Should we shop at supermarkets?

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For anyone trying to avoid waste, supermarkets seem to be the last place you’d want to shop. It’s like a packaging waste horror show in there. But the relationship between packaging and waste is complex.

If we could see the amount of resources and environmental degradation that goes into food, we’d be shocked. It really is quite mind boggling how much water, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution goes into producing something as innocent and natural looking as our food. One of the functions of packaging is to prevent this being wasted, as the impact of the packaging is quite small compared to the impact of the food itself. This is the reason that the Green Alliance, along with circular economy NGO WRAP, are basically in favour of plastic packaging for food.

But, as most of us know, there is more to it than that. Packaging can also increase waste by encouraging people to buy more than they need, like multipacks, or by using packaging to promote products. Then there is also the waste of the packaging itself,* and the fact that some packaging really is quite bonkers.

chopped apples

Preventing waste……..when?

When questioned as to why they put cucumbers in plastic wrap, the Co-op explained that they had done a full scale trial and found that this was the best way to reduce food waste. I’m willing to believe them, especially for the food on the shop floor – the loose fruit and veg in supermarkets often look more beaten up than the ones in plastic wrap. After all, losing food this way would mean a loss of revenue for the business.

I’m still not entirely convinced, though, whether supermarket-style packaging always helps to reduce food waste at home, which is where most food waste happens. The most common type of food wasted is fruit and veg, and the number 1 reason for this is ‘I didn’t eat it in time.’ So packaging could be making this worse, by encouraging people to buy more than they can eat in multipacks, or it could be helping, by prolonging the life of fruit and veg. It’s difficult to say, and probably varies, depending on the size of the household, individual lifestyles and the type of food.

And what about the food that doesn’t even reach the shop shelves? Supermarkets have enormous power, because they are so big, and they can use this to bully their suppliers.  I’ve heard several stories, (from credible sources) of supermarkets rejecting veg from farmers because they don’t fit into packets, or because they’ve overestimated how much they need, and forcing the suppliers to waste them. Then there’s the issue of fruit and veg being thrown away because it isn’t beautiful enough.

Zero Waste Shops

Experts who reviewed the concept of zero waste stores were impressed by their potential to reduce food waste, mainly because they don’t try to tempt customers to buy more food than they need. The idea also scored points for reducing waste in the supply chain, improved diets, and engaging consumers with food. Their main concern was that selling fruit and veg without packaging could cause more waste due to shortened shelf life, so if you buy unpackaged fruit and veg, consider storing it in sealed containers, perhaps in the fridge.

For me, one of the main attractions of zero waste shops (apart from the environmental benefits) is that it’s a more pleasant shopping experience. It’s less rushed, and there are no harsh lights, adverts and branding shouting at me from the aisles.

However, unlike the larger corporations, which usually have qualified sustainability managers to help them achieve their environmental targets/greenwash their operations, zero waste shops don’t seem to really do serious environmental impact assessments on their business. Many have an ‘anything is better than plastic’ philosophy mixed in with their waste avoidance strategy, which means that some of the environmental savings made by many zero waste shops are then offset by practices like handing out paper bags, promoting the sale of cotton products and kitting out their premises in metal and glass – quite possibly the least sustainable way you could do it.

Of course, zero waste shops vary a lot – some furnish their stores with second-hand kit, others encourage customers to donate plastic bags and jars for reuse, and one even offers discounts to customers who arrive by bike. The individuality and independence of zero waste shops are part of the appeal for many people, but it makes it more difficult to make general conclusions about the way they are run compared to supermarkets.

So it seems that shopping at zero waste stores is a good way to reduce waste, assuming that the people who run them and shop there are conscientious about avoiding waste. However, I’m not sure that we can simply demand that supermarkets follow suit and ditch food packaging, especially for fruit and veg, since research finds low levels of public awareness about the problem of food waste, and that for most people, environmental concerns are not enough to motivate them to avoid it. So packaging-free food shopping would need to be adapted in some way if it was to become mass market without increasing the waste of food.

Farmers Markets

These have many things going for them. Shopping here will reduce food miles and packaging waste, and you can have more confidence that the producer is not being exploited. They tend to offer good food, as well as more transparency – you often get to speak directly to the person who produces your food. Keep in mind, though, that food miles are not the only thing that determine whether produce has a high environmental footprint – it has a lot to do with the way that food is grown. I’ve written more about that here.

Price 

‘Every time one tells a lie a fairy dies. Every time one buys the lie of cheap food a flower or a bird dies.’

