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'Costing us the Earth': Eco waste warrior Anita's crusade targeting Australia's Asian community

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Finding that too many food items at your Asian grocers are overpackaged in plastic? Eco-warrior Anita Vandyke offers tips on how to consume Asian foods without packaging waste.


Anita’s top tips on reducing packaging waste:

  • Shop the outer aisles of the supermarket or shop in farmer's markets that have Asian produce
  • Buy products that are in glass, that are in cardboard or in stainless steel packaging, rather than plastic
  • Learn to make recipes yourself. For example, learn how to make dumplings from scratch and freeze them. Dr Vandyke says not only do they taste better, they're more cost-effective and you're actually developing a hard-earned skill that your parents would have passed on from generation to generation, which is priceless

Anita Vandyke admits she was once a maximalist in every sense of the word.

She had the designer labels, the corporate gig and the income to afford a comfortable lifestyle.

But she later came to a realisation that the life she had strived for left her with an empty feeling.

Anita Vandyke has written two books on sustainable living.
Anita Vandyke has written two books on sustainable living.
Ranky Law

“Because none of the stuff, the Givenchy shoes, the Louis Vuitton bag, made me happy.”

As a result, Dr Vandyke (née Ho) says she took time off to be of service and learn more about the environment.

For me, zero waste was actually out of necessity because I went from a high-paying salary to having no income to find out what I really wanted to do with my life.

“I had to go back to the roots of my parents and their generation of how to save money, how to not waste food, how to buy things only when I need it and, as a result, that zero waste mentality came about from that,” she says.

Asian obsession with presentation, convenience and cleanliness

The Chinese-born Australian believes while there is a movement for zero waste packaging or packaged-free goods for traditional Western foods, this approach hasn't necessarily been picked up regarding Asian food.  

The vast majority of Asian food items imported from overseas come already packaged in small quantities, exposing small grocers to problems packaging waste.
The vast majority of Asian food items imported from overseas come already packaged in small quantities, exposing small grocers to problems packaging waste.
Ranky Law

Dr Vandyke says Australia’s “first” zero-waste Asian grocery store, Naked Asian Grocer, addresses some of the issues.

“They don’t cover everything but they cover the basics. So that’s a great start,” she says.

The healthcare worker who migrated to Australia as a four-year-old says consumers need to consider using plastic for more important things that require plastic to be disposable.

“So in COVID times, it would be health-care workers' protective equipment, whether it would be masks or gowns. Or it could be used for things that need to be waterproof and lightweight such as prosthetic limbs,” she says.

“It shouldn't be wasted on things as frivolous as presentation which is used for 10 seconds or less where there are much better viable alternatives out there."

Dr Vandyke says in Asian cultures, there’s an obsession with cleanliness and hygiene and presentation that gives the impression that wrapping food in plastic is newer, fresher and cleaner.

Food preservation or packaging waste? Individually wrapped rice crackers.
Food preservation or packaging waste? Individually wrapped rice crackers.
Tania Lee

“But in reality, you are wrapping it in a form of petroleum. The freshest and cleanest and purest form is actually how you store it when you get home and you can do this by simple methods like storing it in an airtight container or bringing your own packaging.

“Or even going naked and getting fresh produce directly without all that wrapping around it,” she adds.

'No one likes to be preached on how to live a plastic-free life’

Asked if she’s ever talked to her Asian grocer about overpackaging, the mother-of-one says “yes” but only because they’ve engaged in her conversation after seeing her use her own produce bags for loose greens.

“They look at me and ask ‘oh, you’re not taking a plastic bag?’ I say, ‘no, I don’t need to,’ and that starts the conversation,” she says.

Lettuces wrapped in plastic bags at an Asian grocery story.
Lettuces wrapped in plastic bags at an Asian grocery story.
Tania Lee

The social media influencer lives with her husband, daughter and mother in a four-bedroom house in Sydney, where almost everything is sourced second-hand.

On one of her Instagram posts, she shows zero-waste items in her fridge, including food that’s homemade, wrapped in paper or in glass containers.

Dr Vandyke says she has the ethos of teaching, not preaching.

“Show that’s it’s easy and fun the people will come along on the journey with you.”

She says consumers have the right to vote with their dollars, meaning they can advocate for changes by talking to product makers and small businesses about options that have lower waste.

She adds the more people start up conversations like these, the likelihood the change could be a big cumulative different in the long run.

‘A long way to go’ for the Asian community

Dr Vandyke believes that the great thing about the migrant community is that they’ve grown up with a zero-waste ethos.

“Our parents and grandparents come from the generation of make do, mend, waste not, want not.”

Chinese soup ingredients sold in a traditional Asian grocery story.
Chinese soup ingredients sold in a traditional Asian grocery story.
Ranky Law

We eat nose to tail. We don't throw away things because we want to use everything up. We have that thrifty, frugal mentality.

Dr Vandyke says the zero-waste ethos is something migrant communities, if they haven’t already, should be embracing again and not be so “hyper sold on the hyper convenient world of plastic".

But she thinks there is a long way to go for the zero-waste moment, particularly for the Asian community.

In the meantime, this community's obsession with aesthetics, she says, is “literally costing us the earth".

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