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Thursday, 26 January 2017

Plastic Ocean

On Tuesday, I was invited to speak along with a fellow zero waster, Hannah, at The Oxford Waste Society.

The theme of the talk was cutting down on plastic packaging. Inspired by the horrific facts that she learnt about plastic pollution in our oceans, Hannah took on the challenge of living for a year without using any single use plastic. My own inspiration for my family's plastic free year was a little closer to home. I was upset by the amount of plastic waste in the hedgerows and ditches in our lovely Oxfordshire countryside.

It was great to hear about Hannah's plastic free experience and to see all of the life choices that I have made being embraced by someone else. It was really interesting to hear that even though Hannah has now finished her challenge year she plans to continue, as we have.

"How can I possibly go back?" she said.

I know that we have slipped back in some ways. There were things that were hard or not viable to buy without packaging.  The one think I can think of is frozen peas. We tried to grow peas in our plastic free year but they got devastated by some high winds when they were still not strong enough.
I don't know why I don't want to give them up, but I don't.

The other thing that has crept back into our household is packaged crisps. I have almost managed to give them up. But even I cracked last weekend when Mr Pitt opened a packet of cheesy biscuits and I found myself picking at them.

At this point, I should say that our plastic free year wasn't supposed to be about giving up. It was about finding alternatives that were not packaged. We experimented with making home made crisps from vegetable peel and that works well. I managed to switch to snacking on dried fruit and nuts which I bought unpackaged from SESI Oxford. I haven't stopped doing that. When I  find myself nibbling away at packaged snacks at events I stop.
Home made butternut squash crisps

So reflecting on my packaged snacks nibbling last Sunday at home made me think. When you make a conscious decision about something you feel strongly about, it isn't that hard to stick to it. So I have munched my last packaged snack. That's it. I am done with them.

I can't speak for the rest of the family, but I am going to be strong willed and stick to my principles and I will draw support from Hannah's "How can I possibly go back?"

My single-use plastic collected from one year
When we did our plastic free year we ended up with one "plastic cat-food bag" full of single-use plastic and my view was that we hadn't succeeded in our challenge.  It is only afterwards in talking about it at events like the Oxford Waste Society meeting, that I have realised that what we achieved was in any way surprising.  Imagine if this was the amount of plastic produced in every household in the UK.  It is hard to remember how much plastic we produced before the plastic-free year (2015), but I would guess I may have produced four or five times that amount. I didn't measure our plastic from last year but taking a guess I would say it was probably only double. So I'm wondering if seeing and measuring waste in this way has any effect on consumption.

I had a realisation at the beginning of the year that the only thing likely to be in my bin at the end of the year is crisp packets and the non recyclable wrappers from a bag of Cadbury's Roses that were brought to our house at Christmas.

I still think that this waste will be less than an old style plastic carrier bag full over a whole year.  I plan to check, so I am keeping all the wrappers that are non-recyclable in one of my (recyclable, but also reusable for many purposes) cat-food bags to see what we gather in a year.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Talking Rubbish on Radio Four PM

On Friday I was invited to be part of a panel of experts on Radio Four's PM programme.

All week PM has been talking rubbish in an effort to get people thinking about packaging, what they are prepared to accept and how they dispose of it.  Listeners were invited to voice their opinions and to send in their questions to the panel of experts made up of Karen Cannard of The Rubbish Diet, Dominic Hogg of Eunomia and myself.

Here are the links to the programme each day with timings for the relevant section.

Monday  - 17:24
Tuesday -  17:36 
Wednesday -  17.45
Thursday   - 17:20
Friday  - 17.45

The studio at BBC Oxford.  Just me on my own hoping
 the tech would work.  It did and it sounded like we were
 all sharing a jolly cup of tea together!

We had some great questions sent in. We couldn't all answer all of the questions so here's a bit more from me.

Stephen from Gibralter - Wed 11th
Thanks for your great reports on the recycling of plastic.

I understand that some plastic products may not be easily recycled but is it really beyond the potential of the scientific community to come up with an effective process that would allow for the 'mulching up' of all types of plastics into a solid mass? Even if this 'by-product' only goes towards controlling the vast spread of plastic that seems to be reaching all corners of the earth & sea. Who knows, we might even find some commercial use for it. Construction, insulation, transport etc. Might inspire a few entrepreneurs to make some more money from plastics.