This is according to the farmer and writer, John Lewis-Stempel. He’s right. There is a reason that well-produced food is more expensive, and it’s not just because it has a premium slapped on it (although that can be part of it). It’s because that’s how much food costs, if you don’t exploit people and planet.**

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Of these different types of shopping, farmer’s markets are famously pricey, while zero waste shops vary – some things work out cheaper than supermarkets, some are more expensive. Supermarkets are generally the cheapest.

The problem, of course, is that many people rely on the cheap food available in supermarkets, especially people on lower budgets. The number of people who can afford to buy all their food exclusively from farmer’s markets and independent shops is limited. How much you are able to spend on food will play a big part in how you shop.

Convenience

A well as price, how we shop also depends on convenience. Buying unpackaged food means bringing your own bags and containers with you. Shopping at eco-friendly, independent shops and farmers markets is particularly tricky for people who don’t have any close by, or for people who work long hours. Lots of extra driving around to reach the shops is not only a hassle, but also an ineffective way to reduce the carbon footprint of food, as this last mile – from shop to home  – is the most inefficient of all the food miles.

One way to reduce the impact/hassle of driving to eco-friendly shops could be to stock up enough longer-shelf life foods to last for a while, and pick up fresh stuff more locally in between. You can also take bags to refill with dry goods, rather than containers, which are less hassle to carry with you. Also, some zero waste stores are beginning to do home delivery, often with electric vehicles – a great idea.

What to do if the supermarket is your most realistic option

Shop Yellow Label

Discounting food that is reaching it’s use-by date is one of the ways that supermarkets try to reduce waste. Buying this will save it from being thrown out. Yellow label shopping is especially good for people on a low budget or who work long hours, as it is much cheaper and is often available later on in the evenings, after the post-5pm rush. Josephine Liang is your heroine here.

Arrange home delivery

If you can take advantage of home delivery services that come in electric vans, do so. Yes, the whole thing does look a bit greenwashy when you consider how much fossil fuels goes into the rest of the supermarket system, but the bottom line is that if everyone had their groceries delivered to them by electric vans (assuming that they were full) it would be far better for the environment than everyone driving to the shops individually in their cars.

Look out for eco-friendly products

Although supermarkets may not always be run on the strictest ethical principles, they can be good at offering a range of eco-label goods, especially in larger branches. So if this doesn’t bust your budget too much, look out for products certified by the Soil Association, the Rainforest Alliance, Marine Stewardship Council, or the Fair Trade Mark. Sainsbury’s and the Co-op also sell eggs certified by the RSPCA. You can also find things made from recycled materials, like toilet paper, or some places do the Ecover range. Some stores sell loose fruit and veg that you can buy in your own bags, and some also sell wonky veg.

Choose more earth-friendly foods

Consumer expectation that shelves should always be fully stocked, with the same range of choices all year round, puts extra lorries on the roads and planes in the sky. How does there come to be strawberries in the shops, in a British winter? How much oil does it take to get fresh veg and flowers from Kenya, chopped and packaged, in your local store? Come to think of it, how does a country with one fifth of the available water supply per person of the UK, irrigate vegetables and flowers for export anyway?

It’s not always possible to get locally grown, seasonal produce in the supermarket, but we can always say no to some of the more crazy things on offer. Diversifying your diet to include more plant-based proteins, rather than meat, will also help reduce the environmental footprint of your food shopping. Choose wisely.

*Some people are concerned about plastic packaging getting into the ocean, but I’m not sure how likely that is to happen if you dispose of it properly in the UK. If you are not sure, you can always contact your local council to find out where your waste and recycling goes to. I’ve written before about whether we need to avoid plastic and how to reduce your plastic use without going insane.

**Researchers looked at the problem of how you can improve the sustainability of food  without raising prices. They found it needs improvements in farming practices to be accompanied by changes in the way we consume. Interestingly, they found that if policies to improve agriculture were accompanied by a reduction in the consumption of meat, it would simultaneously reduce environmental impacts and food prices. It’s because meat production takes up so much land. So while I’m not promising that if you give up eating meat tonight, the farmer’s market will suddenly become more affordable, it’s always worth a try……?

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How to reduce your plastic use without going insane

We all know that plastic waste is a huge problem. There’s so much of it, it never dies,* and if plastic waste ends up as litter, can be disastrous for the natural world.

I’ve already written about why I don’t think plastic use should be approached in isolation from other environmental problems, and why I don’t think that we should simply swap plastics for alternatives. So here’s how you can reduce plastic waste, without going insane, and without simply shifting from one environmental problem to another.

