And so the year began with a table of French fries, steamed mushroom dumplings, ratatouille and Austrian pancakes. The fries were made from sweet potatoes harvested earlier that day and served alongside homemade tomato ketchup; the pancakes were served with papaya and banana jam, made straight from the fruits of the trees in the mountains, and a rich peanut sauce from the recent harvest from a neighbouring farm. It was a handsome-looking table full of dishes prepared by people from all corners of the world who had come together to stay at an organic farm. The remote village was three hours from the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it was New Year’s Eve when we brought the fruits of our labour to the village party to share with the local community.
My journey into zero waste started late in 2016 when I found myself in a supermarket staring at produce wrapped in plastic, sourced from all over the world and bundled together in one soulless aisle after another. It wasn’t just the elevator music on loop that depressed me or the endless queuing or even the sense of loneliness from the giant corporate machine, it was the lack of control I had in what I wanted to buy. I had no idea what was in season or what food was produced locally.
In a city where 90–95% of our produce is imported, finding organic, local and affordable food is hard to come by. When you do find it, it’s usually in pristine condition, uniform in shape and size with not a blemish in sight. Often, you find food kept fresh in plastic bags. The market demands perfection and does a good job at convincing us that imperfection will not sell.
And so the winter break saw me take a step back from it all, strip down to the basics and volunteer on a farm. Days consisted of morning yoga, evening meditation with garden work and cooking in between. Not to be mistaken for a retreat, there was manual labour and cold showers involved, with sleeping conditions similar to camping in open huts. You sow new seeds, harvest ripe food, then take it straight to the kitchen and cook with it. The food scraps are kept for composting, while other fruits are mixed with sugar and water and left to ferment to create rich enzyme water to feed the soil. What you learn is that everything feeds back into the soil and nothing is wasted. With an abundance of seasonal papayas and bananas around, we found ways of cooking the imperfect ones. Papayas have the unfortunate quality of tasting a bit like vomit when over-ripe, so we cooked them down with sugar, vinegar and a little chilli to make papaya jam and fried banana strips in oil, sprinkled with salt or sugar, to make banana chips.
Back to the daily grind of working life in Hong Kong, the organic farm in Thailand and all its sustainable practices and zero waste mentality seem a world away, though it’ll stay close to my heart, and I will visit my local grocer with more appreciation and gratitude than before.
My zero waste travel toolkit
Photo credit: chazi.hk
For the actual journey, I managed to travel zero waste with a few handy items. Always armed with a flask, stainless-steel tins, handkerchiefs and cutlery, I pre-pack my snacks before travelling and supplement with a top-up of hot water past customs at the airport. Stainless-steel boxes can be found at most kitchen shops. I bought mine at one of the industrial kitchen shops on Shanghai Street in Mongkok for $45 per box. Metal straws ($20) can be bought online through chazi.hk, and I found a Klean Kanteen stainless-steel flask ($329) from LOG-ON.
For toiletries, I use shampoo soap ($115) for both my hair and body and tooth powder ($90) from Lush. Though tooth powder is sold in plastic tubs, you can return the tubs for recycling back to Lush. You can also find bamboo toothbrushes ($28) that are fully compostable from a shop in PMQ called Bathe to Basics.
Follow Hannah's journey on Instagram @thezerowastechallenge