Thursday, 19 July 2012

Steph versus Skipping

Skipping (aka skip diving or dumpster diving) is the act of digging through bins behind shops, supermarkets or cafes, and rescuing things that would otherwise be thrown away and wasted. It's not exclusively about food, but the most common type of skipping is for waste food, usually thrown out by supermarkets.

I vaguely knew this existed, but didn't really know how it worked, or anyone who did it. Late last year I read a book called "Free" about a woman who lived for free in London for a year, and it covered her skipping activities in detail as this was how she fed herself for the year. Mark Boyle also talks about it in "The Moneyless Man", as does Tristram Stuart in "Waste", and so over the months I've become a lot more familiar with how it works, the legal implications and what to be aware of.

I've also been getting pretty interested in the whole issue of food waste through the Feeding the 5000 event and Tristram Stuarts book. I've heard descriptions by people of bins overflowing with food, but I figured it was about time I saw for myself. And so when I saw someone posting on a couchsurfing group about it, I jumped at the chance, and messaged someone on there who was offering to take people out skipping.

A mere four hours after my first message, I found myself cycling into the car park of a nearby supermarket with someone who had been a complete stranger half an hour before, armed with torches and bags. There were four large bins lining the wall of the supermarket, none of which were locked. Upon opening the first, we found an abundance of fruit shoots, yoghurt and cakes, with a few packets of cheese and some soup. The second and third were mostly rubbish, but the fourth hit jackpot again, with pears, grapes, cabbage and more bread than you could ever need. We took our time sorting through, loaded up our bags and tidied up after ourselves. Nobody gave us a second look.

Our second stop was outside a small supermarket on a main road, which was still open. This bin had a lock, but was easily opened with a triangular key you can get from a hardware shop for a pound. Inside we found ice cream. Haagan Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, Magnums, Soleros, Carte D'Or - the bin was full of it. Unfortunately a lot of it was quite melted and I wasn't willing to risk refreezing it (though the guy I was with took about 20 tubs). It was shocking though, just to see the sheer volume of waste. We didn't need to make a third stop as our bags were full already. 

Even after reading about food waste for months, it still shocked me. When you're standing, staring at bins full of food that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with, you can't ignore the wastefulness of it. And according to the guy who I went with, this was nothing. If you can get further out of town, to bins that are less commonly skipped, you can fill cars with the stuff you find. 

And it was a lot easier than I expected. Most bins aren't locked, and you generally don't get any trouble from staff or the police (nobody batted an eye at us, despite being in front of an open shop). Most of the food I brought back was completely fine, and some of it was still in date (one thing is in date til April 2013!). Although I did learn a lesson about checking food carefully before taking it - while I don't really follow best before dates, one of the things I'd picked up turned out to be several weeks out of date and a bit worse for wear on close inspection. 

So I'm definitely up for going again - I can't see myself getting a large proportion of my food from there, but I definitely want to help reduce food waste, and if I get free food in the process, then it's win - win all round!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Pensions and festival tickets...

Two subjects that don't really have a whole lot in common, but neither are quite complex enough to warrant an individual post, so I thought I'd lump them together.

So pensions. Hardly an exciting conversation topic. However, I have to have a company pension and so I've had to think about it a bit recently, as my work have switched to a different pension provider and I had to have an appointment with a pension advisor. Now I'm not going to bore you with any great details about it, but I did decide to insist on having an ethical pension, limiting what my money can be invested in. It would seem pointless to have switched banks if I didn't apply the same standards to other financial things like my pension. So that's done.

Onto festival tickets. Earlier this year I won two tickets to a festival via a photography competition. Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it to the festival in the end as it fell on the same weekend as my Mum's 60th birthday party. So I suddenly found myself with two tickets (each with a face value of £190) that I couldn't use. And I couldn't decide what the right thing to do with the tickets was. So I posed the following question on facebook with the following options:
1) Sell them on ebay. Keep the money.
2) Sell them on ebay. Use the money for something beneficial for myself (e.g. a course I really want to go on later this year that I can't really afford) that also fits in with the project.
3) Sell them on ebay. Give away the money.
4) Give the tickets away to someone who couldn't otherwise afford to go
5) Trade the tickets through justfortheloveofit for some skills that I need.

Alongside putting the question on facebook, I spent a lot of time talking through the options, especially with my housemates. It really made me think about the project again, and what it actually means. I spent a lot of time questioning about whether it would be wrong to actually sell the tickets. And if I gave the tickets away, how would I work out who was a worthy person to give the tickets to? Several friends pointed out that I'd won the tickets through skill rather than pure chance, and I shouldn't deny myself something nice. I liked the idea of trading, but there wasn't anything I particularly needed or wanted, and realised that trying to trade was actually more likely to result in me ending up having something I didn't really need. Also, as the festival hadn't sold out, I would be selling them for less than face value. 

In the end I decided to sell them on ebay. They ended up selling pretty quickly, and to a buyer who looked like a person rather than a tout. Also, from their emails (as much as you can trust them), it appears it was a couple who love the festival, but couldn't afford to go that year. So hopefully people have genuinely benefited from the tickets.

And as for the money, I've decided to put it aside and spend it on something for the project. I'm not sure what that'll be yet - maybe a course I want to go on, or a membership for something like wwoofing. That way I'm not simply buying or trading for something that I don't really need, and it can help me to do something that I might not have otherwise been able to afford. 

The trials and tribulations of car sharing...

