Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Three R's - Reuse

I went to the tip yesterday. We had some stuff in the garden that was there before we moved in that needed moving before a party next week (for example, a broken mirror!). A sign proudly proclaimed that 75% of the waste was recycled, which is good. But what upset me was that I saw a lot of people throwing out things that could have been reused instead. I had to stop myself from reaching into the skips and having a closer look at things.

Recycling is a good thing, but it should be a last resort. To many people, it seems that recycling has become a concious alleviation strategy for throwing things out - it's ok to waste something because it's going to be recycled.

However, most things that are recycled are turned into lower quality materials - glass often ends up as an element of road surfacing for example. and so we're downgrading our raw materials. Therefore, we should make a concious effort to reuse things where possible.

The item that symbolises this most for me is jam jars. We all use jam jars. From sauces to jam to olives, all manner of things we buy come in jars. They're massively useful, allowing food to be kept fresh for days, weeks, months or even years. And yet, once they're empty, we throw them in the bin (or the recycling), destined for landfill or to be ground down into a road surface. However, a jam jar's real destiny should be to be refilled and used again.

At a guess, the reason that recycled jars aren't cleaned and reused is that it's cheaper to make new ones. I stopped putting the ones from my house in the recycling though, certain there must be another solution. I brainstormed a list of uses with one of my friends - from candle holders to vases, plant pots to multi-purpose storage, there's a lot of uses. However, we still produce more as a house than we can use.

And then it struck me after leaving the council event on waste - there's a lot of people around who need jars - maybe for making jam or chutney, or for art projects. And there's a lot of people who produce a lot of jars but don't have a use for it.

Twenty minutes later, the Bristol Jam Jar Network was born (in the form of a facebook group). A few days (and a couple of posts on local mailing lists) later, the group has 80 odd members. It's not the ideal time of year for people to be needing jars, but already someone doing a local art project has been supplied with a large amount that she needed.

It's made me view waste differently - that plastic bag that my broccoli came in can be washed out and reused. My camera film cartridges can be saved and used to keep things in. A scrap of paper can be used to write a list on rather than using a fresh sheet. Before I throw something away, I'm trying to challenge myself to find another use for it - I'm still throwing things out, but the amount has definitely decreased significantly. And hopefully will continue to do so.

The Three R's - Reduce

Oh, the oft cited (yet rarely used) hierarchy of waste, which encourages us to reduce and reuse before recycling. See this lovely diagram (borrowed from

I recently went to an event hosted by Bristol City Council entitled "Slimming Bristol's Waste". The hierarchy was referred to multiple times by speakers, but yet the talk itself focused mainly on the recycling side, presenting the new shiny service being offered by the council.

However, I've been trying to approach the idea of waste in the "right" way. And so I'll start with reduce.

Since I started this project, and especially since I started reading around the issues of waste, I've been constantly astounded by the amount we throw away. From packaging to leftover food, we just pile it all in the bin and forget about it.

But there's a lot of simple things and changes that I've made. I don't use food bags when buying stuff from the fruit and veg shop, unless necessary - your carrots don't need a plastic bag just in case they come into contact with your bananas. I've also been trying to avoid buying things that are overly packaged - there's less to throw away if you don't buy it in the first place.

I recently got upset by the packaging on a beautiful lamp by a friend for my birthday. The base of it is made of a series of teacups and saucers, converted into a really beautiful and quirky item. This itself was given to me in a paper bag with a bit of tissue paper wrapping. All re-usable. The lampshade that came with it, however, was wrapped in cellophane. Upon opening it, this turned out to be the longest piece of cellophane that I think that I have ever seen. It was probably about 3 meters long, and try as I might, I have no idea what I can do with it.

It upset me, as it was completely unnecessary. I couldn’t fathom the purpose, as it didn’t completely cover the shade and therefore couldn’t be justified as protection. And as hard as I try, I can’t come up with a re-use for it, so it’s currently rolled up and sat on the side in my house, hoping that inspiration might strike.
It’s fairly typical of the kind of packaging and waste that’s such a normal part of our lives these days. Items are packed in multiple layers of packaging, and very little of it of it is reusable. Things like tissue paper have a similar effect, but are recycle and easily reusable, so would be much more preferable.

