WHAT’S IN YOUR BIN?

The Environmental Impact of Consumerism

Since deciding to have a serious look at living without plastic some 18 months ago, we have had to radically change the way we go about shopping. With very few exceptions, we do not buy any single-use plastic. Gone are the days of filling a shopping trolley with whatever we fancy and can afford, or shopping online for convenience. In the beginning I was fascinated and excited by the task of finding alternatives to plastic and I spent a considerable amount of time seeking out unpackaged food and household items made from newly invented and natural materials. I also rediscovered second hand shops and flea markets. But as time went on my enthusiasm waned with the realisation that the issues about waste and pollution are more complicated and that consumption, of whatever kind, always has an environmental impact.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘consumer’ but when we participate in the economy of the free market, that’s what we are. Goods and services are made available at shops or at the click of a button, 24/7, all year round. Companies are driven by shareholder return and individuals are driven by the thrill of buying – it’s a perfect match. We don’t just buy what we truly need. We get hooked on wanting things that are new and exciting: convenient food, the latest health products, the next phone upgrade, and we love a bargain such as designer clothes for less, two for the price of one…

So, what is in my bins? Raw and cooked food scraps are in their respective composting bins. Paper, cardboard, glass, batteries, light bulbs, foil and tin are in the recycling boxes. There’s a bag of odds and ends for the charity shops. Items that cannot be reused or recycled are in the trash which is now a fraction of what it used to be. Curiously, now that the non-recyclable waste has shrunk to an amount so small that it doesn’t even warrant a bag, I feel even more responsible for it. I don’t feel good about the recycling box either. I look at the amount of cardboard and glass bottles and it suddenly seems an excessive way to package things that only give a moment of pleasure but demand precious resources, as well as man and machine power.

I was interviewed for a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth on recycling, called ‘Where does our waste go?’ I joined the team on a tour of a large, modern sorting facility (MRF) in Birmingham that sorts 80,000 tons per year of domestic recycling collected by different Councils. The facility produces bales of different materials to sell on but there still were heaps of unsorted rubbish at the end of the process due to mixed materials and contaminated materials, which is typically shipped abroad. For example, the facility cannot process Tetrapak cartons which are made of paper, plastic and aluminium. Some of the already sorted piles were so full of small pieces of plastic that the material being sorted was unrecognisable. All I could see in the glass pile was coloured bits of hard plastic such as bottle caps and broken biros, clothes hangers, bits of toys and so on. The radio programme was good but narrowly focussed on what is being collected for recycling in the UK without reference to the much larger proportion of waste that is not recycled. In terms of plastic, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016).

We are not coping with the tsunami of waste being created despite recycling efforts and plastic waste is our biggest problem right now. Only last month new reports were published about microplastic particles in drinking water and table salt. Plastic particles are already all around us in rivers, soil, remote arctic ice, deep-sea beds, in the food chain and even in our own bodies. Recycling is often cited as the solution, conveniently making the problem of plastic pollution the responsibility of the ‘consumer’ and tax payer rather than looking at cutting plastic production by commercial industries. In the UK, recycling collection figures are declining, making recycling even less effective than it already is.

If we don’t want to be reduced to simply being consumers, we need to stop behaving as such. We need to learn about the environmental impact of the things we buy not only in terms of waste but also in terms of resources used, production methods and transportation. Cotton and polyester clothing, for example, have a devastating impact on the environment in terms of chemicals and water used during production. Compostable plant-based plastic, hailed as the eco alternative to petroleum-based plastic, competes for arable land and is even causing deforestation to satisfy demand.

Lately I have found myself contemplating items before buying them, scrutinizing them carefully, asking myself why I want them in the first place? I wonder where the item was made, what materials were used, how it was transported, how the workers were paid and how the raw material was mined? I often return empty handed from a shopping trip for clothes, shoes and other everyday items. I didn’t need them after all! What has replaced the thrill of buying is the desire to cherish and look after things I already have. I want to have a less cluttered life and surround myself with objects that are unique, beautiful, useful and leave a small footprint.

