Thursday, 10 May 2012

To achieve Zero Waste, we MUST keep focusing on the target

The future of waste is something that's been on my mind lately, not least because tomorrow I will be attending my first board of trustees meeting of the Zero Waste Alliance UK.  I've also got several exciting projects coming up over the next few weeks, which will highlight how our culture is changing.

My mind goes back to 2008, when I volunteered to take part in my first Zero Waste Week challenge. Despite my enthusiasm, I thought I must have had a screw loose for trying it.  I worried that people would think I was a weirdo and as for the reducing waste so drastically, I didn't think it was possible. 

But the results of the challenge showed otherwise and, at the time, shocked me.

I realise now that my pre-challenge assumptions were based on limiting judgements, lack of knowledge and embedded habits, as well as expectations that fitted well within my comfort zone.  Consequently, when I first signed up for the challenge, I confessed to the council that the best I could commit to during Zero Waste Week would be a carrier bag's worth of rubbish.  It was a comfortable target.  With such a busy family lifestyle, it felt far more realistic than producing an empty bin. And to be honest, knowing how much rubbish we threw away before that, I knew I'd be happy and proud to declare such an achievement.

But this declaration was 8 weeks before the Zero Waste Week.  I was unaware of the discoveries I would make in the coming months, including the recycling solutions that were continually improving, or how I could take control over reducing waste that could not be recycled.  As my knowledge grew during those few weeks, my assumptions changed and so did the horizon of the challenge that lay ahead.

With my limiting judgements being sledge-hammered into oblivion, thanks to my new knowledge, experiences and conviction, I was able to look afresh at the Zero Waste target and the goal looked more easily attainable. That's how during that week in March 2008, we only came to throw out a plaster.  And that's how those who took part in the Rubbish Diet Challenge that I set at the beginning of the year, also came out with fabulous results.

That's the power of the target, no matter whether it's zero waste or any other personal\business goal.
And this is why we must keep the focus on zero waste and underpin it with a commitment to learn, innovate and improve the processes and solutions that help us move towards that goal.

Zero waste isn't just about recycling more, it's about not creating that waste in the first place.

Whether you're a designer developing your next product or packaging, a buyer for your own business or a large retail chain, an events manager organising the smallest of events, or a householder who thinks you have nothing at all to do with the waste stream, you can make your own contribution towards a zero waste future whoever you are.

Even if all you do for now is take a proper read of your council's latest leaflet or your company's waste management policy, that is a key step to recharting the future of waste.  As a resident, you may find new services that you never realised existed and begin to recycle more as well as reduce other waste. As a designer or buyer you may discover that the future of your product can only be landfill and decide to design-out that waste.  Or if you're organising an event based on plastic cutlery or polystyrene, you may decide to consider alternatives that could help make your event waste free.

By setting yourself a zero waste target now, even if you don't think it is achievable, it will kickstart your interest and your inner innovation.  Then once your learning curve is underway and you become satisfied with your progress, a sustainable zero waste future will become more attainable, and you'll be ready to pounce on any new technologies or services that become available or more easily respond to legislative pressures.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little imagination to want to do things differently and great results can be achieved, such as that shown in the business case study here or illustrated by community based programmes that include WasteWatch's Our Common Place, or the examples demonstrated by individual contributors to MyZeroWaste.

You just need to keep that target in mind, even if it feels like it will take you five years to get there.

So begin now, by setting yourself the target, learn, innovate accordingly, reap the benefits of interim successes and review regularly.

I strongly believe you'll get there, even if you need the genius of scientists\designers to help you or invigorated markets to drive the demand for recycled goods.

As a society,  if we focus on the target, the road to zero waste and closed loop recycling will always remain open and all other diversions will become closed.

Anything else, can only be second best and is less than our future deserves.


Useful websites to feed your inspiration:

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

My very first relationship with.... COMPOST!

As we're slap bang in the middle of Compost Awareness Week (6-12 May), I thought I'd delve into the archives of my memory cells and rustle up a few notes on my long standing relationship with compost.

For me, composting has been a normal part of life since my childhood in the Seventies. I have early memories of accompanying my grandmother on the trek from her kitchen to the compost heap, which was located in the chicken run.

Well it felt like a trek.  I was just five years old, and it was a large garden.

My sister and I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' home and as we grew up, one of our little jobs was to take the kitchen waste to the compost heap, dodging the fearsome cockerel when we got there.

