The 4 R’s

Some of you might remember that last July I wrote a column about trying to reduce the use of disposable plastic in my (our) life. I’ve always tried to look for re-usable options where possible anyway but ‘plastic free July’ prompted me to investigate more deeply the role of plastic in my life and identify where we could cut back further. I was also introduced to the concept of the 4 R’s; they are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The idea being that by following these 4 R’s you can do your bit as an individual consumer to further reduce the production and consumption of disposable single-use plastic.

Recently, it’s a subject that has been in the media a lot with Iceland promising that it’s own range of products will be plastic-free and other supermarkets looking like they’ll be following suit. In fact, even here in the Express and Echo, a local plastic-free hero, the wonderful Jen Harris, was interviewed as she has impressively got her families household black-bin waste down to a large crisp packet full every 2 weeks! She has also had a massive impact on the people of Exeter, inspiring many around the city to make a stand against plastic. She is one of the admin on two great facebook groups; ‘Exeter Journey to Zero Waste’ and ‘Compost Connections’, both of which I’d recommend if you’d like local tips on reducing your waste.

One of the biggest sources of plastic waste is in food packaging; dried pasta and rice in plastic bags, vacuum packed cucumbers and broccoli, fruit in plastic cartons, plastic meat trays…the list is endless! Luckily, in Devon, three savvy environmentally conscious entrepreneurs have seen a need for a shop that bucks the plastic-heavy trend. Starting with Earth.Food.Love in Totnes, then followed by the Real Food Store in Exeter and now, excitingly, Nourish of Topsham will be opening on Saturday 24th March. The former is entirely plastic-free and the small shop is lined wall to wall with bulk dispensers full of every kind of dried good you can imagine from grains to coffee, cereal, nuts and even make your own nut butter machines! They also have a range of household cleaning products in large barrels so you can bring your own containers to refill. The Real Food Store has a small selection of bulk dipensers and cleaning products as well as lots of loose fruit and veg for the shoppers in Exeter. And to quote them directly, Nourish of Topsham is ‘a zero-waste provisions store…[selling] whole foods, dry goods and everyday items to make plastic free living a little easier.’ I’m so excited about exploring the latter when they open in a few weeks time and hoping that we can get much of our weekly groceries from them.

The rise of these kind of shops is a direct response to the increasing awareness of consumers that we are producing and throwing away too much plastic. Everyone has probably seen a shocking photo of a beach covered in plastic or a sea floating with so much debris you can barely see the water. Clearly, we need to do something to protect our environment and the more of us that choose to support these stores and buy less plastic-packaged products, the better! So come down to Topsham on the 24th March for the opening of Nourish, which is happening on Spring Forward Saturday, a day for offers and Spring treats in over 50 local independent shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s the perfect opportunity for a day out to indulge in a little retail therapy and to #shoplocal whilst you’re at it!

Feasting and Famine

Like many people, I’ve heard with increasing horror about the latest emerging famine in Somalia. Tales of children starving to death after more failed harvests have shocked us in a country where food is bountiful and often, wasted. It has only been six years since the last major famine in Somalia which left a quarter of a million people dead, a shocking statistic in these supposedly advanced times that we live in. What I can’t get over though is the huge gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to food.

On one side of the world, a drought occurs and the consequence is so severe that millions of people are displaced, left hungry and searching for food whilst their loved ones die along the way. There is obviously no significant store of food, no back up for when the weather or nature doesn’t behave accordingly. And on the flip-side, here in the UK (and most of Europe), we have food coming out of our ears. Our supermarkets, lit by their bright lights, are eternally stocked, drawing us in with their bargains and offers. The average family in the UK throws away around £500 worth of edible food each year (a staggering 7.3 million tonnes nationwide). Our cupboards are often stacked to the hilt with tins and packets and perishable goods. We have the luxury of choice and not just a little choice but a veritable smorgasbord of delicious edibles are on offer. We can cook from scratch, we can buy ready meals, order take out, eat at restaurants. We can feast on Italian cuisine, Indian delicacies, Mexican street food, seafood…anything our hearts or bellies desire.

We’ve come a long way from the ‘meat and 2 veg’ of earlier decades and even longer since food was simply a necessity for survival, something that was consumed for fuel with little more thought beyond where the next meal was coming from. Obviously I, like most people, am a big fan of food and love the fact that we can enjoy it more than we used to. But when I think about how primitive (and not guaranteed) it still is for millions of people all over the world, I can’t help but feel guilty. As always, I have no answers. Of course there are charities that I could donate to and I intend to try and find out who is able to directly help those suffering the most.

