5 ‘eco-friendly’ ideas to avoid this Christmas

At this time of year, the eco-friendly internet is full of guides on how to green your Christmas. But how much of this advice really helps to reduce your festive footprint? Here are some of the common tips you might want to rethink.

Giving reusables as gifts

I used to know someone whose sister gave him a reusable coffee cup for Christmas, as a prompt to be more green. Not only was he mildly irritated by the gesture, but as he worked from home didn’t even have much use for it. Most days he made coffee in a mug in his kitchen while the reusable cup sat on the shelf unused.
Reusables only benefit the environment if they are used often. There is nothing to be gained by simply buying ‘sustainable’ stuff. A reusable cup needs to save, on average, about 20-100 single use cups before it will save more resources than it took to make it. If the gift is used once or twice, then forgotten about as new years resolutions start to fade, all the materials and energy that went into making it will have been wasted.  And that’s the thing with giving gifts – you can never be sure how much they will be used.
See also: zero waste gift packs, Christmas cards containing seeds that need to be planted.
The ovenmade Christmas 
I recently saw a blog post that recommended making your own plastic-free Christmas decorations by roasting orange slices in the oven for an hour and a half. An hour and a half? That’s going to burn a lot of fossil fuels. If you are making your own this year, try to minimise the consumption of energy in the process.
For Christmas decorations, charity shops are full of these at this time of year. I’ve also seen Christmas things going for free on Olio, so check out that or sites like freecycle or freegle. Sometimes I like to decorate with things like ivy, holly and pine cones I find outside.
If you like the idea of unique, upcycled gifts but are not very crafty yourself, see what you can find on Etsy or at your local craft market, and support a small business.
Wrapping gifts in fabric
Another popular idea doing the rounds in seasonal sustainability guides is that you can save waste by wrapping presents in cotton bags, in the expectation that your recipient will reuse the bag at some point. The difficulty is that cotton is pretty harsh on the environment. Cotton production has an enormous water footprint and is also very polluting. (And organic cotton still takes a lot of resources to produce). I was given a cotton bag as a gift myself once, but since I already have as many reusable bags as I need, it was used just one time and then sat in my cupboard for ages until I got round to donating it. So all that water, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution went into producing something which turned out to be single-use, as far as I was concerned. Less zero waste, more maximum waste. 
You could wrap presents in the fanciest, sparkliest, non-recyclable wrapping paper and it would be nowhere near as extravagant as wrapping them in new fabrics. You could wrap it in plastic bags and it would be kinder to the environment. Perhaps your recipient will use the bag at some point in the future, but many people already own more reusable bags than they use, so are you sure that your recipient needs any more? And if they haven’t been motivated to get themselves a reusable bag before, then what is going to change now?
Less wasteful options could be reusing gift wrap, wrapping presents in paper from old magazines and newspapers, recycled wrapping paper, or even giving presents in a reusable bag which is returned to you. 
Buying gifts made from recyclable materials
Another popular tip is the suggestion that we can reduce waste by buying things made from recyclable materials. But this focus on just one stage of the product lifecycle ignores the impacts of extracting the raw materials, manufacturing and transporting the item – in other words, most of it. To reduce the demand for raw materials consider buying things made from recycled materials instead.
Giving edible gifts
These always seem like such a logical choice. Everyone eats and drinks, and most people like sweet things. It will all be used up in the end, leaving no waste.
But this doesn’t take into consideration the environmental destruction caused by most food production. In the UK, we need to be reducing sugar consumption as much as milk in order limit global warming, while popular edible gifts often include things like palm oil and cocoa, which cause deforestation, as well as being heavily processed and packaged.
I think we have all had that experience at Christmas, of eating until we feel stuffed then drifting into a sugar coma. But consuming more calories than we need can be seen as a form of food waste.
I know. I get it. I feel the same. I love chocolate, in fact I love most food, and most years I’ve given sweet things to my favourite people at Christmas. But this year, given urgency of the crisis, I just can’t. I won’t be giving sweet things as gifts (or any food and drink), apart from to support brands that recycle food that would otherwise go to waste.
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Why I don’t avoid palm oil

Aerial view of green palm plantation during sunrise.

