Tag Archives: waste

Cats, bins, snot and plastic

Late this spring I started properly monitoring how much my household sends to landfill, and what we send. I turned out that we were putting out a small bin bag per month – which for a household of three didn’t seem too bad. Our landfill waste was, for the greater part, un-recyclable plastic, so the bin bags were light and loosely packed and could have been compacted to take up little space. Sometimes we’d have to throw out a truly broken and useless item, but there weren’t many of those in any given month.

Then we took in a cat. Our bin use increased dramatically. As we live in a flat, cats have to be up for being indoors cats, and they have to use litter trays. This creates waste. However, what creates far more waste, is the non-recyclable sachets most cat food comes in. We can’t do tins because we haven’t got a fridge, and an open tin of cat food in a cool box in summer conditions is not going to work. One elderly cat with a small appetite does not get through a tin quickly. For a few months we were throwing away far more and far more often.

Eventually we found a food that the cat really likes and that creates less waste. Dry cat food of course comes in cardboard boxes. You can also get a sort of chewy and dry cat food in bags. It doesn’t go off in the way that fresh meat will, and doesn’t attract flies. We’d had an arrangement with our local crows about leftovers, but on the whole it’s better not to have an issue. One big bag creates far less waste than lots of little sachets.

With the cat food containers under control, and the contents of the litter tray leaving in the un-re-cycle-able bags some food stuffs come in, we’re fairly organised again.

I noticed during the same time frame that if the household all has colds, we create a lot more waste – entirely in the form of snotty tissues. I’m a bit more relaxed about those going to landfill as I think there’s less issue with those than plastic. I also note that at times when I’ve had an open fire or woodstove, tissues full of snotty disease have mostly been burned. I have no idea which outcome is the most problematic. And yes, I have tried fabric hankies, but they really do need boil washing and we really can produce a lot of snot…

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Inefficient efficiency

‘Efficiency’ is one of those words politicians like to use. They talk about cutting back on wasteful, needless spending, trimming the fat out of the system, making everything streamlined and cost effective.

Efficient hospitals have no spare beds to deal with entirely predictable winter flu crises.

Efficient councils have no resources or workforce ready to deal with unexpected problems, be that flooding, heavy snow, trees brought down in gales, power cuts, lack of drinking water and so forth.

Efficient schools can’t cope in the years when there are more children than expected needing school places.

Efficient work places can’t cope with employee illness. They have far less scope for resilience when faced with unexpected challenges or setbacks.

Life seldom goes entirely as predicted. People get ill and a system that assumes it needs no slack in it to offset against sick days and people not being able to deliver, is a system bound to fail. Systems that don’t have anything to spare for the unexpected have no choice but to squeeze people harder in order to get the same results. Squeezed, pressured people get sick and ill – and the efficient system isn’t equipped to deal with that and can only respond by squeezing harder and making everything worse. Stress related sickness costs economies a fortune.

Paring everything back to the bare minimum to cut costs and avoid ‘waste’ is often a really inefficient choice. Any system working this way is incredibly vulnerable to the slightest problem.

In a crisis, efficiency kills people. Cuts to the NHS in the UK led to an estimated 10,000 deaths this winter. That’s a very high price to pay for saving money. Why on earth would be let ourselves be persuaded that saving money is more important than saving lives?

When a pared to the bone system hits an inevitable crisis, it costs a lot of money. One way or another. It may not be an immediately obvious cost. It may be a long term cost in health, skills, social engagement. It may be a long term cost that will increase crime, or violence, or abuse. Efficiency is incredibly costly when it falls apart.

To cope with life’s variables and uncertainties, we don’t need to be efficient. We need to be flexible. We need to have options. Take a long term look at the cost/benefit analysis, and slashing everything back turns out not to be even slightly cost effective. Flexibility and adaptability are key survival skills for all things in all contexts. Efficiency can deprive us of scope to adapt, and room for innovation.


Ten not so green bottles

I admit that in the last month, due to a miscalculation about how much water to carry on a hot day, I ended up buying a bottle of water. It’s something I generally avoid. I have a reusable drink bottle that won’t leach plastics into my water, and I take it with me on warm days. It saves money, and of course it means I’m not disposing of as much plastic as I otherwise might.

According to a recent newspaper article, we get through a million bottles a minute, and much of it is people buying water. This worries me. It worries me in terms of the massive waste and recycling issue, but that’s not all.

It wasn’t so long ago that Nestle were telling us that access to water should not be a human right.

The more money there is in bottling water, the more pressure there will be to let water bottling companies make a profit. We’ve already seen this in action. It means depriving communities of drinking water. It means moving water bottles about by road rather than people sourcing their water more locally. It means taking something that is a common, is a necessity for life, and turning it into a commercial opportunity. It’s a logic that puts money ahead of life and planet.

Of course drinking water is considered healthy, and any kind of spring water or mineral water is marketed as extra healthy, so it’s easy to buy this stuff and feel virtuous. It would be better to demand safe, drinkable water on tap for everyone, at prices everyone can afford.


Zero waste

There is no such place as ‘away’. Everything we throw out winds up somewhere. Landfill is not a viable solution, and making things just to bin them is not a sustainable way to run a culture. We need a zero waste economy. There’s a lot we can do as individuals, with the whole reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, but that only works when you have the right materials in the first place. A disturbing number of important foods only seem to come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.

