• In 2010, half of the 53.7 million tonnes of waste generated in Australia ended up in landfill. (pixabay)Source: pixabay
When it comes to minimising waste, recycling is too late. Precycling – where you buy items free from packaging – is a more effective way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Nicola Heath

10 Jun 2016 - 2:10 PM  UPDATED 10 Jun 2016 - 2:10 PM

In case you hadn’t noticed, we are headed towards a flaming climate emergency. Extreme weather events and catastrophic coral bleaching are reminders that human activity is changing our planet’s climate. In Australia, we are going to have to change our energy-hungry lifestyles if we want to do something about it.

A good place to start is reducing the amount of waste we produce. Australians are among the highest per capita producers of waste in the world. In 2010, half of the 53.7 million tonnes of waste generated in Australia ended up in landfill.  In the same year Australian households produced 12.4 million tonnes of waste, or roughly 1.5 tonnes per home

In Australia, convenience is king, which explains the slow uptake of the low waste lifestyle. We like to scoff our sushi from disposable plastic trays on our lunch breaks. We don’t think twice about filling our supermarket trollies with fresh fruit and vegetables wrapped in plastic. We happily drink our flat whites from non-recyclable plastic-lined takeaway cups.

What is precycling and why should we do it?

Precycling describes reducing waste at the point of purchase or earlier. It means going packaging-free where possible; buying groceries in bulk and bringing our own vessels and bags to transport goods home.

There is an enormous scope to reduce everyday waste through the application of precycling principles, when you consider a much-quoted statistic claiming that nearly 99 per cent of everything we buy becomes waste within six weeks of purchase. 

‘Single use’ – think those millions of coffee cups we toss out each day - is anathema to the precycling philosophy. Single use plastic bags, another bad habit of Australians, are also out. According to a Clean Up Australia report, we use nearly 4 billion plastic bags each year. Most of those end up in landfill or the ocean, where they kill seabirds and marine life in staggering numbers.

Popularity overseas

The low waste lifestyle is gaining momentum overseas. For zero-waste advocate Bea Johnson, precycling is a way of life. The French-born Californian knows her stuff – her family of four produced just one small jar of rubbish in 2015. In her book Zero Waste Home she describes how she did it: dispensing with disposables like paper towel, taking a pillow case to the bakery to collect her sourdough, and shopping at farmers’ markets and bulk stores where she fills cloth bags and jars with her purchases.

Eco-friendly bulk grocery stores are common overseas, especially in Europe where customers frequent retailers like Granel in Spain, Original Unverpackt in Germany and Lunzers in Austria. In France and Belgium, bulk liquid company Jean Bouteille allows shoppers to fill returnable bottles with oil, wine and vinegar. In America the concept is catching on too, thanks to stores like In.gredients in Austin, Texas, and Zero Market in Denver, Colarado.

The situation in Australia

In Australia, where the major supermarkets dominate the market, customer convenience and keeping fruit and vegetables bruise-free are among the reasons given by the big retailers like ALDI, Coles and Woolworths for continuing to package fresh produce.

Thanks to initiatives like the Australian Packaging Covenant, an initiative designed to encourage industry to adopt more sustainable packaging practices, small inroads are being made, but the focus remains on recycling rather than reducing packaging. Woolworths is phasing out the use of polystyrene trays for its organic produce in 2016. At ALDI Australia, approximately 75 per cent of its core range products, including fresh fruit and vegetables, come in recyclable packaging.

The situation is similar at Coles. “The vast majority of our trays are made of PET which is fully recyclable at kerbside collections,” says a spokesperson. Coles also runs a program called REDcycle, where flexible plastic packaging like empty bread, cereal and frozen food bags, plus plastic shopping bags, can be dropped off in-store for recycling.

There are alternatives to the packaging-happy practices of the major supermarkets. Small retailers offering bulk supplies are cropping up in Australian cities. One example is Naked Foods, a bulk organic health food store with outlets in Sydney and Canberra run by Brazilian-born Caique Ponzoni and his wife Georgina.

Ponzoni describes himself as a “massive advocate” of precycling. “We do not use any packaging across all our shops,” he says, which equates to “a massive saving on wastage and packaging. We try to avoid as much as plastic as we can from the source of the products’ origin.”

Naked Foods produce comes from all over the globe. “We source as much as we can from local farmers around Australia but unfortunately not everything can be produced locally so we have to source from overseas,” he says. “Before we purchase from any farmers overseas we always make sure [they] share the same values as Naked Foods.”

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