Baking a cake from scratch, my mum, Leigh, popped a slice in my lunch box, along with a nectarine grown on our farm, and a hearty homemade sandwich.
My siblings and I wore second-hand clothes or hand-me-downs. And, instead of buying books, we’d make a weekly trip to the library.
Why can’t we have shop-bought biscuits like the other kids? I’d wonder.
But, growing up and having three kids of my own, aged 13, 11 and seven, I had a new-found respect for Mum’s thrifty, eco-conscious outlook on life.
I’d take my own bags to the shops, and I’d never buy plastic water bottles.
Why would you pay when you can just fill your own up at the tap? I thought.
I even worked as a sustainability and waste educator for the council.
But, visiting a recycling facility for work one day, I was shocked.
I’d thought that filling up my recycling bin meant I was helping the planet.
Now I wasn’t so sure… Front-end loaders scooped up mountains of rubbish.
Dumped onto a conveyor belt, workers fossicked through a never-ending stream of metal, paper, glass, and a sea of plastic.
I was mortified. When people consumed this much, it was impossible to recycle our way out of it!
I was horrified to learn only nine per cent of all the plastic ever made has been recycled and only 0.9 per cent is recycled more than once!
Plastic bags take 400 years to break down, I’d heard.
In reality, they’d never break down completely, they just become smaller and smaller pieces.
I'd heard that plastic bags took 400 years to break down, but the reality was much worse
Taking my recycling out that night, I watched a yoghurt container tumble into the bin.
Sure, recycling was better than sending it to landfill, but I could make better choices.
I didn’t have to buy it at all!
‘I’m going plastic-free next month. Who wants to join me?’ I asked my colleagues Amy and Nabilla the next day.
Soon, 40 of our friends and family were participating in the project, too, which we called Plastic Free July.
This is going to be easy! I thought.
But I still had liquid hand soap in a dispenser, and at the shops, I was used to wrapping my fruit and veg in flimsy plastic produce bags.
So, I bought bars of soap instead, and lined my bin with old newspapers instead of plastic bags!
To avoid juggling enough potatoes and apples for a family of five to the register, I came home with lots of brown paper mushroom bags.
I don’t want to swap single-use plastic for single-use paper! I thought.
So, I invested in some reusable produce bags made from recycled bottles.
But it wasn’t about buying all new eco-friendly alternatives; using and repurposing what I already had was even better.
‘Can you please put my meat in here?’ I’d ask the butcher, handing over my Tupperware.
Nine days in, it was my daughter Pepita’s 14th birthday.
Why did you choose July to go plastic-free, Rebecca?! I chastised myself as I planned her party.
I’d thought Mexican would be easy because I could use tinned beans. Then I realised the cans were lined with plastic too!
Finding a bulk food store, I filled my containers up with dried beans to soak myself at home. While I was there, I bought some cheese too.
The only things I couldn’t find plastic-free were tortillas. So, I bought a few packs of 10 – and at the end of the party, those wrappers were the only three pieces of plastic we used.
I didn’t worry about that though; I focused on all the plastic we hadn’t used while feeding 10 hungry kids!
Even teabags were made of plastic, so I started making my cuppas from fragrant loose leaf.
All of us who were going plastic-free shared tips and tricks along the way.
‘What about pasta?’ I asked the others.
I’d honestly never noticed before that it came wrapped in plastic too!
‘It comes in a cardboard box,’ someone replied.
‘Here’s my nonna’s secret recipe,’ confided another.
Still, as the month came to an end, what had been a challenge had become a habit, and I decided I had to keep going!
A decade on, I’m still using the same produce bags I bought at the start of my quest. I’m not zero waste, but my family has reduced our plastic use by 60-70 per cent.
And my project has inspired a global movement of 250 million people in 177 countries who take part each year in Plastic Free July.
I know the environmental issues facing our planet can seem overwhelming.
‘What difference can one person make?’ people ask.
But, if your kitchen is flooding, you don’t grab a mop and bucket first – you go and turn off the tap.
If we all do our bit and make small changes, together we can take on the world.
Join the challenge anytime at plasticfreejuly.org
Tips to cut down
- Use bowls covered with plates to store food in the fridge
- Take a keep-up for your coffee, dine in, or ask for the cup without the plastic lid
- Freeze leftovers in recycled glass jars
- Keep your reusable bags in the boot of your car or by your front door, or write a reminder at the start of each shopping list
- Pack reusable cutlery to take out with you