I’m going to say something that may surprise you: I don’t avoid palm oil. No, it’s not that I don’t care about orangutans. It’s because it’s not clear to me that this is better for the planet. In fact, I’m afraid it could do more harm.

Research shows that despite the well-known problems associated with palm oil, it’s still the best we’re going to get. It is very efficient, and to switch to alternative oils would use up to 9 times the amount of land, displacing the deforestation and biodiversity loss to other places and to other wildlife, such as bears and jaguars.

My brand of soap makes a big show of the fact it is palm oil-free, but it does contain coconut oil, which is just as bad. Since we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, businesses that promote themselves as palm oil free without first checking the scientific evidence are enormously irresponsible.

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is. It is never just about one ingredient. The way something is produced and transported is also important. And food production can have many impacts – including greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, pollution, soil erosion……..deforestation and biodiversity loss are only two of many issues to consider. And most products that contain palm oil, such as cosmetics and processed foods, have many different ingredients in them. So unless you can be sure that ALL the ingredients and processes involved in an alternative product are more sustainable than the one containing palm oil, it’s hard to be sure that simply switching to something else is going to be better for the environment.

Products containing palm oil often contain lots of sugar too, which is a major contributor to biodiversity loss, climate change and water scarcity, so choosing which chocolates to buy on the basis of whether or not it contains palm oil will only do so much. Nut spreads are a popular choice among the environmentally aware, and it is possible to find brands that don’t contain any type of oil, which bypasses that problem. But it is still most likely the way the nuts themselves are grown and processed that determines the sustainability of the product, as this is the main ingredient.

Focussing on specific ingredients is of secondary importance to looking at our patterns of consumption. A glance at many of the products that palm oil is used for – cosmetics, junk food, sweets, biofuels – show that we could live without many of these things (or at least reduce our consumption of them) without a great loss to our wellbeing. And around a third of all food produced goes to waste anyway. If you want to reduce the environmental impacts of consumption, then these are all good places to start.

What about sustainably sourced palm oil? According to the research, it is ‘marginally’ better in terms of preventing deforestation. But even if it was possible to buy Mars Bars made with sustainably sourced palm oil, that would still mean that land and other resources are being used to produce confectionery rather than being left for wildlife, or being utilised to produce more nutritious foods. Consumption of junk foods can be seen as a form of food waste.

That’s not to say that there are no benefits to buying certified palm oil. It’s important to create the demand for sustainably produced food. It is to say that careful sourcing alone, without a change in patterns of consumption, will not fix it.

The beauty products we buy on a whim but never really use costs the planet. The daily meat-and-two-veg habit we always mean to cut down on is contributing to species loss. The slices of pizza we throw away because we couldn’t manage to eat it all, the stale bread we chuck out, the sweet things we give as gifts because we feel obliged to give something but don’t know what else to get……all these are contributing to the destruction of habitats, climate change and water scarcity. And every piece of fast fashion we buy but hardly wear, every unnecessary journey by car or by plane, every new gadget we have to have even though the old one still works, adds to the climate breakdown which threatens all life.

And please, let’s stop giving free advertising to big businesses who don’t take the time to do their research.

9 ideas for zero waste gifting

Santa Landfill

Just ask people what they want

The best way to avoid gifts going to waste is to give people something they really want. While the element of surprise can be part of the fun, it’s also a major cause of waste, as it can be difficult to accurately guess someone else’s tastes, and these are the gifts that end up stored guiltily in bottom drawers for the rest of the year. If you think your recipient would like it, why not ask them to give you a clue about what they want? It doesn’t have to be super-specific – one year my brother just asked for a T-shirt, and I chose the design.

