• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Jenny Keown at Bin Inn Taradale, where she fills her own containers with a range of food, oils, vinegars and cleaning products.

A Kiwi family's quest to live sustainably

Who you gonna call? When it comes to joining the zero-waste warriors, Jenny Keown argues that saving Mother Earth starts at home. She tracks her family’s sometimes heroic, sometimes haphazard and messy year and a half of living sustainably.

If I was going to pinpoint one image that led me to significantly cut our family’s single-use waste and live more sustainably, it was a photo of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose. The constant media images of the devastation of our beautiful animal life as a result of plastic pollution had hit peak outrage for me.

I know I’m not alone. People are deeply affected by these images, and there are so many: the beached whale with a stomach full of plastic, the heron with a plastic bag wrapped around its face.

If the world doesn’t get its act together, by the time my two-year-old son is 35 – in 2050 – there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. A truckload of plastic enters the ocean every minute. And the petrochemical industry is poised to invest billions to expand plastic production by 40% in the next decade, according to the Centre for International Environmental Law.

I went through all the stages to deny and push away the horrifying reality of our ecosystem collapse. I tried inertia, but couldn’t maintain it. I tried the clever-scientists-will-fix-everything argument, but that rang hollow. Then I tried distraction, with the endless mundane tasks, the constant giving of yourself as a mum, the busyness of family life. That was the most effective. I figured I could keep this up for the next 20 years – until the kids have left home. Then I realised that was, for want of a better word, lame. Mum didn’t raise me as a strong, feisty feminist for nothing. Sir David Attenborough’s words rang louder in my head: “How could I look my grandchildren in the eye and say I knew what was happening to the world and did nothing?”


So, on a sunny day in May last year, I stood on the sticky lino of our family home in Napier South and made a vow that we would cut as much single-use waste from our life as possible. First, I sized up all the food in our pantry and fridge; aside from the odd tin of canned tomatoes, the Vegemite (glass jar, plastic lid), and the lasagne in its cardboard box, the food was covered in plastic.

I then started an Instagram account, one_lady_fighting_plastic. This was it; I’d committed to change. From the beginning, I wanted to present a real-life version on social media of our journey – the mess, the failures, the frustrations – as an antidote to the carefully curated posts. Many of the social media advocates of low-waste living seem to be 20- to 30-something singles or couples without children, often beautiful waifs who float about in their Allbirds, proudly displaying their net produce bags and keep-cups against suitably eco-pretty backgrounds.

Jenny Keown’s sons Finn (left) and Otis enjoy taking out the compost bin each day.

I’m sure they are all wonderful people and I commend their efforts, but they just make me, a busy mum with tiny windows of time to devote to any task, feel inadequate. If you see me in a bulk food store in Napier, I’m more likely to have unbrushed hair and stains on my top, with children following me in mismatched socks.

When I began in May last year, I already had plenty of inspiration from my own upbringing. Our family always had a vegetable garden, Mum regularly bottled fruit, the sewing machine was often out on the weekend for mending clothes, and to this day my parents find it hard to throw anything out. They still have the wooden pepper grinder from when they were married 44 years ago.

Read more: Why you should mow your lawn less often to help the planet | Bounty in the bins: The dumpster divers rescuing food | The devastating effect of discarded Christmas plastic 

Kashmir Singh, owner of Bin Inn Taradale, where Keown fills her own containers.

I also looked for guidance from the Queen B of the zero-waste movement, Bea Johnson (whose family went zero-waste back before it was barely a term, in 2008). She believes the best way to tackle a family’s waste is to follow the waste hierarchy, or what is known as the five Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. I found these were great principles to adhere to, and went back to them whenever I felt lost.

We were already doing some good stuff. We composted our vegetable and fruit scraps, my husband used a keep-cup for his coffee, we had reusable bags and water bottles, and yes, we recycled (this is just a given, though, and is not the answer).

Composting teaches her kids that food waste can be used to nourish the soil and grow plants, says Keown.
I began by refusing the things we didn’t need. This still remains the most effective way to cut waste, and now extends to birthday parties, where we tell people not to bring presents.

I took a room-by-room approach, and began in the kitchen, where I established a rubbish-bin system that meant we didn’t need to use plastic bags anymore to line the bins; instead we simply washed them out after use.

I set up a kit for shopping that included my reusable bags and net produce bags, and my keep-cup, leaving it at the door so I’d remember it when I left the house. This took several attempts before it became habit, but I got there.

Instead of buying single-use, organic baby food pouches, I made my baby’s food and saved it in reusable pouches. I dusted off my bread-maker, and began to make bread in the evenings, or I took a reusable bag to buy unwrapped bread from the bakery.

One of the biggest changes I made was to use our existing containers and jars and take them to bulk food stores for refills – everything from flour, grains, nuts and dried fruit to dog biscuits; even my local butcher got on the programme. The first few times at the butcher’s, I’d introduce myself as the “weird container lady”. The staff didn’t bat an eyelid and thanked me for my efforts.

Butcher Rob Downey has seen an increase in people bringing their own containers. “The trick is not to think small changes don’t matter,” says Keown. “They do.”

When you first start cutting waste, there’s the temptation to rid your house of plastic and buy all the cool, hip, zero-waste things on offer. I couldn’t wait to get wooden pegs to replace my plastic ones, also a wooden dish scrubber and cotton dishcloths. However, this defeats the purpose; the best thing is to use what you have until the end of its life.

