How to unravel the habits of a lifetime and go zero waste | The Independent

2022-06-16 20:45:33 By : Mr. peter xie

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You probably think it’s quite hard to do, and you’d be right, Kate Hughes explains just how unprepared she was and what you can do to avoid the pitfalls

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There’s a lot to think about when you decide to remove all waste from your life

W e went “zero waste” overnight. We stopped using throwaway, single-use items and started using reusables for everything we brought into our home. In hindsight, it was a slightly stupid, instant, all-or-nothing decision.

Buying food that isn’t wrapped in plastic was one of the hardest changes to make and it’s fair to say we were spectacularly underprepared for the implications.

We were total wannabe foodies who enjoyed cooking but had fallen into the classic pasta sauce rut. We could make square meals from scratch but it was easier on a wet, dark Wednesday evening, when the kids were already climbing the walls, to grab something conveniently packaged that might pass for a healthy meal if we squinted.

Some kids somewhere must still grow up in lives where food shopping means visits to a series of quaint stores piled high with dry goods in hessian sacks or enormous cheeses personally sliced by an artisanal producer. Wax paper and loose veg must populate their memories of the typical food shop. It didn’t in ours.

Sure, we wandered curiously around a farmer’s market like the best of them, buying a few treats to savour. But that wasn’t our real food shopping. That was aspirational sampling. In the real world, we fed ourselves and our children from supermarkets.

Taste, texture and nutrition were considerations that were outweighed by convenience, familiarity, perceptions of value and plastic-wrapped cleanliness. Once a fortnight, we raced around a standard chain store, buying the same things we did the previous time thanks to well-honed brand recognition and aisle knowledge.

We now know that 80 per cent of us have microscopic pieces of plastic in our blood. Do I literally have plastic on the brain? Do my children? Do yours?

We could have done the grocery shop in our sleep. In fact, I think we probably did, given the shocking sleeping habits of our children for several relentless years. We would fill the boot of our diesel car with plastic bags full of plastic packs of food and drive home. There we would empty the last lot of identical, perfectly edible but “passed its best” food into the compost and the plastic into the bin. Over and over again.

Over the next few days, the metallic sound of the bin lid opening and closing would be an increasingly jarring part of the household noise. The tall metal cylinder perched at the edge of an already limited galley kitchen was used so frequently it felt like the focal point of our home.

The fridge, freezer and cupboards were rammed with branded convenience foods jam-packed with sugar, salt, preservatives and the rest. We wouldn’t have ever said we were ready-meal reliant, we had even been known to make our own bread, but we were certainly that average UK family that throws away a third of the food it buys.

Sure, the aim was to eat everything we’d bought before going round in another circle, but we never reached that prize. I also thought the food I occasionally put into the bin would simply break down into benign organic matter in landfill. I was wrong. Rotting food in landfill produces one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane. (Park the plastic for a second, if you want to make one easy change always compost your food waste. Every scrap.)

Then we decided to hurl a grenade into our slightly-fraught-but-generally-winging-it lives by cutting out every item that came wrapped in any plastic. It took three months to retrain our brains from all those autopilot purchases and associated behaviours and there were moments during the adjustment phase when I wondered if we were ever going to eat again.

Kate Hughes and her family are now as close to zero waste as they possible can be

Shopping now is very different – both in experience and cost. The first thing to disappear – by default – was the big supermarket shop. Try walking through one and finding a single display that doesn’t have any plastic in it. It won’t happen.

Even, tragically, the fruit and veg with their own natural packaging and portioning, are remarkably difficult to find not encased in the stuff.

We now know that 80 per cent of us have microscopic pieces of plastic in our blood. Do I literally have plastic on the brain? Do my children? Do yours? The sickening truth is probably.

When this all dawned on me, half an hour before tea time, I went into our kitchen horrified that everything I was about to put in front of them, even the air they were breathing at that very moment and in every moment to come, could be tainted.

I wanted to snatch up the kids and run away to somewhere safe and unpolluted, but there’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to get away from it. You can’t even escape to some pristine mountaintop. According to one study, the French Pyrenees are littered with microplastics and 365 new pieces rain down on every square metre, every day.

So what are we doing about plastic pollution? Actually, very little. Ignore the eco-marketing spin, because, despite the growing anti-plastic sentiment, seven of the 10 big UK supermarkets are increasing single-use plastic packaging.