What to do?

Companies give us this stuff because they have convinced themselves it’s what the public wants, needs, expects. So we have to have clingfilm on cucumbers and re-sealable packets, and little plastic windows so that we can see the donuts inside look like every other fried confectionary we’ve ever encountered… it becomes normal so we expect it which justifies the idea that we expect it so they have to provide it.

We have to break that circle. I think we can.

I had a chat with @sainsburys on twitter recently. I’ve also started poking Quorn. I’m looking at companies I buy from and am commenting on how disappointing their packaging is. Doing it in the public domain – twitter and facebook are good – it draws attention. I had a lot of support from other social media folk, out of the blue and with nothing organised. If enough of us tell them that recyclable packaging is what we want, they may listen.

We pay for this stuff, twice over. We pay to buy it. Then, we pay for our councils to send it to landfill. With cuts eating into essential services, it is not acceptable that we should be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on burying refuse the supermarkets and others have forced on us. Rice, pasta, seeds, dried fruit – dried, basic, storeable things, are not reliable available in recyclable packaging. This has to change.

So, consider what’s in your bin, and who helped you put it there, and then drop them a polite and friendly line in a public space. ‘I am not happy’ is a good tone to take. At this stage its worth seeing if we can get some co-operation. If there isn’t much movement, petitions can work wonders, and we may have to consider posting clean waste back to the people who created it, explaining that as we can’t recycle it and don’t want to send it to landfill, returning to source seemed like a good idea.


Humbug season

I get round to blogging in this way every year. I am not a fan of Christmas. I have no issue with spiritual Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus – that’s their festival and they have every right to get on with it. What drives me nuts, is this other thing. This celebration of gluttony and excess in which we are supposed to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to give to people we don’t even necessarily like with a side order of a lot of wasted food and a frightening amount of rubbish destined for landfill.

Every year, I get more hostile to the whole process and my desire to get away from it grows.

I’ve made myself a promise therefore, that this is going to be the last year in which I do anything conventional around Christmas. The boy is ten, and able to cope with the idea, and I think also conscious of the same issues. He’s too environmentally aware not to be uneasy about the waste and excess, even while he does like getting presents. We’ve talked a lot about making good memories rather than owning more things.
What would happen if we took a tiny fraction of the money spent on things that will never be used, or played with, and did something else with it? What if that money went to people who have nothing, who are homeless, hungry, and suffering around the world? What would happen if ‘keep things out of landfill’ got hardwired into the Christmas message? Hard to imagine that one. Tis the season to generate a great deal of junk. What about all the animals who are still given as gifts, despite, surely, everyone knowing that this is not a clever time to get a puppy or a kitten?

I’ve sung a lot of Christmas carols down the years – I like community singing and it’s a great way to raise money for good causes. I notice all those messages about peace and goodwill. I don’t remember a single carol about getting drunk, eating too much, trying to be polite about unwanted gifts and throwing far too much in the bin on Boxing day. I remember Good King Wenceslas taking things to peasants, and I remember tidings of comfort and joy, and I keep thinking how far off the mark we are, so often.

If you want to do Christmas, please, please reclaim it as something warm and human and get away from this orgy of commerciality and irresponsibility.

In the meantime, I’m plotting what I’m going to do next year, when I’m not going to be living in the middle nowhere and my scope to be useful should be much improved. And I’m trying not to feel too horribly frustrated about what I’m not able to do this time around.


Closed system earth

The boat is a closed system. It’s not on the grid, or plumbed in to the water and sewerage systems, anything that is going to be in the boat either has to be generated in situ (electricity) or physically brought in (water, fuel, food etc). There are of course some obvious downsides to this – especially when you consider having to sort out your poo… but on the plus side having the means to generate your own energy and source everything you need creates independence. If the grid falls over, I’ll still have lights.

One of the things this makes me very aware of, is the degree to which everything entering the boat comes from somewhere, and everything leaving it goes to somewhere. I have a much more direct sense than most people of how much lavatorial waste we generate in a week, and that it goes somewhere else and needs sorting out. It doesn’t magically flush away never to be thought of again. It goes somewhere. Something has to happen to it.

There are no bin collections for us. Consequently we cycle the recyclables a few miles to drop them off, and there are places we can appropriately dispose of the other things. Big bins all boaters use. And where do those go? Away… to that never never land where all the rubbish goes. Looking at those big bins every week, full of things other people couldn’t be bothered to recycle, and all the useless packaging and waste does not make me comfortable.

There are features of modern life that make it very easy to ascribe things to ‘away’. Water comes from ‘away’ and when you’re done with it, it goes away. Petrol comes out of a nozzle, the actual source rendered invisible. Rubbish disappears in a lorry every week or two. We insulate ourselves from most of the process, the whole structure of modern living encourages us not to see our own place in the many cycles we interact with. This is not helping.

The earth is a closed system. Everything we have is here. There is no off-world grid to turn to if we mess up. No method of being plumbed in to intergalactic water and sewerage systems. Anything that is going to be used on the earth has to be generated in situ. Fantasies about getting it all from space are not going to solve anything any time soon. There are of course some obvious downsides to this – especially when you consider having to sort out your poo… but on the plus side having the means to generate your own energy and source everything you need creates independence. Or it would, if we weren’t being collectively insane.