I own a car. There's no easy way to say it, especially when you're writing about consumerism and trying to live more sustainably. When I did my budget at the start of the year, I discovered that it costs me just over £20 a week, before I put any petrol in it.

I bought my car (second hand) 6 years ago, when I started my first job in Bristol. The office I worked at was on the outskirts of Bristol, and the public transport was... well... non-existent. I lift shared for the 3 years that I worked there, but my car was pretty necessary. When I finished that job, I went back to studying for a Masters, and just never got rid of my car.

With my current job, I have to have a car. I do home visits, presentations and training around the Bristol area, and there's no feasible way to do it without driving. On average I use my car once or twice a week, plus probably one weekend a month. Obviously this isn't ideal though as it spends a majority of its time sat parked outside my house.

Earlier this year I thought my car had died, and I looked into car clubs. However, with the amount that I use the car, it didn't work out any cheaper than owning my car, and since my car turned out to not be as broken as expected, I decided to keep hold of it. Instead I decided that car sharing my car with a couple of friends would be a better option. My insurance renewal is the start of July, so I put off doing anything about it until mid June.

I'd spoken to three friends about the idea, who were all keen, so I started to look into it more seriously. My insurance last year was with Sheila's Wheels and I wanted to stay with them - partly because they were top on the Ethical Consumer list, and also because their quote was a good couple of hundred pounds cheaper than anywhere else. All was looking good - between the four of us, the car was going to be used a lot more, and hopefully I'd save some money along the way.

In terms of the practicalities, we laid down some ground rules that we would sign - we decided it would be a good idea to get things down in writing so it wouldn't be possible to argue to get confused about anything in the future. As well as working out things like what happens if someone has an accident, who's responsible for paying for what, and where the car lives, we also worked out how the costs would work. In the end, we decided that I would keep ownership of the car and would be responsible for the insurance, tax, MOT, breakdown cover and servicing. All the other drivers would be responsible for paying the extra on my insurance, and then pay me 45p a mile for using the car (which includes petrol costs and a contribution to the other costs). 

And then I hit some snags. The first was that Sheila's Wheels won't insure anyone other than the main driver for business use. As one of the people was primarily going to be using it for work, that ruled her out. The second problem was that it was going to cost another of my friends about £150 to be added to my insurance, due to (a) being male and (b) having had an accident in the last 5 years. So in the end, I only managed to add one person to the insurance, which is a bit of a shame. 

I'm hoping I'll be able to find a few more people who'd be interested by the end of the year though, meaning the car will be used more and my costs will go down further. 

For now, I'll be interested to see how it all works in practice...

Monday, 2 July 2012

6 months in...

How time flies. It seems just weeks ago that I started with a blank page and a rough idea of where I thought this year was going to go. Now I'm halfway through, it seems like a good time for a bit of a reflection on how things have gone so far.

The aim of the year was to see what kind of changes I could make to my life whilst retaining a fairly "normal" kind of life - full time job, busy social life etc. But actually, the deeper into the project I get, the more I have found myself questioning as to whether I want a "normal" kind of life. The further down this path I go, the further I want to take it.

And fundamentally, most of what's changed so far has been internal. Yes, there have been physical actions - giving up supermarkets, starting car sharing, switching banks... But what's changed far more than these outward signs has been my mindset and the way I think. I think far more about my life, my possessions, my money and my actions than I did before. I feel far more in tune with my environmental interests and beliefs, and feel that my life is slowly shaping to reflect this. But my target of where I want to get is moving further away.

As I learn more about sharing networks and collaborative consumption, I find myself more open to giving things away and sharing the things I have. Since stopping watching TV and installing adblocker on my internet browser, I feel less affected by advertising and the media and freer as a result. The more I loosen my emotional connection with things and belongings, the less I care about them and the less I buy. The more I learn about provenance and manufacturing, the more I realise the importance of buying good quality and well sourced things, reflected in what I have bought over the last 6 months. Where once I might have seen waste, I now see potential.

It's difficult to know how much of this change in my direction and perception has come through this project and how much from a journey that I was already on (one that led me to start the project in the first place). But I can say that the speed at which I'm moving down this road has been far accelerated by this project - the decisions I've made and the people I've met through it have changed my thinking and actions in ways that I didn't expect and still find surprising. And the people have been one of the highlights for me - it's led me to meet some truly amazing and inspiring people who I hope I will keep in touch with and continue to learn from in the future.

It's also made me look quite critically at myself and my life. I think this is a good thing, but I have a tendency to be overly hard and critical of myself and what I achieve (something my friends have been trying to beat out of me for years), and have really struggled at points so far this year with feeling quite uninspired at myself and feeling like I should be doing more. Trying to strike this balance has been one of the hardest things for me about the project and I'm definitely not there yet.

In some ways I feel like I've achieved a lot - I've stopped going to supermarkets (apart from a few exceptions), switched banks, rescued furniture, reduced my waste, changed my eating and food buying habits, learnt to fix my bike, started the car share process, gone on holiday without flying, couchsurfed, moved into a more community minded house, made presents instead of buying them, switched most of my toiletries to better alternatives, volunteered for good causes, got excited about jam jars and become a regular user of my local library.

But then I sit here and realise how far I still have to go. I still struggle with eating meat and buying well sourced meat when I'm out, I'm still a car owner, I still buy clothes from high street shops, I eat less organic food than I'd like, I still buy from websites like Amazon, I still use some regular toiletries, I don't recycle as much as I should, I still waste food and don't eat as seasonally as I should.

So here's to the next 6 months...