Collectively, we’re now using around 900,000 tonnes of plastic that does a single job for a few days before being thrown away every year.

The plastics that are used in the home, are reused over and over

The UK Government is “working towards” a series of “ambitions” and “targets” of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. Another two decades of continuing as we are? Stop the plastic ride, we were getting off. We wanted no part in this hidden nightmare. Who cares how socially uncomfortable that makes our food shopping. Which it can be.

I’m pretty sure handing a metal container over to a grumpy middle-aged bloke at a deli counter is one of the most intimidating activities known to man.

And sometimes it doesn’t work anyway. We have a standard spiel designed to explain that we don’t buy things in plastic, so could you just put the food straight into the box, please. The person will listen politely, sometimes nod, sometimes mutter, and then reach for several plastic sheets or cling film to wrap the item in before depositing it in our box.

We’ll stop them, explain again, they’ll nod again and put the plastic in their hand straight into the bin. We’d have caused more unnecessary plastic waste, not less. Ignore the corporate chat about encouraging customers to bring our own containers to reduce plastic use, most of the time these are transactions that leave us apologising in the most British of ways for being a customer.

My mum and dad can easily recall the days of string bags, paper cones and being handed ice-cold chocolate straight from the freezing meat locker as a reward for being patient in the butcher’s

To be honest, I quite often avoid these purchases altogether because six times out of 10 it’s a disheartening and depressing experience. Luckily others aren’t. These days, our standard food shop means taking a bunch of empty glass jars and battered old cotton bags to a couple of small independent shops within walking distance of our high street. We clink our way in, weigh out the goods we need straight into our own containers – from spaghetti and oil to cereal and sweets – and head home again.

When we first made the switch, the weighing and measuring seemed to take forever compared with the striplight efficiency of the check-out. But there’s also a chat and a sense of community there too. We know people’s names. They know ours. Our children are slipped little handfuls of sweets while we’re busy purchasing sensible things.

We started buying fruit and veg loose from an actual greengrocer and milk in glass bottles that were left on our doorstep to be collected and refilled by a milkman. I hadn’t realised they all still existed until we went looking for them. It all feels a bit old school, but it’s the way we all shopped until relatively recently.

Single-use plastic only really went mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s – within living memory. I certainly remember the rattling of the pre-dawn milk rounds from early childhood, the invention of plastic-encased microwaveable ready meals in the 1980s, and the arrival of salad in a bag in the mid-1990s. I was pretty sure paying more for someone to chop up your lettuce would never catch on.

Buying loose vegetables from a greengrocer cuts out a lot of unnecesary packaging

My mum and dad can easily recall the days of string bags, paper cones and being handed ice-cold chocolate straight from the freezing meat locker as a reward for being patient in the butcher’s. In fact, my dad still can’t countenance sweet treats at room temperature.

And if you’d have told my granny that I’d been asked to write a book about how we live without plastic, she’d have been astonished. For more than half of her life that was the norm.

When we explain we don’t have a bin because we don’t create any waste, most people look at us with bemusement before asking how that’s even possible. I do sometimes suspect they think we’re just massive hoarders with a gigantic pile of concealed rubbish. We’re not, but nor have we invented some miraculous new way of life. We’ve just reverted back.

I was once told we were “regressing just to prove a point.” It was early days, at a point when the efforts we were making felt ridiculous, futile and that all they did was to create distance between us and our friends. I was hurt by that statement at the time – made by a woman who has since made concerted efforts to cut out plastic herself – but I guess it’s now a badge of honour.

Those first months of zero waste were a bit chaotic and emotional, though. And of course, it wasn’t just about breaking the “big shop” habits either. There were definitely a few times when we’d grab a packet of Quavers at lunchtime or a snack to placate the kids on a long journey and not realise what we’d done for hours afterwards. When it finally dawned on us, those feelings of impotence and ridiculousness flooded back.

Milk deliveries in glass bottles still exist and are an excellent way to reduce waste

It didn’t help that there was still a kind of legacy plastic in our home. That’s what those Insta lifestyle gurus don’t tell you, what to do with all the plastic that has already seeped in – the Tupperware and takeaway boxes kept for the batch cooking plans that somehow never quite happen, or the handful of disposable forks you snatched at the till on the lunchtime sandwich run just in case.