Buy less

Do you need to buy for quite so many people? And do you need to buy so many things for each person? Some people receive more soaps and smellies than they are likely to use before next Christmas, and these are the types of things that contain palm oil. One year I was given so much chocolate at work that it lasted me until the end of January. Much as I love chocolate, I am surprised that my teeth survived the experience, and all the sugar, cocoa and palm oil that goes into chocolate is not great for the environment (in order to stop global temperatures rising we need to significantly reduce the amount of sugar we consume).  And do you need to buy presents for those who don’t realise it’s Christmas, such as very small children and pets?

Giving handmade…?

Handmade gifts are a popular choice for many zero wasters. Certainly these are fun to make and lovely to receive, although they will only be better for the environment if the ingredients, materials and methods used have less impact than shop-bought equivalents. Recently I had a go at making tomato jam, but after boiling a huge pan of tomatoes and sugar for more than an hour I started to have my doubts as to whether this was the most eco-friendly choice of gift. A better option might have been to buy relish from Rubies in the Rubble or the Wonky Food Company, as these are made from surplus veggies and are probably more efficiently produced.

If you like to give handmade gifts, see if you can make use of anything which is currently going to waste, and if you are making food, choose methods which use the minimum amount of energy (making jam in the microwave, for example, is more efficient). Also go easy on homemade beauty products made from coconut oil, as this is as harmful for the environment as palm oil.

Giving experiences….?

This is another popular choice among zero wasters, although clearly this only works if the experience is an environmentally friendly one. Perhaps don’t buy anyone a voucher for two at the local steakhouse. I usually put ‘vouchers for an eco-friendly spa’ on my Christmas wish list. But experiences don’t have to cost money – you can also offer your time/help with things.

Books for kids

For the small people in your life, there’s The Perfectly Wonky Carrot, about food waste and body image, Peppa Pig Recycling Fun,  or a whole series on the impact of plastic pollution on sea creatures. There’s also The Ones Who Walk Above, a story written to inspire kids to protect wildlife, or The Tantrum That Saved The World, about a little girl taking on climate change. Or see what else you can find.

Gifts to enhance biodiversity 

The UK (along with much of the rest of the world) is facing something of an ecological crisis, with rapidly declining wildlife. If you know someone who is a nature lover, perhaps they would enjoy something that attracts wildlife to the garden, such as butterly and bug habitats, bird feeders and wildflower gift sets, available online from Not On the High Street,  The Woodland Trust,  The Eden Project, or Seedball. Some of these might also make good gifts for children.

Giving second-hand

Is this really such a no-no? There may be some people who would really mind receiving second-hand gifts, so if this sounds like any of your family/friends, perhaps don’t buy anything pre-loved for them. Otherwise, why not? With some of my friends we have even been swapping the same wrapping paper back and forth for several years.

Recycled and upcycled gifts

Upcycled gifts are unique and reduce the demand for new stuff to be produced. They can be found at craft fairs or online at stores like Etsy. Gifts made from recycled materials can be found at Oxfam (who also do organic and fair trade treats), The Eden Project, Protect the Planet, and many other places. In fact you can find many things available in recycled materials, such as clothes, socks, accessories etc – google it before you buy something brand new. And don’t forget recycled food – Toast do a selection of beers brewed from bread that would otherwise go to waste.

Go radical

You could opt out of Christmas shopping altogether. Shopping refuseniks say they find this liberating and enjoy Christmas more. This may not be for everyone, but it will go a long way to reducing your environmental footprint this Christmas.

 

5 ways a zero waste lifestyle could be harming the planet

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If it becomes all about the packaging

There are many factors that determine how sustainable a product is, and packaging is only one of these. It’s what’s in the packaging that makes the most difference. There is some logic to this – there is simply more product than packaging, therefore more resources will go into producing it.

Some businesses are taking advantage of this narrow focus to greenwash their products and services. I recently visited a food outlet which made a show of promoting it’s ‘sustainable’ packaging, but the man behind the till told me that the amount of  unsold food they throw out at the end of the day is ‘crazy.’ Much of it was meat and other resource-intensive foods. There is really no type of packaging that will make this kind of business model sustainable.

