The Newcastle doctor on the front line of the war on waste

Zero waste bunny: Newcastle doctor Lisa Banh has become passionate about reducing plastic waste in our living environment. Picture: Marina Neil
Zero waste bunny: Newcastle doctor Lisa Banh has become passionate about reducing plastic waste in our living environment. Picture: Marina Neil

Three years ago zero waste advocate Lisa Banh created everyday waste without a second thought.

Like so many of us, she was addicted to online shopping, didn’t recycle properly and never thought about composting.

It wasn’t until her work as a neurosurgery registrar saw her undergo a big move from Melbourne to Newcastle, that she was suddenly confronted with the sheer volume of waste she had collected over the years.

“Being surrounded by unopened boxes stacked high to the ceiling, mostly filled with possessions I didn’t care for or even remembered I had, I realised that I had been living my life blindfolded up until that point,” she says.

She was ready to make a change for the better.

A lot of people thought I was completely crazy and didn’t quite understand where this was all coming from.

Dr Lisa Banh, the zerowastebunny

“Not many people were openly zero waste back then, and I knew of only a handful who were following this way of life,” she says. “A lot of people thought I was completely crazy and didn’t quite understand where this was all coming from.”

Fast forward three years and Lisa has nearly 7500 followers on her @zerowastebunny Instagram account where she documents her plastic-free journey.

“The ethos behind my account has been to demonstrate that living a sustainable life is not synonymous with being a ‘dreadlocked hippie’ who lives off the grid and has a lot of ‘free time’,” she says. “But that it can be considered a shared goal for people from all walks of life.”

She is amazed by the way her account has inspired so many people to make changes in their own lives.

Banh’s goal has always been to show that by making small, realistic changes we can all collectively make a big impact and change the mindset of the next generation.

A small change to the way we use single plastic on most people’s minds right now is the voluntary banning in NSW of single-use plastic shopping bags at two of the major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths.

If you’re one of the naysayers, complaining about the inconvenience of it all, remember this: plastic never truly breaks down. Not in the conventional sense anyway, it just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some form in nature, and its harmful effects on the environment have started to come to light,” Banh says.

The effect on marine life particularly devastating and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

As Banh reflects, we need to consider what happens when we throw away a plastic item.

“There is no such place as ‘away’, and plastic is poorly recycled,” Banh says. “The responsibility rests with the consumer to refuse unnecessary plastics in the first place, and to seek alternative and more sustainable solutions.”

Here are Lisa Banh’s top 10 practical tips for cutting down plastic use in everyday life:

1. Reusable shopping bags

I always have a cotton tote in my bag or car for groceries and if I forget I’m happy to put my shopping in my handbag or carry it with my hands. It eliminates the need for plastic bags, and also enables me to refuse unnecessary bags when I’m shopping for clothes, etc.

2. Reusable water bottle

I always carry a water bottle with me. I will always pack one with me on overseas trips and fill it at water fountains at the airport. I believe in reducing waste in general and that includes eliminating the need to recycle unnecessary plastic bottles as well.

3. Keep cup

I would recommend sitting down and drinking coffee from a real cup (we can all benefit from slowing down a bit during the day), but a reusable coffee cup is a great way to reduce waste. Standard coffee cups are not recyclable. Cups marked “biodegradable” don’t make much of a difference unless they are composted in an industrial composting facility instead of landfill.

4. Package-free beauty products

I’ve gradually transitioned to package free items that are readily available, such as soap/facial soap/ moisturiser/ shampoo and conditioner bars, and there are more make-up companies now who package in glass/ wood/ metal, or have refillable options.

5. Shop in bulk

I try to minimise how much recycling I need to do by eliminating packaging altogether. I do this by buying in bulk. There are Newcastle shops that allow you to bring your own bags or containers, have them weighed, and then filled with as much product as needed. Instead of buying a plastic bag of rice, I can bring my cotton bag and have it filled, or bring a jar and fill it with oats. Businesses that employ this model include Scoop Whole Foods, The Source Bulk Foods, Hunter Organic Foods and Natural Tucker.

6. Choose loose produce

When shopping for fresh produce I will always choose the unpackaged option. For smaller loose items I have small drawstring bags, and sometimes will use paper mushroom bags if I’ve forgotten my own. The flimsy plastic produce bags are just as terrible as the large ones. Most produce doesn’t require a bag at all.

7. Ditch the cling wrap

I haven’t used cling wrap for years. I store food in the fridge in glass containers, fruit and vegetables with the cut side down on a plate, or cover a bowl with a plate. Beeswax wraps are a great alternative

8. Say no to plastic straws

Ask for no straw when ordering drinks. Bring your own stainless steel or bamboo straw.

9. Choose paper, glass, metal

Not everyone has access to bulk stores, but choosing things that come in larger or less packaging, or in recyclable material definitely helps.

10. Bring your own container

I’m often busy and may not be able to cook all of my meals and so will sometimes get takeaway. Bringing your own container (I bring a glass or metal one) to a shop means one less plastic container. A lot of businesses are receptive to it. Every time I go out for dinner I will bring a container for leftovers, eliminating plastic and food wastage. I also will often bring a container (with my own cutlery) to markets if I know I’m going to have a meal there.

instagram: zerowastebunny