Plastic Free July: Herbal Potential taking the plastic-free challenge

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Autumn Falk and Jenni Werth were already committed to reducing unnecessary plastic in their lives but several years ago they decided to ditch it completely for an entire month as part of the Plastic Free July initiative.

Throughout the world people were challenged to ‘Choose to refuse single-use plastic during July’. Autumn and Jenni wanted to focus on making their business plastic free. Herbal Potential provides a range of organic, hand-made therapeutic herbal teas, and through their mobile Tea Bar, which they take to weekend markets, they sell their teas as well as café-style, seasonal snacks and lunch foods.

They say it’s not until you commit to going plastic free for a month that the pervasiveness of plastic hits home – it really is everywhere, and some things hadn’t even been on their radar. During the month Autumn and Jenni scored several wins and found some awesome alternatives. They also encountered some surprises and a number of difficulties, and perhaps most of all, learnt about their own thresholds for change.

focus talked to Autumn and Jenni about what they learnt, what they changed and how they coped with challenges along the way.

Why did you get involved with Plastic Free July?

Jenni: Our aim with Herbal Potential is to be very environmentally conscious so it made sense to be making those changes in the business as well. It fits in with my philosophy and beliefs around what is a sustainable and environmentally fair way of living and I saw it as a challenge to see how good I was at ‘walking the talk’.

We also wanted to put it out there that, as a business, it is possible to be more environmentally aware. I wanted to find out where my hands are tied, for example, how do I find an alternative to courier bags? That was something we hadn’t considered before. So, partly we did it for the challenge, partly to check in and see how well we’re doing, and partly to raise awareness.

 What things did you need to change in the business?

Jenni: We already use reusable cups for the Tea Bar and we never use lids anyway. The hardest thing was sourcing the salad greens without plastic wrapping. It was fine buying a head of lettuce, but for other greens, if we didn’t have them in the garden then we just didn’t buy them. So we picked lots of wild weeds for salads, or managed to buy spinach without the plastic wrapping. Over the winter we made a lot of soups.

Autumn: It does take a bit of organising. We had to remember to bring our containers and bags everywhere, otherwise we just had to say no. And we had to ask our suppliers for a different way to receive our vegetables, without the plastic. I found it makes life harder, but only because you have to set things in place. After that it’s a lot easier.

 What challenges did you encounter?

Jenni: One of the big challenges for Herbal Potential was buying the herbs in bulk because they come packaged in plastic. We haven’t yet found a solution for how our suppliers can deliver them without plastic. Ultimately we would like to grow our own!

Courier bags were also a big challenge and we are still trying to find paper courier bags, which apparently don’t exist, so I’m going to ask a packaging company to see if they would consider making them. It’s frustrating that the plastic courier satchels cost a lot less than other packaging so our customers would have to pay more than twice the price to not have plastic, which is completely bizarre! And it’s a one-time use – you cannot open a courier bag and reuse it for anything.

Autumn: It’s also quite hard to find non-plastic, leak-proof containers, so we’ve had to compromise by buying glass containers with plastic lids and they work well. We also have stainless steel containers we use if we’re getting takeaways and we take glass jars for refilling at Bin Inn.

What were your wins?

Jenni: Bin Inn Papamoa has been really awesome because we’ve been able to get things there using our own containers, like the Eco range of washing powders, detergents, shampoos and conditioners. We’ve also been able to find nutritional yeast and gluten-free flours there that aren’t packaged in plastic so we can use our own containers for those too.

We’ve also found out there are bins in Waikato and Auckland, at supermarkets, for recycling soft plastics, like our herb bags (see recyling.kiwi.nz), so if we’re going over to Hamilton, we’ll take the plastics with us to drop off.

Autumn: People have been really supportive. One time I brought a mug from home to get a takeaway coffee – I got some strange looks but it was no problem (don’t miss our article on UYOC (Use Your Own Cup) initiative). Another time I took our own containers to get Indian takeaways and when it was ready the man even brought them out to me in the car. 

What did you miss most of all?

Autumn: We already bought most of our food from the Farmers Market, but I had never avoided food because of plastic before. I realised how addicted to cheese I was, but if we couldn’t get it at the market, I just had to go without. We had a few arguments over it, because I would say ‘I can’t wait for August’, whereas Jenni was determined this would be how we were going to continue. Initially I saw it as a short-term thing and it felt like a sacrifice to me; like a diet.