It can feel frustrating as a consumer trying to reduce waste (the reuse and recycle are easier) - often you have very little choice over the packaging of items. I can try to make positive decisions and support shops or brands that deliberately limit their packaging, but it's difficult. 

One of the places that I can have a real impact is when it comes to food waste. Whether that's food that I buy that I never use, or food that I cook and never eat - all of it is waste. As Tristram Stuart points out in his book 'Waste', "By buying more food than we are going to eat, the industrialised world devours land and resources that could otherwise be used to feed the world's poor". Exactly. He also points out that reducing food waste has minimal negative consequences, a far cry from the sometimes radical change in lifestyle that other actions can require.

There is a lot of waste in the food chain - from the farm gates, to the supermarkets themselves, to the waste that we ourselves create. Some of it is due to the way food is purchased (standards regarding the appearance of vegetables leads to massive amount of produce being rejected as it doesn't look quite regular enough). Others due to the way shops and restaurants stock food - the idea that all items must be available, and empty shelves put off consumers, leads to overstocking of produce, and the eventual waste of this produce. But some blame is ours as consumers. We buy things we never get round to eating, waste parts of the food we buy, and then cook too much and end up throwing away the leftovers.

I've been making a concious effort to think more before buying food, and I think the amount I have wasted has definitely reduced (it may also be to do with the communal fridge we have in my new house, meaning things get eaten before they go off). I'm also taken with the idea of trying to use every part of something when you buy it. I've roasted a chicken a few times recently, saved vegetable ends for the week leading up to it, and made chicken stock with the carcass. Not only is it an awesome way to use up the ends of vegetables and the chicken carcass, it was also amazingly tasty. However, I know it's something I still need to work harder on - we have our food waste in a tub on the kitchen counter, and seeing everything from stale bread to cabbage leaves go in there makes me realise there's work to do...

Inspired by the idea of food waste, I've signed up to volunteer at the Feeding the 5000 event being run in a few weeks in Bristol. It's being run by Fareshare, an awesome organisation who redistribute surplus food that would otherwise be wasted. The idea is to feed 5000 people from food that would normally have gone to waste - an amazing demonstration of the level of waste in the food chain. Hopefully through that and reading Tristram's book, I'll learn more about ways to reduce my food waste. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Holiday planning

It's been a while since I've had a proper holiday. At my old job, I was on a pretty tight budget and this didn't really stretch to exciting holidays abroad. So for the last couple of years, I've stuck to UK based adventures (and some fun adventures I have had). But now I have a better paid job and a bit more job security, the desire to adventure a bit further has been reawakened.

And so, the question of how to do this sustainably has come up.

The destination of my trip was pretty much picked for me, as a couple of friends and I were asked to run some activities at a small event in Spain, near Barcelona. So Spain was selected as the destination for my journey.

How to get there was an obvious question. I made the decision a few years ago not to fly if I can get there feasibly by another method. And this seemed like a good test for that idea. Thank God for Seat61, which is an awesome resource for anyone trying to get anywhere in Europe by train.

The current plan is to road trip it down to Barcelona with some friends, as there'll be 5 of us, and this is actually more environmentally friendly than us all getting the train. It also means we can make a couple of stop offs on the way to see some friends of one of the people on the trip, including a WWOOFing site. We're hoping to leave on the Tuesday, arrive in Barcelona on the Friday then go to the festival until Sunday. The other guys are leaving then to come straight back, but I'm going to hang around for another week or so. The current plan is to spend a couple of days in Barcelona, probably couchsurfing, then head over to Bilbao and the Basque country for a few days, before getting the sleeper train back to Paris, and then the Eurostar to London (then the train to Bristol). I'm pretty excited about the train part of the journey, as I love trains and it seems like the most sustainable way to travel.

I'm excited by the idea of Couchsurfing too, as I've never done it before, and it seems like a good way to see a place properly, especially given that I'll be travelling on my own, as well as an opportunity to meet some interesting people along the way.

Better get booking that train ticket now...