I think there is a big problem with recycling that many have not really considered. When we recycle, we believe that we are doing something good for the environment. We pay our taxes to the council for waste disposal and we rejoice in the growing percentage of recycling collected across the country. Councils continually encourage us to collected even MORE recycling! But we don’t dwell too much on what happens after we have dutifully filled our recycling bins and put them out to be collected. We somehow feel that we have done our duty and that it is now someone else’s problem or opportunity. After all, we have paid twice for our rubbish: once in the shops, so to speak, and then once more in the form of taxes to get rid of it. We rarely curb our consumerism or repair and reuse – because it’s cheaper to buy new and everything else is recycled anyway. Isn’t it?…
Meanwhile, the demand for products and packaging rises and the mountains of waste continue to litter the oceans and the earth’s raw materials are running out.
This week I have spent a lot of time trying to find out what happens to our recycling once it has been collected. UK recycling statistics differ widely depending on which articles and reports you read. Readily available figures tell us how much is collected by councils but is it really hard to find out how much of it is actually recycled and how. I want to know how much of it is reused or turned into something else useful that does not burden the environment. In 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was accused of lying to citizens about what happens to their carefully collected recycling. It was alleged that most of the waste shipped abroad for recycling is so contaminated it cannot be used and instead ends up in landfill in countries like China, Indonesia and India. Defra admitted in their own report that once the recycling is out of UK waters it is out of their hands and in most cases they do not know what happens to it.
There are items that can be recycled into the same type of products again and again, such as glass and aluminium for example. The problem lies with plastics and mixed materials. In these cases even the good recycle schemes, like turning plastic bottles into fleece sweaters and other garments, cause unforeseen problems when you look at the entire cycle. Fleeces and other synthetic fabrics shed microplastic particles in the washing machine which are too small to be filtered out by sewage plants. 190,000 tonnes of microplastic particles are washed into the oceans every year (June 2016 report by Eunomia ‘Plastics in the Marine Environment’). This toxic plastic material is ingested by marine life and thus travels up the food chain and wreaks havoc with our eco system. Incineration of plastic bottles to produce electricity is another scheme that is in turn praised and condemned for various reasons but one thing is clear – it relies on the steady supply of more plastic bottles!
I have come to the conclusion that recycling is fraught with difficulty and that without a shadow of a doubt the better alternative is to reduce our waste in the first place. Because of the lack of information and confusing statistics, simplifying things is sometimes really useful: in the final analysis, the world is manufacturing petro-chemical products on a vast scale and ‘recycling’, incinerating or burying petro-chemical products on a vast scale. Just stop it.
Here is an ingenious alternative to plastic washing-up brushes, or the ubiquitous yellow sponge, green scourers and metal scrubbing pads: the humble loofah and coconut plants! Try Michael’s Original and LoofCo loofahs for dishes and Safix coconut fibre scrubbing pads for pots & pans. 100% compostable, non-toxic, hygienic, effective and long-lasting. Only a click away, and packaged in nothing but a little cardboard, at Greenbrands.co.uk. Husband Pete was delighted when we first started using these: “These are tougher than the yellow plastic sponges and plastic brushes, they do a better job, they don’t gunge up and they last so much longer.” The coconut scourer is tough but doesn’t scratch pots and pans. The loofah is soft and squeaky when wet and is brilliant for cleaning dishes, cutlery and glass. I’m happy too, because Pete is doing the dishes!
Yellow kitchen sponges with the green or white scouring pads are made from petroleum and are 0% biodegradeable. They shed microplastic into the water as they deteriorate and at best they last a few weeks. Basically they are a complete nightmare for the environment and everyone uses them. I still have some lurking under the sink because we used to buy them in spades. I look at them suspiciously now that I have my new loofah-and-coconut friends – not quite sure what to do with them… If I’d known how easy it is to find an alternative, I would have surely switched years ago.
Look at these pictures! In the metal bin is one week’s worth of rubbish for landfill in a black bag – a fraction of the amount we usually collect over the space of one week. In the green bag are two week’s worth of plastic, tin and foil for recycling (sporting our last two bottles of shampoo… bye bye liquid shampoo and hello shampoo soap bars). We literally stood staring into the bin when it dawned on us that the landfill rubbish we collect is dramatically shrinking. It was the most gratifying feeling and has really boosted our motivation.
It’s no wonder really when you consider that most of our family shopping is now wrapped in paper bags, or in glass jars, bottles, tins and in our own containers that we take to shops. Our grocery shopping looks quite pretty now I think. Not surprisingly it is also cheaper than buying pre-packed items and there is less food wasted as we only buy small amounts at a time. Gone are the days of bags of pre-washed salad turning to slime in our fridge. I read that 30% of Tesco lettuce is discarded in the process of producing the bagged kind and that the majority of bought lettuce bags are thrown away before they’ve been used up because they sit in our fridges for too long. That is a lot of wasted food and packaging going straight into landfill.
I can’t wait for November when Stroud Council is introducing cooked food waste collection. We put our kitchen scraps on the compost heap but I don’t like putting cooked food on there. Next step: finding an alternative to black bin bags. We thought we might ask the farmer next door if they would let us have the paper bags of animal feed when they are done with them. I wonder whether we can persuade the rubbish collectors to stop throwing black plastic bags on the drive with each collection?
Week 3 or so and we are still going strong. Local milk is now being delivered in bottles to the back door (joy!) and we have discovered the Whole Foods Market. This is a chain of supermarkets where you can buy food loose or in bulk using your own containers or the shop’s paper bags and refill bottles etc. I absolutely love that shop – it’s sort of like a posh indoor organic farmers market. There are 9 of them in the UK, mostly in London but it is a very well known chain in America. At the moment I am mainly concentrating on food, household items and cosmetics. We still have lots of things in our cupboards that we haven’t had to replace yet and I am busy researching alternatives (toothbrushes, moisturisers, razor blades… a seemingly endless list of items). What I have learned so far into this experiment is: A) there are LOTS of things we have to do without because there are no non-plastic alternatives to my knowledge; B) we have to make lots of things ourselves from scratch to avoid plastic packaging; C) avoiding plastic packaging naturally results in eating seasonal & healthy food, reduced food miles, eating less processed foods, and it dramatically reduces waste and encourages re-using or recycling. Our proudest moment was when it dawned on us that we hadn’t taken the kitchen bin out for 2 weeks because there was only a tiny amount in it. And we haven’t bothered putting our bi-weekly recycling box out for collection either because it is also strangely empty.
On the 1st of May 2016, we begun the journey of avoiding all food and household items that have plastic packaging of any kind. In at the deep end. Went to the farmers market, a natural food supermarket, health food shop, deli, farm shop and an ordinary supermarket to see what I could get. I went prepared with my cloth bags, of course, and a number of small paper bags just in case. Managed to buy just over half of the items on my shopping list. The fishmonger at the market and the woman at the deli shop obligingly used my paper bags to wrap my items in. A few things I bought had cardboard on the outside but then turned out to be lined in plastic or wrapped in plastic foil (coffee beans, biscuits, tea bags, oatcakes, corn crackers). Very interesting exercise.
It must be difficult for shops to sell stuff in small quantities and keep it fresh – hence all the plastic/foil packaging. Also found out that the only butcher in Stroud has closed its doors! Next stop: wholesalers for bulk shopping and online shops to see what they have to offer. In the meantime I signed on to a local milk delivery service which has turned out to be a real joy and we love our milk man and the stylish classic glass bottles. I highly recommend this as a first step for anyone. Also made a batch of mayo, humus and taramasalata. Laughable how easy this is provided you have a food processor and can be bothered.