Sunday, 30 November 2008

The word is spreading!

This weekend's been a busy one - it was the City of Norwich half marathon today, and as I am a member of that club I've been helping out with the event, which I've done for the past few years. I don't get involved in the planning side, so it was a big and very nice surprise to arrive for set-up yesterday and see positive moves being made on the waste front!

Bear in mind that this is a big event. We had over 2,600 entries for the half marathon, benefitting the Big C cancer charity, and another 200 people running a 5km race for the East Anglian Children's Hospice, plus of course all their spectators. Among other things we have to provide them with water at several points around the course, and we give out goodie bags at the end. It's a big undertaking to try and make it waste free, but this year's positive steps include:
  • reusable cloth bags for the goodie bags, not plastic carriers as we have seen before
  • recycling bins around the place for plastic bottles (water is given in the goodie bag)
  • cardboard recycling bins for all the boxes (goodie bag food, t-shirts, the bags themselves, etc.)
  • leftover fruit (from goodie bags) donated to the local YMCA/YWCA
When you look at the event with a waste-aware eye, there are lots of things you notice. All the medals and t-shirts came in individual plastic bags; timing chips were held on to shoes with wire ties; the five water stations use thousands of plastic cups and 2L bottles. Putting up signs etc. uses several miles of cable ties, I'm sure! Then there are the caterer's stands selling coffee and hot dogs and so on, and refreshments for the army of 200 volunteers. But these are an expected part of big running events and the club's priority has to be to make the runners' experience as good and smooth as possible, and to appreciate its volunteers. I would like to think that we have seen the start of some real improvements, though, and the club deserves credit for making that start. We'll be looking for ways to improve too.

Some clubs are starting to make inroads on having environmentally-friendly events - Crystal Palace Triathlon this year aimed to be zero-carbon, for example - and there is a small but growing demand from competitors for their events to do better. I think this is a trend that will continue, and I will be interested to see how far it goes. Some people would be most upset to lose their finishers' medals and t-shirts!

Here are a few photos I took - sorry for the quality, they were on my phone.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Paying and throwing and wondering

There's an interesting post by Mrs Green over on My Zero Waste, about a radio programme discussing Pay As You Throw in response to a government pilot scheme. Quite a range of views were represented, but the thing that really stood out for me was the show's presenter saying from the start that this is a good idea. With all the moaning, knee-jerk, "stealth tax", "it's what I pay my council tax for" reactions that usually make their way into any debate on this subject, it's quite different to see the positive viewpoint put forward so clearly!

That said, I have a bit of an internal disagreement over how I feel about introducing PAYT. It would work if everyone actually cared and understood that we need to reduce waste. But not everyone understands or cares. Some just don't give two hoots, and some people seem to be actively against the idea that we should put less stuff in the bin (possibly an automatic reaction to what they see as nanny-state-ism). I am definitely worried that PAYT would lead to more flytipping problems and people's bins being "hijacked" by others with more waste. Education and awareness raising can go some way to help, and some councils are very successful at prosecuting flytippers, but I do feel there is a core of quite solid resistance that will be hard to overcome.

In any case, it looks like there is no interest in PAYT in Norfolk at the moment, according to this article in the local press. South Norfolk says "people don't want it", Broadland says it's "unpopular and costly" (and with their great food waste scheme their recycling rate already tops 50%), and Norwich says it's "just another tax", and it would be more interested if the scheme was based on rewards rather than penalties. No council wants to antagonise their residents, naturally. However the national survey quoted in the same article says that over 70% of people thought either carrot or stick would work - incentives would encourage them to recycle more, and penalties would make them "be more careful about creating waste". Over 50% of respondents thought that a link between amount of waste and amount paid would be fair.

I wonder if the councils have fallen victim to the phenomenon that often affects "what do you think?" consultations? If you get a bit of publicity about the prospect of PAYT (as we have had locally due to South Norfolk Council having microchipped bins, although the chips are no longer used), then people who feel really strongly will contact the council and complain. I doubt there is anyone who feels as strongly pro-PAYT as some people are anti it! However, when a national market research company (NOP) does a proper survey, approaching over 1,000 people and asking what they think, I think I'm more inclined to trust their results.

