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.

 

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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. A stainless steel water bottle needs to be used 500 times before it is better for the environment than a single-use plastic one.

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 have less impact 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

As a guide, a reusable cup needs to be used between 20-100 times to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-use cup. So, if you would otherwise expect to use many single use cups, this could be a worthwhile investment. For top marks, see if you can pick one up in a charity shop.

Glass v plastic 

In terms of bottled water, a recent study comparing the environmental impacts of plastic and glass found that water in glass bottles ‘showed the worst results’ due to the increased amounts of raw materials and energy required to produce it.

Glass milk bottles are a popular choice for people aiming to reduce waste, but be aware these need to be reused 20 times before they have a lower carbon footprint than plastic bottles.

As for 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 131 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. 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.

 

The Lazy Individual’s Guide to Reducing Your Environmental Impact

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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

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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.

Zero Waste Sunscreen

So the number one rule here is to put your health first. There are homemade sun lotion recipes circulating the internet, but personally I wouldn’t try anything experimental without running it past a pharmacist first to check it will actually protect you against sunburn and skin cancer. Anyway, if you live in the UK, how much sun lotion-related waste are you going to produce? I’m guessing not enough to break the planet.

Many people are concerned that the ingredients in conventional sun lotions are harmful. I’m not qualified to comment on that, but the products listed here are made from a small number of recognisable ingredients.

Lush ‘The Sunblock’ Solid Sunscreen Wash

This is packaged in biodegradable cellophane. It can be applied in the shower or directly onto the skin.

It’s certainly a very effective sunblock. I have fair white skin that burns easily, and I wore this for sunbathing in hot sun without a problem. It loses points though, on price – it works out around £3 per full-body application.

Note: it melts in warm temperatures! So store it in a liquid-proof container.

Lush Sunscreen in Recycled Plastic Bottles

Lush do Sesame Suntan Lotion, (SPF 10) which also functions as a bronzer, and Powdered Sunshine (SP15). I haven’t tried either of these, but the powder looks fun.

Sunscreens In Tins

There are several brands of sunscreen available in tins which are popular with zero wasters. It’s not clear that aluminium tins are better for the environment than a plastic bottle (especially recycled plastic) so maybe don’t go out of your way to buy these just for that reason. Having said that, I have found it useful to reuse the tins for travel, and as Shade point out on their website, it is easier to use all up all the product from the bottom of a tin.  These brands also suit people who like their ingredients list simple.

Shade All-Natural Sunscreen is tested to EU standards and contains only 4 ingredients. If you buy directly from the manufacturer they promise to post it in cardboard with biodegradable filling. Their website is also a great resource on sun safety. There’s also All Good Sunscreen Butter which is available at SPF 50. Shea Alchemy Suncream SPF 15 Sun Block is one I’ve used personally, so I can tell you that this is a very effective sunblock, although a bit sticky on application.

Conventional Sun Lotion

If none of the above suits, we won’t judge you if you go for this. Just buy only what you need (beware those 3 for the price of 2 offers) and send the empty bottles to be recycled.

Zero Waste Teeth


The first toothbrush you ever had still exists somewhere in landfill, and will still be there when your great-great-grandchildren are teething. You probably want to see an end to this.

There are several products on the market that claim to be environmentally friendly options, but as I haven’t been able to find any research comparing them, it makes it difficult to say which is the best. So I’m just giving it my best guess.

Reusable toothbrushes with replaceable heads.  Source make theirs from recycled materials, or Yaweco make theirs with solar power and are cheaper. This is what I use, and it’s great. Both of these are available in health food stores or online.

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Toothbrushes made from recycled yoghurt pots. You can even send your used toothbrushes back to the company in the US for closed loop recycling.

Biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes. These are popular with zero wasters, however, the more I think about, it the less I am sure that this is better than the conventional toothbrush with the replaceable head. This is because:

a) bamboo toothbrushes are not designed to last. They will therefore need to be continually re manufactured and shipped, with all the associated environmental impacts of that. The toothbrush with the replaceable head is designed to be reused.

b) there is not enough information available about the way that the bamboo is grown to be able to say for sure that it is sustainable. How do we know that forests are not being cleared to meet the growing demand for bamboo products? How does growing lots of bamboo impact biodiversity and food production? There are many questions that would need to be answered before we could conclude that they are sustainable.

c) if biodegradable toothbrushes end up in landfill, they will give off greenhouse gases for years.

d) bamboo toothbrushes need extra equipment to be used – ie pliers to remove the bristles when you have finished with them. If you already have some about the place, then fine, but if you need to buy extra things for the sole purpose of disposing of bamboo toothbrushes, then this will add to the impact.

e) they are more expensive than buying replacement heads for the reusable toothbrush.

I can’t be 100% certain about this, because, as I say, I can’t seem to find any research comparing the impacts of different toothbrushes. If anyone knows of any lifecycle assessments on this, please do write in. Otherwise, I’m offering my best guess.

Toothpaste

Sigh. I still haven’t found a tooth-friendly solution to the problem of toothpaste tubes. There are a number of ideas popular with zero wasters, such as toothpaste in glass jars or recipes made with bicarbonate of soda. However, I don’t feel able to recommend any of these because:

a) I am not convinced that these are good for your teeth – my dentist warns against brushing your teeth every day with bicarb, or using toothpastes that don’t contain fluoride.

b) it’s not clear that these products are necessarily better for the environment. How is a jar more sustainable than a toothpaste tube? And what about the impact of the ingredients?

You may want to check out Kingfisher Toothpaste, as this received a high score on the Ethical Consumer Guide and is approved by the British Dental Health Foundation.  Personally I’m not willing to risk tooth decay in order to prevent a relatively small amount of waste.

Dental Floss

First, is it worth bothering about such a tiddly piece of waste?

Some people worry about animals or birds being strangled by waste pieces of floss (although I’m not sure how likely this is to happen if you dispose of it properly in a bin). You might also want to find a zero waste alternative if you’ve given up your waste bin and have no wish to hang on to pieces of used floss in a jar. Or maybe zero wasters are just perfectionists.

Whatever your reason, here are your options:

Dental Lace, comes in refillable capsules containing silk floss coated in vegetable-based wax. The packaging is designed to look good if you are carrying it with you.

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For vegans, EcoDent  do standard floss in cardboard packaging, which can at least be recycled.

For interdental brushes, your plastic-free option are these by Dent-O-Care.

Otherwise, if sourcing zero waste floss seems like too much hassle, don’t worry. It’s just dental floss.

10 Easy Ways to Dramatically Slim Your Bin

Depressed by how much you throw away? Follow these 10 steps to shed unsightly waste.


  1. Ditch the paper towel habit

Nothing fills your bin faster than cleaning up with paper towels. Forests were cut down for this, and quitting is easy. Cloths, rags or reusable kitchen roll will do the job and they don’t have to be re-bought and schlepped home from the supermarket every week.

For a super skinny bin: Swap paper tissues for hankies (or, kindest on the nose, old t-shirts cut up into squares) and exchange your foam washing-up sponge for a reusable unsponge.

2. Boycott superfluous sachets

Porridge in single-use pots, coffee pods, cubes of washing powder in individual plastic packets…..have these people never heard of spoons? And the cost! A recent survey* found that porridge oats in superfluous sachets costs between 4 and 10 times the price of the same bought loose or in a simple cardboard box. Someone is having a laugh. Let us reclaim our right to decide our own portion sizes.

3. Wash with……soap and water

Wet wipes can be really useful when outdooors without easy access to running water. When indoors, however, their utility is less clear. Packets of these things also take up storage space and have to be continually re-bought. If you use wipes to remove make up, using coconut oil and a washcloth will leave your skin feeling soft and lovely and also save you cash. If you use wipes to clean the house, a rag or a cloth with the eco-friendly cleaner of your choice will do the job, and costs less. Single-use baby wipes can be replaced with reusable ones  or use cut up towels (wet them before you leave the house and carry in a waterproof bag).

