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


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.

5 Habits of Successful Zero Wasters


The successful zero waster…..

Has developed an immunity to advertising.

If something is advertised, then you probably don’t need it. Advertisers use all kinds of deviousness to try to part you from your cash, but ignoring them means freedom. This applies just as much to eco friendly lifestyle products as anything else. If you didn’t think you needed an organic peg bag or a sustainable fly swatter before you went online, what’s changed?

Likewise, the successful zero waster never relies on marketing as a guide to what to buy. Large corporations can be very clever about making themselves appear green, although they usually stop short of telling outright fibs. Meanwhile smaller, independent businesses may be more focussed on sustainability, but seem less inclined to check their facts, and regularly make the most preposterous claims about the eco friendliness of their products and businesses.

Regardless of whether a business is large or small, they both have one thing in common: they are hoping you will give them your money. So get your information about sustainability elsewhere. If it helps, I’ve made a list of what to buy and what not to buy here.

Always plans their meals ahead.

This is something which is a bore for about 10 minutes but pays off. It’s the most effective way I know to avoid food waste, and if you get it right, means you’ll always have something good to eat. I really enjoyed this example from the Green and Rose Blog.

Doesn’t believe everything they read.

There is no shortage of misinformation out there, so be savvy about who you listen to. Sources to treat with caution include: social media memes, special interest groups and campaigners, anyone trying to sell you something, emotive documentaries that you haven’t fact-checked, and random people on the internet.

It may not be realistic to review the scientific literature before every decision, but it is possible to be smart about your sources. As a guide, look out for articles that reference research and get quotes from well-qualified people. Serious news reports that are written by specialist science and environment journalists are also more likely to be reliable. Organisations who base their advice on evidence include Hubbub and the Waste and Resources Action Partnership.

Knows how to do the laundry.

This is that one weird trick that can reduce impacts in so many ways. Wash your clothes only when needed, at 30°, using a full load on a short cycle. Then air dry if poss. This will not only reduce your consumption of electricity, water and soap, but it will make your clothes and your machine last for longer and help to reduce the amount of microfibres in the oceans. Life is too short to do any more laundry than necessary anyway.

Sees the bigger picture.

A sense of perspective is essential for anyone who is looking to reduce their impact on the planet. Given the urgency of the planetary crisis, it makes sense to focus on the actions that will make the most difference – I have already written about those here.

Of course, small steps can still help – as long as a) they genuinely make a difference and b) they are relatively cheap and easy to do. Investing a lot of time, energy and focus on the small stuff can do more harm than good if it diverts attention from the most pressing issues. Yes, there are environmental benefits from using reusable bags, plastic-free teabags and taking care not to overfill the kettle. So let’s do those things. But for most people, the areas with the biggest potential to make a a difference will be things like reducing the amount of energy used for home heating, transport, and eating more earth-friendly foods.

The successful zero waster will also avoid a narrow focus on a single issue. So yes, it’s great to reduce rubbish, but not if it means buying mountains of new stuff and driving 5 miles to reach a shop that sells unpackaged nuts. Scrolling through social media, it’s amazing how much resources are consumed in a attempt to avoid rubbish or eliminate every last trace of plastic. Tunnel vision can lead to unintended consequences for the environment – either shifting to a different problem or causing more serious impacts than the original one. See also: ‘War on Plastic May Do More Harm Than Good,’ ‘The Unintended Consequences of a War on Plastic,’ and ‘Do We Really Need to Avoid Plastic?’

At the larger scale, a public focus on small details can allow unsustainable big businesses to get free publicity by making superficial changes to their operations. Supermarkets and burger chains must be delighted that environmentalists are concentrating their efforts on straws and bags rather than looking too closely at the environmental destruction caused by their business models. Meanwhile, the national policymaking agenda will be tied up with things like plastic straws when what we urgently need is action on co2 emissions from housing and transport. The planet is burning, people, and we need to stay focussed.

10 popular myths about eco-friendly living


I should go plastic-free.

Reducing plastic waste is an excellent idea, and so is avoiding single-use items like plastic bottles. But avoiding the stuff altogether? Green groups are worried that the war on plastic could do more harm than good, and I’ve already written about some of the problems with the alternatives to plastic. If you live in the UK and dispose of plastics properly, then it’s pretty unlikely to end up in the sea.

