Zero Waste: Month Eight

Summer brings an unprecedented festival spirit to the UK. Sulky Londoners actually start smiling, everyone strips off, and cider, beer and sandwiches sales go through the roof. But this care-free spontanity doesn’t make it easy for anyone trying to go plastic free. The Zero Waster unfortunately must be one who is planned and organised.

So I won’t lie or exaggerate. The past few weeks have been hard.

Sandwich seals, ice cream spoons (I’m allergic to the glutenous cones), cider cups, plastic straws and just the simple desire to go shopping and buy new summery clothes. Many times this month I’ve thought — what’s the point. It’s too difficult.

So to galvanise myself a bit below I’ve listed five myths around zero waste to remind myself of the whole point of the goddamn thing.

1. Zero Waste options are more expensive.

Short answer — Yes. Long answer — No.

Maths has never been my forte. However, even I can calculate that most package-free alternatives cost more than their packaged brothers. Better packaged products tend to protect better quality foods. And it isn’t just food. Other items too that aren’t made from plastic are usually better made and are therefore a bit more expensive.

But, non-food items tend only to be more expensive in the short term, for something that is well made will simply last longer, and you won’t tire of it so quickly. It’s why old money can continue to live in luxury, even if the coffers are low as well as the tragic paradox of being poor, pointed out in The Ragged Troussered Philanthropists; those who can only afford the cheapest and least well made products such as boots, or the smallest servings of items such as coal, they needed to replace them more frequently, thus over a lifetime would spend far, far more than their richer neighbours.

So in the long term, products (except food, granted) can work out a lot cheaper. My personal favourite is the razor. How has the world been conned into continually buying disposable razors by the packets when a good quality metal razor will last a lifetime(!)?

And then you save on the cost of packaging. Bea Johnson has estimated that packaging represents approximately 15% of a product’s price. Brands like Lush claim to pump that saving back into the product on better ingredients but in any case the saving is based on to the customer. But as well as the physical packaging, you also lose a lot of the intangible ‘brand’ cost. Most of the aura of a chosen brand is wrapped into the way the item looks. Depending on the name, a ‘brand’ adds considerably to the price you pay. When you remove the ‘branded layer’ you find yourself in a position where you can start to question the very nature of consumption itself and here lies the really big savings. If you are focused only on the product then buying second hand or renting something becomes a whole lot more compelling. Or you may buy something new and sell it on, thus recouping much of your initial outlay. It encourages you to question what you need rather what you want. Of the last ten items you purchased, how many were really needed? How many of them could you do without? For the biggest way to save money is simply not to spend it at all.

2. Unpackaged or ‘naked’ products are unnecessary as you can recycle most types of plastic as well as paper and bottles.

Short answer — in theory. Long answer — nope.

In theory yes, every kind of product can be broken down to it’s smallest particle and rebuilt again. But I also, in theory, could have written several novels, won a nobel prize and become a surgeon.

Life just gets in the way.

Of all the plastic that has been generated since the 1950s (8.3 billion tonnes), it has been estimated that by 2015 we have only recycled 9% of it. [Geyer, R, Jambeck, J.R, Lavender Law, K: ‘Production use, and the fate of all plastics ever made’, 2017] Even plastic items that claim to decompose will only do so in the right conditions. And despite the past glorious summer, the UK is not known for its intense heat conditions. If you are lucky your plastic is turned into another product (polyester clothing or a mattress) and then hits the landfill. Or, much more likely, it is headed straight to the landfill, either in the UK or abroad or incinerated into our atmosphere.

We consume so much that even if waste mangement sites ran every hour of every day they still couldn’t get through the amount of waste we feed them. And as a site costs around £6 million to set up, in the current global economic climate it is very unlikely we will invest in these to cope with our demands.

And yes of course, paper, aluminium and glass are all 100% recyclable. My mum can’t get her head around refilling wine bottles. “It’s glass! you can recycle that!” Like most things she says, this is true. However, consider the energy it takes to break each wine bottle down back to its glass particles and then rebuild it. The energy it then takes to then cart those heavy bottles up and down the country, packing, unpacking and stocking back on the shelves.

Most of that energy is eliminated as you refill at a huge barrel or from one of the large boxes of wine. (It’s also the cheapest means to get the good stuff.)

3. The UK’s plastic contribution is but a drop in the ocean compared with the USA or Asia. So solving the problem here matters less.

Short answer- statistically yes. Long answer — no. Every bit counts.

It is true that the UK contributes less to marine plastic than many other parts of the world. Supposedly ten rivers (eight in Asia) contribute 95% of marine plastic. However, to avoid waste taxes, we transport as much two thirds of our other waste abroad. Since China impsed the ‘National Sword’ agenda, refusing to take 24 types of the worst kind of waste from the UK, we have doubled the amount we send to Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangledesh and many other countries. And what is worse, despite Wales being the second best recycler in the world after Germany, we are actually recycling less than five years ago, and are likely to miss our 50% recycling target for 2020.