If you end up buying mountains of new stuff

Consumption is the major driver of environmental destruction. There can be benefits to buying new things if you invest smartly in items that will help you to you reduce your consumption in long run. But many sustainable lifestyle tips seem to be little more than shopping lists for more stuff, and the most frequently promoted items are not exactly gentle on the environment.  Stainless steel is an insanely wasteful and co2 intensive material to produce, while cotton has an enormous water footprint. While I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t use things made from stainless steel or cotton, I would suggest that if your goal is to reduce your environmental impact then accumulating piles of resource-intensive stuff is not the way to do it. Buy just what you need.

Perhaps the most extreme example of excess consumption in the name of waste reduction is buying electronic gadgets like food processors and soup makers for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging. Electrical goods take a lot of materials to produce (much more than meets the eye) and are very wasteful and co2 intensive to manufacture, while electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. I am not suggesting that we should not use food processors. What I am saying is that investing in several kilos of metals and hard plastic to avoid the consumption of packets doesn’t add up.

If you end up increasing car use in order to shop zero waste

If you increase the amount you drive in order to shop, the environmental damage from car use could outweigh the benefits of buying more sustainable goods. Driving (at least for conventional vehicles) causes climate change, which is more problematic for the oceans than plastic waste, and is also a major cause of air pollution, which contributes to around 40,000 early deaths per year in the UK and is known to make children sick (though strangely, this doesn’t seem to cause the same levels of anxiety and outrage as turtles and plastic straws).

The good news is that zero waste shops are increasing so rapidly that you may now have one near where you live. Some even offer a delivery service with electric vehicles – a great way to reduce congestion and carbon emissions compared to everyone driving to the shops. So see what is on offer local to you.

If you simply swap one type of consumption for another

I recently visited a ‘zero waste’ grocery store that simply swapped plastic packaging for paper bags. Unless there was something very different about it’s supply chain, it’s hard to see how it was reducing packaging waste. It could potentially even increase the environmental impact from food packaging, as paper bags have higher carbon footprints than plastic ones, and since they are less durable cannot be reused as many times.

In general, the more a business is about reducing waste (rather than simply avoiding plastic) the more it will have an eclectic, down to earth feel. These are the places that encourage their customers to donate old jars and plastic bags for other customers to use and furnish the premises with second hand and repurposed stuff.

If a preoccupation with small details distracts from the bigger picture

Once you have made the changes that have the biggest impact, perfecting every last detail of an eco-conscious lifestyle has diminishing returns. Making everything from scratch and researching every single thing you buy are very time consuming, and it is not always certain that this has a lot of benefit for the environment.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t take small actions to benefit the environment. I’m questioning whether actions that involve a lot of effort, energy and focus but have very small or dubious benefits are the best use of time given the scale and gravity of the environmental crisis. Nor I am I suggesting that you should not cook from scratch, make your own beauty products, or anything else if that is what you like to do. I am suggesting that if you feel duty-bound to do these things for the sole purpose of avoiding packaging, then this is something time and energy consuming which has relatively small environmental benefits and could be taking your time away from more effective actions.

Put it this way: if everyone reduced their consumption of animal products, energy and stuff, it would have enormous benefits for the health of the planet. If everyone volunteered or campaigned for the environment, even in small ways, we could achieve something big. But if everyone collectively avoided jars with plastic lids, the difference would be hard to spot.

We need volunteers to collect and redistribute the vast quantities of surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away. We need people to bother their MPs about fracking and taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and to demand better waste and transport infrastructure. We need bodies on the ground to protest. We need litter pickers. We need everyone to divest their personal finances from fossil fuels and encourage their institutions to do so too. We even need clicktivists.

Note that some of these actions could take 5 minutes. The movement to defend the environment is weakened when those of us who care are absorbed in the search for plastic-free ingredients for homemade toothpaste and travelling to distant shops that sell pasta in cardboard packaging.