We soon realised the value of composting, not least because it was the perfect place to hide the evidence of our sneaky pea snaffling, as we entertained ourselves with many rounds of pea-pod Top Trumps.

And every so often, we would see our uncle standing in the middle of the heap, turning it and shovelling heaps of earth from the bottom, into a wheelbarrow, which he'd then dig into the kitchen garden.

Soil from all those peelings! It seemed like magic.

It is clear that my early introduction to composting as an everyday part of life stayed with me.  I may have left the Welsh village where I grew up and spent the next decade hopping from student digs and shared houses, before settling down with my husband, but the minute we bought our first house in 1998, one of the first changes I made to the garden was to install a compost bin - one of those black plastic ones, which we bought through our local council.

When we relocated to our new home in Bury St Edmunds five years later, I discovered that St Edmundsbury Borough Council collected vegetable peelings & garden waste as part of its recycling service. This was 2003 and when registering for our brand spanking new wheelie bins, I suddenly got all defiant.  As I rejected the opportunity of adding a brown wheelie bin to our collection I recall making my stance clear...

"There's no way the council's getting their hands on my compost!" were the words that fell from my mouth.

I can't help laughing at my over-protection position on my grass clippings and apple cores.  It wasn't as though I was even being particularly frugal.  We simply had an average sized garden that could easily accommodate a compost bin, and it just made more sense to compost at home and bung the finished contents under the odd shrub, instead of a bin lorry carting our peelings around the county to be managed elsewhere.

Nine years on and we now have a collection of three compost bins dotted discreetly around the garden, as well as a wormery, which is great for the odd scraps of cooked waste.  Well, I say discreet.  The plastic ones are tucked away, but the wooden beehive compost bin (pictured above) has become a very attractive feature of the garden and is located just outside the kitchen.

Many people feel discouraged from home composting because of the risk of vermin such as rats. Although this is a possibility in some areas, we've never had a problem.  The worst we've ever experienced was a mouse that decided to take residence, but was solved with a humane mousetrap.  I also had a squeamy squirmish scare with maggots on one occasion, as a result of something going in that shouldn't have, but some boiled water, covering the contents with newspaper and avoiding that compost bin for a week soon resolved the issue and it has never happened again.

As far as creating the 'right mix' is concerned, I'm no particular expert.  I just bung in all our scraps and remember to add odd pieces of cardboard, paper and garden clippings now and again.  If the results are sloppier than our efforts, I don't see it as a problem as the compost just gets buried into the existing earth anyway, enhancing it with all its extra nutrients.

Even though our garden is not very large, I still prefer our self-sufficient approach to managing our kitchen scraps. From a sustainability perspective, it seems far more sensible.  However, we have since compromised and added the council's composting service for our garden waste, which is plentiful in the Spring and throughout the Summer.

Although not quite as exciting as my own early memories of composting, I hope my children - currently aged 7 and 10 - will develop the same responsibility and awareness when they are older.  At least they already understand the process and a quick test this evening demonstrated that they know the kind of stuff that goes in the compost bin, even if they don't have that duty very often.

But they'd better look out because Compost Awareness Week has just inspired me to add compost duties to their list of jobs.

Cue evil laughter.



Well it's about time they made more of an effort.

And I know it won't just be rotten veg we'll be discussing. I'm quite sure they will soon tell me that I'm a 'Rotten Mother' for making them do it.

I just hope that when they are my age they will come to thank me, and are just as grateful as I am to my late grandmother.

If you've never composted before and would like to find out more, visit and

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Swish, shwop, swap or drop, or make do and mend?

With a solid infrastructure of car boot sales, clothing agencies, charity shops, recycling points, give & take days, passing onto friends or a night out swishing, there are many solutions to getting rid of unwanted clothes today.  You'd think our society would have this thing sorted wouldn't you?


According to TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid & International Development), over 1.4 million tonnes of clothing still end up landfill each year, much of which could be worn again.

Now this makes me bloody angry!

When you consider all of the labour, the resources, the energy and the effort that's gone into making a product, which is simply discarded as rubbish when there is so much more that can be done with it, it highlights a major problem with our society.  A society that is either unaware or one that doesn't care.

