What’s the worst thing we do today that our grandparents didn’t? You might say that we poison our food with pesticides or that we eat too much, work too hard or drive instead of walking, all of which are true.
But what we do much more often than our grandparents ever did, is throw things away.
The amount of waste that every Australian discards has increased tenfold in the last century to a whopping 560kg a year. What’s more, every single piece of plastic existing on the planet today will never, ever, go away, no matter how much it breaks down or how often it gets recycled. This includes plastic bags and straws, disposable coffee cups, wet wipes, polystyrene plates and more.
The good news is that, as consumers, we are powerful people with choices to make. By ditching and switching the products we buy and use when we hit the road this year, each and every one of us can keep a mountain of waste out of landfill and, more importantly, our oceans.
DITCH: SINGLE-USE WATER BOTTLES
Every minute of every day, a staggering one million plastic water bottles are bought across the world — that’s 16,666 bottles per second. If you think that sounds like a third-world statistic, consider this: in Australia, a quarter of us drink from a single-use water bottle every week and less than 40 per cent of those bottles are being recycled.
Most end up in landfill and, when they do, take more than 1000 years to degrade. The result is microplastics, which are becoming more of a hazard to our oceans than the plastic bottle itself.
Recycling makes a difference. Place just 41 plastic bottles in the right bin and you’ll save enough energy to run your computer for 17 hours. But what if you stopped buying plastic bottles altogether?
In 2009, the NSW town of Bundanoon did, offering only reusable drinking bottles for sale in its stores and chilled filtered tap water to fill them with: simple and genius!
All we need to do is change our habits. Resist the temptation to snap up water on the run by always carrying a water bottle with you. Buy a quality stainless steel water bottle and cart it everywhere: to the supermarket, on strolls around town, on bushwalks and out to lunch.
SWITCH: WET WIPES
The wet-wipe wash has saved many an outback camper between showers, but this guilty pleasure demands a rethink.
Despite a lot of claims on supermarket packaging, very few wet wipes are biodegradable and, worse still, when flushed they accumulate in sewers as what is delightfully known as ‘fatbergs’.
The next destination for these wipes is the ocean where they will take upwards of 100 years to break down or worse, kill the creature that ingests it.
I’ll admit that I’ve carried antibacterial wet wipes on almost every road trip I’ve ever tackled, until now. My switch this year is to a washable muslin cloth and natural, soap-free cleanser for my face, hands and body when there’s no shower available in camp, and to compostable and genuinely biodegradable bamboo fibre wipes for everything else.
DITCH: DISPOSABLE BATTERIES
According to Planet Ark, 345 million handheld batteries are sold in Australia each year and, despite recycling efforts, two thirds end up in landfill leaching toxic metals — lead, mercury, cadmium and nickel — into the environment.
Recycling batteries can recover up to 90 per cent of the materials used to manufacture them, but when you travel, it can seem like a hassle to find a battery recycling station and all-too tempting to stash them in the bin.
Thankfully, Planet Ark’s website can guide you to the nearest disposal point, wherever you are. Even better than recycling single-use batteries is to stop buying them altogether. Choose solar or USB-rechargeable torches and outdoor lanterns, cameras, GPS units, water purifiers and more.
If the equipment you have on hand needs a battery, choose the rechargeable kind which can be recharged up to 1000 times, or buy Eco Alkalines. These are the world’s first certified carbon neutral batteries containing no mercury, lead or cadmium, and they are non-toxic if sent to landfill.
Have you ever slid into a pristine outback waterhole and found yourself surrounded by a whirlpool of toxic sunscreen? Sunscreen is a camper’s best friend but it may surprise you to know that most of the sunscreens sold in Australia contain toxic ingredients harmful to humans and the waterways we swim in as well.
Check yours now and if it contains oxybenzone or octinoxate (recently banned in Hawaii after being proven to damage and kill coral reefs), make the switch to a reef-safe, human-safe sunscreen that uses a barrier of natural zinc oxide to shield your skin from harmful solar rays.
You don’t have to be snorkelling to be a part of the problem as sunscreen washed off into the shower drains into our waterways, making it vital for all Aussie travellers to rethink the chemicals we put on our skin. Sunscreens made by Natural Instinct are Aussie-made and especially affordable.