What’s in my bins has made me think about what I most value and what I really need and enjoy. Scrutinize the contents of your bins and let them give you some feedback. The process might lead you to a new and positive relationship with the things you value most in your life.

More information:

Costing the Earth: Where does our waste go?
BBC Radio Four, October 2017 – featuring yours truly for a few seconds at 16:30

Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made
Roland Geyer, University of California, Santa Barbara, July 2017

Sea salt around the world is contaminated by plastic, studies show
The Guardian, September 2017

Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals
The Guardian, September 2017

THE PLASTIC BAG DILEMMA

The introduction of the 5p charge for plastic shopping bags in 2015 caused a fantastic 84% drop in bags being handed out in UK supermarkets. A much welcomed and decisive step in the right direction. At the same time we have also seen the rise of biodegradable and compostable bags and packaging. But as with many new laws and inventions, there are often unforeseen consequences. Ireland’s tax on plastic shopping bags, and the plastic bag ban across some territories in Australia more recently, resulted in a significant increase in sales of heavier plastic waste bags for kitchen bins. Biodegradable bags are made of a blend of plastic and corn or potato starch and will decompose in water and in CO2 but still cause plastic pollution in the long run. Bioplastic crops needed for this type of bag, and for compostable packaging in general, compete for land with biofuels and food crops, causing big problems such as loss of rainforests in favour of agricultural land use. The dilemma continues when you consider the environmental impact of paper bags and cotton bags in terms of resource use, energy and greenhouse outcomes. According to a UK Environmental Agency report, a paper bag would need to be re-used at least four times and a cotton bag 173 times to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag.

The simple solution is to avoid single use bags altogether and to have our own supply of cotton bags always at the ready. In addition to the usual cotton and hemp carrier bags, we can also have small fabric bags for bagging up fruit, veg, bread and other loose items in the shops. I made a variety of small bags one afternoon from fabric I had saved over time, including my sons’ first cot bedlinen. If you don’t sew, you can buy organic cotton drawstring bags from  Etsy or a dozen other online shops. As for kitchen bin bags – since I decided to live without plastic bags altogether we had to be more rigorous about separating compost, cooked food and recyclables so that the kitchen bin can be emptied straight into the large bin outside without the use of a bag. My little shopping bags are precious to me now and I wouldn’t dream of throwing them away or using them as a bin bag. It’s just a small mind shift from ‘throw-away’ to ‘keepsake’ that puts the solution to the big problems into our own hands.

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CAUSING RIPPLES IN PLASTIC-FREE JULY

In July, I was invited to give two workshops on living without plastic at the Seed Festival at Hawkwood College, near Stroud. This beautiful, small eco-festival aims to inspire a more intimate and personal connection with the world and our place within it. It featured ‘green’ speakers, movers & shakers, musicians, poets and artists. The invitation coincided nicely with the global plastic-free-July campaign.

In order to gain some practice for the Seed Festival workshops I hooked up with Transition Stroud to organise an evening workshop for anyone interested locally. Expecting a small group, I prepared a slideshow and planned to make toothpaste and deodorant together with whoever came along. To my complete amazement, over 50 people showed up and squeezed into the small venue. We had a fantastic, lively evening with people of all ages asking great questions and scrutinising the various plastic-free household items I had brought with me. The evening was followed by a public meeting in Stroud which resulted in a new action group being formed, to tackle reducing single-use plastic in our area. Four of the participants joined the plastic-free July campaign and have joined the new Stroud action group as core members. At the Seed Festival, I was once again bowled over by interest the workshops generated where, in total, some 80 people or so participated. For one of the workshops we migrated outside, as the allocated room was too small.

I am encouraged by the seemingly high number of people who want to change our reliance on plastic packaging and who want to be proactive. The number of people immediately taking some form of action when we talk about it makes me think that this ‘movement’ is ready to gain momentum and spread more widely. The thought of causing ripples far beyond our community makes me excited about how new habits can take off and become contagious. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend a plastic-free July.

Thank you to my friends Katie from Hawkwood College and Erik from Transition Stroud and also to my husband and sons for their support and participation.