It has been acknowledged that the South Norfolk trial was not successful, for various reasons including the unreliability of equipment. But the fact remains that other countries do use PAYT. So the question is how? Can our apparently immovable national trait of being rubbish (ha ha) at governmental IT projects ever be overcome? We can talk about it until we are blue in the face (and believe me I think talking about this issue is a good thing), but unless implementing it is actually a practicality, should we redirect some of our effort to other solutions?

Last word on this comes from a letter in the Times. And it's a good point. In Waste Free Week I reduced the weight of my waste by 25% (that sounds quite pathetic now!) but the volume of waste was reduced by 70-75% as far as I can visually estimate. When you think in terms of bin lorry trips and landfill sites, it's clear that volume is more important. But as my estimate just here shows, it's easy to measure weight and harder to get a quantitative measure of volume for such a random and irregular thing as a bag of rubbish. There have been arguments over this in the past, suggesting that councils concentrate on collecting heavier recyclables like glass as they are better for meeting purely weight-based government targets. It's worth thinking about - how can we really measure the reduction we are looking for here?

Buying nothing - a traitorous deed?

Having previously ruminated on the way life as we know it seems to be tied to our willingness to buy shedloads of tat, I was interested to come across a couple of articles on the BBC news website; Should shopping be our patriotic duty? and The paradox of thrift.

There is an interesting mix of viewpoints in the first article, ranging from a Buy Nothing Day supporter who believes Now Is The Time to start trying to shed the rampant consumerism, to a "shopping guru" who says fun is an essential of life (yes, but is buying things all we can think of to do for fun?), and likens only buying essentials to being under a harsh dictatorial regime (maybe a tad extreme!). While I agree to some extent with the first chap, I think the most sensible approach comes from the retail writer who suggests that we take a moment to think before buying: does this purchase support or negate the type of change I want to see in the world? Surely the most fundamental question of ethical shopping.

The final short word in that article comes from an economist, who points out that whatever the benefits of shifting away from our shopping addiction, doing it overnight will cause as many problems as it solves, a theme taken up by the second article which tries to explain why such desperate measures are currently being put in place to try and get us to keep spending.

I think you probably need a degree in economics to fully understand it all, but I doubt for one minute that Buy Nothing Day will seriously destabilise the global economy. But it might make people think a bit.

(I won't be buying anything, but I will be out of reach of sales assistants and online shopping so maybe that's not much of an achievement!)

Monday, 17 November 2008

Update from the ISBO

Tesco have replied to my query:

Dear Katy,

I have contacted my Business Support Team who have looked into this further for me.

When they investigated they found that all of our sealed packs are laminates, this means that different kinds of materials are glued together. The only thing you can do is recycle in a special way for laminates or incinerate the packaging.

It is not a mono material so you can not put it in a bin of a determined plastic.

I hope this information helps.

Thank you for asking us about this.

Well. What can I say? If it is the case that "the only thing you can do is recycle in a special way for laminates or incinerate the packaging", it seems a bit disingenuous to say that the packaging "can be recycled where facilities exist". I know this is strictly true, but the likelihood of a customer having access to those facilities is effectively zero. The aggrieved consumer is presumably supposed to lobby their beleaguered local council for facilities to recycle special laminates!

Wouldn't it be great to see large and influential companies like Tesco taking the lead in making it easier for people to recycle more, and in particular taking responsibility for the packaging used on their own-branded items. I would like to see some sort of commitment to using packaging materials that are more commonly recyclable in domestic collections, and clearly labelling them to assist the consumer with recycling. After all, as they keep telling us, every little helps!

I've replied to Tesco with the above comments. I don't expect them to reply and say that thanks to my suggestion they have changed their packaging policy, but maybe if we all said a similar thing...

Backsliding a bit

Sad to say our good habits have undergone a little slippage in the past couple of weeks. We haven't undone all the good work, but it shows how good intentions can be overridden by life in general.