1. Eat more earth-friendly foods

Have you ever noticed that it’s often the most unsustainable foods that have the most plastic wrapping? Meat, dairy, junk food, ready meals, and out of season salad items are all big culprits. So, as well as asking ‘why is my food wrapped in so much plastic?’ we can also ask: ‘how is there salad items in the shops in mid winter?’ and ‘What is the environmental impact of air-freighting frozen lamb from New Zealand?’  Choosing food that is kinder to the earth is a win-win here.

2. Boycott unnecessary plastic packaging

Simply refuse to buy anything wrapped in unnecessary or excess plastic. While it can be difficult to get many essentials plastic free, it should be easier to avoid, say, ready chopped fruit and veg in plastic. You can also use your own bags to pick up things like loose fruit and veg, or bread rolls and pastries.

It’s tempting to simply switch from plastic wrapped to products packaged in paper, card, aluminium or glass, but bear in mind that any type of packaging material will have an environmental impact. Many alternatives to plastic involve higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions in their production and transport.  Choosing things in ‘recyclable’ packaging can feel better, as you are avoiding the waste of the materials. But if we create the demand for packaging materials that increase carbon emissions in the atmosphere, we’ll just end up seeing more videos of starving polar bears.

3. Check out your nearest packaging-free store

If you have one of these near you, this a great way to reduce waste. Just take your own reusable bags and containers, and refill. At first glance they seem to be less convenient than supermarkets, but that’s the thing about buying in bulk – you don’t need to go there as often.

You can find your nearest packaging-free store here. Even if there are no shops local to you that allow you to buy food refills, most major towns in the UK have health food stores that allow you to refill bottles of washing up liquid and household detergents.

4. Refuse single use plastics

You already know how to avoid single use plastic bags, straws, bottles and cups, and with increasing options for refilling water bottles  and many pubs and restaurants opting out of plastic straws, this has just become much easier. Just please don’t simply swap them for single use items made from paper and glass, as this is just to exchange one environmental problem for another. As for plastic toothbrushes, I’ve written about that here.

For single use plastic cutlery, you can either bring cutlery with you from home if you think you’ll need it, or if you regularly eat on the go, you can buy lightweight cutlery designed to be carried with you. Some places are switching to single-use cutlery made from wood, but I’m not sure that this is any better for the environment, so it’s probably best to avoid single use altogether if you can.

5. Take your tea without plastic

As you’ve probably heard by now, teabags contain plastic. At first this seems rather annoying, but I have to say that tea brewed with loose leaf tastes far better in my view. Of course, this is only an issue if you are aiming to compost your teabags – if they go to landfill or are incinerated, there isn’t much benefit in sourcing plastic free tea. But if composting is feasible for you, then that would be the gold star option.

There are a number of options for plastic free teabags,  but it’s important to factor in the way that the tea is produced as well as it’s biodegradability. The great thing about composting tea is that it returns nutrients to the earth instead of wasting them, but spare a thought for the wellbeing of the ecosystems where the tea is sourced and consider buying tea that is certified as sustainably grown.  If you have somewhere near you that sells carefully sourced, loose leaf tea that you can buy in your own bags or containers, that’s amazing. But if not, look out for loose leaf tea which has been grown with high standards. Clipper Teas do loose leaf tea which is certified both organic and fair trade, and teas certified by the Rainforest Alliance will also be kinder to people, animals and the planet. Supermarket loose tea may come with packaging, but (if your budget will allow it) there is more social and environmental benefit to to buying tea which has been grown with high standards than there is to sourcing it packaging-free.

Switching to loose leaf may require investing in some new equipment. Personally, I love my morning tea ritual involving my favourite pot, but this isn’t always convenient every time you want to grab a brew. If you prefer to make tea in a cup you may want to consider one of these, or something similar.

6. Plastic free toilet paper and tissues…..?

For plastic free toilet paper, Ecoleaf make theirs from recycled paper waste sourced from within the UK, and Who Gives a Crap deliver plastic-free recycled toilet paper to your door.

Keep in mind that single use paper products are not exactly gentle on the environment, so consider using hankies and cloths instead of paper tissues and kitchen roll.

If plastic free recycled toilet paper is too expensive or troublesome to source, then picking up plain old recycled toilet paper from wherever you usually shop will have more environmental benefit than buying virgin paper toilet roll without plastic wrapping.