We are SO lucky to have easy access to clean water – let’s use it.

For a super skinny bin: You can also swap cotton wool pads for reusables.

 

4. Get your milk and juice delivered

Rinse and return. It’s the zero waster’s dream. See that mountain of plastic cartons disappear from your life, and you don’t even have to wash the bottles yourself. If it comes in an electric van, even better.

For best results, go for a dairy that reuses the bottles many times. (As a guide, glass milk bottles need to be reused around 20 times before they have a lower carbon footprint than plastic bottles).

These people do cow’s milk and a range of fruit juices in returnable bottles, or see what’s available local to you.

 

5. Beware the fruit and veg danger zone 

The fruit and veg aisle of your local supermarket is nothing less than waste central. Multipacks containing more than we can eat, pointless stickers and, as you’ve probably heard by now,  mountains of fruit and veg are thrown away for failing to pass a beauty contest.

Enough is enough. The fightback against food waste and fruit fascism starts here.

1. Buy only what your household will eat. 2. Buy fruit and veg loose in your own reusable produce bags. 3. Learn to love fruit and veg in weird shapes, and support shops that sell them (which includes some supermarkets). 4. Remember that chopped fruit in plastic tubs with single-use cutlery is an enviro-crime. Refuse to be complicit.

6. Check out your local packaging-free store

These are a great initiative that deals with two issues in one smooth move: the massive problem of food waste, and the troublesome volumes of single-use packaging waste that no-one seems to know what to do with. You can buy just what you need, and no more, and no-one will try to sell  you multipacks or BOGOFs.

Single-use packaging can be a real bin-fattener, and as Bea Johnson puts it, paying for this is just investing in landfill – all we are really doing is buying poor quality bags and containers over and over again, and paying to have them all disposed of over and over again. So see if there is anywhere local to you where you can take your own bags and buy goods loose – new places are opening up all the time.

7. Say goodbye to tampons

Why continually to buy these and throw them away,  buy and throw away,  for years, when a menstrual cup can be bought just once and will save you £££s?  According to Mooncup, it pays for itself in 6-8 months. Available in pretty designs, what’s not to love about it?** And reusable pads are available everywhere.

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8. Choose your hygiene products wisely

Aim to get soap and cleaning products in concentrate, such as bar soap, solid shampoo and conditioner, solid deodorant and laundry powder.  Research has shown that this is the most sustainable option, and should reduce the amount of packaging waste from these. If this really doesn’t suit, or for things like washing up liquid etc which usually comes as liquid, Splosh do online orders of concentrate products that can simply be added to water. Otherwise, many local health food stores do refills of household detergents and some do liquid shampoos and soaps. Check out this list here.

For a super-skinny bin: Keep an eye out for places that refill other products, such as wine and olive oil.

9. Just say no to crap

Don’t allow rubbish into your world in the first place. You are worth more than this. Leaflets and brochures you know you’ll never read, novelty pens, ugly merchandise you only accepted because it was free, the cheap-but-not-designed-to-last fashion accessory – our earth is being polluted and factory workers exploited so we can fill our lives with junk. Just say no.

10. Use the bin as a last resort

Only throw away what cannot be reused, donated, recycled or composted. And remember, recycling is for life, not just when you happen to be in the kitchen. So keep recycling bins in every place you currently have a waste bin (including at work). Eventually you will free your space of waste bins altogether.

 

* I made notes as I was going round the shops: 20p for 100g loose oats in my own bag from the health food store, 22p for the same in a recyclable cardboard box from the supermarket, 74.7p in non-recyclable sachets, and a full £1.91 for 100g porridge in a carton designed to be used once then sent to landfill.
**You may want to consider buying two of these, as scientists recommend sterilising them in between uses to reduce the risk of TSS.