Talking Zero Waste with Kaitlyn Gillies

Waste is a big problem. But you already knew that right? In 2016 and 2017 Australia generated an estimated 67 million tonnes of waste. And now, with fewer countries accepting our waste, we are now having to face up to all that stuff we previously threw away without a care. If you want to get serious about reducing your waste, we have a hot tip for you: follow Kaitlyn Gilles on Instgram, read this incredibly generous interview with her and, if you live in Canberra, come along to the Zero Waste festival on Saturday 7 September.

Leiden: What has been your journey into waste reduction?

Kaitlyn: My journey into waste reduction started when I was broke. I did a lot of math and decided that making initial investments into reusable items would help me in the long-run, rather than re-buying single-use disposables. I saw disposable items as throwing my money into the bin and it made me feel guilty about my spending.

The actual push into a zero-waste lifestyle came when a friend of mine asked me to make her some grocery bags since she was participating in Zero Waste July! I decided to hop on the train and a year later it’s become such a huge part of my life that I can’t remember what it was like to just throw things away. I have a very small bin that I collect little bits of waste I can’t escape from, but other than that, my life has been completely waste free!

My journey was that: a journey. Nothing happened over night and I find it’s much better to take things slow than to stress yourself out to be all-around perfect in a short amount of time. Using up the rest of your disposable items, or using something until the end of its life, then replacing it when you really have to is a great way to waste the least amount of product, energy and money.

L: What are your thoughts on consumerism and consumption?

K: We live in a very linear society. Things are bought, used a few times, and thrown away. A lot of consumers don’t think about what comes after that, or how their purchase eventually travelled into their hands. This linear world has created a lot of pressure for companies to push out as much product as they possibly can. Corners get cut, people get hurt, and money becomes the #1 focus of so many companies worldwide. This goes for factory farms and fast fashion factories that exploit the animals or employees to the point that basic needs are not met.

Leiden Mag has already published so much about the practice of fast-fashion already so everything could have already been said without me harping on about it; fast-fashion and fast factories have got to stop. We need to focus on a more circular society and more ethical way of food production like buying from local farms, small retailers, farmers markets, hand-made markets and local talent we know are way more transparent than giant companies such as Coles and H&M just to name a couple.

By the end of Year 12 I had little to no money. I was very invested in looking good for other people which drove me to buying so much clothing from fast-fashion retailers that I went broke. The pressure to look good is a very good argument as to why fast-fashion is such a successful business; people want to look good and wear the latest trends. At the time, my empty wallet was the driving force behind building 100% thrifted wardrobe. As I dove deeper into the second-hand culture, I found out more and more about the horror that is fast-fashion. This was a huge push to start sharing with people what I wear and where I found it. If someone asks me what I’m wearing, I will usually say it’s from a thrift shop, a friend, my mom, or it was gifted to me. I haven’t invested a single dollar into fast-fashion since I started uni.

Big companies make big money when they pay their workers unfair wages and push their hours, and cut corners when it comes to safety and welfare, as well as the actual quality of the product produced. Everything has to be pushed out on-time and under-budget. I feel like we need to be publishing more information and exposing companies for their unethical practices. We should be writing to the higher-ups and asking them their stance and getting it into the media through the news, celebrities and influencers willing to make these changes to better the lives of these workers.

I remember at bible camp when I was young, we listened to a woman talk about being kidnapped and forced to make Christmas lights day and night for years. While it was a story about strength and faith, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Christmas lights we had at home and if they were made by someone with the same story. I asked my parents if they knew who made the lights and they answered with the company name, not the name of the person who’s bare hands would have made them: kidnapped slave, sweatshop worker, or fairly paid worker in a factory I knew about. I was only a ten year old at the time and I don’t think I fully grasped the sheer size of fast-factories and where my clothing may have come from as well, but it all started with the Christmas lights.

L: What have you found the most difficult about reducing your waste?

K: The most difficult thing was not an item to be replaced or the waste reduction itself; it’s actually the community surrounding it. I found a lot of people that would shame me for not being completely 100% zero waste in my home. While the majority of people will celebrate every small victory and support me the entire way there are always those snarky comments that ruin my day and makes me feel like I didn’t do a good job. Usually the worst comments come from a vegan person who thinks I am ‘not allowed’ to call my lifestyle ‘zero waste’ or ‘sustainable’ if I eat meat, as if I haven’t been making changes to my lifestyle to better our planet or already made significant changes to my diet and food consumerism and simply cannot go vegan due to health and moral dilemmas.

The vegan and zero-waste community go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways and unfortunately, having a growing influence and popularity around Canberra, it seems to invite people to pick on my flaws or decisions I have made that may not agree with their morals.

While the zero-waste community as a whole as been an amazing support, and I’ve met so many of my amazing friends from being a part of it; there are a couple of bad apples that want to gate-keep instead of encouraging others. We should be celebrating those small victories, sharing our stories and encouraging each other to do better!

  • @waste_not_what_not
  • @waste_not_what_not
  • @waste_not_what_not

L: And the easiest?