7. Use bars rather than liquids

A plastic free hack to make life easier is using solid bars of hygiene products like soap, shampoo, hair conditioner and deodorant. My guess is that once you’ve made the switch you won’t want to go back. These save money and hassle by lasting longer, take up less storage space if you buy them in bulk, and, in my view, look more elegant than plastic bottles emblazoned with ugly brand names. Liquid hygiene products are mostly just water anyway, which means that buying bar soaps not only saves money and plastic, but will also mean co2 savings – think how much carbon emissions it takes to transport liquid around.

Lush is a great high street destination for solid hygiene products, many of which are palm oil free (check labels) or Holland and Barratt do palm-oil free soaps. I’m currently using a bar of Lush hair conditioner that I’ve had for two and a half years, and looks as if it has at least another 6 months to go. Any extra effort and expense involved in sourcing solid products will be more than repaid.

It’s all about the beauty of choice reduction – walk into your nearest chemists and there will be approximately 130 different types of deodorant to choose from, all promising to treat your armpits to something an extra bit special compared to the next.  But how much time do you want to spend purchasing deodorant? There are not that many options for packaging-free deodorants, so you can just buy several hundred grams of the stuff to last for months and not have to think about it again.

To save more money and reduce your impact further, see if you can find a way of storing these without buying anything new, either by re purposing things you already have around the place, or seeing what you can pick up at your local charity shop. I keep mine on seashells.

8. Demand policies that encourage a more circular economy 

It’s true that plastic can’t be recycled forever, and that recycling alone is not an adequate response to the over consumption of resources and culture of throwawayism. But I’m not sure that it’s possible or desirable to eliminate the use of plastics altogether. So, as well as policies to reduce the use of plastic, we also need to make it easier to recycle and ensure that the recycled materials are used to meet future needs. Perhaps time to let your local council and your MP know how you feel.

  • Ok, so more accurately, no-one really knows how long plastic takes to biodegrade, or even if it does it all. Probably centuries if not millennia.

Zero Waste Myths: Are sustainable lifestyles only for middle class people?

Modern kitchen shelves with various food ingredients on white background

So someone said to me recently that zero waste living seemed to be middle class and expensive, and could I write a post about affordable ways to go zero waste for people on low incomes.

This request interested me for two reasons: firstly, because reducing waste is essentially about thrift, so if zero waste living appears to be a costly exercise ‘accessible’ only to people with more money, it suggests that something has gone astray somewhere.

Second, because although research confirms that, indeed, eco consumers are almost always from higher income groups, they still tend have higher ecological footprints than less eco conscious people from lower income groups. This is because your environmental burden tends to increase according to your income. Essentially, efforts to reduce impact will only go so far if you’re consuming much more in the first place.

Research finds, for example, that eco conscious types may be good at signing up to green energy suppliers, but tend to go and spoil it somewhat with a preference for long-distance travel. Meanwhile more traditional types may show lower levels of environmental awareness, but due to more frugal living end up having less environmental impact. Larger homes consume more energy, for example, and we also know that high income households are more likely to waste food than lower income households.

Interestingly, the research found that a few of the eco consumers it studied did manage to significantly reduce their ecological footprint. In fact, the study concluded that it is actually possible to reduce your impact by half, depending on how you consume. So what could be going wrong?

  • Researchers speculate that it could be because people try to be green by focusing on, say, separating waste for recycling, but may not be willing to drive less or reduce meat consumption, which would do more to reduce impact.
  • It could also be down to some kind of mental accounting, that says ‘I don’t drive, therefore I can fly more.’
  • Research also shows that green consumers make choices based on personal perceptions, rather than a scientific assessment of what counts as sustainable consumption. So, for example, someone may switch to paper bags because they are perceived as being more sustainable than plastic ones, despite that fact that these have higher carbon footprints.
  • Researchers also speculate that eco-conscious consumers may be buying products that falsely market themselves as greener.

Globally, the number of people living middle class lifestyles is increasing rapidly (think of China and India) and all of them are wanting more meat, more stuff, bigger houses, more cars and more flights. One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is: is it possible for middle class people to lead more sustainable lifestyles?

1. Focus on the lifestyle changes that reduce impact the most 

I’ve already written about the lifestyle changes that make the most difference: eat less meat, waste less food, buy less stuff, drive less, fly less, and decarbonise your home energy supply. None of these involve spending more – the opposite, in fact. Planetary destruction is expensive: eating lots of meat, frequent flying, buying, furnishing, and heating large homes……….hardly cheap. Treading more lightly on the earth goes hand in hand with saving money.  It seems to me that, if any current social trends are going to save the planet, it will be the shifts towards veganism and more simple, frugal living that do it, rather than the jetset-around-the-world-with-a-reusable-bottle lifestyles.