Six steps to a zero waste autumn and winter

167795_10150365121055532_3005165_nAsk most people what zero waste means to them, and they will probably say something to do with rubbish and recycling. But there is a blind spot towards a type of waste which is not only very bad for the environment but is also very expensive – that is, wasted energy. Most household energy use in the UK is for heat, and almost all of this is generated by burning fossil fuels. Considering how expensive energy consumption is we can be surprisingly profligate with this resource. We heat rooms and even whole buildings that are not being used and leave the lights on all night. We fill up the kitchen sink with hot water to wash up just a few things and have a hot shower every single day, whatever the weather. We focus on coffee cups while waste heat from poorly insulated buildings is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. And the rapidly melting arctic ice is not the only issue – gas boilers contribute to air pollution. So what to do?

Stop paying for waste heat

Turn off radiators in rooms that are not being used and switch off the heat altogether whenever you are not going to be around. If your whole household is going out for the evening, consider resetting the timer so that the heat only comes on when you return and you will save yourself from paying to heat an empty home for several hours. The space will stay warm for a little while after the heat is turned off, so you can set the timer to go off shortly before you leave in the morning/go to bed at night.

Also, you can do some very fancy things with smart tech these days, so consider taking advantage of these to manage your home heat better.

Get the temperature right

If it is freezing outside, but indoors you are quite comfortable in your t-shirt, then you can probably save quite a bit of money and carbon by putting on a jumper and turning down the heat. Experiment until you find the right temperature.

Play around with the furniture

Last year in my own house we managed to warm up a chilly kitchen by rearranging some furniture that was blocking the radiator and closing the door to prevent icy blasts coming in from the hallway. Have a play around to see if anything could be better organised to protect against draughts and make the best use of heat. There are some good ideas here and here if you need inspiration. Energy is too expensive and too costly for the planet to be wasted over simple things that could easily be fixed.

Update your heat source

Consider signing up to a carbon neutral gas supplier such as Green Energy  or Ovo, or possibly a new, low carbon source of heat altogether.

Spend more time in bed in the mornings

If the weather is not that warm and you are only going to the office, do you still need to shower every single day? A strip wash will not only save money, carbon emissions, and water, it will allow you extra minutes in bed on a morning. And do you need to fill the kitchen sink with hot, soapy water to wash up a few things? Challenge yourself to get the dishes clean with the minimum amount of resources, otherwise you are quite literally paying for things which are going down the drain.

Spend money to save it

If you live in a cold climate like the UK, one of the best things you can do for the environment is make sure that your home is properly insulated. The extent to which you are able to do this depends on whether you own your own home and how much you can afford to spend upfront, but if you can invest in things like loft and wall insulation this will lead to financial savings in the long run. Some people may be eligible for home energy efficiency grants, so it might be worth checking with your local council to see whether this applies to you, while if you live in a privately rented home your landlord is legally obliged to ensure that the building has an energy efficiency rating above a certain level.

Don’t forget the lower-cost hacks as well, such as blankets, rugs, draught-proofing and thicker curtains, described here so beautifully by the blogger Gina Caro. A draught excluder may not be as instagrammable as a salad in a stainless steel tin, but it could turn out to be your most effective zero waste accessory this winter.

Going Low Carbon: Transport

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So everyone’s heard about the UN report warning that we only have 12 years to limit global warming. Climate change can sometimes feel intangible compared to say, plastic litter, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the drive to reduce plastic use has taken off while the movement to go car-free has yet to gain traction. But the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are quite real. All the things you care about – social justice, the survival of species, your children’s future – are all at being impacted by climate breakdown as you read this.

Although there are many ways that we as individuals can reduce our carbon footprint (this is a good summary here) I’ve decided to focus this piece on car use, as transport is the one area where CO2 emissions in the UK are actually increasing. Car use is also one of the main causes of air pollution, which is thought to be behind the deaths of 28,000 – 36,000 deaths in the UK every year. In fact, earlier this year, air pollution was linked directly to the death of a 9 year-old girl in London.