Last weekend I was away with friends, and the week's food shopping had to be fitted in at Tesco on Friday evening before I left, so there was a bit of a resurgence in plastic packaging in our bin. I brought home what recycling and leftovers I could from the weekend away, but we still had to leave about a quarter of a black bag in the landfill bin there. A lot of that was ash from the coal fire, for which we had no alternative disposal. And some of the leftovers also brought waste with them that ended up in my bin, e.g. cheese and houmous.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been doing some computer upgrading at home, and so there's been some more foam packaging and little plastic tie widgets, but lots of cardboard and poly bags have been recycled. Old computer parts will go on Freecycle if I can persuade Mark we don't need them "just in case".

This weekend just gone ended up being a bit of a mad rushing about time as we were organising a charity quiz night, and it made more sense to go to the supermarket on the way from another errand, especially as we ended up food shopping on Sunday when things shut at 4 or earlier. The worst offenders waste-wise are still meat and fish, although we tried to mitigate by buying things which will do for multiple meals, like a whole chicken. It was interesting to see minor differences at Sainsbury's, as our usual supermarket would be Tesco - they sell chopped tomatoes in Tetra cartons (not sure why; I feel a can is more immediately recyclable), and I can pick up a large pack of wholemeal pasta rather than several smalls. But really the two are much of a muchness.

I haven't weighed the bin yet, but will do when I get home, to get a 2-week total (it's the same bag). I think the volume may have gone up due to plastic, but the weekly weight will have gone down as we have refrained from eating duck lately :)

Update: 730g for 2 weeks, i.e. an average of 365g per week.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Buy less - buy nothing?

Following up on yesterday's post about the mountains of recyclables building up - I wonder whether there is another ideal opportunity here. For a long time, councils and national government have pushed the recycling idea hard, promoting it perhaps (in my opinion) beyond its third place in the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle hierarchy. Perhaps this is because the other two have less council involvement, and so they just have less to tell us about those options, but I still feel they are the poor relations sometimes. Of course, we do need to recycle things - but where are the strong messages on not throwing away so much into any kind of bin? On making things last, repairing them, and finding new uses for old stuff? Or (gasp) buying less stuff in the first place? There's the beginnings of a movement on reducing packaging, but the idea of just not purchasing so much doesn't really seem to be getting as much exposure. Yet, if we didn't purchase so much, we wouldn't have to deal with so much recycling.

As I wrote yesterday, the Bank of England had just cut the interest rate by a massive 1.5%, to try kick-start the economy and keep us all buying stuff, so that we can continue with "business as usual". How big a financial crisis does it take to make us realise this isn't a sustainable way to live? (Answers on a reused envelope please...)

Neatly wrapping up these rhetorical musings is a reminder about Buy Nothing Day, 29th November. The wrapping is even recycled as it was used a couple of days ago by Mrs A over on The Rubbish Diet :)

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Recycling - the clue's in the name

Recycling is a hot topic - there's no way we could even be thinking about "zero waste" without it. Yet how many people cheerfully fill up their blue bin, put it out every fortnight, and think no more about it? How many people are clamouring to be able to recycle plastics, Tetra packs, foil, batteries and all sorts of other things from the comfort of their own doorstep? After all there's nothing to lose - it all gets taken away and dealt with in a green way, and you don't have to worry about it.



The current global financial climate means that markets for recyclables (i.e. the contents of our recycling bins) are reducing or disappearing (as reported in this Times article today). Councils are having to store collected materials in the hope that prices will recover and they can sell them before long, but so much is being stored that a relaxation in storage regulations is being considered. The councils' whole recycling systems are built on the idea that someone, somewhere finds used newspapers/plastic bottles/steel cans a useful resource and is willing to pay for it. That income then helps pay for the recycling collections, centres, etc.

Now, that income is falling or disappearing. Less stuff is being manufactured, so less material is needed. As well as the question of where we can put all the stuff that is piling up, it seems that this could have implications for council coffers (some already under pressure following the Icelandic banking problems) if it continues, at least in terms of recycling services.

What sometimes seems a bit forgotten, and is not always emphasised enough in official recycling literature, is this. Recycling is called recycling because there is a cycle involved. Check out the logo! (One major exception was the series of TV ads remindng us that "the possibilities are endless" and that today's drinks can could be tomorrow's aeroplane... or drinks can. That campaign is now over.) But I think the constant (often negative) media focus on fortnightly collections and differing council policies detracts from that message, and makes it seem like recycling is "just about the bin".