2. Be smart about what you actually need

Zero waste gift packs, matching jar sets, specialised kit for saving leftovers …….the ‘shop your way to a less consumerist lifestyle’ approach takes away from what is, for me, one of the fun parts of zero waste living – the reliance on your own resourcefulness.

The question to ask yourself is: how can I meet this need without buying something new? Consider repurposing and reusing things you already have around the place, collect things your friends and family no longer need, or see what you can find in charity shops – they are always full of reusable cups, containers and jars, among other things. I replaced paper tissues with t-shirts cut up into squares (£1 per t-shirt in a charity shop) and I save gift wrap and gift boxes to reuse, but you’ll have your own ideas.

There’s also the Journey to Zero Waste UK sell/swap/gift facebook group and many other resources, some of which are listed here and here. You can buy second hand online from Ebay, Etsy, Oxfam Online, Facebook buy and sell, as well as various buy and sell apps, which are too numerous to list here.

Its not always possible to get everything you need without buying new, but regardless of how you get them, investing in a smaller number of durable, multifunctional things will not only reduce your environmental impact but should save money and space. Investing in reusables will save money on single-use disposables, and toiletries such as solid bar soap and shampoo can work out cheaper in the long run as they last so much longer than the stuff in plastic bottles.

3. Drop the ‘anything is better than plastic’ myth

Trying to source everything plastic-free adds extra pressure as it can be more difficult and expensive to find things made from alternative materials, and it is not even clear that simply switching from one material to another is better for the environment. This myth contributes to the idea that living sustainably is a complex business involving lots of time, effort and research, while the preoccupation with getting every small detail right is a distraction from the central issue, which is that we are consuming too much, and that in most parts of the world the environment is not high enough on the political agenda.

4. Shop yellow labels

Buying food destined for landfill is a great money saver. Supermarkets often sell essentials like bread and veg super cheap and posh foods on a discount if they are reaching their sell by date. You may even be able to get food for free on apps like Olio, food sharing groups on Facebook, or community fridges.

It’s true that surplus and yellow label goods often come wrapped in disheartening volumes of packaging, but the environmental impact of the food inside it is always far greater than what it’s wrapped in. Rescuing a loaf of bread that’s about to be thrown out will have more environmental benefit than buying artisan bread in your own cloth bag. You can also keep an eye out for wonky veg boxes local to you, as these save fruit and veg from being wasted and are sold more cheaply.

For inspiration, check out the Instagram feeds of food waste heroes Reduction Raider and Free Tasting, or read my interview with Josephine Liang, who lives entirely on food saved from being thrown away.

5. Buy just as much food as you need

Buying food at bulk shops can potentially save money and avoid waste – you can buy just what you need, and don’t have the cost of packaging included in the price. However, the prices of food in bulk shops can vary – some foods can be cheaper than supermarkets, some more expensive. It depends on the type of food and the shop. If bulk food shopping doesn’t work for you, then buying things ‘loose’ in simple packets and boxes will save money and avoid waste compared to buying things in individual sachets.

If you have a good local greengrocers, these can often work out cheaper than supermarkets, and if you take your own produce bags and buy just what you need, you can save money and waste compared to buying supermarket-style multipacks of fruit and veg.

6. Lastly…….

Bother your politicians. Anyone can email or visit their MP/local council for free – that’s the beauty of democracy. We need waste management systems that are fit for purpose, policies that make polluters pay, and an end to taxpayer subsidies for polluting industries. You’ll probably have other concerns to add to this list. We have far more power to make change happen by putting pressure on politicians to act, than we do by ensuring we only buy jam jars with plastic-free lids.

The Zero Waster Meets the Free Taster

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Ever since I first saw Josephine’s Liang’s shots of mouthwatering meals made entirely from food diverted from landfill, I knew this was someone I would love to do lunch with one day. Josephine sources everything she eats from yellow-label, about-to-be-thrown-out supermarket food, and surplus food collected from cafes, restaurants and shops using apps like Olio and Too Good to Go. She then posts shots of her scrumptious-looking finds on her Instagram feed.

So we arrange to meet, choosing our venue by scrolling through the list of available meals on the Too Good to Go app and picking the one that looks the tastiest. Over delicious broccoli and cauliflower gratin with sweet potato, tofu and brown rice (£3, the cafe was happy to serve me in my own tin) Josephine tells me more about herself and her mission.

