example, I had a couple bouts of nausea in the first trimester that I was completely unprepared for and needed to buy dry carbs ASAP and had to get something in packaging (it doesn't help that I have some food restrictions, I assume someone without them might fare a bit better than me). I also had some really bad food aversions during the first trimester, and that along with my restrictions meant it was hard to buy completely unpackaged foods. And, like you, I found it hard to have the energy to make those kinds of decisions.

    Next has been supplements, I found a prenatal in glass, but then I got a fun side effect of pregnancy of gallbladder sludge and had to start doing a bunch of supplements for that. Obviously, a lot of that is in plastic. Even though it's recyclable it's still not ideal.

    My other thing has been maternity clothing. I honestly haven't gotten that much actual maternity clothes and have been doing things like wearing short dresses as shirts, but I can't figure out any way to do maternity stuff in pants/shorts without getting synthetic materials.

    Anyway, I'd just love to hear about anything pregnancy/baby related from you!

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    1. Hey Hannah, Congrats on your pregnancy :) I will write about my experience, but no until the end. The whole experience has changed my views and my expectations on myself to be perfectly zero waste. Like you, there were times that I needed dry carbs and succumbed to something in packaging. It's a whole new world!! All the best with the rest of your pregnancy :) we can compare stores when I get to the end of mine.

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  3. Thanks for sharing. It is frustrating that often we have to make compromises, particularly when it comes to our health.
    I recently contacted a restaurant about their menu, providing only 2 out of 40 options were vegetarian, and these 2 were not vegan.
    I was surprised to find them receptive and hear they were working on a new menu with more options, because they took their environmental responsibility seriously.
    I've also contacted people who I have bought online from about their excessive packaging, but I haven't sent it back as it cost me money and I figure they are less likely to dispose of it properly (in the general waste rather than seek out recycling).
    Big companies like Bayer I haven't yet contacted and I am worried about them being less receptive.
    I look forward to hearing more, and if you get a response.

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    1. That's great you had a positive response with your a restaurant. I think people don't realise how much ability they have to create shifts. Whether its big or small. Sending back my medication packaging to Bayer might not create immediate action, but it could get someone in the office thinking. If I don't try, we will never know!!

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  4. Herron sells ibuprofen and paracetamol in bottles, plastic but recyclable at coles and woolies.

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    1. I will have a look there for the future thanks. I usually only take it during my period when I have discomfort. Truthfully, I don't ever go into those stores anymore and did not think to check. None of my local pharmacies stock either in those packaging options.

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  5. Well done, excellent post

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  6. Anonymous11/07/2016

    Great post!

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    1. No worries :) Thank you for reading.

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  7. Yes! This is exactly what I have been thinking too! Everything is about balance and focusing energy in effective places.

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    1. I could not agree with you more!!

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  8. Anonymous11/14/2016

    Having a child makes living waste free a bit more challenging, cause just as you are starting to understand you will always want whats best for your child even if it means doing things you usually wouldn't. Good luck! I know you will be a great mum :)

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    1. That's very sweet of you. I am already starting to see a shift in my firm rules of living zero waste. When you are responsible for someone else's health, you realise some ideas need to be flexible.

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  9. Couldn't agree more. I have been contacting companies for a while now, though not many of them reply. You've spurred me on to get back to it and not be disheartened by their lack of response.

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    1. I think i would fall over if any of them replied. Whether they reply or not, our actions just might open someones curiosity to make a change.

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  10. This is what's been playing on my mind recently. A lot of companies churn out so much rubbish but bear none of the responsibility for what goes to waste.
    A small personal victory recently was with Nespresso who (if you work in an office) will send you a cardboard bin to put the old coffee pods into and then they come and pick it up for recycling absolutely free! Writing to all the other companies as you are doing with Elevit is a great way for me to be a bit more proactive! Great article Erin!!! :)

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    1. Thanks Harry :) Currently I work in an office and we have a Nespresso machine and the pods are recycled. It's a small act but that makes a huge difference.

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  11. Fantastic write up Erin! The idea of manufacturers taking responsibility for the way they package their goods is really key & its been running around my mind for a while. Its where the biggest impact can be made. I've started to write to company's & return packaging that I get. There's a movement to be had here & im all for getting it going!! On another note you can purchase Blackmores pregnancy vits in glass if you still need them. Hope you are feeling much better!

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    1. Thanks! I will try the Blackmores one soon as my brand is about to run out. Good on you for taking the time to ask companies to make changes. Every act helps to ask for change.

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  12. I have started to teach WASTE PREVENTION companies already and start to build up new industry named INDUSTRIAL UPCYCLING. Because it is frequently much more cost effective than waste management, it spreads very fast. This touch the producers as responsible ones. more on www.industrial-upcycling.cz

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    1. That is a good point Katana - implementing waste prevention is far more effective, beyond just cost, compared to that of waste management. It's managing the source, which is where the waste first starts. I've bookmarked your website to have a look through. Thanks for sharing.

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  13. Erin, I agree with your viewpoint that if we want to see change, then it's our own responsibility to speak up. Taking action makes all the difference. Recycling would probably have a greater impact if there were more people that were proactive. http://cleanlites.com/industries/oem-manufacturing/airbag-recycling-services/

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    1. Thanks Zequek :) It's great to see how such a simple action resonates with so many people. Hopefully more people will speak up.

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  14. Anonymous11/22/2016

    Thanks Erin, these are great thoughts as usual. You've inspired me to send a sugar packet back to CSR. We use very little sugar, but needed some for baking and the bulk food store was closed, so bought sugar in a paper bag. When we brought it home however I discovered it was a plastic lined paper bag! Which is so frustrating, because I didn't get the dark sugar I wanted so I could get a product in a paper bag and now I can't recycle or compost the paper OR send the bag to redcycle! Good job on doing the best you can for your baby and also taking the opportunity to change Elevits packaging at the same time. Inspirational.

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    1. This is a clear example that highlights a need for businesses to clearly label packaging, so the consumers can dispose of it properly or choose not to buy it, if the packaging does not meet our standards. Your comment has given me much to think about too :)

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  15. I enjoyed your post. I am trying to do my best to avoid waste and find your blog helpful. One thing to note is that the blister packs are much safer for medicines that can be overdosed. In the US we have a very high rate of depressed children overdosing on tylenol for example, it is an easy medicine to overdose on because we sell it 500/bottle. This is compared to several European countries, where for this exact reason tylenol is sold in blister packs, and almost no teens experience liver failure from tylenol overdose. So while I see your point, it's really for safety. Toddlers who get into 100 multivitamins can experience severe vomiting, 100 levothyroxine pills can be lethal. I'm a pediatrician so I take care of these kiddos and my experience is a little skewed compared to the general population. Now recyclable pill packs? That's something I could get behind!

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    1. Hi Julia, thanks so much for sharing this information. The safety aspect if justifiable and I can easily understand why there is now a rise for manufacturers to choose blister packets over bottles, whether it's for multivitamins or something stronger. I have decided that when I send my blister packets back to Bayer, I will include my example of a aluminium recyclable packet rather than suggest the bottle option. Aluminium has a better recycle rate than a glass bottle, so it would be a good option for them to consider.

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  16. If you're looking for a more sustainable option for sunglasses, Proof Eyewear make eco-friendly frames, and will take broken or outdated glasses back for recycling. I reviewed them on my blog if you want to find out more, or you can just look them up directly.

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    1. Hey Rowan, I own a pair of Proof Sunglasses. They are great :)

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