It’s Zero Waste Week

It’s already day two (just), but it’s not too late! I’m not a great one for signing up to challenges like this (although I know that lots of people find that they provide a good incentive), but I am particularly taken with this year’s theme: One More Thing. So, I’ve been thinking about one more thing we could do…

Chez Snail, we don’t produce much landfill-type waste – a small bag every month, perhaps. Food waste is minimal too, partly because eating fresh from the garden means that what isn’t harvested to be eaten straight away carries on growing, and partly because we don’t over-shop and we are happy to eat left-overs. But we do send quite a bit for recycling – maybe one rubbish sack every two weeks, so I’m sure there is room for improvement here.

We could cut down on the number of superfluous things that we buy and this would reduce the amount of packaging that we throw away and (in theory) reduce the amount of stuff we discard because we have a newer or better version. In practice, however, we aren’t big consumers, so trying to do this probably wouldn’t make a huge difference.

What a waste!

So, the only way forward is to buy things with less packaging… and perhaps to try to persuade manufacturers to use less packaging. I’m always irritated by things that come with superfluous layers of sealed plastic wrap… why does a dvd need to be shrink-wrapped – it’s hardly going to go off, is it? Electrical items seem to be particularly bad for quantity of packaging, something I have bogged about previously in relation to a small set of headphones I bought. Indeed, a recent purchase of a breadmaker for Mr Snail seemed to yield rather more plastic, polystyrene and cardboard than was strictly necessary (did the pan really need to be in a separate plastic bag?). I gather, however, that amongst the worst offenders in terms of packaging are perfumes and high-end cosmetics, especially those in ‘gift packs’. Since these are items that I never buy, I cannot speak from experience, but in such cases, it appears that the manufacturers consider that more packaging makes for a classier product. SIGH.

The Industry Council for Research on Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN – a British organisation) do produce a factsheet that explains the reasons for some of the packaging that we might think is excessive, although they also say:

But if you still think that a product seems to be over-packaged, contact the retailer or manufacturer to complain, or call 08454 04 05 06 or go on-line to Consumer Direct at www.consumerdirect.gov.uk so that trading standards officials can investigate. Over-packaging is against the law.

Indeed, they produce another factsheet entitled Packaging and Environment Legislation, which provides some context. Do remember, though, that INCPEN is run by manufacturers and retailers, not consumers or environmentalists. Still, it’s a start.

Too much for a set of headphones?

A few years ago there was a campaign to try to persuade supermarkets to encourage their suppliers to use less packaging. The idea was that shoppers would remove excess packaging at the checkout and leave it there for the supermarket to deal with. I’m not sure what impact it had, but I suspect that manufacturers were so far removed from the action that they hardly noticed and the supermarkets probably just cleared up without much comment. It’s probably better to contact manufacturers directly… at least that way you are communicating with someone who has the potential to do something about the issue.

And after all this pondering, what am I, The Snail of Happiness, going to do for Zero Waste Week? Well since I’m finding it difficult to further reduce the waste that goes out of the house, I think I’m going to take a look at the waste that stays in my house: the objects that are packed away unused, or simply sitting around gathering dust. I’m going to convert these things into something useful by sending them to a charity shop, or selling them or simply making use of them myself. I think some rummaging around in cupboards, drawers, the airing cupboard and the loft is in order…

 

21st Century Womble

Do you know what a Womble is? If you were a child growing up in the 1970s in Britain, you certainly do, but I’m not sure how far their fame spread and whether they crossed the Atlantic to become popular in the US or traveled half way round the world to the Antipodes… I hope they did.

Wombles may have been the greenest creatures ever created… they were certainly well ahead of their time. They are smallish furry animals with an eye for potential: collecting what others perceive as rubbish and transforming it into useful items. The original books were written by Elisabeth Beresford (the first was published in 1968) but then made into a television series that was narrated by Bernard Cribbins. Ms Beresford was an author with vision – she created a group of characters who could save the world if they were in charge: unassuming grassroots environmentalists.

The motto of these creatures

make good use of bad rubbish

is one that we should, perhaps all pay attention to. Being dedicated to reuse and recycling is not a bad lifestyle choice. In these days of ridiculous consumerism (just watch ‘The Story of Stuff‘ if you want your eyes opening on the subject) I find myself becoming more of a womble with each passing year. It’s not that I don’t buy anything… I do, and certainly more than I need, but I try not to and I have started to look at ‘junk’ with a more creative eye.

We often walk the dogs the mile or so to the nearest shop to buy a newspaper on Saturday morning. A couple of years ago I noticed a plastic spatula on the pavement next to a newly built house. It was the sort that you use in the kitchen with non-stick pans, perhaps to flip burgers. I walked on, thinking that someone at the house had dropped it, perhaps when they were moving in, and that they would retrieve it. But no, the next week when we walked past it was still there. And the next week. And the next. No one had moved it, no child had picked it up to play with, it just sat there on the pavement (sidewalk) week after week, not broken, not wanted, but clearly not important enough for anyone to even bother throwing away. After about two months I could bear it no longer… on our return trip with the newspaper, I picked up the spatula. I brought it home and inspected it. It appeared non the worse for its prolonged residence on the pavement. I have plenty of cooking utensils and anyway it seemed a little unhygienic to consider using it in the kitchen. However, the plastic scoop that we used to clean out the hen-house had recently broken, so the spatula became a replacement for that… and it still is. It lives outdoors and, to date, has survived sunshine, frost, wind and rain. It saved me 99p for a new poop-scoop (or, more likely several 99ps), but really it saved the production of yet another plastic item that consumed fossil fuel and probably had to be transported thousands of miles for me to use. Apparently it isn’t biodegradable, so if I hadn’t picked it up, it would presumably have sat on or in the ground forever, or at least until it was physically broken up and eventually became unrecognisable.

It’s just one example of my transformation into a Womble, but I collect all sorts of other things… sticks to burn, cans and bottles to recycle, cloth (sometimes to use sometimes to compost), metal objects for recycling or reuse… not everything I see, but some things. And so my thoughts turn to those who only have waste to live off. There are examples from around the world: Guatemala City, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta. These people are true 21st century Wombles – their entire lives and livelihoods are based on things that other people throw away. Rubbish dumps become their homes, but are dangerous places – physically, chemically and biologically – and the people who are forced to use them are at great risk. What a choice to make – realising that your only way to survive is on a rubbish dump. And, sadly, it’s not new – in Our Mutual Friend Charles Dickens describes the Victorian ‘Dust Heaps’ where just such activity occurred.

What a world we live in – where some have so much that they simply throw it away when something new comes along whilst others survive off the objects that the rest of society has discarded. Where, for example cardboard is simply trash here in the UK for most people, but a valuable resource in the slums of Nicaragua or Kathmandu.

So, I encourage you all to embrace your inner Womble and see the value (financial, environmental, aesthetic, whatever) in the things that you plan to throw away, or see others throwing away. Maybe buy a few less things and make the things you have last longer, or even make use of things that other people have discarded… you may even find you enjoy being a Womble.

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