‘My initial goal was to do just one month, where every single thing that I eat is going to be discarded. It’s a fun thing to do. I wanted to show people that there is a giant variety, a great quantity of food that is being wasted. You need to take some very very simple steps – and anyone can do them – to try to reduce a little bit.’

‘I wanted to show people that there is a giant variety, a great quantity of food that is being wasted.’

‘I get a lot of my fruit and veg from a wholesale market. I’ve become good friends with the traders. I’ll ask if I can take away a packet of oranges – if they’re going to throw it away, they’re usually fine with it. The thing you need to know is, that most people who work in food don’t want to waste food.’

It’s true, now she mentions it, I notice that the woman who served us in the cafe is very encouraging and offers us more tips on sourcing surplus food.

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One of Josephine’s Olio finds on @free_tasting

‘I shop yellow labels, I think this is the easiest thing people can do. I do that a lot, because if you don’t buy it, they’re going to throw it away. Then I use two apps, which are Olio and Too Good to Go, which are amazing. It’s really fun to see the city that way – you go to places you never thought you’d go, and you meet people you never thought you’d cross paths with.’

‘It’s really fun to see the city that way – you go to places you never thought you’d go, and you meet people you never thought you’d cross paths with.

‘I source of all my food that way. I do most of my collecting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But I don’t think everyone needs to do all that I’m doing. My point is that you can do something. If everyone does a little bit, that’s already a big relief. If anyone has this awareness, this kind of attention, then you can put pressure on the supermarkets to do better with their policies. You can put pressure on the government to change the way they operate.

‘I don’t think everyone needs to do all that I’m doing…………if everyone does a little bit, that’s already a big relief.’

‘We’re facing a global food crisis, ‘ she explains. ‘In 2050 we’ll have 9 billion people, and we need to increase our production by 60-70%, and we don’t have that capacity. So another way to do that is to have a system where food is more circular, where food is not being wasted at every single stage. Around a third of food produced is wasted. Right now, we produce enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t distribute it accordingly.’

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Chinese soup made with food destined for landfill on @free_tasting

‘We cooked a meal for 15 people once, just with surplus food we collected from the market…..we had a tagine, cous cous, salad, banana bread……it was a lot of joy. My really happy surplus stories have been being able to share with a lot of friends. One time, we got wine on yellow label. That was delightful.’

‘One time, we got wine on yellow label. That was delightful.’

‘It’s about learning what your local markets are, and making friends with the people who work there. Ask them, ‘So what time are you putting out the yellow labels?’ They will tell you. They don’t want to throw away the food, because they work with food. I find if you ask someone who looks like a mum, they’ll know. I have many aunties, who are just like, ‘Yeah, come at 6.’

Feeling inspired by our conversation, I head to the supermarket to see what yellow label goodies I can find. It’s only 7pm and there’s already a selection. I pick up some posh cheese, half price, with a sell-by date of today and a use-by date of 4 days’ time. I also pick up 8 pints worth of milk for 20p. The use by date is today, but it will freeze. I make sure to check out the wine section, but there’s nothing on offer at this visit. The shop assistant tells me the best time to come for yellow label discounts is at 8.

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The next day I make my sandwiches with the rescued cheese and some tomato chutney my housemate no longer wanted. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

 

Zero waste myths: should we really be avoiding plastic?

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Images of ocean plastic pollution are causing so much revulsion that many people are switching to more ‘environmentally friendly’ materials to try to reduce their impact. But does this actually work? How much greener are the alternatives?

Plastic v Paper

It’s easy to see how paper bags seem more environmentally-friendly than plastic ones. They are made from trees, which grow in nature, and can biodegrade when they are finished with. But research consistently finds that paper bags have a far higher carbon footprint than plastic ones, because the process of making them uses so much energy. Trees may be in harmony with nature, but the process for mashing them up into paper isn’t.

True, paper bags can decompose, but it’s not exactly zero waste to use so much energy producing something that’s not designed to last. And if you’re careful to reuse and recycle a plastic bag, it should be possible to prevent it ending up as litter or in the ocean, whereas every single paper bag will have made a hefty contribution to global warming, regardless of where it ends up. The best option, of course, is to avoid the problem of single-use waste altogether by using reusable bags.

If you’re a business and you want to offer something to customers who’ve forgotten their own bags, consider doing as Arjuna Wholefoods in Cambridge does, which is to invite people to drop off their old plastic bags to be reused. Alternatively, bags made from recycled materials is the next best thing. Just please don’t hand out new single-use bags for free, as this doesn’t reflect how much it costs the earth to produce them.