DITCH: CHEAP CAMPING GEAR
When I tackled my first Big Lap way back in 1995, I spent a month’s wages on camping gear: a One Planet down sleeping bag, a Kathmandu canvas day pack, a GORE-TEX rain jacket, leather hiking boots and a Windstopper fleece — all of which are still with me today.
The One Planet sleeping bag and the canvas rucksack that I threw into the back of my boyfriend’s Commodore on that first, big Aussie adventure, recently enjoyed their third trip to Everest Base Camp.
All these quality items that were hugely expensive at the time, have withstood a hundred adventures and outlasted all the cheaper, inferior purchases I’ve unwisely made over the years.
Quality gear lasts the distance and, while the price tags might seem sky-high compared to cheap Asian imports, you’ll save your money in the long run. What’s more, quality gear won’t fail when you need it, or end up as landfill all too soon.
Make your goal for 2019 to buy the best quality travel and caravanning gear you can afford: everything from clothing and footwear to portable fridges, car tyres and sit-on kayaks.
Choose to give your hard-earned cash to environmentally-motivated equipment companies that use recycled and recyclable materials, manufacture in carbon-neutral factories (such as One Planet), that support environmental causes and offer repair services (One Planet, again) and sell their products with small ecological footprints and without plastic packaging.
There are plenty of Australian companies that deserve your dollars so why not choose to buy from those who serve the environment best?
DITCH: ALL PLASTIC BAGS
We may have finally banned the bag, but the loophole — allowing sturdier, reusable plastic bags to be handed out for a tiny fee — means that there are an astounding number of plastic bags still in use in Australia.
Using cloth bags is a no brainer when we shop, but what do we use as rubbish bags now? Buying a box of plastic bags to throw away with our rubbish seemed like a big step backwards to me, so when I eventually ran out of my old plastic supermarket bags, I started stowing my rubbish in cardboard boxes, which could be emptied into a bin and the box reused or recycled.
I grab them from Bunnings, liquor stores and local supermarkets, and on big outback trips, I use foldable, washable bins. If your camping setup doesn’t have the luxury of permanent bins under a sink, you might like to try this simple alternative: grab two PVC pop-up bins ($20 from BCF) that can be stowed during travel. When you arrive in camp, simply hang them on the outside of your rig or on the rear tyre of your 4WD. Fill one with recyclables and the other with non-recyclables, and empty them when you get into town. When dirty, simply rinse and upend them to dry.
If you love to bushwalk, paddle or cycle, you’re going to need a new way to organise and waterproof your food, clothes and gear inside rucksacks or kayak hulls now that plastic bags are history. Head to your favourite camping store and invest in a set of lightweight, waterproof dry bags or stuff sacks to protect your valuables from all kinds of weather.
DITCH: SINGLE-USE COFFEE CUPS
One of the most Earth-friendly things that caravanners do at around 10.30am every morning is to pull over and brew a cuppa. Brewing our own coffee keeps non-recyclable cups out of landfill, but how many is a figure that might stagger you.
If all the coffee cups manufactured last year were lined up end-to-end, they would stretch around the globe 1360 times (that’s 500,000,000,000 cups).
Aussies alone throw back (and then throw away) upwards of three billion coffees sold in single-use cups every year, and while the paper in most ‘paper cups’ eventually breaks down, it leaves behind a waterproof, polyurethane lining that will outlast us all.
The challenge for us vanners when we fancy a coffee when we are out is to always order it in a ceramic cup or mug and sit down to enjoy it. If you need to take your coffee away, hand the barista your own reusable travel mug and you’ll most likely score a 50-cent discount and a big smile for doing so. If you do have to take away and forget your own mug, refuse the lid that really does last a lifetime in landfill.
DITCH: PLASTIC STRAWS
Every straw you have ever sipped on is still on the planet today. They will never go away and they are accumulating. Last year, the ABC’s War on Waste team estimated that Australians use 10 million straws a day. It’s a big problem but the solution is simple: leave straws on the counter.
Enter the bamboo straw. Renewable, sustainable and 100 per cent compostable, the bamboo straw is also lightweight and costs as little as $2. If you are a smoothie and juice drinker, bamboo straws are easy to pack and most come with a thin cleaner.
If you need convincing about the harm plastic straws can do in the ocean, try watching — without squirming — that viral YouTube clip of a straw being removed from the nose of an endangered olive ridley sea turtle found floundering off Costa Rica.