There’s now lots of technology that can sort plastic into different types, colours etc to enable it to be recycled.

Technically, I am pretty sure all plastic can be ‘mulched up’ into plastic flake or pellets and it can then be reused to make other products.  The issue with plastic is almost the same as the advantage of plastic.  It is lightweight to transport. However, it is bulky before it is broken down.  When transporting plastic for recycling you are transporting a lot of air.  The cost of the transport has to be factored in to the worth of recycling. 

Plastic is probably most difficult to recycle (or too costly to recycle) when it is mixed materials or heavily printed. Some plastic based packaging is both of these – such as crisp packets and chocolate wrappers. 

I think there is the technology to completely avoid any packaging that isn’t recyclable or compostable.  But research and change costs money, so consumers need to vote with their hard earned cash and force change. There are companies making money from plastics but the margins are very small, the transport costs are high and so are the insurance premiums as large quantities of stored plastics are a fire risk. 

As consumers, the more we demand that our products are made from recycled plastic, the more we are likely to see the value of recycled plastic increase.  This wouldn't necessarily mean an increase in price of the end product, because the increased demand will bring about economies of scale as the overheads of collecting and processing the recycled plastic will be spread over greater sales. So we can play a part in ensuring that companies make the transition from "virgin plastic" to "recycled plastic".  What I do is boycott products that don't use recycled plastic and support those that do.  If lots of people do that then it becomes a no-brainer for companies to make the switch.  They realise they have to in order to keep their market share.

Liz - Wed 11th
I wonder if we need to think of alternative solutions than simply what supermarkets are doing or not doing. For instance, can we avoid the need for packaging at all?

We certainly can avoid packaging for the most part through our shopping choices.  I set myself the challenge of buying nothing in single use plastic for a whole year and many of the changes I made then have stuck with me now.

Bulk Barn is Canada's largest bulk food retailer and allows shoppers to buy most food products loose at the quantity they desire and place inside whatever container they have brought with them (eg jars or tupperware), or at most in a thin plastic bag.

As part of my zero plastic challenge, I found SESI Oxford - a food cooperative that buys produce by the sack full and you can take your own tubs along to refill them at East Oxford Market and various other outlets around Oxford.  This saves so much packaging. These services are brilliant, but sadly they are not everywhere yet.  In reality all supermarkets could offer such a service -  they just don't yet, because consumers haven't started deserting in droves to go to their local refill centre.  If they did supermarkets would be onto it in the blink of an eye.

Veg box suppliers such as Abel and Cole also use far less, if any packaging, than supermarkets and most is cardboard or paper rather than plastic.

I found that Cultivate, a local farm cooperative, also used minimal packaging and I could return it for reuse. I also use a local greengrocer, where not only is most of the produce sold loose, it is from local farmers and doesn't exclude the wonky veg.   

Val - Nethy Bridge, Scotland - Wed 11th
A question re recycling: how clean do things have to be?

We have a private water supply which makes me more aware of water usage (no doubt a meter has the same effect). There are some things which take so much washing - ketchup and soy sauce bottles for example- that I am sure I would use more resources cleaning them than it's worth.

This is a great question, and one I'm often asked. When I wrote my book, 101 Ways to Live Cleaner and Greener for Free, I put this question to various waste management professionals. This is what I concluded. You need to empty out and rinse food packaging enough to remove any leftover food. 
You can’t recycle a foil carton when it still contains half a shepherds pie, so you do need to scrape out any food remains into your food bin or compost bin. Besides, that way the leftover food can also become a valuable resource to make compost or energy.

All recyclables are cleaned in the process of recycling, so they don’t need to be pristine. I don’t rinse wine/beer bottles, but I rinse most things, just giving it a swill at the end of the washing up so I’m not using extra water. I have returnable glass milk bottles, but if I had plastic, I’d rinse them certainly.  I just think about the people that have to deal with all this stuff.  Un-rinsed milk bottles in even moderate heat really stink. An un-rinsed soy sauce bottle won’t offend anyone.

For rinsing things like food cans or ketchup, I always use up the last bit of things like that in sauces.  I swill a little clean water round a bottle or can to add it into the sauce /stew/ gravy I’m making.

