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‘Garbologist’ Belinda Chellingworth has so little waste she’s ditched her landfill bin. Here’s how

Woman smiling broadly

Belinda Chellingworth didn’t set out to be a professional “garbologist”.

It all started back in the early 2000s, when she was a uni student working in a supermarket deli.

“At the end of the night, we would throw away all the barbecue chickens. That was my very first real interaction with the world of waste,” Bel says.

“I also worked in a pub and I would see all the paper from the gambling sheets … get printed every day and then get chucked out too.”

So she started to take little initiatives. Though the leftover chickens couldn’t go home with her, she’d rescue the used gambling sheets and repurpose them as notepaper.

Fast-forward to today and she’s been without a red-top landfill bin since 2017. Bel ditched it in favour of a small Tupperware container that she fills about once a fortnight.

So how did she get here, and what can Bel teach us mere mortals about cutting down on our waste?

Start small

For someone who throws out around a kilo of waste to landfill every quarter, you might expect Bel to be pretty strict, like recycling’s version of an army drill sergeant.

So it’s a relief to hear that her first bit of advice is to start small.

“I used to say, just pick three things [to focus on cutting out], and now I’m like, just pick one.

“Just pick one thing so that you can get the change integrated and done and feel good about it.”

By picking one thing to cut out or cut down on, and enjoying that small success, it’s easier to ingrain the habit before adding the next thing.

The more something becomes a habit, the less it feels like a chore.

“I feel like it’s an addiction. You get one thing, you knock it off, then get onto the next one.

“The good thing is, you can see it in your own bin, once you start knocking things off, you get that very real feedback.”

So what was her first “one thing”?

Like many of us, she started with plastic bags.

But she says in the early days, she was making some mistakes despite her good intentions.

“As an example, when I went to the supermarket I would buy a reusable bag every time I went, not understanding the life cycle impacts.

“Now? I’d kick my groceries down the road before I’d buy another bag.”

Estimates vary, but one life cycle analysis found it took around 11 uses for one of the supermarket reusable bags to break even with a single-use plastic bag in terms of CO2 emissions.

For a cotton bag, when you factor in emissions and water, that balloons to more than 100 times.

Cut yourself some slack

Even today, Bel says her waste regime isn’t perfect and things don’t always go to plan.

“I just think it’s so important to go, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to mess up. It won’t go to plan. You won’t get it done.”

She says there are a few key tips to make things easier on yourself:

  • Make a meal plan — plan your meals for the week and shop accordingly
  • Shop for specific clothes items rather than deciding at the store
  • Make a habit around your reusables — wash your water bottle, reusable coffee cup and food containers on the day you prep for the week. Put them in your bag, your car, wherever they’ll be most convenient
  • Put things you can’t recycle to use around the house, or donate them to places that can use them
  • Before buying anything ask yourself: can this be reused, will it last, and is it recyclable?
  • Schedule a farmers market or “zero-waste shop” every few months, then try to build up the frequency
  • Start by replacing “low-hanging fruit”

Having a small worm farm helps her process some of her own food waste.

“What got me over the line in terms of getting rid of the red landfill bin was having a worm farm in my backyard, and also having access to a council food and organic waste service, as the worm farm can’t handle everything.”

But that’s not something available to everyone. So again, cut yourself some slack.

Still Australia's Favourite Jelly Bean

What low-hanging fruit?

So what is this low-hanging fruit you say?

Well, that’s different for everyone, and you should tailor your plan according to what works best for you.

But for Bel, the easiest things she replaced were:

  • Plant pots — return to the nursery for re-use
  • Bubble wrap — donate to local picture framer for use in the business
  • Cling wrap — use bees wax wraps, plates, or serving bowls with lids
  • Baking paper — reusable silicon baking mat
  • Water bottle — reusable bottle
  • Soft drinks — use a sparkling water machine
  • Coffee cups — reusable cup
  • Paper towels — tea towel and reusable kitchen wipes
  • Clothes — clothes swaps, buying second hand, renting
  • Cotton wool and nail polish remover pads — reusable, washable pads
  • Face wipes — face wash or flannel

Think outside the box

These days, Bel runs her own consultancy, advising businesses on how they can cut down on waste and emissions.

She’s also published an audit of her own waste footprint, which includes the waste from her business. 

She stresses that access to different services and living arrangements means there are no blanket rules for people, but these are some ideas and resources that can help people reduce their waste.

  • #Take3fortheSea — picking up three bits of rubbish when you visit the beach or any environment
  • Toy Libraries Australia — lists locations of toy libraries where you can rent and return kids’ toys
  • Tool libraries, where you can borrow anything from lawnmowers to nail guns, are popping up around the country. A quick internet search can show locations nearest you
  • Vinyl Council of Australia — lists locations where you can take PVC products, like piping, to be recycled
  • Refillable consumables — some shops offer refillable shampoo, deodorants, cleaning products, food such as grains, and even milk and beer
  • Farmers markets can be a way to cut down on plastic packaging
  • Some nurseries and select locations of major hardware stores take back plant pots for reuse
  • Signing up for a regular veggie box delivery, especially from a service that takes their boxes back, can also cut down on packaging

Most of all Bel says it’s about figuring out what works for you.

And it’s also about recognising that we’re working within a pretty difficult system. A system which also needs to make changes if we’re really going to get on top of our waste problems.

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