And why only plastic? All types of waste are bad for the environment. Currently, going ‘plastic-free’ is something of a national obsession, even though plastic makes up just a small fraction of waste in this country.

If you are concerned about the impact of plastic pollution, there would be more benefit to getting involved in beach cleans and litter picking than searching around for alternatives to plastic. So let’s carry our reusable bags and bottles with us and refuse the straw. But then let’s move on.

If I am good at recycling and use a bamboo toothbrush, it’s surely ok to fly. I should just pack some reusable cutlery for the flight.

Sadly, it takes more than separating the recycling to fly and still keep your environmental impact down. A a well-known study found that the benefits of recycling are quite small compared to the impacts of flying, which emits so much co2 and other nasties.

Depending on how far you flew, you’d basically have to spend the rest of the year growing all your own food, buying nothing new, and walking everywhere in order to make no more than your fair share of impact on the planet. (And for the record, taking a reusable bottle on a return transatlantic flight will save around 320g of greenhouse gases, the carbon footprint of the flights will be at least 1.6 tonnes).

I should bring my own containers to buy meat and cheese

Hmm…….  a recent, highly-regarded meta study of the environmental impacts of food concluded that the single best thing you could do for the environment is to give up animal products altogether. Even the most sustainably produced meat has higher impacts than plant-based food. When you consider the huge environmental costs of meat production, avoiding the impacts of the packaging will make very little difference to that. And if you have to drive a bit further to reach a shop that will allow you to bring your own container, the added carbon emissions will probably reduce any environmental benefits to nil.

I should aim to buy things in ‘recyclable’ or ‘biodegradable’ packaging.

Not necessarily. Most of the environmental impacts of a product occur before it reaches the shop shelves, rather than what happens to it when we’ve finished with it. Many packaging materials that have a reputation for being more ‘recyclable’ (whatever that means) have a higher overall carbon footprint than packaging considered ‘less recyclable.’ Choosing what to buy according to what it’s made from is a headache, and it’s not even clear that there is any environmental gain from doing so. Even plastic can be recycled, whatever they tell you.

As for ‘biodegradable’ packaging, this really depends on how the materials to make the packaging are sourced, and whether it is able to fully decompose at the end of its life. If biodegradable materials end up in landfill, they give off greenhouse gases, and if biodegradable plastics are put in the recycling they can cause havoc. One recent study comparing the impacts of different types of plastic bottles found that the one made from plant-based, biodegradable materials ‘showed the worst environmental performance’ when compared to alternatives made from virgin or recycled plastic.

I should wear natural fabrics to avoid microfibres from polyester clothes getting into the sea.

I wish I knew of a solution to the problem of microfibres from clothes, but switching to ‘natural’* fabrics is not it. Materials like cotton have to be grown somewhere, and increasing land for agriculture is one of the major causes of biodiversity loss and deforestation. It also takes away land from food production, consumes lots of water, and emits greenhouse gases. A study found little difference between the overall environmental impacts of cotton, polyester, and hemp, and there is evidence that ‘natural’ fibres can also have impacts on wildlife. Hubbub have some suggestions for ways you can reduce microfibres shedding into the water.

You can tell whether a product is sustainable or not just by looking. If it is made from material x, it must be bad for the environment. If it is made from material y, is must be good.

Not necessarily. It depends how the item was produced, how the materials were sourced, how the product is used and how sustainable the alternatives would have been. Most of this information is not available to us when we are choosing what to buy.

For anything which is not food or hygiene products, it’s better to ask – how much do I need it and how much value am I likely to get from it? Do I need to buy it new, or could I get hold of it second-hand or borrow one?

Electric vehicles are an environmentally friendly alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles.

This depends what you mean by ‘environmentally friendly.’ Electric vehicles have less global warming impact, yes (although clearly it depends on the source of the electricity used to power them). But only when you compare them to conventional vehicles. Compared to walking and cycling, their global warming impact will be huge, because of the fossil fuels involved in mining and producing all the materials to make them, manufacturing them, transporting them, and generating electricity to power them in a system which still burns fossil fuels.

As well as global warming impacts, the process to manufacture electric vehicles is more toxic than the process to make conventional vehicles, the materials needed for them are hard to source ethically, and all vehicles add to congestion and local air pollution from tyres and braking.

So, electric vehicles do have some environmental benefits, but they are not ‘environmentally-friendly.’ The ideal is always to reduce car use as much as possible.