Jenni: If we forget to bring our cup then we don’t get the takeaway coffee and I’m ok with that. Not having crackers and cheese doesn’t bother me but for Autumn it feels like more of a sacrifice.

How did it make you feel, going plastic free?

Jenni: I get a kick out of saying ‘I didn’t create any rubbish this week.’ It doesn’t bother me to have to go out of my way, like if I forget my shopping bag so all the groceries roll around in the back of the van – I would rather have that than use a plastic bag. It just doesn’t occur to me that it’s an inconvenience. I think it’s really inconvenient for the environment that we use plastic bags!

I’m a bit of a geek, because I love taking my little calico bags to the supermarket and filling them with nuts or whatever and then having to remember all the numbers because I can’t write them on the bag.

Autumn: It doesn’t bother Jenni if she doesn’t get her drink, but to me it feels more like a sacrifice and I’m working on that!  In this world, anything is available anytime, at the click of the computer, which I find attractive in some ways.

So, are you planning to continue living plastic free?

Jenni: Absolutely. We avoided plastic completely in July, but we are being a bit more relaxed now.

We’re ok with recycling the ‘1’ and ‘2’ plastics if there’s not another option for replacing something. We’re trying to do more and more and there are lots of things to work on, to find alternatives.

What’s your advice for others to get started?

Jenni:

Start with refusing, like saying no to plastic supermarket bags, straws and other single-use plastics. It feels complicated at first but just knock off one thing at a time. You can take your own bags to the supermarket, and use your own takeaway cup for coffee. Start small and create new habits. If you start somewhere it’s going to make a difference.

I am also happy to help people get started and happy for you to put my phone number and Herbal Potential email somewhere in case people want to talk with me !?

Autumn: Make a list of where you start to notice the plastics because you notice them more and more in areas you didn’t think about. You can’t change everything at once – like the courier bags, we are still trying to find a solution to that.

For lots of help and info to get started, visit plasticfreejuly.org

More great information on going plastic free at therubbishtrip.co.nz

Plastic-free living – what Jenni and Autumn now use

  • Bamboo toothbrushes (gobamboo.co.nz; grinnatural.co.nz) and metal tubes of toothpaste
  • Natural skincare in glass jars
  • Bulk-buy shampoo, conditioner, washing powder and detergent, using their own containers
  • Nut butters and coconut yoghurt in glass jars
  • Home-made oat milk, or nut milk made from nut butters
  • Recycled clothing in natural fibres
  • Beeswax fabric food wraps
  • Paper-wrapped ‘Smartass’ toilet paper (smartass.co.nz)
  • Reusable takeaway coffee mugs (Earthbottles hotdrink cups available at Wild Earth Organics; other ‘keep’ cups available at many shops and cafes)
  • Reusable drink bottle (sauchasoul.com.au, available in NZ at markets)
  • Reusable glass containers with plastic lids (K-mart and other outlets)
  • Fabric bags (rematerialise.co.nz; rethinknz.com, and others – these are all available at various local shops and Bin Inn; favourites are from Remmady Upcycled, facebook.com/remmadyclothing)
  • Metal straws (caliwoods.co.nz, also available at Paper Plane Store, the Mount)
  • Bamboo straws (The Last Straw Co) or paper straws (from aardvarkstraws.com)
  • Stainless Steel tins and lunchboxes (from mealsinsteel.nz)
  • Metal spice tins and glass tea flasks (herbalpotential.co.nz)

The big 4 single-use plastics

Refuse, reduce or find replacements for those single-use disposable plastics that get used for five minutes but last forever:

  • Shopping bags
  • Disposable cups (even paper ones are usually lined with polyethylene plastic) and lids
  • Drinking straws
  • Drink bottles

Did you know?

  • Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence.
  • In one week we go through 10 billion plastic bags worldwide.
  • In the US an average of 2.5 million plastic bottles are used every hour, and of that, it is estimated only one in six make it to the recycling bin.
  • The US uses over 500 million straws each day.
  • Recycling is important but will never be the solution to rapidly expanding consumption.
  • Plastic microbeads used in beauty products get into our oceans and are ingested by marine life.