Friday, 28 September 2007

I see that the latest edition of Cambridge Matters includes an article on our zero waste challenge, and mentioned this blog. This seems a good opportunity to look back and consider what we learned from the experience.

Although like most people my initial reaction to the idea of 'zero waste' was of course to question even trying to do something I knew could not be done. However, the exercise proved immensely valuable If you are aiming for an empty black bin, then every little bit of waste is subject to scrutiny. This soon got me into some good habits that have stuck ever since.

Firstly, I thought I was doing well if I tore window envelopes in half and put the bit containing the window in the black bin. The zero waste challenge meant that I had to cut out the window itself, with everything else going in the green bin. Similarly the card packaging with windows, the cotton cushion covers with zips, the old wood with nails.

Before the challenge I tended to look at a piece of rubbish and put it in the black bin if it couldn't be recycled. Now I am in the habit of breaking it up into component parts and there is no doubt our black bin is so slim it could feature on a fashion catwalk!

The other good habit I learned was to routinely wash meat packaging. When I knew it was going to be hanging about in the porch for a month, I washed it all carefully to avoid smells and the notorous maggots. Now I find even a quick rinse with the end of the washing up water makes a lot of difference, and why should our binmen have to work in a malodorous cloud, after all?

When we met up at the end of the month (see photo), it was surprising how little rubbish there was from four households. Since then, we have been able to recycle metallised drink cartons and batteries as well.

We know that there is a long way to go, both as Cambridge residents and city councillors. We need to design ways for people who live in flats to be able to recycle properly. We need to persuade more people that it is worth effort to avoid more precious land being used for landfill.

Perhaps if more residents were to join the trips to look round our waste site at Donarbon, they would see how much better it is to put their rubbish in the corporate compost heap (right) which can be used for farming, parks and gardens, rather than going in a hole in the ground (below) for eternity...........

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Carton recycling trial

Good news for all you zero-wasters, the City Council have just introduced a new carton recycling scheme at some of the larger recycling centres in the city. There are new banks for paper-based liquid food and drink cartons at
  • Sainsbury's, Brooks Road
  • Tesco, Newmarket Road
  • Waitrose, Hauxton Road
  • The Beehive Centre, Coldhams Road

There is more information on the City Council's website at, as well as a map showing where these sites are.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

One man's waste is another's treasure

I have just weighed our household's bag of rubbish on the franking machine scales in the office, and it comes to 220g exactly. If the average UK citizen produces around 7 times their body weight in rubbish every year, and I assume that I can divide this weight between the 2 people in our house, then if I carried on at the same rate I would produce 1/3ooth of the average persons rubbish! Luckily, we didn't have any 'unusual' waste this month, like broken globes etc.

I have written a list (which I won't bore you with) of all the things in my bag, and there are 65 separate items, every one of them made from plastic of some description. We used any plastic bag that didn't have holes in for clearing up after the dog, so I suppose if I count those (Mostly bread bags, they all went in the red council dog waste bins) there would be an extra 60 items, and if you count the contents (yuk!) separately then that's 185 items in total. I imagine that would add a considerable weight - should have got the dog loo sorted out!

Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with our effort, but would like to try for a real Zero next year. I think this would require more advance preparation, as most of our rubbish was from things we already had in the fridge or cupboards. There are definitely some things I started doing during the ZWC that I will carry on, like making fishcakes, but I can't promise we won't go back to buying Magnums with their plastic wrappers...

What I would really like to see come out of this is a wider recognition of the importance of waste reduction and reuse. Even if we recycle as much as possible, there will always be some things that are not easily recyclable, but are easy to avoid. I also think people need to recognise how much waste is actually a resource, either for yourself or someone else - Neil's sink is a great example of something that in other hands could have ended up in a skip! I am a skip-diver myself, and have fished out perfectly serviceable garden benches with many years of use left in them. It is truly amazing what some people throw out.

Well done everyone!

Everything, including the kitchen sink

It's now eight weeks since my black bin was last emptied, and almost five weeks since we started the Zero Waste Challenge.

My last week of the challenge certainly stepped up a gear, I had four lodgers arrive. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that they had stepped into the challenge too. In that week they generated a whole handful of plastic wrapping to go in the black bin. Everything else, they diligently recycled or composted.

