Thursday, 31 January 2008

Making Progress

Having made a really good start with The Rubbish Diet, I have spent this week trying to eek out the food, avoid any form of packaging and protect the bin from suffering any form of contact with Mr A and the almost average juniors.

The Zero Waste challenge is beginning to feel like a real diet, where there is always the benefit of eating a lot less and exercising a lot more for those few days just before the weekly weigh-in, but that's where the similarity ends....I draw the line at jogging around the estate with my black bin in tow. It's mad enough just having a blog about rubbish. What would people think!

Anyway, it's going very well and I am encouraged by the progress even though I won't really see the fruits of our labours until bin collection day on Monday. So, between now and then, I am even more determined to keep on track and have focused again on my shopping habits.

I have made further inroads since I first discussed the topic of shopping last week and have reassessed our use of my favourite supermarket, where I shop weekly either in person or online.

This week I have avoided doing the typical weekly shop. Instead, I took the opportunity of dropping into a farm shop near Westley, en route to Ickworth House, a local National Trust property near Bury St Edmunds. It was a great opportunity to buy a whole selection of fruit and vegetables, which were just placed into my basket with no packaging in sight, with the exception of a few paper bags that can be easily composted. As the Farm Shop is open until 6pm in the evening, it also means that it is accessible to people who work 9-5pm.

There was a great selection of produce and it was reasonably priced. It was also more fun for a three year old than the supermarket, even if it does have a child-sized trolley. Having bundled the toy tractor into the boot of the car offered some additional amusement and we were in and out of the shop in just over 5 minutes. It must have been the most relaxed shopping experience I've had in a long time.

With that said, I enjoyed a quick nip into Waitrose whilst in town this afternoon, to pick up some more essentials. Top of the list was more celery, or rather a load of celery. Remember....this IS a diet after all and I've found celery to be a top food in bulking out my homemade concoctions and amazingly the little one just can't get enough of eating it raw.

After the trip to the farm shop, we drove off for a tractor ride around Ickworth park....and guess what we saw....

I think the word's got around and I am now being stalked!


Tuesday, 29 January 2008

How to be a rubbish cook

I mentioned in my last post that the major hurdle to our Zero Waste challenge would be conquering the mountain of food that is regularly thrown away and I was right!

Already this week, there have been the forgotten slices of ham that had gone into hiding at the back of the fridge and then the fresh pesto which I bought at a Farmers Market before Christmas, which had the blessing of a six week shelf-life but can only now rest in peace. Shameful, I know.

...And that's just the cold food. From the cooked menu, the bin has been fed some jacket potato skins, leftover Weetabix and some pasta.

However, I have made a big effort towards the cause, even if it did involve struggling to eat a whole tub of Pesto on Saturday night and rescuing the smoked salmon from a future of being buried in the countryside. I felt ill for the rest of the evening, but the bin looked fitter!

So, as you can see, the food waste issue is a real challenge and if I continue taking responsibility for eating the tubs of just-in-date food all on my own, it will be a lonesome life and one that will need the Atkins diet. OTHERS NEEDED TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. It was time for action.

The Family Meeting

With all this in mind, we held a family meeting on Sunday. Well it was almost a family meeting. My three year old lost interest due to hunger, but my six year old held his attention and couldn't wait to chip in. In fact, it looked like he's been waiting for the right opportunity for years, as he was too quick off the mark for my liking....

Me: So, how do you think we can reduce all the stuff that goes in the bin?

Junior J: We just throw less away.

Me: (thinking..."Good, he understands reduce").... Okay so what can we do differently?

Junior J: Ooooh that's easy Mum, just cook more of what we like! Don't cook any more of those stinky wizard stews and don't give us any more of that yukky bread with bits in.

"Us"? What did he mean by "Us"? He was sounding like a union rep! Surely that response must have been pre-planned...and what a rubbish review of my cooking skills. It's a good job I wasn't counting on his recommendation to his friends.

Hmmm, but he did have a point. He was suggesting a brilliant strategy and it's not as though the boys don't eat healthily. His suggested replacement for stinky wizard stew was to have more fruity pasta (pasta with chopped apple, raisins and grated cheese), which is always popular and the ingredients are interchangeable.