Green transport is the bit everyone knows – we should all be walking, cycling and catching the bus. I could point out that walking and cycling is also great for keeping fit and saving money, but you already realise that. Whether or not you need to drive depends very much on your individual circumstances, especially the area where you live. In terms of environmental impact, what matters is not so much whether you happen to drive, but how much and with what fuel.

If you need to do a lot of driving, could you get an electric car? These are not perfect – I’ve already written about them here – but they can go a long way to reducing the carbon emissions from car use, especially if they are run on clean energy. If an electric car is not an option, go for a fuel-efficient petrol car that is the smallest size that meets your needs. Do not even think about a diesel car or an SUV.

If you need a car for some journeys, but don’t need to drive every day, are there any car clubs local to you? If they offer electric cars, even better. These clubs can reduce the amount of cars on roads, relieving congestion and reducing the impacts of manufacturing new cars and disposing of old ones. They should also reduce the temptation to drive for short journeys, as well as saving you the hassle of car ownership.

If a car is the only realistic way for you to get to work, could you car share? Or can you get your groceries delivered by an electric van? Some zero waste shops offer this service.

Also, are you sure that your local public transport is so bad? Have you tried it recently? Cars are often sold to us as offering freedom, but for me, one of the positives of giving up my car was the relief from the headache of paying for it, taxing, insuring and maintaining it, filling it up with fuel, finding somewhere to park it, and the rest. When I get on a bus somebody else worries about the route and the maintenance while I relax and look out of the window. When I am on my bike, I speed past the traffic jams.

Having said that, poor local transport infrastructure can be a big barrier for many people who would like to drive less. Where I live now there are good public transport connections and designated cycle lanes. But I have lived in places where public transport is a joke, or I didn’t dare cycle to work as there were no designated cycle lanes and the traffic was terrifying. For many people, navigating public transport with pushchairs or wheelchairs can be tricky, while some transport fares are absurdly expensive.

But these are all policy decisions. If you are frustrated by the lack of low carbon transport infrastructure in your area, do your local politicians know? Research finds that one of the reasons that politicians do not act on climate change, for example, is because they do not feel any pressure from voters to act. So does your local council/MP know you are frustrated with your local options? Imagine if the demand for safe, accessible and clean transport became a major voting issue – what difference might that make?

Car driving also has a circular relationship with local air pollution – on the one hand, it is a major cause of it, on the other, travelling inside a car can put you at more risk from it – levels of air pollution are 9 to 12 times higher inside the car than outside it. Children are particularly vulnerable. If you decide to walk with your children, experts recommend taking quieter streets, as this can cut exposure to pollution by up to two thirds. The health benefits of walking and cycling still outweigh the costs of breathing in pollution.

Plastic-Free July: A Call for Sanity

Many of us in the UK were disappointed by the recent vote in Parliament to allow a third runway to be built at Heathrow, which is expected to contribute to a 4.9 million tonne increase in co2 emissions by 2030. In the same week, the Committee on Climate Change warned that the country is likely to miss it’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, mainly because emissions from transport and home energy use have not been addressed. You might wonder why politicians seem so unconcerned by all this.

Some recent research offers some insights. A study interviewed 14 MPs from the 3 major parties, and found that most reported that people rarely speak to them about climate change. One said ‘If……the public are not flagging it up consistently as one of their top concerns or priorities, that is the issue.’ The study concluded that ‘politicians feel little pressure from those they represent to act on climate change.’

So why is this? Is it because the public doesn’t care about the environment? This seems unlikely. These days it seems everywhere you turn, people are talking about how we can all do our bit for the environment.

However, a closer glance at the national conversation reveals some clues. The BBC offers tips on avoiding cling film, straws and dental floss, while sustainable lifestyle bloggers repeatedly promise that using reusable cups and bags will make a ‘huge difference’ to our impact. Now I’m all for reducing waste – I haven’t used cling film, single use cups and the rest for years. But the current focus on small details is wildly disproportionate to the threat that any of these things pose to the environment. How might things be different, say, if the half a million people who recently signed a petition about plastic straws emailed their MPs about the impending climate catastrophe?