However, I suspect the problem is bigger, it’s systemic. I’m sure I’ve read that there is enough food for everyone in the world to survive and more. But it is not distributed evenly, not at all. And I don’t know how we can change that. It can only happen if led by governments and international governing organisations. I don’t think though that that is an excuse to bury our heads in the sand, ignore and carry on though. We can at least try to adjust our own consumer habits to make our tiny difference to things. We can stop buying food that we don’t need, stop throwing away things that we can still eat. We can try to buy food that is in season or produced locally. It’s not always possible but perhaps if we were all just a little bit more considered in our approach to food, we would start to see things shift for the better. Call me a naïve optimist if you will but I’d rather try than not. There must be a healthy mid point between feasting and famine.

Consumerist Tendencies

On Friday, it seemed as if the country was split into three groups. Those that shunned Black Friday with scorn, those that tentatively and quietly searched out bargains in the hope of making their Christmas a little cheaper…and those that threw themselves into the ‘biggest shopping day of the year’ which resulted in queues, chaos and arrests in shops all around the country. I am still slightly puzzled by the latter category.

I cannot comprehend being so consumed with the desire to grab a good deal that I would push someone smaller than myself out of the way or physically get involved in an altercation over buying what amounts to no more than stuff. And probably stuff that is non essential, disposable and in the long run won’t increase my levels of happiness or quality of life. But it seems that big business and our consumerist culture is slowly tightening it’s grip on our wallets, our purchases and our actions. As I pondered the events with Dan over the weekend he pointed out that advertising is all pervasive and incredibly powerful and I realised that he was right. I had seen adverts for black friday and received emails about deals from various companies for probably a fortnight before the event. I’d even paused on an amazon order in case the items were further reduced during the sales (for the record, they weren’t). So it seems that without me even realising, their advertising had worked. And I’m guessing there aren’t many steps between waiting to complete an online order and queuing at your local supermarket at midnight to save yourself £20, £50 or even more. We often want to (or think we want to) spend more than we earn and anything that facilitates that is welcomed with open arms. And big business and retailers know that and can manipulate our spending to suit their profits through adverts about how we need the new version of a product and how it much more convenient to replace a faulty item rather than repair it or make do without.

And of course, the problem isn’t just about the extent of their control over how we spend our money (though of course that is pretty scary in itself) but about the wider implications of our disposable, consumerist culture on the world itself. Everything is linked. For example, we enjoyed an absolutely gorgeous morning outside yesterday and everyone remarked how incredibly warm it was for the end of November. But whereas I would previously have enjoyed it without a second thought, my enjoyment was tinged by the thought that this is a result of global warming, a process that we are directly contributing to the acceleration of at an alarming pace.

It is easy (and I’m massively guilty of it myself) to be careless and hasty when it comes to our purchases. Not only should we be considering where it was made and how far it had to travel once made but we should be thinking about how it was made, the origin and ethical soundness of it’s component parts, the chemicals used to grow or preserve the food we buy. And it’s bloody hard. No two ways about that. Even if you remain fairly ethically rigorous on your bigger or more permanent purchases, buying our day to day groceries in an ethical but affordable manner is tough. We shop at Aldi because the price suits our budget. But I am aware that a lot of their produce isn’t organic, it is over packaged and probably has travelled a fair distant to reach us. I don’t have the answer though, we try to recycle as much as possible and now we can’t compost and don’t have the chickens to feed our scraps I want to get a wormery to reduce food waste. We can buy fruit, vegetables and eggs at a price that we can afford at local market. But everything else still comes from the supermarket. We live in an area and an age where that is the most affordable option for most families. So we are supporting this inconsiderate process without even wanting to. How can we change this?

A friend of mine is trying to reduce her families waste and avoid plastic and recommended the film Trashed which admittedly I haven’t watched yet but apparently is a great place to start in realising the implications of our waste on the planet. To be honest, part of the reason I haven’t watched it yet is because I suspect I’ll find it quite upsetting and also come away feeling pretty guilty about the role our family plays in contributing to this global waste problem. Here’s the trailer though if you’re interested.


But I digress; let’s get back to black friday and gift buying. Two years ago at Christmas I quoted an article by George Monbiot called The Gift of Death in which he, much more eloquently than I, explains the problem behind thoughtless gift buying and the role of the media and businesses in our spending decisions. I won’t re-quote him but I would urge you to go and have a read if you haven’t before. It says a lot for handmade gifts and for the importance of presence over presents.

So I say let’s rebel against big business and consumerism this Christmas. Let’s try and not fall prey to their clever and insidious advertising. Let’s try and give this festive season some deeper, more important meaning. We read the Grinch this evening as our box of Christmas books has come out and I’ll leave you with his closing realisations about Christmas to remember that long after the presents have been opened, the packaging chucked, the gifts played with and discarded or (often) broken, the environmental impact of the decisions we made will still linger on. And perhaps, just perhaps, they weren’t what will be remembered from Christmas 2014 anyway.

‘It came without ribbons! It came without tags!

It came without packages, boxes and bags!’

And he puzzled three hours, til his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

‘Maybe Christmas’, he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’