So I agreed to be more considerate to the junior posse's needs, but there was no way I was going to budge that very same day, not when chicken casserole was already on the menu, with a strategy to reheat it as a stew the following day! That was the plan and this was the reality.

Cooking with waste in mind

Thanks to the Love Food Hate Waste site I've rediscovered that the key to cooking with waste in mind is to find a suitable recipe for using up the ingredients in the fridge, and measuring out just enough and not too much. However, if you want to maximise the results of your efforts, make sure that you have enough food left over for another meal.

The problem is I don't do recipes. A recipe for me is like telling an artist to paint by numbers rather than giving them the freedom to experiment with colour. I'm no artist but I love making it up as I go along, bunging things in and tasting on the go. My life is like "Ready Steady Cook" but using sheer guesswork.

So here's my Ready Steady Cook technique: Take some chicken breasts and a selection of fresh and not so fresh vegetables (take a closer look at those carrots and you'll see that they were at their best two weeks ago).

Chop everything in sight and bung the ingredients into a casserole dish with 2pts of vegetable stock, some garlic, herbs, white wine and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook in the oven for about 40 minutes at 180 degrees C and rescue from the oven while the chicken is still tender. Serve with rice, pasta, cous-cous or potatoes. You can see we're talking real flexibility here. However, if you prefer the painting by numbers technique, you'll find some good recommendations on the Love Food Hate Waste site.

Anyway, I am pleased to report that the meal was a great success. I reduced the children's portions to avoid leftovers and what they did leave, we finished off, except for the spare rice, which was mixed with chopped pineapple and re-offered as tea.

The rest of the casserole was cooled, put in the fridge and put aside ready for tonight, reformed as tasty wizard stew. Mr A was almost in denial, but I won over in the end. Last week it would have been rubbish, but tonight it was dinner.

And as for the kids... they opted for baked beans and pasta. A strange mix, but at least they ate it all, so it looks like we might be on the right track.

Oh yes and the bin....fingers crossed, I think it's looking thinner already.


Sunday, 27 January 2008

Pondering Less

After much dancing yesterday and clanging of dustbin lids to the tune of the 3Rs, the whole family has settled into the Zero Waste challenge with great gusto.

I even won the battle of the bin bags with great victory over the King of Declutter (my husband), who created a whole bin-bag full of miscellaneous items, all destined for the black bin. There was good reason, especially as being the Queen of Clutter I often have many piles dotted around the house, ready to give to friends, charity shops or one of the local amenity sites... and which often lurk around for weeks and weeks (er...and sometimes months), waiting for the right opportunity to be set free.

Yesterday the King of Declutter was taking no prisoners, but I was, and with great determination I rescued the home-made nativity crowns, which could be re-used for craft activities, various paper products that could be redirected to the blue bin and finally his old worn-out shoes, which could be taken to the clothing bank. The bag immediately shrunk to a third of its original size. Then today, he went off to our local amenity site with the old shoes and the load of tetra-pak cartons which had been collected over the last couple of weeks. Kerching! That's two gold stars, I should say, especially because two weeks ago this kind of stuff would have been destined for landfill.

I have a theory that it's all in the genes and I am just very fortunate to have married someone with excellent decluttering skills, helping to reduce the number of superfluous things that get in the way, which brings me onto the subject of LESS and its relevance to the Zero Waste challenge. Would we have the same problems if we just had fewer things? It makes sense that having less means that there would be less to throw away.

The experts in the field refer to this as "Reduce", the first of the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), highlighting that if we reduce what we buy and use, the result will be less waste.

This is all very well in theory, but what does it mean in practice? I suppose it depends on your view of life and the relevance of stuff!

"Less is more."
Mies van der Rohe, Dutch-American "Modernist" architect (1886-1969)

"Less is a bore."
Robert Venturi, American post-Modernist architect (b. 1925)

Hmm. I think I am definitely a "Less is More" girl, unless you're talking diamonds over cubic zirconia, where for me caret holds much more value that cut. So, I am sorry to disappoint if you're hoping to see a complete eco convert. However, this highlights why I am average, sorry, I mean almost average.