I have already written about the importance of keeping a sense of perspective when it comes to taking action to protect our environment. Please, everyone, we are facing the sixth mass extinction of wildlife, and if we do not get a grip on climate change, our cities will end up underwater and there will be huge famines. Meanwhile if we do not start seriously reducing the amount of food we waste and animal products we consume, we will not be able to feed the world.

Here is the zero waster guide to keeping things in perspective. The following actions should tick all the boxes – climate change, biodiversity, water use, resource depletion and pollution.

Dubious benefit: sourcing toothpaste in a jar.

Big benefit: letting your local MP/council know how you feel about the environment. Let your MP know that you were pleased/disappointed with the way they voted over Heathrow. Ask them whether they have signed up to Divest Parliament/the council from fossil fuels. Ask them what actions they are taking to facilitate low carbon transport in your area. Ask them what they are doing about any issue that concerns you.

Dubious benefit: worrying about/researching every single thing you buy.

Big benefit: consuming and wasting less.

Questionable benefit: eliminating plastic from your life.

Bigger benefit: litter picking and beach clean ups. Many people aim to go plastic-free due to fears that the stuff all ends up in the sea, but plastic pollution in the UK comes from litter – if you dispose of it properly, it’s unlikely to end up in the ocean. I have already written about some of the problems with alternatives to plastic, while green groups have expressed alarm that the war on plastic could increase food waste and contribute to global warming. Others have expressed concern that the campaigning energy directed at the small stuff, like plastic straws (a tiny fraction of ocean plastics) diverts attention from action on fishing waste (which makes up most ocean plastics).

Reducing consumption and waste is one of the best things that you can do for the environment, but targeting a specific material in isolation, and without factoring in the side effects, could end up causing more problems than it solves.

If you are concerned about the state of the oceans, concentrate on a) avoiding unsustainably sourced seafood (b) reducing your carbon footprint – global warming and ocean acidification is disastrous for marine life and c) avoiding unsustainable tourism.

Microscopic benefit: avoiding cling film, plastic straws and dental floss.

Huge benefit: Avoiding animal products. Actually, it’s THE best thing you can do, according to a massive study.

Small benefit: investing in special kit to preserve tomato halves.

Big benefit: taking advantage of schemes that rescue surplus food. If you have the time, consider volunteering for some of them. Many of these projects also have social goals such as tackling food poverty and encouraging a sense of community. You can also keep an eye out for yellow label food in the shops – ie goods that would be thrown out if they are not sold that day. The tomato should be ok if you put it in an old jam jar in the fridge.

Dubious benefit: driving to the next town to get to a shop that does washing up liquid refills.

Big benefit: minimising car use. This is the single area where the UK’s co2 emissions are actually increasing.  Cars are also major contributors to local air pollution, which was recently linked to the death of a child. We need to wake up about car use.

To save making a special trip, you can get refills of concentrate cleaning products posted to you. Research finds that using concentrate is better for the environment than buying liquids anyway.

Small benefit: taking your zero waste travel kit with you on holiday.

Big benefit: not flying.

No real benefit: sourcing biodegradable bin bags.

Big benefit: sorting out your home energy. Most energy use in UK homes (around 80%) is for heating, and this is contributing to the UK’s lack of progress on meeting it’s carbon reduction targets. So anything you can do to reduce the amount of energy you use for heat is worthwhile. For electricity, switch to a clean energy supplier – many renewable energy companies turn out to be cheaper and/or have better customer service than dirty energy companies anyway.

Also, if your general waste is sent to landfill, try to do what you can to keep anything biodegradable out of it, otherwise it will still be releasing greenhouse gases in several decades’ time. And if if your council sends the waste to be incinerated, there isn’t much to be gained from buying special bags.

So-small, are-you-sure-you-want-to-bother?: giving up chewing gum.

Big benefit: Getting involved in activism or volunteering. Apart from the suggestions above, there’s creative forms of activism, campaign groups, conservation projects, food growing groups…..not only do these things make a difference, but they sound distinctly more fun than searching around trying to to find groceries in paper packaging.