ACF Habitat January 2012

January 1st, 2012 | Posted by Gina in MEDIA | PUBLISHED ARTICLES - (Comments Off on ACF Habitat January 2012)
Here’s my published article in ACF’s Habitat magazine (January issue) on A Plastic Free Year.

One plastic fantastic free year: Gina Prendergast wraps up her year with a vow to keep living without plastic.

We welcomed our baby Willow into the world in late August, just the way we planned–delivered at home in a calm atmosphere, drug free and almost plastic free.The only plastic used was a syringe for two injections we needed to have. As tempting as using a birthing pool was, I rejected the option. It had to be lined with a disposable plastic lining for hygiene reasons and I just couldn’t bear the thought of birthing my baby in a plastic pool after all the effort we have gone to this year.

I used plastic free Nature Care mother pads (sanitary pads) and washable breast pads. A friend of a friend was happy to on-sell her cot and 23 Baby Beehind cloth nappies for a bargain at $200. The cloth nappies are easy to use, and Willow has only worn disposables for one day when an airline we travelled to NZ on in December lost our luggage.

Most of our friends and family made a real effort to gift Willow plastic free items but, as the saying goes ‘there’s one in every family.’ I actually think there have been at least two!

I use a second hand breast pump and store expressed milk in glass feeding bottles when needed. We use 100 per cent rubber dummy, wooden rattles, wool and fabric dolls, and even have a recycled (safe) cardboard high chair.

There is a small amount of virgin plastic in our car seat and pram. I tried for two months to buy these second hand from eBay or Gumtree, but someone else always beat me to it or was willing to pay more than I was. In the end we bought new ones.

We recently headed out for a fun family day of strawberry picking. We took a whole freezer draw to fill up and we now have a supply to last us a few months. The strawberry smoothies have been delish and not a plastic container in sight!

My 2011 New Year’s resolution to live plastic free for a year has concluded, but why end a good thing? We have managed to live a happy modern lifestyle with less than three per cent virgin plastic. We are going to continue reducing plastic pollution by choosing not to use it. The plastic that we did accumulate during 2011 will be turned into an art piece so that none of it enters the waste stream. Look out for it in a gallery near you!

ACF Habitat September 2011

September 1st, 2011 | Posted by Gina in MEDIA | PUBLISHED ARTICLES - (Comments Off on ACF Habitat September 2011)
Here’s my published article in ACF’s Habitat magazine (September issue) on A Plastic Free Year.
Published on the ACF Website in September.

My plastic free year (part 3)

Gina Prendergast challenged herself to living a year without buying virgin plastic. Nine months in she’s birthed a growing awareness of more sustainable product choices as well as a baby!
My plastic free year challenge has expanded from being a personal challenge to a family challenge. My partner Jordan and his five-year-old son Tyler have moved into my home, joined in the challenge and, by the time you are reading this article, our first daughter is likely to have been born and wearing cloth nappies.
There are many joys to becoming a blended family, but my plastic accumulation has spiked as a consequence! The first week Tyler started at his new kinder three lolly filled plastic bags came home, all handed to him in celebration of birthdays.
Tyler also excitedly brought home some grass he had grown from seed. As I looked proudly at his efforts, I felt conflicted about the grass being grown in a polystyrene cup. So, as a subtle way of introducing our family values to the childcare centre, he decided to take his Sigg ‘Eco Warrior’ bottle to show and tell and explained that he uses it instead of buying plastic bottles of water when out and about, as plastic can harm ocean life.
Educating our networks and extended family on respecting our choice to live a less plastic life is a delicate and lengthy process, especially when children are involved, but one we definitely aren’t giving up on.
Living plastic free has given both Jordan and me a renewed interest in the kitchen. We happily spend hours modifying recipes to suit the ingredients that we can purchase plastic free if the end product itself can not be purchased plastic free, such as fresh homemade pasta, pizza bases, cakes and biscuits. It’s a great activity for children to be involved in too.
We prefer shopping at farmers markets over supermarkets, as supermarkets are a little restrictive for us. But sometimes they are our only choice when time is tight. We have been grateful to pick up Edam cheese wheels sealed in wax for $10 a kilo and we have found some understanding staff who will wrap seafood, poultry and deli products in paper when encouraged.
Conventional fruit and vegetables can be purchased without the use of plastic bags, but I do find it ironic that organic vegetables are tightly suffocated in layers of plastic wrap!
Usually there is a strategically placed chain bakery (eg. Brumby’s, Bakers Delight) near a supermarket who, when asked, place our bread orders in paper. Bread freezes in paper just fine too.
We have so much still to learn and improve on, but at the end of the day it feels fantastic to know we are forming family values in hope to improve our shared planet.