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STYLISH ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC STRAWS

It’s a must-do but is so easy to forget: always refuse plastic drink straws. If you’re unaware of the environmental impact caused by the trillions of single-use plastic drink straws that are discarded after one use and if you have missed the fantastic campaigns such as One Less Straw and others, then please have a look at the links below. A fun and stylish alternative are straws made from metal, bamboo, paper, glass or even silicone. They are easy to take with you when out and about with friends or on holiday. You can have a selection at home to show off your non-plastic credentials. The ones I bought (from local Stroud Valleys Project shop) are stainless steel and come with a dinky little brush for cleaning. I see that they are also available on Amazon from about £5 for 4 straws. Have a great summer everyone!

More Info:

  • Plastic Pollution Coalition – 500 million plastic straws per day are discarded in the US alone
  • One Less Straw – a campaign started in 2009 by a couple of kids. It’s been going round the world and is a sizable non-profit organisation now. On their website are resources and information. If you are brave enough to watch it, have a look at the video about a giant sea turtle having an entire plastic straw removed from its body through the nostril by some brave rescuers. You will never use a plastic straw ever again!
  • Dive Planit – on why plastic straws seriously suck
  • Be Straw Free campaign
  • Netivist campaign

PURE ALL-NATURAL SUNSCREEN

Heeding the advice from even the most staunch defenders of all things homemade, you  will stay out of the sun or buy a good quality sunscreen with pure ingredients rather than attempt to make your own. I have put sun cream down on the list of unavoidable items in plastic packaging. I was therefore over the moon to come across NOT THE NORM sunscreen in a tin in three different sizes, made in the UK from just four pure and organic ingredients. The company also guaranteed to send mailorder items without any plastic packaging. To top it all it arrived on the hottest day so far this summer and I put it to the test straight away. Unperfumed and easy to apply it feels lovely on the skin and if I follow the directions for safe use on the website to the latter, I think this one is a winner for me. I have read so many scathing articles about the ingredients and side effects of ordinary sun cream and sun block that I would rather stay in the shade than expose my skin to these substances – I am not including any links here as the topic is so ‘hotly’ debated that it is hard to know what is real and what isn’t. You must decide for yourself whether this all-natural sunscreen is for you and how safe you believe it is.

ONE YEAR – ONE BAG OF PLASTIC

We have just reached our first anniversary of creating a plastic-free household. During the past year we concentrated mainly on unpackaged food, cleaning materials, toiletries and plastic-free clothing. We have collected every scrap of plastic packaging that we have accidentally, or otherwise, brought into the house. This has amounted to roughly one large bagful of plastic packaging from medical supplies, items that we bought which had hidden plastic packaging inside, presents that were given to us, and also from items that seemed unavoidable. Considering that UK households produce an average of 56kg of plastic packaging waste a year, our one bag weighing no more than a couple of pounds represents a great achievement.

In reality, our single-use plastic footprint is much larger than the household figures measured by Defra and in our case, it is bigger than the single bagful collected over the course of a year. Much of our plastic waste is created outside the home, for example in the workplace, at school, in restaurants, at the petrol station, at the hairdressers, at the gym, and by pursuing hobbies and other pastimes that take us outside the home. In the supply chain of the goods I conscientiously buy ‘unpackaged’, there are unknown quantities of plastic packaging. We are not the only ones in the dark: at a recent talk given by Tesco on food waste, which I attended in Oxford, I learned that all of the large supermarket retailers “currently don’t understand or know enough” about the plastic packaging waste in their supply chains. This means that the plastic packaging that each of us is ultimately responsible for is not just in our bins at home.

Over this past year I have read report after report, attended events, talked to many people and the story is the same everywhere. Most people think there is too much plastic in their lives and that we should recycle more and develop new materials to replace plastic. However, few talk about the one solution that is surely staring us in the face. The one solution that could prevent further environmental crises and help restore local communities is ethical consumption. Ethical consumption means that you choose only what you need, what has been paid for fairly, what has been made to last, and what has been produced sustainably without hurting people, animals or the earth. I might not be a shining example of the perfect ethical consumer yet, but I am immensely interested in becoming one. It seems to be one of the few things in life that is actually within my power!