So it was with interest, that I've been following the huge campaign that has been launched recently by M&S and Oxfam, promoting Shwopping.  Unless you're a hermit in a loincloth, tucked away in the farthest corner of a deep cavern, it's been hard to miss it, especially as it's been fronted by one of the UK's most wonderful actresses, Joanna Lumley and has hit print, broadcasting and social-media alike. The message is simple. Stop chucking so much into landfill because that's bad. M&S will make it easy for you to recycle instead, passing it onto Oxfam for reuse, resale or recycling. The idea is that next time you're shopping in-store, take in something old and drop it in the Shwop Drop box before you buy something new. 

Claiming this is the start of a fashion revolution, it is unsurprising that the campaign has been met with a whole whirlwhind of controversy, with some great commentary from columnists such as the Guardian's Deborah Orr, TriplePundit's Raz Godelnik and blogger Keith Parkins, all delving a little deeper beyond the campaign gloss.  M&S is really putting itself on a pedestal for what could be deemed as profiting from simply selling emperor's clothes, when the more environmental alternative is to buy less.

We will never win the battle of waste and resource issues with constant consumerism, but despite this, I think that M&S really does have a huge role to play with its current campaign and in terms of how it can be developed further.

From an educational perspective, the retail giant is able to reach an audience that may never be turned on by less sexy council leaflets, or that feels too proud to enter a charity shop, even to drop something off, or can't be arsed to take something to a recycling centre because they're simply too busy getting the buzz from the next purchase.

If you're looking for any anecdotal evidence on this, people like that really do exist.  I've been there, and am just glad to have snapped myself out of it shortly after the turn of the century.

In my bubble of optimism I hope that the Shwop idea will be the start of something greater, not least because I hope it will reach out to an untapped opportunity for clothes recycling and that other stores will follow the lead in raising awareness in their own socio-demographic corner of the retail sector.

But I also hope that M&S will develop this further and use it as a platform to educate customers and kickstart discussion - and action -  and look at ways in which it can work closer with the community.

I have already witnessed the perfect model for this at the campaign's Shwop Lab in Spitalfields this week, where I had the chance to chat to eco designer Gary Harvey, whilst he was busy designing a dress made from donated denim that would have otherwise been landfilled.

Passionate about good design and quality materials, his position is clear, in that fast fashion has transformed the clothing industry with merchandise that is so cheap you can pick up a pair of jeans for just four quid.  He worries that as a society we have lost respect for clothing. 

He is also concerned about the social injustice of a trade, which in many areas has taken people away from their communities into enforced labour with poor conditions of pay as well as health and safety.  He's not on his own in this worry. Lucy Siegle, author of the book To die for, has conducted a tremendous amount of research in this area, which has highlighted some stark realities of the fashion industry.  I'd recommend you watch her very short video, which provides a brief insight.

My discussion with Gary Harvey highlighted another issue, in that we have lost our creative and practical skills for making and customising our own clothing. Even altering an item of clothing can be beyond our capabilities.  As a society he wants us to get up off our backsides, have a go at making something and stop making excuses.  I could only nod and blush, having rejected many a blue skirt in my local charity shops this week because the hem was far too long.  I was beginning to wish that I'd already had this conversation last week.

"It's not difficult," he told me. "If you make a mistake, you just fix it."

My visit to the Shwop Lab gave me access to an informed perspective, which despite being open to all of M&S customers, the majority won't see it. Yet, with a full agenda of debate and insights in conjunction with Oxfam and the Sustainable Centre of Fashion, it is a fundamental part of the campaign launch

If M&S really wants to influence its customers and start creating a deeper fashion revolution, every store in this country should host a version of the Shwop Lab,  raising awareness of the issues that exist in the fashion industry and illustrating what the company is doing to address them.

It may be a little leftfield, but I would also love to see an instore Oxfam pop-up shop with good quality pieces, which can be bought there and then, to introduce shoppers into the idea of reuse. 

I really hope the Shwop campaign will create a much wider debate about our relationship with clothing than has ever been tackled before.  It's certainly made me look again at my own buying habits, which have had the odd moment of weakness lately.  Inspired by Gary Harvey, I am also going to attempt to overcome my fears and laziness and try and work some magic with my sewing machine, which I will need to drag down from the loft.

Meanwhile, I've got one last plea to M&S.  Please, I beg you to stop including those damn belts with your jeans.  If I want a belt I'll buy a good quality one, and probably so will the thousands of people who also probably take them off after the first wash and never wear them again.  I know I could 'shwop' it, but I don't want it in the first place.

It may be a very niche idea, but just imagine the impact it could make.  To bastardise one of the most famous sayings, "That's one small belt for a woman, but one giant leap for mankind".

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