K: The easiest swap I have ever made’ is the greatest purchase I have made in my life! I got a pair of Modibodi period-proof panties online and they have changed the menstrual game! I use a cup in conjunction with these, but you could easily get away with just the panties if you have a medium to light flow. I don’t wake up in a panic to check my bed sheets. There is no smell. There are no leaks. Just rinse them and chuck them in the wash. That easy! No more weird pad bulk, it doesn’t feel like I’m wearing a giant diaper. Just regular panties made with layers of absorbent cotton and PUL fabric that will absorb and trap any nasties and it all comes out in the wash! Please do yourself a favour and grab some panties like Modibodi. Read up the companies that make these, and many of them will support other charities or buy-one-give-one initiatives for women who are less fortunate.

L: For those just getting started on understanding their waste and how to cut down, what would you recommend?

K: I have done a little step-by-step in my head when people ask me, ‘How do I start!?’

  1. Research your waste. Make sure you know what can and cannot go into your curbside bins and how you can safely dispose of things that can’t go into curbside collection. How can you better manage your waste? Food scraps can be composted, many ‘single-use’ things can be reused or repurposed, and anything that is hazardous should be disposed of properly! Green Shed can take paint, oil, scrap metal, old appliances and so many more things we shouldn’t just be throwing into landfill. You can also take unused or expired medications back to your local pharmacy to be disposed of safely.
  2. Phase out. Go through your rubbish bin and make a list of things you’d like to ‘phase out’. Glad wrap, baking paper, food packaging or feminine products: anything you find in your bin. Buy loose fruit and veg at the grocery store instead of pre-packaged kilogram bags. Try switching to a menstrual cup and period-proof panties or organic cotton products instead of conventional pads and tampons. We have the world at our finger-tips, you can do your own research and make your own decision based on the information you find.
  3. Rethink. What else can constitute change for a better tomorrow? We should always strive to live our best lives for the benefit of the environment, ourselves and others. You can try a 100% second-hand wardrobe. You can use your own social media and influence to spread the message about your lifestyle and break preconceived ideas about zero-waste lifestyles and encourage others to give it a red hot go! Donate money to charities you want to support, go to local markets, join an organisation that aligns with your values such as groups that go out and clean up litter or volunteer at the RSPCA!

There is so much information available, and you can join local Facebook groups for advice whenever you need it! People are always happy to help and will give advice on anything waste related. You may also want to ask for opinions on certain products you want to buy but are unsure of and you will receive first-hand experience from people in your area. I also have my inboxes open for anyone asking for advice!

L: What are your attitudes to fashion and how do you apply your principles to clothing and textiles?

K: I grew up in a very frugal household. If your toes weren’t busting out of your shoes — you didn’t need to buy new ones. Got a hole in your shirt? Grab a needle and thread, let’s repair it. My parents started me on a path of make-do-and-mend: only buying quality clothing, rather than low-quality garments, and repairing or altering them if needed. Being part of a large family, most of our wardrobes consisted of clothing handed down from cousins and brothers (yes, I wore boy clothes too!). If a garment had absolutely reached the end of its life, it was used as rags, or scrap fabric for sewing.

I sew a lot, and I am able to make a lot of the things I wear. Right now I’m doing a quilting project for the RSPCA through Rovers (Scouts for adults). I receive donations of clothing, I chop it all up, and sew it into quilts. I know Vinnies receives a lot of gross textiles that can’t be re-sold due to its condition, and it all ends up in the bin, so giving the fabric a second life keeps it out of landfills for that much longer. I always stress that the garment must be in poor condition for me to accept them for this project. RSPCA is always looking for towels and blankets for their animals and I happen to have the skills to make them! I can only use natural fibres (cotton, hemp and bamboo) due to health concerns for the animals but I feel like I’m still making a huge difference for the environment and the animals at the RSPCA. Everything will be donated at the end of the year when I reach my goal!

I also sew make-up remover wipes, produce bags, bulk bags, grocery bags and stuffed toys out of recycled fabrics. Any clothing repairs are done for friends and family at little to no cost. If you really love those jeans you will get them repaired and you can make a garment last forever if you care for it properly and repair when needed.

A lot of great tips for garment care are outlined in Building a Conscious Wardrobe and Other Fun Things by Leiden Magazine!

L: You will be giving a talk at the upcoming Zero Waste Festival, what will you be discussing?

K: The talk consists of brief introductions for each speaker and a panel discussion, with plenty of time for the audience to ask questions. There will be many discussions throughout the day, both formal and informal, and my section is discussing sustainable fashion and textiles! I’m excited to be working with Kelli Donovan, the founder of Pure Pod, and Filomena Pettolino from CSIRO and group leader of Cotton Biotechnology. I will be shamelessly plugging Building a Conscious Wardrobe and Other Fun Things by Emma Batchelor (Leiden Magazine) as it has become my bible for sustainable fashion and a great read for those new to the movement!

Come along to the Zero Waste festival to hear Kaitlyn and many others speak!

Zero Waste Festival

Saturday 7 September, 11am – 3pm

National Museum of Australian


Top Image Credits

Concept, Photography: Lydia Downe / / Instagram @lydiadownecreative

Designer: Joshua Ophel / Instagram @josho_art

Makeup: Mikaela Artistry / Instagram @mikaela.artistry

Model: Kaitlyn Gillies / Instagram @waste_not_what_not


Team Leiden

Sometimes it takes more than one Contributor to make magic.

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