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As for the idea that paper is ‘more recyclable’ than plastic, this has now been repeated so many times, that it’s become almost fact. It’s true that paper can be recycled, but the quality of it degrades in the process. Plastic can also be recycled, although some types of plastic are easier to recycle than others, and packaging that mixes plastic with other materials can be more tricky to recycle (single-use coffee cups are the most well-known example of this).

So, in terms of recyclability, there isn’t that much to be gained from choosing paper-based products over plastic ones, and anyway, it’s a mistake to be overly focused on how recyclable something is, when most of the impacts of the stuff we consume is in the process of producing it, rather than what happens to it at the end of its life. This is true regardless of the material, but in terms of paper, we need to factor in how much co2 it takes to produce it.

The best way to lower impacts from packaging waste is to reduce the amount of packaging you buy, and where possible, buy products packaged in recycled materials.

Plastic v Metal

Stainless steel tins and bottles are something of a zero waste style statement. There is no doubt that they look good, and I certainly love my tins, but the process of producing metals like stainless steel and aluminium releases crazy amounts of co2 into the atmosphere. This means that reusables made from metal will need to avoid a lot of waste before they save more resources than it took to produce them.

So, it’s really up to you: option 1 is stainless steel products, which are very high impact to produce, but highly durable, or option 2 – plastic bottles and containers, which are more environmentally-friendly to produce, but tend to wear out more quickly, so that you may end up using more of them in the end. This is essentially a judgement call, based on your personal routines and how much waste you expect to avoid by using your reusable bottle and containers.

Single-use cups v reusable cups

Several studies have looked into how many times a reusable cup needs to be used before it saves more resources than it took to produce. As they are carried out by academics, there is no simple answer – it depends on which type of reusable cup you are using, which type of single-use cup you are trying avoid, and which environmental impact you are considering – but it seems to range from 5-16 times. So, if you would otherwise expect to use at least 17 single-use cups, consider investing in a reusable one. For top marks, see if you can pick one up in a charity shop.

Glass jars v plastic packaging

The jury appears to be out on this one. Glass tends to lose points compared to plastic because of the high carbon emissions involved in manufacturing and transporting it (think of how much more glass weighs) but can redeem itself by being more efficient to recycle than certain types of plastic.

So, I guess if you can reuse or refill jars, that’s your best option. Otherwise, there’s no clear justification for always choosing glass jars over plastic.

Plastic bags v cotton bags

Its a bit of a mystery why cotton has gained a reputation for being an environmentally friendly material. It takes 20,000 litres of water to make 1kg of cotton, and much of it is sourced from countries where water is extremely scarce. Worldwide, cotton production causes pollution and biodiversity loss.

Organic cotton may reduce some of these impacts, but it will always be a resource intensive material to produce. The UK government’s research shows that cotton bags have 10 times more global warming potential than any other bag they studied, and it needs to be used 173 times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than a single use plastic bag.

So, don’t buy more new cotton products than you need – there is no reason why reusable bags need to be made from cotton. Get your clothes second hand.  And please don’t use new cotton fabric as gift wrapping – its hard to imagine a more wasteful way to wrap presents.

So, are you saying we should use plastic? What about the turtles? Plastic never biodegrades……

Agreed. We should definitely be cutting out the single-use plastics. Just let’s not try to solve the problem of ocean pollution by switching to materials that contribute to global warming, pollution and water scarcity. It doesn’t make sense to focus on just one material, and just one stage of a product’s life cycle.

Also, studies show that plastic waste in the oceans mostly comes from things like littering, fishing/shipping activity, and waste that escapes from poorly managed landfills into rivers. Only 0.28% of ocean plastic comes from European rivers, so if you are careful to put plastic waste in the recycling and aren’t in the habit of chucking rubbish into waterways, plastics are less of an ocean pollution issue and more of a waste issue.* To reduce our impacts on the environment, we need to consider the overall impacts of everything we consume, or we risk shifting from one problem to another.

Isn’t this making things more complicated? Won’t it confuse people who are trying to do the right thing?

What makes life complicated is searching around trying to substitute plastics for other materials. Reducing your environmental impact is fairly straightforward – avoid anything that is designed to be used for a short time, then thrown away, and reduce your consumption of all stuff wherever you can. Making changes that exchange one environmental problem for another just wastes time and energy that could be used for actions that actually do make a difference, and it’s misleading to claim otherwise.