Herald Sun Article July 2011

July 2nd, 2011 | Posted by Gina in MEDIA | PUBLISHED ARTICLES - (Comments Off on Herald Sun Article July 2011)
Here’s the published article from Maria Moscaritolo on A Plastic Free Year.
Published on the Herald Sun Website on July 02, 2011. Click here.

My year living without plastic

Gina Prendergast at Ceres farmers’ markets, East Brunswick. Herald Sun
IT’S the synthetic wonder we take for granted, but it’s choking the planet and is full of nasties. One Melbourne woman has set herself a challenge: can she go a year without buying “virgin” plastic? 

TRY TO go a day — scratch that, an hour — without touching plastic. Go on, bet you can’t do it. You won’t be able to lean on your laminated benchtop, brush your teeth, pick up your shampoo bottle, button your shirt, put clothes in the dryer, switch on the kettle, touch your computer keyboard or use the TV remote.

Forget grabbing the keys and jumping in the car. And you would probably go a little hungry, too. You couldn’t touch the fridge handle to get to the plastic-wrapped bacon, tub of yoghurt or juice bottle. The bread, looking so temptingly fresh in its bag, would be off limits too.

Susan Freinkel set herself this very task and found she lasted until she had to use the toilet, just seconds into her experimental day. So the American author instead decided to write down everything she touched made with plastic in all its forms (starting with her pen). By the end of the day she had filled four pages with a nowhere-near exhaustive list of 196 items … a cellophane-wrapped box of tea, vinyl dog leash, her sneakers, the sticker she peeled off an apple, the Lycra in her sports bra.

“I didn’t really contemplate what that would mean or how hard it might be until that morning … it opened my eyes to just how ubiquitous it was,” says Freinkel, a science journalist who has written a book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. “I thought about that experiment because I wanted to get a literal sense, a tactile sense, of how pervasive plastic was. But, even so, I didn’t really grasp just how completely permeated my life was by plastic until I did that. It’s so omnipresent in our lives that you just overlook it.”

To go a normal day without touching this man-made marvel, you would pretty much have to live in the early 1900s, before World War II’s voracious appetite for scarce resources opened the floodgates on plastic products. (A few, such as PVC and polystyrene, were actually “discovered” in the 1800s, but the materials weren’t viewed as having any purpose for decades).

In Melbourne, Gina Prendergast has gone one very big step further. She has set herself the daunting task of living one year without buying anything using “virgin” plastic. Under her self-imposed rules, recycled plastic is OK at a pinch and, if she has to buy something new, she has to keep the container for a year so that it doesn’t become part of the waste stream. (She plans to make a sculpture with it when the year is up, and maybe auction it for charity.)

“Where I drew the line was (that) I don’t create individual demand and my dollar isn’t going towards supporting virgin plastic being created,” Prendergast says. Complicating the task is that the 32-year-old fell pregnant about the same time she decided to embark on the challenge, prompting her partner to suggest she put the idea on hold until the messy, tiring baby years were behind her. But she was undeterred.

Where Freinkel’s experiment was driven by simple curiosity, the trigger for Prendergast’s decision was watching documentaries about the destruction plastic was wreaking on ocean life and society’s poor. “I hadn’t realised that by purchasing plastic I was also participating in something that was destroying people’s lives — people that live near plastic factories, the diseases they were suffering,” she says.

One BBC documentary opened her eyes to the amorphous, mysterious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a pool of debris that stretches across the centre of the North Pacific Ocean. While much of the floating junk is below the surface and can’t be seen by satellite — no use looking on Google Maps — the Pacific patch is choking untold wildlife as it circulates in the currents of the North Pacific gyre. Another patch containing these small pieces of broken-down plastic debris (up to 200,000 pieces concentrated in a square kilometre) was located last year in the North Atlantic.

