Sustainability: What’s in it for me? How we owe it to ourselves to be better consumers

My waste composition analysis adventure (see last post for all the grisly details) certainly highlighted a couple of things for me. First, it seems the UK throws a shitload of stuff away every week. Second, a lot of what’s thrown away is still usable, whether it be materials for reuse or recycling, or food that could’ve been eaten.

In various conversations over the years, I’ve noticed a certain minority attitude to waste in general, and recycling in particular, that I find both counterintuitive and counterproductive. It’s a sort of suspicious, harassed, borderline-paranoid opinion, which views the council/government (for they are one and the same in such conversations) as The Enemy, throwing around red tape willy-nilly, choppin’ and changin’ the rules, with the sole intention of making life difficult for The Working Man. The common question from such people, when confronted with any request to change household waste disposal habits (particularly with regard to recycling), is “Why should I?” All usual arguments against this aside, my very brief and essentially selfish answer is that “it will cost you less money!”

Sod the environment for a sec – not wasting resources is beneficial to you, the consumer. Let’s start by exploring the part of this topic that makes me saddest: food waste.

If you throw away food, you’ll have to buy more of it, which will cost you more money.

This is a complete and utter no-brainer. Okay, so the pros and cons of recycling are a dark and mysterious beast, with so-called experts arguing about whether it’s actually worth recycling, politicians using contradictory stratagems for point-scoring, and journalists scaremongering and getting it wrong half the time, I mean, I understand why some people just ignore it…

But food? If you buy food, and then don’t eat it, you have wasted your money as well as wasting the food. That’s it, really. Yes, I know that supermarkets make those oh so tempting offers – the multibuys, the BOGOFs – but consider this: the more we buy (and often waste, because we’ve gone and bought more than we can eat before it starts smelling funny), the more has to be produced. That means more land, more people to grow or raise the raw materials, more storage facilities, increased transport and storage costs… Who do you think those extra costs get passed on to? Stand up and take a bow, it’s you.

I Need One Red Pepper.

I know that supermarkets teach us, through their advertising, that we are ‘losing out’ if we don’t go for the best value option. Take the following example, using prices from a major UK supermarket chain. One red pepper costs 60p, but a mixed pack of three costs £1. The supermarket is telling you that, selling them three at a time, peppers only actually cost 33p, but to buy them singly will cost you almost twice as much. It’s tempting to go for the three-pack, as it’s better value. But you only need one pepper. What are you going to do with three times the amount of peppers you came in for? Yup, it's one red pepper

If you can think of a way to use the other two peppers before they go wrinkly and horrible, I commend you. However, I know from personal experience that often these extra, unwanted items end up languishing in the fridge drawer until they are good for nothing but the bin. To be responsible consumers – only buying what we need rather than falsely inflating demand, pushing up prices and adding to landfill – we need to just buy the one pepper.

And, logically, isn’t it better to spend 60p on something you need than £1 on something you don’t? If you only end up using the one pepper you originally went in for, but you bought three, you haven’t just wasted two peppers (and all the energy that went into growing, transporting, storing and packaging them), you’ve also wasted 40p. That 40p could have gone on something else you actually needed. It’s only “better value” if you are going to use it all.

Here’s a few little food-saving points to consider next time you’re standing poised over the bin, unopened packet of veg or whatever in hand:

The “best before” (or even “use by”) date is not some magical deadline – the carrots aren’t going to turn to mulch in the fridge come the stroke of midnight, the milk isn’t going to curdle, the eggs won’t have metamorphosed into black slime in their shells once their date has passed. Use your common sense (and your other senses, while you’re at it). I’ve found that many items are fine past their date if they’ve remained sealed, due to that good old “protective atmosphere” they were packed in. Have a look, give it a sniff, but please don’t rely wholly on the date. It’s a guideline to be paired with common sense, not an absolute to blindly obey.

The Cow Says: my tits hurt, stop wasting the milk!

The Cow Says: my tits hurt, stop wasting the milk!

If it’s in date, it’s in date – I observed some strange behaviour in a previous job a few years ago. Due to a communications error, the staff kitchen ended up receiving two deliveries of milk. One of my colleagues, having checked the dates on the cartons, opted to open the one that had the furthest date on it. The cartons delivered earlier in the week were still in date, but only by a couple of days. She dismissed the option of using these because the second delivery had provided her with the opportunity of using milk that was “even fresher!” Never mind that the carton in the first delivery wasn’t even open. PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. If you use the milk that’s likely to go off first, you won’t end up wasting a load of milk.

Impulse buys – if you’ve bought something cheap because it’s got only a day or two until its use by date, and you’re not sure when you’re going to use it, stick it in the freezer. I mean, check it’s something that can be frozen (preferably before you buy it), but most things can be. Then you can just retrieve it when you’re ready to eat it. Easy.