But plastic is awful! It’s made from a non-renewable resource, and it can’t be recycled forever.

I know, but good luck with finding that 100% recyclable, 100% renewable material that has no harmful effects on the natural world.

You can find your nearest UK packaging-free shop here.

* Since I posted this, I’ve had a number of people get in touch to say that since China used to import plastic waste from around the world, some of the plastics in the ocean today could still have originated in countries like the UK. To be clear: China stopped importing plastic waste at the beginning of 2018. This is not a good reason to avoid all plastic. Yes, let’s cut out single-use plastics like straws, bags, bottles, and toothbrushes. Get involved in beach clean ups. Support organisations that are dealing with the problem of ocean pollution. But it would be a mistake to simply swap plastics for materials like paper, metal and cotton without first considering how these might impact other parts of the natural world, such as the habitats of animals that live on land.

If you have a spare 18 minutes, I totally recommend this TED talk by Leyla Acaroglu, Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore.

Note: I’m still getting feedback from people concerned that this post in some way ignores the problems associated with plastic use. Please put your pitchforks down, I agree with you 100% about the need to reduce the use of plastic and prevent plastic litter from getting into the sea. However, consider that two things can be true at the same time:

  1. There are many serious environmental problems associated with the use of plastic.
  2. There are many serious environmental problems associated with alternatives to plastic.

Therefore perhaps we should find a way of addressing these issues which don’t simply swap one problem for another.

So while it’s always great to get feedback, if you are an anti-plastic activist preparing to leave a comment explaining that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, is harmful to sea creatures, is made from fossil fuels, or that it can’t be recycled forever, allow me to reassure you that this is all quite well known, and is not disputed in this post.

The Lazy Individual’s Guide to Reducing Your Environmental Impact

lazybear

Want to reduce your impact, but don’t have time to research everything you buy and everything you do?

So focus on the things that will make the most difference.

Eating

Eat as little meat as you can, and minimise food waste.

The crimes of the meat industry are too long to list here, but the reason it’s so destructive is because it involves the lot: huge greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water use and pollution. A UN report described the overall environmental impact of livestock activity as ‘enormous,’ and that’s before we even get on to animal welfare issues, the health impacts of eating meat, antibiotic resistance, or the small problem of how we’re going to feed everyone  if we continue to consume meat as much as we do. Meat production is so inefficient, it takes more calories to produce than it adds to the food system.

As for food waste, remember that whenever we throw food away, we waste all the water and greenhouse gas emissions that went in to producing it. So, for the UK (where 25% of all food bought by households is wasted) that amounts to 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. So, do the planet a favour and don’t buy more food than you can eat.

What you can’t do: save the planet by worrying about the source of everything you buy.

Shopping

Minimise the amount of new stuff you buy, especially fashion, electronic gadgets, tat, or anything you don’t expect to use that much. Remember that most of the environmental impact of the stuff we buy happens before it reaches the store, and anything meant to be used for a short time then thrown away, is a crap design.

What you can’t do: heal the world by doing the recycling alone.

Decarbonising 

Use a clean energy supplier for your home, and get real about flying and driving.

No-one needs to use a dirty energy supplier. While many people have difficulty getting by without a car, or giving up meat, changing your energy supplier makes no difference to your lifestyle whatsoever and could even save you money. So what are you waiting for? And if you’ve done that, make sure your money is not invested in fossil fuels.

And yes, it’s magical thinking to imagine we can heal the planet without reducing the distances we travel by carbon-powered transport. Deep down we all know this.

What you can’t do: halt global warming by switching off all the lights and ensuring you don’t overcharge your phone.

 

 

Please Stop Giving Me Stuff

Santa Landfill

I like to live free from an excess of Stuff. I’m supposed to grateful to receive things, I know. But I don’t like the way stuff clutters up the space. I’m disturbed by the impacts of manic consumption on people and planet. I live a full life and don’t have time to find new homes for things I don’t need and didn’t ask for. I can’t bear waste.

We urgently need to drop the collective delusion that the giving and acquiring of things, especially new things, is always good. Every unwanted or barely used gift, every piece of Christmas tat, is a theft of resources from future generations and an abuse of people today who experience the effects of environmental degradation more directly than we do. Our hyper consumption can be seen as an act of violence – against ourselves, against the people who make our junk for us, and to the children of today who will grow up to live with the mess we make.

Like most people who live in the global north, I have everything I need and much more besides. More is just burdensome.