Prendergast, who lives in Tarneit in Melbourne’s outer west, started her year without much planning but says she hasn’t had to make significant life changes — though she does have to be more organised, less impulsive and less wasteful. Hosting dinner parties takes more work because she can’t buy commercial dips, cheese and crackers as appetisers.

She will mourn the last of her now irreplaceable mascara and has also found that freezing bread and other foods is no longer an option, unless she can scrounge a second-hand bag.
But, six months in, the New Zealand native has not lost her enthusiasm and, as a bonus, reckons she feels healthier and has even experienced relief from a digestive disorder. She is not sure why, but assumes it’s because she has been forced to shop at farmers’ markets and been steered towards whole and less processed foods.

“I haven’t seen it change my life a lot, other than I do have to put a bit more thinking time and preparation into getting things, acquiring things, but what that’s often meant is I’ve learned to live without a little bit more,” says Prendergast, a team leader at NAB and volunteer with the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“For me, any plastic bag that I come across that’s second-hand and someone else doesn’t want, the value of that has gone up. That plastic bag is not waste to me any more; it can provide a huge convenience for me and I look after it.”

Her small legion of Facebook followers has been a valuable source of inspiration and advice, providing recipes for toothpaste and pointing her in the right direction for deodorant bars and bamboo toothbrushes. She takes her own container and tongs to the butcher. She is using olive oil from a four-litre tin to replace her body moisturiser and as hair treatment, and has purchased “soap nuts” to wash her clothes and — soon — make her own shampoo. Apparently it will only take 15 minutes to whip up a batch.

When the year is up, Prendergast reckons she’ll maintain most of her newfound habits but will accept 5 per cent sneaking back into her life — sanitary products, food in cans (with their plastic lining) and vitamins.

FREINKEL is not on any crusade. In her view, plastic is neither all good nor all bad: it is simply a material. “How we use it determines whether it’s a good use or a bad use; how you make it determines whether it’s a problem or not … when you put it into things that are meant to last a long time, I have less trouble with that,” she says. “I’m not advocating giving up plastics. I’m just advocating using it in a more thoughtful fashion.”

Plastics “democratised” previously scarce or costly consumer goods and allowed the world to indulge in the culture of disposability to which we are now addicted. It is an extremely useful and versatile product — think plastic buckets, or nasal-gastric tubes — but we use it in too many “dumb” and toxic ways. One of the worst is that we treat too much of this durable material as disposable — use once, throw away, repeat many times daily — when we should treat it like a limited resource and recycle as much as possible.

Freinkel thinks cars, computers, even fridges, should not be stripped only for their valuable parts. The abundant plastic they carry should also be returned to the production cycle. “When it really becomes a problem is when you’re talking about all the throw-away stuff, and the trouble is that accounts for about half of all the plastic that’s consumed. It goes into single-use applications, some of which are really trivial.” Like wrapping the outside of a CD cover, or the neck of an already airtight jar.

“One of the examples I’ve talked about with people is Styrofoam. It’s a great insulator; it’s a really durable material, great for insulating, so when you take Styrofoam and put it in a house it’s actually considered an environmentally preferred material. But when you take Styrofoam and you put it into a single-use coffee cup, that’s going to be a problem because the cup you throw away never goes away.”

She makes some sobering observations: The world has produced almost as much plastic in the past decade as we did for the whole of last century. It’s claimed world consumption has exploded to about 100 million tonnes a year. In the space of a generation, the average American has gone from consuming about 13kg of plastic items a year to 10 times that — about 136kg. Each Australian churns through about half that amount.
More disturbing, but not all that surprising, is that “humans are just a little plastic now”. “Just as plastics changed the essential texture of modern life, so they are altering the basic chemistry of our bodies,” Freinkel says in her book.

PLASTIC has been with us since the 1830s, when a German apothecary discovered polystyrene — but it would be another 80 years before the world started to understand what it had in its hands. However, English inventor Alexander Parkes is credited with the first plastic — Parkesine — a cellulose-based material he created in the 1850s that held its shape until it was heated.