For recycling to work, there has to be something completing the cycle, filling in the bit that goes from our recycling bin to the stuff we buy. How many people forget that bit when out shopping? Some things, like recycled kitchen roll, are pretty much mainstream, but other recycled things are still sold as "special", almost novelty items. Pens that tell you they are made from old drinks cups. Fleeces that are badged as being from plastic drinks bottles. Wouldn't it be great if these things were the norm, and you had to have stickers on things that were made from virgin materials instead? If everyday people, who didn't consider themselves "green", were supporting the market in recyclables without even knowing it? This already happens with some things, such as newspapers and food/drink can - is there any way the same can be done for other materials?

Our responsibility for an item doesn't end when we pop it in the blue bin. Without consumer demand for recycled items, that bottle or cardboard box you're about to put out could have nowhere to go. I'm not saying buy more - but collectively we could perhaps buy better?

Tuesday, 4 November 2008 moves to reduce packaging

I've just been forwarded this press release. Amazon are working with some major manufacturers to reduce packaging on some items in the USA, and the scheme will be rolled out internationally in 2009. Good to see such a big company making a start on this - clearly they carry clout with manufacturers, and perhaps they can inspire other retailers too.

Two posts in a day! It won't last ;)

Brought to you by the ISBO

This morning I finished off a packet of cranberries. I'm collecting plastic film for recycling with Polyprint, and I know they can take types 2 and 4, which Waste Online tells me is high- and low-density polyethylene, or HDPE and LDPE. But I'm still not sure whether that covers my cranberry bag - websites giving examples of types of plastic usually just describe HDPE as used in opaque milk bottles, and LDPE as carrier bags. So, I check the packet, and sure enough there is a "recycling information" panel. Woohoo!

It says: "Bag: plastic. Recyclable where facilities exist."

ISBO = Institute for the Statement of the Bleeding Obvious.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Waste free week summary

It was all going so well until I was derailed by that damn duck yesterday.

Our Waste Free Week total is.... (drumroll)...

Everything Else: 308g (plus one large and two small plastic cups, a plastic fork and some disposable chopsticks while out and about - so call it 350g?)

The Duck: 675g (tray, film, giblets bag, carcass, skin, and a yoghurt pot full of fat) - that's nearly twice as much as the whole rest of the week! The whole duck when bought was 1.9kg + packaging so that's 33% unavoidable waste.

Overall total 1.025kg, but in a much smaller bag (left) than last week's 1.4kg (right). I've filled in my record sheet - have you?

Reflecting on the week, then... going waste free really does come down to planning and thinking things through. You have to be on the ball and taking waste seriously all of the time. One dodgy decision can put paid to a lot of previous careful behaviour!

Of course, you can't change 100% in a week. It takes time to work through what's already in the cupboards and to change ingrained habits. But the good effects of this week's shopping will carry forward, as there are fewer waste-heavy items in the fridge and cupboard waiting to be used up.

I still have to get myself sorted to take advantage of a few more waste-free tricks (yogurt maker, more tupperwares to take to the butcher, maybe a bokashi bin). And I think there are some things that cause waste I'll just have to accept for the moment - for example, boxed pasta is much more expensive than the stuff in a bag, and it is hard to get wholewheat pasta in either boxes or in bulk, but it is a real staple food for us. But the week has definitely opened my eyes to exactly what I would have to change and do without to be truly waste free. That's a big step at the moment, and I am not sure we are ready to go that far, but if even everyone just did "the easy stuff" that we've tried, think of the difference it would make!

Well done and thanks to all the waste free bloggers who've been writing and commenting this week - I hope there might still be at least the occasional post from all of us as waste free week recedes into history? A slim bin is for life, not just for a week in late October ;)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Day 7 - feeling deflated, and a dastardly duck

Oh dear - nobody wanted the balloons on Freecycle. One person asked for them, but when emailed back she never replied. They are looking rather sad now.