When I spoke to the manager of the company that collects and sorts the waste and recycling in my area his opinion was this:  it doesn’t really matter if there’s an inch of wine left in the bottom of the bottle. It's far more important that every wine bottle gets collected, rather than worrying about whether or not the bottles are rinsed.  My view: who wastes an inch of wine? Really?

Shelagh - Wed 11th 
For many years I have been trying to get Sainsbury's to re-introduce their system of boxes which a number of customers still use. We have had ours for going on 40 years! We do not, therefore, ever use plastic bags.  The boxes fit special box trolleys and tesselate when stored. This system also means we get through the check out much quicker than those with bags, which collapse, fall over and split.
Keep trying! Perhaps they were ahead of the curve.  They probably stopped it because it maybe didn’t have enough uptake.  I think things are changing now.  We might see such schemes back again. I remember one issue, was that some people used them to carry bagged stuff in them.  I remember thinking at the time that it was defeating the object.  Consumer behaviour is key to forcing the hand of supermarkets.

On the programme on Friday, presenter, Paddy O'Connell brought up the issue of why we have to buy a new spray mechanism every time we buy a new spray cleaner.  I thought refills for these used to be available. I don't know why they aren't, but I certainly couldn't see any when I went to check today in a Sainsbury's supermarket.  This is definitely worth investigating and I plan to check it out further.

Kevin - Wed 11th
Why can't bubble wrap and cling film and celophane be recycled?

It can be recycled.  Not all local authorities collect it, but some do.  It is usually a cost issue as flyaway plastics can cause littering during collection and it can be more costly to transport making recycling uneconomic.

Personally I always give any bubble wrap I acquire to my local charity shop – as reuse is better than recycling.  I mostly avoid cling film using airtight containers or just putting a plate over the dish.  You can also get a reusable cling film substitute called bee wrap.  I have some of that too.

Jerry - Wed 11th 
Is it really economical and environmentally friendly to wash out yoghurt pots and margarine tubs to make them acceptable for recycling?
If you just give messy yoghurt pots a quick rinse at the end of the washing up that's enough, but if you have done a good job of eating every last bit of the yoghurt you can recycle it without rinsing.  As for a margarine tub – use up all the margarine and you don’t need to rinse.

John, Aberdeen - Wed 11th
As some councils can accept plastic film, butter and other spread tubs, etc. for recycling I have assumed that they were quicker than others at signing up contracts and the demand for those recyclates is limited. Am I right?

It is more often to do with geographical availability of recycling facilities for the different materials.  In some areas the cost would outweigh the benefit, whereas other areas would have a cost effective outlet for recyclable materials.

It can also be to do with where in the contract cycle a council is as more and more revenue streams for recyclables are opening up, but if a council is one year into a five year contract it is harder to make changes than if they are coming towards the end of a contract and about to renew.

Samuel (aged 9) - Wed 11th
In Edinburgh were I live, we have one bin for all paper, cardboard, plastic, tins, and a separate box for glass. What I would like to ask you is what happens to it? How do they sort it and recycle it? (**why do councils do it differently - what are the consequences)

If you get the chance to visit a Materials Recovery Centre (MRF pronounced "MURF") you should go. They do sometimes do school visits. They are fascinating places – the technology involved in sorting materials is often quite surprising.  They use all sorts of things from gravity and air, to lasers detecting different light rays coming from the plastic to sort it by colour.  Some MRFs have good websites that you can look at and see what happens.  This is a good YOUTUBE video that shows you the process:

Councils are responsible for their own waste and recycling contracts and that results in lots of different systems all over the country.  That means that the public are often very confused about how things work.  I think it would be great to have a standardised system, and maybe one day soon that will happen.  Recycling rates seem to be higher in countries that do have standardised systems. 

There's information about the different methods of recycling in my book, along with facts and figures about what difference it makes to our carbon footprint (pages 90-97).

Carol - Bristol - Wed 11th 
We have, at home, many, many VHS video tapes and CDs and DVDs, that are blank or started off blank. It isn't clear that those non pre-recorded media are recycled by any business or local council. We've been hanging onto them for years now, along with old cassette tapes, until someone recycles them, but do you think it will happen? What is the environmental impact of the materials in these media going to landfill and if they were recycled what would the materials be recycled into?