It was assumed, as our post-war love affair with plastics began to flourish, that it was inert, safe. Then, in the late 1960s, scientists discovered that a key chemical used to make PVC pliable — a phthalate — was leaching into humans from medical devices (such as blood transfusion bags) and everyday plastic products.

It turns out that phthalates, which are now being phased out of products in the US and Europe, easily leach into food and the atmosphere, especially in warmer conditions. It taints most homes and is lurking in cosmetics and body-care products, toys, erasers, vinyl flooring, shower curtains — even in the coating on some medications.

The chemical has been linked to asthma and allergies, and as an endocrine disrupter it can, in high doses, interfere with hormones and foetal development.

A 2009 Swedish study on indoor pollution and childhood allergies accidentally found a link between PVC flooring in bedrooms and autism.

Last year, Australia banned the import and sale of toys and infant products that contained more than 1 per cent of the most common type of this “plasticiser” — DEHP, or diethylhexyl phthalate — because of “international research linking it to reproductive difficulties”.

“I think we’re kind of in the midst of a big uncontrolled experiment and we don’t really know what the implications are,” Freinkel says. “It may well be that some of the chemicals that people are very concerned about now may actually pan out not to be so dangerous, but the thing is we don’t know.

“Some of these chemicals seem to have delayed effects and transgenerational effects (so) the fear is you’re going to see things show up when today’s children become adults. People look at the rise of all these various chronic diseases — cancer, heart disease, asthma, attention deficit problems, allergies — and they track the steady rise of these diseases over the last 50 years, and it is the same timespan where synthetic chemicals have become so much more part of everyday products.”

While the medical industry has decided the benefits of blood and IV vinyl bags outweigh the uncertain long-term impact on human health, Freinkel argues this is the sort of area where governments should be more vigilant and manufacturers more long-sighted and community-minded — especially because many industrial chemicals are in common use not because they have been proved to be safe, but because it has not been proved they are unsafe.

Unlike the choices conscientious individuals can make when buying furniture and groceries, says Freinkel, items such as medical devices are ones “you cannot shop your way out of”.
“You have to have policies that require manufacturers to demonstrate safety of their chemicals, and I don’t think you could ever be utterly certain that every chemical produced is safe for health and to the environment. But we could do a lot better job than we’re doing at screening the chemicals that go into commerce.”

Widespread consumer concern about another common plastics chemical, bisphenol A (BPA), prompted the Canadian government to ban it recently and the European Union to prohibit its use in baby bottles. Australia is monitoring it but has not imposed any bans nor mandatory standards on products made with BPA.

The chemical is deemed an environmental oestrogen and can disrupt the body’s hormones. BPA can leach from microwaved plastic containers, from water bottles, the lining of food and drink cans, and polycarbonate tableware. It is even found on the thermal paper used for receipts and cinema tickets. Early exposure has been linked to obesity and breast cancer.

Contact with BPA can be difficult to avoid and there has been some concern about the effects of high levels on infant brain development, memory, mood and behaviour, and female fertility.

According to Product Safety Australia, it is found in trace amounts in breast milk. Studies have estimated that 90 per cent of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their urine. Even so, Australia has decided not to follow overseas examples and ban it in baby bottles because “dietary modelling showed that a 5kg baby would need to drink around 80 bottles of formula a day every day for many years before it would get up to the safety limit”.

However, tests by consumer watchdog Choice last year found significant levels of BPA in some canned products, and reported that a 10kg baby could potentially ingest 10 per cent of its daily safe limit in one meal.

In May, Food Standards Australia New Zealand released the results of tests conducted on 65 foods and drinks packaged in glass, paper, plastic and cans to see whether there had been any chemical leaching. “The survey results were very reassuring with no detections of phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, semicarbazide, acrylonitrile or vinyl chloride in food samples,” it said.

IT IS impossible to live a normal life that avoids all plastic. Even if you scrupulously avoid packaged food and anything that comes in plastic containers, there are non-negotiable items needed for everyday work and life, such as telephones, keycards and computers.