My, or should I now say "our", total for the month is: 3 plastic bags full of plastic wrapping that is not yet recycled in my part of town (apparently it is if a visit to Waitrose is convenient); and, a kitchen sink.

Having an unwanted kitchen sink is the typical problem of having things that we don't need, but are in good working condition (in fact this sink, after many years is 'as new' apart from the tap, which is a little aged).

Perhaps most people's response to this challenge is to put it in a skip (or perhaps let the builder do that), take it to the 'dump', or, if small, put it in the black bin. Nowadays, though, many of us recognise that someone else might be able to make use of it, and hunt out a charity, such as Emmaus, who will take, and often collect furniture.

My solution has been to re-give it, via a site that I was involved in creating, called Fridge Mountain (named in honour of all those fridges that got piled up a few years ago, most of which were working!).

Having done quite a bit of building work recently, it's been perfect. Someone who came and took away the wood from my old roof has built a chicken shed, and another person who turned up with a bicycle with a clever trailer, took away a pile of off-cuts for her wood burning stove.

And lastly, a word has to go to the people at the opposite end of the scale, my former neighbours, who left recently. In one day, they produced 6 black bags of rubbish, most of which was bottles, cans and compostable food.

They managed to produce around 30kg of 'waste' in one day, where the results of my challenge was 1kg in 3o days!

I think the only answer has to be to follow the Zero Waste Challenge with the Zero Waste Barbeque, complete with kegs of local beer...

All the best,


Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Where are the maggots?

Catching up, rather apologetically, with what others have been doing and writing, it seems that for one reason or another I have done little to change what comes into the house, but have had a good look at what would be going into the bin in an normal month.
I have collected it in the back porch, sorted it and photographed it.

The big plastic bag at the back is the DIY debris.
The big white bag is food packaging, the blue carrier bag is office waste (mainly plastic bags from magazines) and the Waitrose bag is miscellaneous household.

But where, I ask, are the maggots?
This month included more meat packaging than normal because we too had an end of term BBQ for my husband's tutees, complete with Waitrose burgers and sausages. I have used meat from the freezer bought from Aldi long before the Zero Waste Challenge, all in plastic boxes. The simple answer seems to be to rinse the packaging at the end of the washing up, and there is nothing to attract the flies.

I have had my baby granddaughter to stay without her mother, so I have had special little plastic bags of breastmilk in my freezer. These have proved very useful, washed and dried, for freezing portions of raspberries from the allotment, but some of them are damaged, and have to go in the black bin. Fortunately my daughter has decided to go for reusable nappies, so I have not had to store any used disposables in the porch for a month! Phew!

Saturday, 30 June 2007

All good things must come to an end

Here is the sin bin...a month of waste from a family of four. I like the symbolism of the smashed globe...
Did we cheat? I don't think so. We didn't include the wind-blown litter that accumulates in the front garden. We did give some hard plastic pots to Dr. Claire Barlow for a research project. And we are going to put all our plastic food bags into the recycling at Waitrose (who accept bags made from LDPE and HDPE, or codes 2 and 4).

What sacrifices did we have to make? No bags of crisps. No dairy desserts. No snack bars. No doubt my husband can think of a few more.

And what are we going to do now? I like not having a waste bin in the kitchen: it feels like we are living light. Maybe we can make do with a little bag under the sink. The crisps will come back (the children like them too much). We will continue buying food on the market and from small shops. And I think we have been seriously sensitised to waste: how long that lasts is anyone's guess.

The messages I want to make? Buy local, use the market. And we seriously need to address the plastics problem, both by tackling the supermarkets and by increasing our recycling capability in the City.

Monday, 25 June 2007

A solution for the smallest room

My campaign to find a supply of eco-friendly toilet paper has finally ended. Having spent some time trawling through various supermarkets and finding only one brand which didn't use plastic wrapping (it comes in a bijou little cardboard box containing a few (undoubtedly choice) sheets - hopeless for a family) I hit upon CCL Supplies (see link) on the High Street in Chesterton.