I moved on to the bathroom, and after using up the last of my shampoo, bought an Ethique shampoo bar, then, as required, bamboo toothbrushes for the family. We are lucky to have a refillery nearby, Eco Kiosk, that bulk-supplies cleaning and bathroom products. This is where I go with my containers to refill handwash, my husband’s shampoo and the washing machine powder.

Bit by bit, we began to reduce our waste. Nothing beats the feeling of walking down the supermarket aisle and going past aisles of plastic-packaged food, knowing you’ve found a way to avoid it.

One of the biggest changes we made was to switch to mainly using cloth nappies. Despite my early efforts, our black rubbish bags were still depressingly full within a short time, and the main culprits were my son’s disposable nappies. I’d used them on and off with my two older children, and hadn’t put much effort into finding alternatives.

With my renewed sense of purpose, I bought a whole bunch of cloth nappies on Trade Me, set up a system for washing, and found it was much easier than I anticipated. There’s something remarkably satisfying about seeing nappies drying on the washing line.

Finn’s cloth nappies – bought off Trade Me – drying in the Hawke’s Bay sun.
I promised you a warts-and-all tale, so yes, it was time-consuming. I make no bones about acknowledging I’m in the privileged position of having a car, disposable income and time to go to several bulk-food and zero-waste shops during the week to shop for unpackaged food. I know how to prepare several meals from scratch and can roll them out for 5pm feeding time at the family zoo. Some weeks, we revert back to supermarket shopping for most of our food. This happens when our children are unwell, or we have a particularly busy week.

At times, it feels like I’m failing, that I’m not doing enough, and I start questioning the point of our efforts. I’m trying to learn not to beat myself up about this. Herein lies the uncomfortable truth with zero-waste living. I believe it’s impossible for a family with full-time working parents to avoid great swathes of plastic (although there will be people who disagree with me). I’m a part-time worker, so that’s how I manage it. Many full-time working parents do their once-a-week, plastic-laden shop at the supermarket. I get that. Who wants to spend their entire Sunday preparing dinners and baking for the week ahead?

However, I think everyone, whatever their situation, can make profound changes, from small things like taking their own container for takeaway food, to using a shampoo bar, to jumping on their bike rather than in their car to get to the office. The trick is not to think small changes don’t matter. They do.

Wendy White, of the Napier Family Centre opportunity shop, sells Keown an $8 sleeping bag in perfect condition.

As waste-free campaigner Kate Meads says, even if you chose to use just one cloth nappy a day, that’s 365 disposable nappies that don’t end up in landfill over the year. It shouldn’t all be on individuals, either. Companies and manufacturers need to take more responsibility, with better end-of-life solutions for their products. And I believe the government could be doing much more in this area.

I still felt I wasn’t doing enough. After a rush of blood to the head, in June 2018, I co-founded Plastic Free Hawke’s Bay/Te Matau a Māui, a community-based group that advocates zero-waste living.

At our first public meeting, people filled the room, and there weren’t enough chairs to go around. We had clearly hit a nerve. People want ideas to reduce waste; they care.

We run waste-free workshops and beach and waterway clean-ups, and this year we’re launching a reusable cup campaign, called the Kapu Challenge. Two months ago, we launched the Cloth Nappy Project, and we give free workshops to antenatal and parent groups.

There is no right way to do zero-waste – I think some people think it’s an exercise for hip young things, or greenies. Yet you can mould it into your life in whatever way feels good to you – and is realistically achievable. Start by cutting out a few things, and just see where you go from there. 

The Barefoot Bottles milk truck.

Down to Zero

The waste-whittling movement is growing in Hawke’s Bay.

Lucan Battison has his milk truck parked up a driveway in Napier’s industrial suburb of Onekawa – and he’s in great spirits. It’s a typical Hawke’s Bay day, sunny with a cloudless sky. A man emerges from the electrician’s across the road and sidles up with an empty, plastic two-litre bottle.

“Just the one today, mate?” Battison asks, as he grabs the bottle through a large side window. His customer grins and nods, and Battison fills the bottle with milk from one of the 18-litre containers inside his truck.

He is one of many entrepreneurs who have launched zero-waste businesses in the past two years in Hawke’s Bay – a sign people are concerned about the rise in plastic pollution and want to change their shopping habits.

Lucan Battison refills glass bottles with fresh milk in his roving Barefoot Bottles milk truck.

Through the week, the 21-year-old drives his Barefoot Bottles milk truck around Napier, providing a refill service for people who bring their own bottles, with milk he buys in bulk from Havelock North-based boutique dairy company Origin Earth.

Twenty minutes down the road, Emily Hays runs a similar milk truck service, Replenish & Co, which also buys milk from Origin Earth, covering Hastings and Havelock North. Barefoot Bottles is diverting the equivalent of between 250 and 350 two-litre bottles a week from landfill, and Replenish & Co, the equivalent of at least 320 bottles.

Refillery and zero-waste product supplier Eco Kiosk opened its doors in September last year, joining a growing number of bulk-supply stores in Hawke’s Bay. In August alone, it poured more than 1000kg of product into customers’ containers.

For a comprehensive regional zero-waste shopping guide for your local area, go to therubbishtrip.co.nz. The site also has useful information on how to launch and sustain your zero-waste mission.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.