Video and audio tapes can cause a lot of problems and costs if they find their way into mixed recycling as the tape can clog up the machinery. I did manage to find a specialist company in Bristol that recycles media – EMS Europe.  I know that it was getting increasingly difficult though, so I don’t know if they still operate their recycling scheme.  Terracycle recycles various forms of media but it is a chargeable service.  They are costly items to take apart and the recovered material is of low or no value.  Streaming and downloading is a huge help, as there isn’t the physical waste from this. But we have a whole lot of media waste to dispose of at the moment, brought about by changing technology.
I wonder if any company who has made mega-bucks from the selling of such items would consider paying for the recycling of them now? Don't you think they should?

Martin - Edinburgh - Wed 11th
Would you tell me, if we introduced recycling of packaging in all supermarkets, as they do in Germany and some other EU nations, how much difference would it make to recycling levels, to the consumer and the economy as a whole?

Personally, I think it may not help recycling rates.  Look at how many people used to get new plastic bags – 6, 8 maybe 10 a week, because they didn’t think about bringing their own from the previous shop.  I think we would be better working towards reducing packaging as much as possible, whilst still protecting goods from damage and waste, and having more standardisation around the country.  

If there was more understanding and less confusion then more people would recycle more stuff. I hope that we will get to the stage where people do feel ashamed of being wasteful. Apparently not many of us are there yet, but I think as the realisation of how much the use of resources impacts climate change, we will start to adapt and change our ways.  Education (and resulting consumer / peer pressure) is key to this, I think.

Megan (primary school teacher)
What important message about packaging and waste do our experts think she should be passing on to the children in her class?

I think the most important message to pass on to children is that we need to think resources, rather than rubbish. Every time we have something we don't need anymore and want to dispose of it, we need to think: "How best can this be made use of?"

It is really important to understand the Waste Hierarchy. This is definitely something to cover carefully in primary and secondary schools. (It is in my book). Reduce, reuse and recycle is also a key message. But I think it helps if children understand why.

There are three advantages to recycling

1. Stuff that we make requires resources (materials) that we might have lots of on the planet at the moment but not an infinite supply. So one day the materials might run out if we overuse them. Often getting raw materials creates pollution and destroys habitat.

2. When we throw stuff away rather than recycling there are still places where that stuff has to go to landfill. We are running out of spaces for landfill. In many cases mixed waste in landfill is creating greenhouse gases contributing to global warming.

3. Making things from recycled materials rather than raw materials takes less energy. E.g. an aluminium can from recycled aluminium uses only 5% of the energy compared to a can from raw materials. Paper from recycled paper takes 45% less energy. Looking at the maths and science behind the figures is fun and shows why recycling makes sense and helps reduce carbon footprint.

Again, there's lots of information in my book that can help with this. I use the book for years four, five and six as well as in my Dustbin Diet for secondary schools, where children make their own version of the book. Here's the version made by Henry Box School in Witney.

Resource for schools to help teach about waste reduction and recycling

You can also download a free bingo game based on the facts and figure in the book.

Recycling rates are stagnating  (except in Wales, where they are doing a great job at waste management). Food waste is increasing and many large retailers are reporting record sales, which I presume means we are buying more and more stuff and no doubt wasting more and more stuff. So it is great that the subject of waste and packaging is being discussed on prime time radio. I feel the Radio Four PM team did a great job and hopefully they will inspire people to think about packaging and perhaps start influencing a packaging revolution by encouraging people to choose carefully how they spend their hard earned cash.

For this we need to thank the research and production team. I found out that Emma Close put forward the idea and Emma Rippon bravely commissioned the series. Thank you to both of you. Then Ruth Edwards and Xavier Zapata with presenter Paddy O'Connell researched the issues. Tomas Morgan, the BBC correspondent in Wales, made the wonderful piece on how Wales is excelling on recycling.A big thank you to all of you for raising this important issue and at a time when people are generally receptive to change.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Digital Detox

I spend way too much time at my computer screen.  I'm probably not alone in that thought.