This shop sells cleaning products, mainly to professional cleaners. The manager, Owen Moon, tells me that he makes the effort to source products from manufacturers with excellent environmental credentials - not only biodegradability, but also treatment of effluents, use of recycled materials, and energy and transport.

He stocks 100% recycled toilet paper, wrapped in paper. This is the interleaved kind, for a dispenser. Apparently he now supplies the City Council and this stuff is being used in the Guildhall. Hurrah. And to cap it all, Owen gave us a couple of packs to try out. What a star!

Friday, 22 June 2007

Smothered in a sea of plastic

Another major lesson I am learning concerns the ubiquitous plastic wrapping. There is a lot of talk these days about plastic carrier bags. There is even a town somewhere in which all traders have agreed to stop providing carrier bags for their customers. But carrier bags aren't even half the story when it comes to plastic waste.
This is the collection of plastic bags we have accumulated over the last few months. It is dominated by bags for sliced bread, wrappings for toilet tissue, and bags for vegetarian sausages, frozen peas and seafood. Apart from those irritating plastic bags that have replaced envelopes for catalogues and magazines, it is a typical haul of stuff which is wrapped around supermarket food. Before we started the challenge we used to put all this into the carrier bag recycling box outside Tesco.

But at the beginning of June we thought we ought to check with Tesco first. We emailed them, using the address given for queries on their website. The answer is that Tesco only want Tesco carrier bags in their bag recycling facility. No bread bags. No Sainsbury's bags. Absurd images spring to mind of someone somewhere sorting through the bags, sending off non-Tesco bags to landfill, while recycling the kosher Tesco ones. Can these people be serious?

So then I emailed Waitrose. They were delighted to tell us that carrier bags from any retailer were welcome in their recycling facility, but no other types of plastic wrapping were to be put there. I emailed for further clarification, but their waste expert is currently on holiday. I await developments.

By this time I was getting a trifle cross. Supermarkets use masses and masses of plastic to wrap their food. It is everywhere. They even use it to wrap up things which are already well packed, such as boxes of beer bottles. But they are apparently unwilling to recycle it. They don't even print on the bags what they are made of, to enable someone else to recycle it. Essentially they are relying on us, that's you and me, to pay to solve the problem. We are paying landfill tax so that they can have the convenience of using plastic. And let's not even go down the road of what happens when they do actually recycle it and it ends up in a village in rural China, polluting their environment.

So what are we doing now? While we wait for Waitrose's complete reply, we are avoiding buying anything which is wrapped in plastic. No more sliced bread (but that's a bonus!). Boxed frozen vegetarian sausages and burgers. We are even going to go to the market with a tupperware box to see if the coffee retailer will let us avoid plastic bags for ground coffee. And I have found somewhere which sells toilet paper wrapped in paper (and when I spoke to him on the phone, he had actually heard of the Challenge!).

And another lesson learnt: Not only do you get a nice chat and personal attention in small shops, but independent retailers are happy to help us with the Challenge - they can make their own decisions and are not bound by company guidelines. Zero Waste means Community.

Global catastrophe

This globe had been cracked for a while, but being knocked off the kitchen counter was the last straw. It is broken beyond repair.
Events like this, creating a large amount of non-recyclable waste, don't happen very often but for this particular one there doesn't seem to be a solution. It can't be mended. Landfill seems the only option at the moment.

I have organised myself a little mending corner in the bedroom. The sewing machine is open and ready to go. There is a box of sewing threads of every conceivable colour. And suddenly there's a constant stream of things needing to be fixed. One of the unsolved problems of the Challenge so far is where all the mending comes from and where it used to be: suddenly every pair of the childrens' socks seems to be coming into holes; jumpers are getting torn; shopping bag handles are coming off. I don't remember this constant stream of mending work before. But I do enjoy that glow of smug satisfaction when I take a few minutes to get something sorted and put back into the laundry stream.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Not giving up...

Ever since we started this challenge I've been wrestling with the problem of how far to take the Zero Waste ethic. Should we shun everyday staples to keep down the waste, then start buying them again next month? How far should I push it? I considered, for example, 'going Indian' for the month - i.e. not even using (recycled) toilet paper. Having done this in India I know I could, but it's not so easy in this country where all loos are geared toward paper usage. However some time ago I stopped using disposable sanitary products, and this poses less of a challenge. I shant go into detail, but if ladies want to know more, just visit One of the best purchases I've ever made.