Read More:

  • Waste and Resource Statistics_2016 by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Plastics_Market_Situation_Report_2016  by UK based WRAP, the world leaders in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015 in England alone, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
  • How did I calculate 56kg of plastic packaging per UK household? I used the most up-to-date figures provided in the two reports above which are for 2014 (new data is collected every two years, so the data for 2016 should be available soon). I applied this to the total number of households in the UK in 2014 as provided by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Article on Ethical Consumerism by Tania Lewis first publishd in 2012

DAIRY PRODUCTS SIMPLIFIED

For years a lot of plastic packaging in our household came from a range of dairy products. In addition to the staples of milk, cheese and butter there were pots of yoghurts, crème fraiche, soured cream, double cream, cream cheese, dips, goats milk products, individually wrapped cheeses for school lunches, spreadable Lurpak and margarine. There was a vague sense of a lot of packaging and things going past their best-by-date, unnoticed, but I’m not sure it ever fully surfaced into my consciousness as ‘wasteful’. My focus was on catering for everyone’s tastes and preferences and having everything available, all of the time. It all sounds a bit mad to me now.

I now put the emphasis on non-plastic packaging and local availability and that’s it. Milk is delivered by the milk man and cheese bought straight from a local cheesemaker – less variety but, boy, is it delicious! The only butter I buy is Waitrose essential butter wrapped in paper. It is kept in the fridge and portioned into a lovely Cornish butter dish on the counter which keeps the butter just the right side of soft for easy spreading on toast and sandwiches.

I have discovered clotted cream in glass jars which now covers all bases as far as cream is concerned. If needed, I can thin it down and it lasts for absolute ages in the fridge. Look out for it in farm shops (and Stroud farmer’s market).

One of the most useful finds has been Payon Breton’s Luxury Creamy Cheese from Waitrose which comes in a little cardboard pot sealed with foil and is delicious as a spread, making into dips and for cooking. For a perfect light pasta carbonara fry some bacon and mushrooms, combine a mixture of Breton creamy cheese with a beaten egg, a handful of grated cheddar and a ladleful of the water from the pasta. Drain the pasta, stir in the cheese & bacon mixture. The quickest dinner ever (unless you’re making pasta from scratch, that is).

CHEESE STRAIGHT FROM THE CHEESEMAKER

This week I went to a friendly local artisan cheesemaker, Godsells at Church Farm in Leonard Stanley and bought the most delicious cheddar and double Gloucester, cut straight from huge wheels wrapped in cloth. The cheese is produced at a small facility on the farm, surrounded by cowsheds, hay barns, the village and fields beyond. I could actually see the very cows who provided the milk for the cheese. From the porch I could also see the workers in their white coats, hairnets and white clogs, chatting while they worked. I found out that the milk we have delivered every week at home comes from the same herd of cows. Thursday is delivery day and if you come to the farm in the morning, you can buy cheese before it is cut and packaged in shrink wrap. I bought enough to last for 3 weeks or so, wrapped in cheese paper and charged at wholesale prices.

As I stored away the cheese in the veggie drawer of my fridge I couldn’t help feeling pretty smug knowing that the supply chain for this cheese included milk from a local farm, exactly five food miles and not much else. There are at least three local cheesemakers in this area of the Cotswolds alone and today I found out about a brand new dairy scheme, providing unpasteurised milk in our town – and I never knew any of this until recently. All it took was for me to become interested to find out.

FAITH IN NATURE BEAUTY PRODUCTS

For some time now we have been using soap bars to replace a never-ending supply of plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, bubble bath, shaving foam and so on. The soap bars we use are natural and handmade but you do end up with a lot of them and have to remember which ones to use for which purpose. I have found an interesting alternative, but bear with me on this one because it does involve a single bottle made from bioplastic (sugarcane).