This matters. The UK is a large population, 21st of 233 countries and still remains a hub for incredible innovation, a force of global influence and represents a wealthy set of consumers. So if the UK masters zero waste, the knock effect could be huge and Planet Earth would be mightily grateful.

4. Plastic packaging is designed in the interests of the consumer.

Short answer — no. Long answer — no.

My friend Cerys recently invited me to a talk being given by Lucy Siegle, of The One Show and Observer fame, who has just written a book called Turning the Tide on Plastic. She was fabulous, witty, angry, yet practical and despite the Zero Waste rule of no freebies, I obviously took a free book.

The second half is a lot of tips and tricks already known to the seasoned No Waster, but the first half is a passionate and thorough investigation of the plastic problem and how we’ve got to the mess we are today. Of all her interesting findings (and there are many) the most profound one for me was that retailers suggest their arms are tied due to consumers demanding plastic. Yet in reality, plastic serves their own warehouse needs rather than ours. Lucy quotes an article published in 2000, ‘High-Barrer Packaging: Yesterday Today, and Tomorrow’ and for her it was a revelation.

‘The average consumer probably has no idea that the packaging of a typical product he or she might pick up weekly may have as many as six layers of plastic (even more are quite possible) and can sit on the shelf and remain fresh for several months, possibly up to a year.’ The penny dropped. It was not for our convenience — no consumer in their right mind wants food in their refridgerator for a year — but for the back of store convenience of retailers. Plastic packaging was being applied with increasing zeal becaues it was cost-effective and made life easier for retailers and manufacturers, who neatly argued that it was ultimately in our interest because the packaging resulted in lower food prices overall.”

Yet, Lucy claims, 90% of dealing with the plastic aftermath is left to the consumer. Yes we may want lower prices, but that doesn’t mean we also demand plastic wrap on coconuts, mangos et all. So don’t feel guilty or compelled to agree with the plastic industry that it’s your fault that plastic is choking birds and fish around the world. Demand your cake and demand to eat it.

5. Going zero waste will make you a better, happier human being.

Short answer — No. Long answer — Maybe.

I’ve increasingly realised that in endorsing zero waste I’m now part of a tribe. And I’m not sure about the rest of the company…

Any green movement is tainted with a degree of smugness. But the hippies who roughed it and knitted their own yoghurt never claimed to be glamorous or gorgeous. But Instagram ‘Zero Waste’ and you will see how feminine, beautiful and aspirational the movement has become. Google the heroine behind ‘Trash is for Tossers’ and you will find smugness personified. Even the priestess of the movement, Bea Johnson (whose French, no-nonsense approach I love), preaches that this is a lifestyle one adopts rather than a smarter way of shopping. Her final message is ‘in letting go of stuff I found happiness’. Zero Waste isn’t just a means of finding alternatives to packaging and plastic. No, my friends, it is a way of life, where you focus on ‘living rather than having’.

Now I obviously see the undisputable correlation between society’s focus on consumption and it’s sense of inadequacy. But at the same time I bought sunglasses and two tops yesterday and felt real delight!

I do believe the scale of the problem is serious enough that people should recommend to friends and families alternatives to lower their plastic footprint. I do not apologise for talking about my plastic-free finds WAAAY too much. But is a desperately needed movement being hijacked by trendy types that open themselves up for ridicule? Or worse, intimidate or put others off?

One of the very first sustainability articles that really resonated with me came from Madeleine Somerville in the Guardian. She shared how her sisters gloated every time she fell off the green bandwagon. Every plastic nappy she used, every shampoo wash of her hair, seemed, to them at least, to undermine all her other efforts.

“Green types like me have, perhaps fairly, earned a reputation for being a tad sanctimonious — preachy do-gooders ready to judge you for your own personal failings while resolutely pretending not to have any of their own.
We’ve created a mighty pissing contest, and no one wants to admit that they might not have the greenest stream.”

The notion that zero waste is a lifestyle that can’t be compromised or that will somehow give you untold purpose and pleasure then you are setting up for failure. It’s also silly. Zero waste just means avoiding plastic wrapping for goodness sake. If you are criticised each time you fail to meet your own standards you are of course more likely to give up.

HOWEVER. Anyone who likes an underdog must get satisfaction in challenging the ‘system’. And maybe I’ll admit that cooking from scratch does help me unwind after a horrible day curled over my desk, despite moaning everytime I have to get the chopping board out. Living in an area that isn’t littered is also undeniably nicer. And of course you try and deny a little bolt of joy when someone takes your advice and feels better for it. There is even a slight glow when you have to chat to people in refill stores instead of the faceless self service machine. (I’m a Londoner — I’m not used to ‘shop chat’.)

Zero Waste shouldn’t necessarily change what you consume or how you consume it. It should be easy and shouldn’t mark you as a martyr. I don’t believe it represents a lifestyle which determines ‘who you are’. But of all the new year resolutions I’ve made in the past this is the first one which isn’t selfish. And it does feel pretty good.