Back to more everyday items, and I decided that there were some things we wouldn't give up, but we'd make more of an effort to minimise the waste created. The main example of this is yoghurt. We have stopped buying individual portion-sized pots of yoghurt. Instead we buy a large waxed-cardboard pot (compostable) and decant the yoghurt into small airtight tupperware pots for lunches. The pots still have a plastic peel off lid, but one of these is better than 6. Maybe we can persuade the organic company that makes the yoghurt to make the lids compost-heap friendly too?

We're avoiding things wrapped in plastic, but actually anything that comes in a plastic bag is still looked upon as a resource at the moment. With the green dog loo still waiting to be installed we need bags to take out dog-walking, and I don't want to have to buy any!

Monday, 18 June 2007

In for the long haul

After 18 days a certain ennui is starting to set in. The constant planning and thought which goes into every day is getting to be a bit of a grind. Major issues arose recently with the advent of the end-of-year party season for the University. My husband holds a party for his students which always revolves around strawberries and cream, with lots of exotic biscuits. This year he trekked out to a Pick-Your-Own place for the strawberries (only to find the nice cardboard punnets had plastic handles!), to be eaten without cream, and we bought all our biscuits at a bakery which sells them in paper bags. And for the next party he made some cheese straws - more fun, but much more time-consuming than buying them in the supermarket!

So how are we adapting? Fruit and veg are easy - just buy them on the market. Bread is easy too, and since we started buying all our bread on the market we are eating a lot of it - it just tastes so much nicer than the sliced-in-a-plastic-bag stuff we relied on before. We bake our biscuits. We have found one brand of ice-cream which comes in cardboard (Walls vanilla), and one brand of chocolate which comes in paper and cardboard. We have found one brand of butter wrapped in paper (Tesco's cheapest of the cheap...why is this one the paper-wrapped one? Who knows). Flour is easy, but only white sugar comes in paper. Brown is always plastic-wrapped. Baked beans are easy, as is tinned fish. But we have given up on yoghurt and other dairy desserts, pre-packed snack bars, and breakfast cereal. Fish needs plastic bags, and I will be writing more on the subject of plastic wrappings once I have regained my composure after round one of an exchange with supermarket consumer relations departments. On balance we are eating well.

Work in progress

Last week I visited Dr. Claire Barlow and her student Amanda Wycherley, in the Engineering Department of the University of Cambridge. Amanda is working on a post-graduate project, trying to meld together waste fabric and plastics.

The idea is to find a method of making a composite material which can be used as insulation, and thereby creating a financial incentive for recycling.
They are currently working on High Density Polyethylene (HDPE, which is coded 2) and Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE, coded 4) so I was delighted to be able to give them some pots and bottle lids from our stash of non-reduceable waste.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Crouching dog, hidden rubbish

Last week was national Recycle Now Week, and I was busy running neighbourhood roadshows on council estates, holding stalls at city centre parks and the Arbury Carnival, door knocking and taking part in a Sustainable Living Exhibition in the Grafton centre. For this exhibition we had invited Michelle Reader, an artist who uses waste materials in her work, to come and make a sculpture in-situ. Michelle did bring her own rubbish, but as you can see Marian and I took our bags of rubbish from the first week of Zero Waste to see if she could reuse any of it. Over the course of the day a fantastic transformation took place, as piles of rubbish were diminished and the sculpture grew into this wonderful dog! The County Council are now going to run a competition to name it.
We didn't get rid of all our rubbish unfortunately, but it has inspired me and I would like to make something out of what we collectively have left at the end of the month (maybe a trophy for the person with the least waste - ha ha!)

Things that are annoying me this week:

You used to be able to get yoghurt in a glass jar - what happened?
I can't find any margerine that isn't in a plastic tub
Overpackaged boxes of chocolates received as gifts (close to finishing one, eek!)
When I asked the girl on the fish counter to only use one plastic bag for my haddock, she said "I normally get told off if I only use one bag"
Boxes of ice-cream cornets that you assume will be wrapped in paper inside the box but the paper has a needless layer of plastic in it (best to stick to the brands you know!)