However, perhaps all is not lost. A bit of an experiment shows that I can actually untie the balloons so they can be reused (employing two dessert forks and some cooking oil - let your imaginations run wild...). There are also some more balloon reuse ideas on How Do I Recycle This? The ribbon can certainly be reused too.

The rest of the day has definitely not been up to the standard of the rest of the week. This is partly due to finishing off various food bits that have non-recyclable packaging: a ham packet and superfluous bag (see last Saturday), a cereal bar wrapper and two plastic bottle caps. Finally, I made some flapjacks for munching in the week, so there's a plastic butter wrapper too (I'll spare you the recipe this time!). Away from food-related waste, I might also have an inner tube to deal with, but hopefully the puncture I got this morning isn't catastrophic and can be fixed. If not, I will have lots of rubber bands :) I did find a use for knackered old toothbrushes and washing up sponges in cleaning my bike after the ride though.

Back to food waste now because this is the big let down: we had roast duck for dinner (not bought this week) - it had a plastic tray and wrap for packaging, not to mention that fact that there was a lot of unavoidable food waste in the form of bones, skin, and fat. Really, I could have thought that one through much better (d'oh), but I didn't twig until it was already defrosting and too late to put it back and keep quiet about it.

To be fair, it was already bought and we would have eaten it some time (otherwise there'd have been even more waste!) but it was a bit stupid of me to get it out during waste free week. So, I've done everything I can, stripped every ounce of leftover meat off the bones, even made stock, but now it's sat there in the bin resolutely pushing up my weekly total. Quacking hell! We'll measure the damage tomorrow.

A couple of notes: you can make stock but you still generally chuck away the same amount of bones and stuff afterwards; and poultry fat doesn't seem to solidify so you can't make fat/seed balls for the birds like you can with meat fat (and of course it should never go down the drain!). So I am wondering whether to go for a bokashi bin, but have just seen the price - £65 for 2 bins and 3 bags of bran (eek) - and wonder where I could fit it in my kitchen. Come on bokashi fans, convince me?

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Day 6 - shopping again

Not too much shopping this week, as with all last week's social activities we have enough meat and fish left in the freezer to see us through. So, it's veg, fruit, bread, and a few pantry items on the list.

This time we went to try another local shop, the Green Grocers. It actually covers three shop units in a local shopping parade, and sells everything from fruit and veg to cleaning products and pet food, all as green as possible, as well as having a cafe. In practice, this means that most things are organic, which is great to see but perhaps a bit of a shock to the wallet if you suddenly do your whole shop there and haven't been used to buying organic. We were a bit selective and went for the veg we usually eat raw (carrots, celery, cucumber) plus one or two other bits including some brazil nuts (plastic bag) as I had rather missed nuts on my porridge this week.

After that it was back to last week's grocers where we picked up the rest of our fruit and veg, some bread (in no wrapper at all this week :), and dried fruit weighed out of bulk containers, which I requested in paper bags. At this point I notice they also do brazil nuts by weight too. Darn. Round the corner to the Co-op for tinned stuff, cheese, and butter for baking. Even butter wrappers have gone from foil/paper to plastic - unless I can find full cream milk in a glass bottle, and two hours to churn it, I guess I am stuck with that ;) The cheese is similarly devoid of alternatives, but we did buy a large pack so we can freeze some. Compared to last week's ham, the waste generated for a week's sandwiches using cheese is defnitely lower.

In the evening it was off to a party for some friends (I spent the afternoon regressing to 8 years old to make a card (left) out of a shoe box - all to avoid another plastic greetings card wrapper!), and who else should be there but fellow waste blogger Alex? She put me to shame a bit with her sheer commitment to waste free - the sense of relief was quite clear when someone came up with a china alternative to the paper plates on offer, and saved her from hovering by the buffet all night eating finger food one bit at a time :)

So to be fair, we have to add a couple of plastic cups and a fork to our week's waste - but in mitigation, to help out our friends we brought home some cardboard and paper (including food packaging) for recycling, and pumpkin lanterns to go into the compost bin. I even grabbed some helium balloons that were going spare, in the vain hope I can find a new home via Freecycle before they go droopy! If not, I'm in trouble...