When I go away for a week I am almost scared to not look at my email account for fear of being overwhelmed when I come back.  And... what's worse is that I often don't want to read the emails and just hit delete...hit delete...hit delete through maybe 20 or 30 emails in a session.  Each one of those emails has a carbon footprint - and it is a carbon footprint that most of us probably don't even think about, like the carbon footprint of a Google search.

In so many aspects of my life, I'm making efforts to lower my carbon footprint.  I create almost no physical waste.  I put my dustbin out once a year, with rarely more than what would fit in an "old style" single use plastic carrier bag.  But my digital waste is horrendous.

So this year, I've decided to do something about it.  I'm having a digital detox and a good old tidy up of online life.

I have had a half hearted attempt at this before and unsubscribed from a few emails, but this time, I'm going to be far more thorough.

Instead of clicking on delete without reading an email, I'm catching myself with that thought process and making sure I do open the email and find the unsubscribe button.  With apologies to these retailers as it is nothing that they have done to wrong me, but I know that no amount of email from Next or Monsoon or Laura Ashley or any other lovely retail outfits is going to make me impulse buy clothes/homewares etc.

I have completely changed my shopping habits over recent years and I do impulse buy on occasion - but that is largely when I have five or ten minutes to spare between appointments and seek shelter in charity shops.  I have also been making attempts to make regular donations to charity shops and I am very free and easy with the impulse buys while I'm there.  But I'm not going to impulse buy because I see something on an email, so what is the point in allowing that email to arrive in my inbox.  I think that will probably cut down the number of emails I receive by around 25 percent if I keep up the thorough unsubscribing.

Yesterday I realised that lots of the email I have to delete my way through is from Twitter.  I use Twitter a fair bit.  I do like to catch up on the news that's really important to me - the environmental stuff - via Twitter.  I learn a lot from reading articles I click through to from like minded people that I follow.  But I don't need to know every time someone new follows me.  I do regularly find new information sources from new followers that I then choose to follow back as we clearly have common ground on Twitter, but I can do that on Twitter or Tweetdeck itself.  I am sometimes getting three separate notifications about things, one from the app on my phone, one by email and one on my computer.  So I took a look at the settings and had a think about what I really do find useful and I unchecked all the rest of the boxes.

Today, I have noticed that the only emails I received were things I really did need to know about.

For January, I'm going to content myself with monitoring my online life in order to continue the clean up of future incoming stuff.

Next month I'm hoping I'll find I have more time to do some pro-active cleaning up of emails that are still in my Inbox - all 3800 - of them.  It is not as if I don't have a comprehensive filing system for emails I need to keep.  I have that already - I just don't keep on top of it.  But with fewer emails coming in, maybe I'll manage that aspect of digital life better.

If anyone has any top tips and great digital clean up habits, please do let me know.

My challenge for 2017

I love this time of year. I love Christmas and New Year and all the family get-togethers.  We have traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and pork and all the trimmings.

We then have a big buffet dinner to use up all the cold meat and pickles and turn the veg into Bubble and Squeak.

We make patés and curry and stock for the freezer and this year because we were away shortly after Christmas we put a bit of leftover sliced meat into the freezer.

After the extravagance of Christmas and New Year I love the frugality of January too.  I always set myself some kind of challenge for the year, in some way related to reducing waste or reallocating resources: buying no clothes for a year except second hand, buying nothing in single use plastic packaging, giving away 10 books a month and buying none new - these things have all featured as yearly challenges and I enjoy them.

This January I decided to have a USE IT UP month so we are living out of the freezer and plan to completely empty it.

Our first meal back at home in 2017 involved making a soup from the few bits of veg we had left in the fridge. For this I got out some stock from the freezer. The soup consisted of a chopped onion, skin still on and some chopped leak ends - the green leaves - and a couple of stalks of celery. There was a bag containing some cauliflower leaves and stalk so that went in along with the stock, once the celery, onion and leak had sweated down. I then chopped up a couple of parsnips keeping the skin on and a carrot.  I still had a few sprouts and carrots and more celery left for the weekend but the veg drawer was otherwise empty.

I also came back home to about two thirds of a pint of old milk.  Normally my Dad would have collected the milk from my fridge and used it up.  I do the same when he goes away.  But between us we must have forgotten.  So I decided to make a batch of herb scones to use up the sour milk.   It would also be an additional something to take to another family get-together at the weekend where we had promised to bring lunch with us.