It is possible to be allergic to plastic — usually to the chemicals added in their manufacture to make the product more flexible or durable. Some people report contact dermatitis or mouth ulcers, and a few retail websites have sprung up (including Life Without Plastic) selling non-synthetic items such as food storage containers and baby products. (Prendergast has been disconcerted to find that orders of plastic-free products are sometimes delivered to her door packaged in . . . you guessed it.)

Prendergast may be experimenting with self-deprivation for a year, but there are some hardy souls in the blogosphere who have decided to make a stand against the global tide of consumerism by living a resolutely plastic-free life. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Californian woman Beth Terry — she blogs at My PlasticFree Life — washes her hair with a mixture of vinegar and baking soda, carries wooden utensils in case she is offered disposable cutlery when she goes out for a meal, has to remember to specify “no straw” when ordering a drink, and avoids food in glass jars if she knows the metal lid is lined with plastic. But even she can’t eradicate plastics from her life. She has been doing this since 2007 and has whittled down her consumption to between 45g and 200g a month. Pet food scoops, plastic envelope windows and medicine bottles continue to bedevil her.

While it might seem that such a stance is doomed in a world drowning in convenient consumer goods, Freinkel believes the efforts of people such as Prendergast and Terry can have a blossoming community impact.

“They point the direction for all of us,” she says. “I don’t think that the problems that we face with plastic can be solved by individuals but I think individual actions are useful and can have power. It can be a catalyst and the market can respond.”

Books and blogs won’t change the world, but Freinkel hopes she can “start a conversation” about how we each consume plastics. “I think we’re reaching a tipping point and either we deal with these problems or we face some pretty serious consequences,” she says of the explosion in plastic production and waste.

“I don’t think we have to accept a world in which we are inevitably threatened by the everyday products we use. I really think we ought to have a manufacturing process and policies that support a process in which what goes into the marketplace is screened and found safe for health and the environment.”

Having written her book, she is both more appreciative and more concerned about plastics than she used to be. It has made her more careful about the choices and purchases she makes and she is more diligent about recycling.

“It does get to you.”

>> Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel, Text Publishing, $34.95.
>> To read more about Gina Prendergast’s experiment, and for tips on how to reduce the use of plastics, visit or


1869 Celluloid developed using cotton fibre, used for billiard balls and later movie film.
1907 The first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, made from coal tar.
1920 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) developed as a cheaper alternative to natural rubber.
1920s The word “plastic” starts to become more widely used
1932 Polyethylene developed. It’s now used in billions of plastic bottles and bags.
1938 Teflon developed.
1939 Nylon changes fashion.
1954 Scientists create Styrofoam from petrol-based polystyrene.
1965 Kevlar, five times stronger than steel, developed.
1979 Polarfleece is developed for light, warm winter gear.

ACF Habitat May 2011

May 1st, 2011 | Posted by Gina in MEDIA | PUBLISHED ARTICLES - (1 Comments)
Here’s my published article in ACF’s Habitat magazine (May issue) on A Plastic Free Year.
Published on the ACF Website in May.

Living plastic free (part 2)

Gina Prendergast introduced herself to us in the March issue of habitat. It led to an appearance on Sunrise and stirred up a whole lot of interest in her vow to live plastic free for a year.
Go Gina!
Any lifestyle change can be achieved as long as old habits are replaced with new ones for a prolonged period of time. Living a plastic free year is becoming more habitual as time goes on, but some products are still hard to find.
I haven’t found cherry tomatoes or berries in plastic free packaging. One market stall holder selling blueberries informed me he’s looked into using packaging made from plant sugars or starches such as corn, but apparently it’s law in Australia to sell berries in virgin plastic – go figure? I’ve made it a priority to plant my own berries. It will take a few years to start producing fruit, but fortunately the cherry tomato plant I potted a few months ago has already provided my first handful of ripe red sensations.
Cleaning seems to have a plethora of plastic free options. I was using baking soda and vinegar (purchased in a glass bottle). Bottles can be refilled with vinegar and a wide variety of other cleaning products at some co-ops/bulk buy stores. I’ve also purchased my first bag of soap nuts. Soap nuts grow on trees and can be used in place of laundry detergent, shampoo (for you and pets), household and car cleaners, and can even be sprayed on the garden to keep parasites away. Plastic free cleaning brushes such as coconut fibre dishwashing brushes, vegetable brushes, bottle brushes and goat hair dusters are easy to get hold of.
My next challenge? I’m due to welcome my first child into the world in early September and (he/she?!) will be joining me on my plastic free journey. Only I haven’t a clue how we are going to achieve this yet!