Fruit and veg – it is so saddening – nay, maddening – to see fresh produce binned, especially given that the West is apparently in the grip of an ‘obesity epidemic’ and we could all do with a more balanced diet to help stave off things like diabetes and heart disease (and constipation, flatulence, bad breath, not to mention that sluggish no-energy feeling that follows a sugar crash). FRUIT AND VEGETABLES CAN BE FROZEN, either with the minimum of preparation e.g. chopping up and then boiling for a couple of minutes, or just thrown raw into a Ziploc bag and bunged straight in the freezer. Have a quick look online, all the information you need is there.

Bread – oh, but there are SO MANY WAYS to use up excess bread. I’m not a fan of the thin pre-sliced stuff myself, but even this can be made to last longer by sticking it straight in the freezer (you can toast it from frozen, or give it a few seconds in the microwave for sandwiches). If on the other hand you’re faced with the last third of an uncut, rapidly drying loaf (and you aren’t in the mood for French toast), you can chop it up into breadcrumbs, which can be bagged and frozen for later use in a variety of recipes (again, plenty of ideas online). Or just tear it up and put it out for the local wildlife. At least then it’ll get eaten, rather than going to rot in landfill. Personally, I reckon this Apple Charlotte recipe is the best way to use up leftover bread (if using frozen breadcrumbs for this, don’t defrost them first).

And Now For The Inedibles

Here’s another no-brainer for you: the more material we recycle/reuse, the less we have to create from scratch, and the less we have to store in landfill. We have this little thing here in the UK called Landfill Tax, which is exactly as it sounds: we get taxed on the stuff we send to landfill. It’s in place to discourage us from sticking everything in a big hole in the ground, because the quicker we fill that hole, the sooner we have to either enlarge it or dig a new one (a process that is patently untenable in the long term, unless we start moving that shit up to the Moon. No, we are not doing that).

At its most basic level, why the hell are we putting perfectly good resources into a large hole in the ground? If we can use this stuff for another purpose, we should. When I buy a new pair of jeans I don’t take the old pair out to the park and bury them. That would be bloody weird.

This is another example of how we as consumers have a duty to acknowledge – and be responsible for – where our goods come from, and where they go when we’re done with them. Here are some points to think about:

Digging for jeans

Bob Evans of Conwy Vale, having realised he should never have bought skinny jeans, searches in vain for his buried flares.

Don’t you want that? Someone else might – So your toddler’s grown out of that ridiculous plastic chair thingy with the squeaky bits on it. It’s still usable, you’ve just run out of appropriately-aged people to use it. Fine. Stick it on Freecycle, or Preloved, or Gumtree, or a Facebook group for selling/giving away stuff in your local area. There are tons of ways to get unwanted crap out of your house without condemning it to a stinking hole in the ground (where it will stay, uselessly using up a portion of Planet Earth that we could’ve used for something fun, for many years to come, because plastic never goes away – it doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into lots of tiny pieces that get all over everything[1]). And this goes for loads of stuff: toys, clothes, books, CDs… Sell them, give them away, drop them off at a charity shop – but make sure that, if they’re still usable, someone else gets to use them.

“Recycling is a waste of my time” – Er, no it isn’t. It barely even takes any time. You just don’t want to have to make a change. Admit it: you just can’t be bothered. True, it does take a tiny bit more effort to stick an empty jar in the sink and run the hot tap into it for a minute than to just drop the jar into the bin… But then it takes a tiny bit more effort to drop that jar in the bin than it does to just leave it on the kitchen worktop for someone else to tidy up, and we all learned how to cope with that monumental change when we moved out of our parents’ place, right?

Recycling isn’t gross – I know some people don’t recycle some of their cans and bottles because they can’t bear to wash the last sticky bits out of the bottom of them. How the hell can you be too grossed out to wash the last remaining bits of food out of a container, having just eaten the rest of its contents? What, you’ll put it in your mouth but you won’t get it on your hands? That’s just weird. As for the empty tins from dog or cat food, well, it doesn’t smell that great, I’ll agree, but it’s still just leftover bits of food. It isn’t going to hurt you.

Recycling isn’t difficult – Ok, so some councils aren’t exactly clear in their explanations of what can and can’t be put out for recycling. A recent WRAP study[2] revealed that confusion and a lack of confidence about “the recycling rules” are still causing a significant number of UK residents to put recyclables into general waste rather than risk getting it wrong. Fortunately, many manufacturers are now writing helpful things on the side of their packaging, detailing the main materials and whether or not they are widely recycled. And, as ever, there’s plenty of information available online. My local council website, for example, has a lovely long list of recyclable materials, including examples of common items and clarification regarding what to do with mixed-material items. Check your own council’s site; there’s probably a proper explanation available that they just couldn’t fit on their leaflets. The Rubbish Diet is also a good source of helpful advice and encouragement for those wishing to give “bin-slimming” a try.