Herb scones to use up some sour milk

For dinner we used up some sausages from the freezer. I must have frozen them in a hurry as there were eight sausages in the tub. With only three of us at home I had a feeling we wouldn't eat them all but it is very easy to use up cooked sausages so we cooked them all. The next day we remembered that we had frozen some leftover toad-in-the-hole, so we dug deep and found that. We added the extra sausages from the day before and used up the gravy we'd had with our sausage and mash and there was plenty for the three of us. It inspired Junior Daughter to have a go at toad-in-the-hole at uni. Turned out very well by the looks of it.

I often have lots of stock in my freezer and of course with a turkey at Christmas we have plenty of stock from that.  Each day we've been raiding the freezer either for soup or for stock to make soup.

Mr Pitt has made various turkey based soups for lunch and we've been eating it with the herb scones.

We've also had burgers and that helped with an interesting challenge for the Pitt family - some processed cheese slices.  This is not something we normally buy, but acquired these after a cricket club barbecue, not wanting them to go to waste, of course.  So we bought some salad to go with our freezer raids and had melted cheese over some pork burgers.

The freezer is slowly emptying and so far, we've only had one casualty.  We thought it might be hummus, but it was the big sin of not labelling what you put in the freezer.  Once something defrosts you can usually tell what it is, but this was just a grey blob of something mushy with no smell.  If it was hummus once, it clearly wasn't great hummus.  We decided the best place for this was the compost heap.

In preparation for our family buffet, we had a cook up evening. It was fun finding things we could use up.  We wondered what we cold do with our slices of cold meat.  There wasn't a lot left, and I felt the ideal thing would be vol au vents, but the freezer didn't reveal any ready made puff pastry.  I always make my own short crust pastry as its quick and easy and always delicious, but I haven't made puff pastry since I made it in a cookery class at school at the age of 10.

Time to get out the cookery book bible.  Yes, it is a complete faff, but actually it isn't hard.  I learnt a few things, like leaving the pastry thicker for vol au vents than you would for a pie crust or sausage rolls.  I'll have to have another go soon to try and improve. They went down very well... and besides what's the point in making home made anything that just looks like it is shop bought.  Shame I forgot to take a photo when they were made up - and the evidence has now all been eaten.

I had made a large mince pie on Boxing Day, which we forgot all about, so we had left it in an airtight cake box in our porch - which acts as a spare fridge over the winter (well most of the year round, in fact).  We had a reasonable stock of eggs in the fridge so I made a batch of short crust pastry to make a quiche as the main event for the lunch.  What to put in it?  We had some feta cheese and there was some cooked gammon from the freezer.   I had frozen some broccoli before going away so I put that in too and there we have it - broccoli, feta and gammon quiche.

I had a bit of pastry left over from the quiche and wondered what could go in it.  We had some paté in the freezer, so we took that out and I layered it into the centre of the rolled out oblong of pastry and rolled it up to make a kind of sausage roll.  We forgot to take it with us for lunch next day, which was a happy surprise on Sunday when we wanted a little snack for lunch, before a roast dinner in the evening.

To sum up the spread for the buffet we had:

  • broccoli, gammon and feta quiche, 
  • turkey and pork and sweetcorn vol au vents in a white wine sauce
  • herb scones with butter
  • pork pie (made by our local butcher and bought uncooked and frozen)
  • lattice mince pie for pudding
Not bad for a use-it-up freezer raid!

The freezer delving continues and I think on tonight's menu we are making a sort of butternut squash, lentil, bacon and feta cheese lasagna, but instead of using lasagna sheets, we are going to substitute some broken tortilla wraps from the freezer.

There will be more soup, no doubt, but what else will we find, I wonder?  I think it is going to take us at least another week or two after this one and then we will move on to the cupboards.

But, there's more to the story... what started as a practical decision to use up the contents of the freezer so it can get a thorough clean out and defrost, has led me onto more use-it-up ideas.  I had a big box in my bedroom full of various toiletries.  That has been pulled out and I've been using up bits and pieces from there.

The biggest clear up for 2017, however, is going to be digital.  I decided that my big 2017 challenge would be a digital detox.  I'll tell you more about that another day.

Here's to 2017.  Let's make it a great year!