Shiny Goodness, a small health food shop in nearby Nailsworth has a refill station for Faith in Nature beauty products. There is a whole row of natural products to choose from and all that shop owner Gail asks is that you bring an empty Faith in Nature bottle for refilling. For this purpose I have bought a single bottle (*gasp*) of Lavender and Geranium shampoo and decanted it into a blue glass bottle at home. I will use the Faith in Nature bottle to get shower gel, conditioner or maybe even liquid hand soap next time I’m in town. I am already collecting pretty vintage glass bottles to put these lovely products in.

Faith in Nature is a multi-award winning, UK based company that has been making natural beauty and cleaning products for 40 years. All their products are made in the UK, using only plant-based ingredients that are locally sourced wherever possible. The catch is that Faith in Nature use bioplastic (made from sugarcane instead of petroleum) as well as recycled plastic rPET bottles (no BPA though). But with refill stations there is no need to keep buying single-use plastic bottles and in my book this makes it a good alternative.

Faith in Nature:
https://www.faithinnature.co.uk/

About sugarcane bioplastics:
http://sugarcane.org/sugarcane-products/bioplastics

What you won’t find in Faith in Nature products:

  • No Genetically Modified ingredients
  • No synthetic colouring or fragrances
  • No SLES, SLS or Parabens
  • No artificial preservatives
  • No BPA plastic (they use rPET bottles wherever possible)
  • No Methylisothiazolinone (MI)
  • No animal tested products. No animal ingredients. No ingredients tested on animals (with a cut off date in accordance with BUAV (Cruelty Free International) requirements of 1988, and for their Household Cleaning range, a cut off date of 2003). All products are Vegetarian, and most are Vegan

HOMEMADE HUMMUS (and a little spiel on food cans)

I am somewhat addicted to hummus. It’s great as a starter or party finger food with carrot, cucumber and celery sticks. I love it on toast with sliced tomatoes, a dribble of olive oil, salt and pepper. A perfect light lunch!

Homemade hummus tastes slightly different from shop-bought hummus in little plastic pots. To avoid single-use plastic packaging for the recipe below, your best option would be to source unpackaged dried chickpeas. Since this is difficult for the majority of us in the UK, the recipe is made with off-the-shelf chickpeas in cans. Nearly all food and drink cans are lined with a plastic coating but I cannot be certain that all chickpea cans are. Food cans in the UK are made from steel or aluminium from over 50% recycled material and are fully recyclable. The majority are lined with epoxy resins to prevent acidic food like tomatoes from reacting with the metal. A building block of epoxy resin is Bisphenol A (BPA) which is a controversial ingredient in plastic products. If we bear in mind the environmental impact of industrial packaging of any kind, unpackaged dried chickpeas would be the best option for the environment and well worth sourcing if you use them as regularly as I do. I am fortunate that I am able to buy unpackaged chickpeas, spices and olive oil.

I make hummus in a food processor and keep it in the fridge for a few days. You could choose all organic ingredients. Tahini (sesame seed paste in glass jars) is optional but really helps with that authentic hummus taste. I recommend using Tahini ‘light’ which is less intense.

  • 400g canned chickpeas, reserve a few for decoration
  • 6-8 tbsp of the water or brine from the can
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 tbsp tahini (optional)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp paprika

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend to a creamy purée. Add more lemon juice, garlic, cumin or salt to taste. Drizzle with olive oil, scatter with the reserved chickpeas and sprinkle with paprika. Enjoy!

An here is another very delicious hummus recipe: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/hummus_80249

Further reading:

How cans are made in the UK today:
http://www.cannedfood.co.uk/how-cans-are-made-today/

About Bisphenol A:
http://www.bisphenol-a.org/human/epoxycan.html

Why does my tin can have a plastic liner and is it bad for me?
http://plasticisrubbish.com/2010/10/08/why-does-my-tin-can-have-a-plastic-liner-and-it-it-bad-for-me/

Unpackaged food:
Whole Food Market UK
Harvest Natual Food, Bath and Bristol
Totnes Zero Waste shop
Farmers markets, Asian food markets, healthfood shops

Packed lunch with homemade hummus and homegrown sprouts