I admit it: recycling, finding new homes for our unwanted items, and being a bit more organised in order to reduce food waste, all take a bit more effort than we’re perhaps willing to put in, given our hectic lives. But even one small change can make so much difference.

However, if I haven’t tempted you to at least think about it, by pointing out the benefits to your health and your wallet, as well as that whole personal-social-environmental responsibility lark, then perhaps you’ll never be convinced, and in that case I shall leave you in peace with your weird, money-wasting, couldn’t-give-a-fuck lifestyle. I’ll just go talk to someone more willing to try making a little change. Just a teeny tiny little change or two. Y’know, for their own benefit.

Okay, I’m going now.

[1] See these two examples of where plastic “goes”: http://grist.org/list/beer-a-magical-mixture-of-hops-barley-and-tiny-pieces-of-plastic/ and http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/bees-are-building-nests-with-our-waste-plastic

[2] http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/barriers-recycling-home

The Waste Composition Analysis Adventure and the Importance of Being Responsible Shoppers

A couple of months ago I signed up for one of the weirder jobs I’ve done in my life: waste composition analysis. To remove the euphemistic title: sorting through the rather ripe contents of black bin bags to see what people throw away. It’s a good way for councils to gauge how effective they’ve been at encouraging communities to recycle, as well as providing data on food wastage. I feel it necessary to mention at this point that it is completely legal for council employees to go rootling through household waste in this way as, once the council has collected your rubbish, it belongs to them (you’ve the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to thank for that, which helps to ensure that your household waste is disposed of safely rather than being left to rot in a river).

Some waste, to get you in the mood

Some waste, to get you in the mood (this stuff looks a lot cleaner than what I had to dig through)

But back to my disgusting work experience. I’m one of a group of half a dozen, all eager for the dubious opportunity to get elbow-deep in a random selection of municipal solid waste collected in the North of England. We don hooded coveralls, hardhats, steel toe-cap boots and two sets of gloves (a thick pair to guard against sudden sharp objects, and latex gloves underneath to prevent ‘bin juice’ from seeping through to our lovely clean skin). A brief safety induction from a site manager to the tune of “here are the emergency meeting points, try not to run under a dump-truck”, and we march off into the bowels of the HWRC (Household Waste Recycling Centre), ready to do battle with waste.

The smells of the job come in stages. As we enter our designated area of an immense warehouse, it really isn’t that bad – as it turns out, being in an enclosed space with many tonnes of waste is fine, as long as that waste isn’t being churned up. But then our first load for sorting arrives: the truck disgorges a small mountain of black bags, kicking up a nasal chorus reminiscent of bin-day at home, but more intense by a factor of approximately 100. The huge pile glistens wetly, shifting here and there as it settles. I resist the urge to dive in headfirst.

Tearing open the bags and unleashing a positive rainbow of aromas, we sort the contents into 48 categories, including drinks cans (ferrous and non-ferrous), food cans, dense plastic packaging, cardboard packaging, compostable food waste, non-compostable food waste, and so on. Presumably fearful that we might run out of awfulness to sort through, the truck returns later in the day to top up the pile.

Maggots. Mmm, look at 'em glisten

Maggots. Mmm, look at ’em glisten. Don’t say I never give yer nuffin.

Top finds of the day include a Furby Baby, its once soft fur entirely matted with the grey slime of far-gone food waste; a dead pheasant, in perfect condition but for the fact that someone had neatly removed its head; and an unidentifiable dead thing, which very nearly induced vomiting in one of my colleagues. These items are segregated for their humour/disgust value. We also uncover a healthy colony of maggots, which do not get their own category.

It’s only a cross-section of waste disposal habits in one area of the UK, of course, but I find it depressing to see the amount of recyclable material headed for landfill. Even worse is the level of food waste, from unopened yoghurts and packets of meat (still in date, even when they get to us) to still-sealed bags of fruit and vegetables. Why, in the current economic climate, with food prices rocketing but bank balances plummeting, are people throwing away perfectly edible food?

I can’t answer for them, of course, and can only highlight that buying and then binning food is by no definition a good thing. It’s money wasted, it’s energy wasted, it’s landfill space needlessly used up. When you’re out shopping for food, chances are you’re not thinking about how that food came to be in the supermarket, and chances are also that you aren’t thinking about where the stuff you throw away will end up, right?

However, as consumers, it’s our duty to recognise our part in the cycle. The more food we buy, the more needs to be created for us to buy. That puts pressure on the systems providing it, which pushes up prices. Those increased costs will be passed on to us, because no private company is going to shoulder that burden at the expense of its shareholders.

 

I’ll be going into this in a bit more depth, as well as giving some advice on the little changes we can all make, in my next post…