ACF Habitat March 2011

March 1st, 2011 | Posted by Gina in MEDIA | PUBLISHED ARTICLES - (1 Comments)
Here’s my published article in ACF’s Habitat magazine (March issue) on A Plastic Free Year.
Published on the ACF Website in March.

I vow to live plastic free for a year (part 1)

A personal challenge.
By Gina Prendergast.

2010 was a great year for me. I landed a job I love, completed building my first house, met a wonderful well balanced guy (rare, I know!) and my family and friends are generally well and happy. I was brought to tears twice and both times I was watching images of how plastic is harming our world, partiacularly our oceans. Two documentaries The Garbage Patch (BBC, 2008) and A Sea Change (Niigii Films) brought my attention to the under-recognised yet ubiquitous issues facing our planet; plastic debris in our oceans and the devastating, biological impact of plastics on marine life and the human food chain. We are incredibly dependant on having a healthy ocean. I had to do something. So, inspired by the wise words of Gandhi I decided to be the change I want to see and vowed to attempt living a year without virgin plastic.

What is my challenge exactly? Here are the guidelines:

• Do not purchase or be gifted virgin plastic.
• If there is no virgin plastic free alternative to a product I need/want, I must try and source it secondhand/pre-loved, or purchase a post-consumer recycled plastic or plant based alternative.
• If I do (unwillingly) purchase or be gifted virgin plastic, I must keep it for the entire year – no plastic is to enter the waste stream (even the recycling bin). At the end of the year, this plastic will be weighed to determine my plastic footprint for 2011.

Not a lot of planning went into this. I figured the best way to start was do just that, hopeful the right information and resources come my way at the right time (I’m a master at wishful thinking).
The first week of the challenge was a bit emotional. I hadn’t until this point realised how much I enjoyed yogurt, cereals and relied on the scrummy breads in the freezer packaged in plastic. I looked longingly at my moisterisers and cosmetics not quite sure if I could find plastic-free replacements.
In the second week I went to Indonesia for two weeks. I was accepted into ACF’s The Climate Project Asia-Pacific Summit, held in Jakarta. I cancelled my in-flight meals to avoid using plastic cutlery (I couldn’t take my own knife and fork on the plane for terrorist fears). My big concern was buying drinking water housed in plastic bottles, but on arrival I was delighted to discover the airport and my hotel had free drinking water to fill my stainless steel drinking bottle. It was only when I was traveling cross country by bus, train and ferry to Bali that I had no alternative but to by 2×1.5 litre water bottles. In addition to a few straws that had accompanied fresh fruit juices I brought the bottles home with me to be kept for the year. These babies can not enter the waste stream!
Back home in Melbourne has become a joyous, satisfying time. I have begun to find absolute happiness in the most simple of things, like discovering Elgaar’s organic yogurt served in a glass jar with a metal lid. I am literally smiling ear to ear from this discovery!
Honey has been easily found in the same manner and some toughie’s like purchasing hair conditioner has became a reality when visiting CERES Environmental Park (Melbourne) where I can fill my empty honey jars with bulk buy organic conditioner. I can also purchase oats, nuts and dried fruits in paper bags to make my own muesli as well as fresh baked bread.

Not consuming plastic means I have to be more organised and the added benefits of this challenge include my healthier food choices. Natural wholesome foods tend to have less plastic packaging than processed foods. I’m consuming less and my wallet loves it.
Friends are stepping up to the challenge. At my ‘Plastic Free Birthday Picnic’ we used china plates, glasses and utensils and my (unasked for) gifts were plastic free and wrapped in tea towels and ribbon to avoid tape.
My next challenge is finding a plastic free razor before I gain the reputation of being a hairy hippy!