When they realised we were serious about all this, some friends and family started playing a game of hunt-the-plastic whenever they came round to ours, rifling through cupboards and randomly opening drawers.

They’ll still find some, too. Throwing reusable plastic like Tupperware out once it’s there is pointless anyway. You can’t ever get rid of plastic – that’s the whole problem – so once it has been manufactured and paid for, however long ago, the best, most sustainable thing to do is to use it as much as possible before recycling it only when it’s no longer fit for purpose.

That was the idea behind the now spurned plastic bag in the first place. It was designed to be used over and over again – a more environmentally friendly option to the paper wrapping we’d been using in the UK since 1310, according to some records. So many centuries’ worth of paper is a lot of trees, water and energy, and it was a problem Sten Gustaf Thulin was trying to solve when he came up with the plastic bag in 1959.

There are stricter rules on packaging sold as compostable. It has to break down into organic matter within 12 weeks, but only under industrial conditions, which you don’t often find in your garden compost heap

He meant for it to be reused many times, not thrown away after carrying a single item a tiny distance just once. No wonder British shoppers used more than 2bn plastic bags in 2020. In fact, the slender resources involved in the production of plastic bags, compared with paper and cotton mean you’d have to use a paper bag at least three times, and a cotton tote around 131 times, to offset the land, water, energy and paper demands of their production.

As novice “zero wasters” we had also dipped our toe into the world of biodegradable materials as a plastic alternative which, it turned out, wasn’t a problem-free solution either.

Preparing for our first post-plastic party, and still believing everything that labelled itself eco-friendly actually was, I’d gone searching for alternatives to plastic cups to supplement our glasses and found biodegradable ones. These, I happily read, would naturally break down, unlike plastic. They had the same look, the same feel, they performed the same booze-containing task. The job, as they say, was a good ‘un.

The party went well, we drank too many sticky apricot-coloured cocktails and subjected at least one guest to our terrible homemade cider while avoiding it like the plague ourselves. No, the problems began with the clear-up.

I had understood that the biodegradable label meant the item quickly collapsed into natural components when composted. In fact, biodegradable bags can still carry a full load after having been buried in soil for three years.

If something is biodegradable, its component molecules break down naturally into water, naturally occurring gases and biomass, but there are no hard and fast timescales involved. It can hang around for years.

‘Going Zero’ by Kate Hughes

There are stricter rules on packaging sold as compostable. It has to break down into organic matter within 12 weeks, but only under industrial conditions, which you don’t often find in your garden compost heap. But at least these will all eventually become natural matter.

Compostable bags that will indeed break down in your own worm-filled pile at home are thankfully labelled as such.

Then there are the slippery oxo-biodegradable materials sometimes even referred to as bioplastics. These are made in the same way that normal, fossil-based, petrochemical plastic is, just with some additives added that make it react with oxygen and eventually break down – into tiny pieces of plastic.

There are now all sorts of efforts underway to try to clarify and help consumers understand the differences, including an EU ban on oxo-biodegradable materials from 2021, though the UK, despite voting for the EU ban, has yet to confirm similar legislation post-Brexit.

But back then, we didn’t happen to have a relevant PhD to help us unravel all this and were using “biodegradable,” “compostable” and “bioplastic” interchangeably with no clear idea of the difference.

It was becoming increasingly, alarmingly, clear that if we wanted to do more good than harm, we couldn’t rely on the information we were being fed. The changes we made and actions we took needed to be backed up by some hardcore research of our own.

Meanwhile, I had smugly chucked all that “biodegradable” party paraphernalia on our compost heap only to have to recover it later. I vowed from that moment to understand what we were buying.

Extracted from ‘Going Zero: One Family’s Journey to Zero Waste and a Greener Lifestyle’ by Kate Hughes (Canbury)

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There’s a lot to think about when you decide to remove all waste from your life

Kate Hughes and her family are now as close to zero waste as they possible can be

The plastics that are used in the home, are reused over and over

Buying loose vegetables from a greengrocer cuts out a lot of unnecesary packaging

Milk deliveries in glass bottles still exist and are an excellent way to reduce waste

‘Going Zero’ by Kate Hughes

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