Plastic takes 1000 years to biodegrade.

No-one really knows how long it takes to biodegrade – it hasn’t been around for long enough. It could be centuries, it could be millennia, or it may not biodegrade at all. But it doesn’t biodegrade quickly, that’s for sure.

Imported food always has a higher carbon footprint than locally-produced food. 

Not necessarily. If food is transported by ship it could potentially have a low carbon footprint, while local food that is intensively produced could have a high one. As a general rule, say no to foods (and flowers) that have travelled a long distance and have a short shelf-life. These are most likely to have been air-freighted, and were probably frozen or chilled along the way. Sadly, this includes avocados.

Prioritising which environmental issues to be concerned with is simply a matter of personal preference.

Well, yes and no. If you choose to be an environmental activist then yes, it is difficult to take on all the environmental problems in the world. You’re going to have to select. But when it comes to lifestyle choices, there is plenty of scientific research to tell us which are the biggest impacts to prioritise.

The biggest one thing you can do for the environment is to reduce your consumption of animal products. That’s not a value judgement of anyone’s personal choices. That’s the conclusion of a super-thorough, scientific study based on 40,000 farms across the world and covering 90% of all foods eaten.

Impacts can be measured and compared. Avoiding food waste has more benefits than avoiding packaging waste. The environmental impact of the way something is produced is usually more significant than whether or not it can be recycled. Avoiding flying will have more environmental benefit than reducing your rubbish.

Of course, whether or not you choose to eat meat or fly is a personal decision, and for some people, circumstances mean that the ideal option is not always possible. But if you are taking action to benefit the environment, aim to make choices based on the evidence.


Since I wrote this, everyone’s been asking, ‘in that case, what am I supposed to do?’ I wrote What to buy, and what not to buy and The Lazy Individual’s Guide to Reducing  Your Environmental Impact, if that helps.

*I am not sure what is ‘natural’ about cotton compared to polyester. Cotton is cultivated by people for profit and most likely grown with modern irrigation technologies and synthetic pesticides. Polyester is derived from oil, a naturally occurring substance in the earth’s surface. Both oil and cotton have to be intensively processed before they can be turned into useful products. ‘Natural’ is not a very useful word in this context.


I added up my own carbon footprint – this is what I found

My life in carbon

So I decided to calculate my carbon footprint*. My life looks pretty low carbon as I don’t own a car, don’t eat meat, and my home energy supply is zero carbon. But I do have a habit of travelling all over the country to visit family and friends –  I clock up around 3000 carbon-powered miles a year just on trips. I also eat a lot of food – an extremely dirty form of fuel, as food production involves high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

So I put all my data into a spreadsheet, and geeked out with this super-handy government greenhouse gas emissions database  –  a resource so comprehensive it even includes the co2 emissions from journeys on the London Underground.

It turns out that my personal footprint comes to 2.46 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This isn’t too bad. The UK average is around 13. Prince Charles’ is 1,173.  Mine would have been 4, but I saved around 1.7 tonnes with the cycling, vegetarianism, and clean energy supplier.

How my footprint breaks down:

Food: 86%

Travel round the UK by train/coach: 7%

Use of public services: 4%

Water use: 2%

Travel on London Underground: 1%

The high carbon footprint of food I kind of expected. The impact of all my travelling turns out to be quite small. I decided to include the carbon footprint of water use because it takes a lot of energy to pump the stuff to the house and then treat it again afterwards, but it hasn’t turned out to be massive.

I love trains

What I didn’t include

There was several things I missed out because they were just too hassly to work out, such as the impact of recycling, or the emissions from my fridge.  I also didn’t include emissions from landfill, since I don’t throw much away, or the carbon footprint of buying stuff, since I hardly ever buy anything new, and calculating the carbon emissions from charity shops and things was too much of a bore.

The future

To keep global warming under 2 degrees, everyone on the planet needs to get their carbon footprint down to 2 tonnes per year by 2050 (has anyone told Prince Charles?). That gives me 32 years to reduce mine by 0.46. Assuming that the UK public transport system is fossil-free by then (which I believe is the plan), I think I’ll do it.

*More precisely, I calculated all greeenhouse gas emssions, not just carbon dioxide. So it’s really more like a greenhouse gas footprint.

Should we shop at supermarkets?


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 purpose 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.


‘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.**


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.


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 unconventional 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……?