Less is definitely not boring if you know how to use it wisely and I have come to the conclusion that I need to concentrate on this to reduce our household waste in time for Zero Waste Week.

So here is my target hit list for the next few weeks.

1. Receive less mail, especially those catalogues that companies send through the post just because I bought one or two items over the last few years. (I picked up the phone and cancelled one of these today, so that's another Kerching).

2. Reduce the rubbish that we buy for the children, e.g. the cheap little gimmicks that come with children's magazines, which have very little use and normally end up in the bin (hence why I refer to them as rubbish).

3. I'll say no to free samples, all free samples. Do I really need them? Does my bin really need them? I've decided the answer on that one is no.

4. Waste less food (by buying only what we need and making sure we use it).

Now that's an area that deserves much more attention than just a follow-up comment in brackets, so much so that a whole website has been created to promote its relevance. The website highlights the significance of food waste in the UK, reminding us that we throw away 6.7 million tonnes of food each year, sending it directly to landfill. The amount of food we discard contributes significantly to the production of greenhouse glasses, which is why it is a key area for waste reduction.

Whilst pondering upon the subject of less, I've realised that it is probably food waste which contributes mostly to our black bin and if I am going to try and slim it down, this is where I really need to concentrate most of my efforts, ensuring that I measure out only the amount of food that we need and learn how to make best use of leftovers.

So armed with some weighing scales, a measuring jug and the lovefoodhatewaste website to check on my portion sizes, this is now beginning to feel like a real diet.

Hmmm, I wonder if I can get thin along with my bin. Now that's another point to consider, but bearing in mind statistics reveal that we throw away our weight in waste over a 7 week period*, I suggest you watch this space.

Further resources:

*Recycle Now - Facts and Figures:

Saturday, 26 January 2008

We've looked at the toolkit now here's the methodology

I don't think I need to spell out the basics, as there are enough organisations out there who already do this. However, I found this video on YouTube and thought it fun to share. I hope you enjoy it! The children think it's great, even if they're only dancing to it at the moment

Friday, 25 January 2008

The Weight Loss ToolKit

Every diet needs a toolkit, whether it's measuring implements, storage facilities or the ability to sort the elements into basic categories. I am certainly not planning on measuring all the waste generated for The Rubbish Diet. No, for this kind of diet, the key resource is an effective storage/sorting point whether it's in the kitchen, our garden or facilities provided by the local council.

Our starting point is the waste sorting system that lives in our little kitchen, where in addition to our main bin, the only spare space is dedicated to three other bins, which are used as follows:

1. Small one for kitchen waste
2. Medium one for glass
3. Large one for recyclable materials

We used to put all our recycling rubbish in carrier bags, where we could conveniently throw them "bag and all" into the blue bin, but I came home one day to a "naughty" sticker from the council, warning us that plastic bags weren't allowed in the blue bin and if we did it again they wouldn't collect our rubbish. Feeling like I had been unfairly told off without an opportunity to respond, I rang the council to defend myself and was shocked to find that the only option for carrier bags was the landfill site.

It was at that point, a couple of years ago, that I switched mainly to using "bags for life", which have become another essential tool. However, I can be such an "airhead" on times, I often forget to take them out shopping and carrying such a heavy guilt not to use ordinary carrier bags I end up buying more "bags for life" to add to my collection. It's a good job they're cheap and at risk of sounding like I am advertising Waitrose again, it's a fair price to pay for fast-tracking the queues by plumping for their dedicated Green Till where you are only allowed through if you've got reusable bags or wish to buy them at the till!

When we moved into our house 4 years ago, the council offered us three bins, which are essential tools for The Rubbish Diet.

1. a big blue one for all the recycling
2. a big brown one for all things compostable
3. a big black one for all the rest.

However, being a bit tight-fisted and short of space, we politely said "thanks, but no thanks" to the brown bin and instead invested in a compost bin for our garden. There was no way I was going to give anyone my compost. If there was free compost to be made, I was going to keep hold of it!

However, it's all very good having the perfect toolkit but you have to use it properly. Otherwise, it's like having a bookshelf crammed with diet books and ordering take-away every night.

Yes, the trick of this home-sorting system and the success of the Zero Waste challenge is the efficiency in keeping on top of the process. I remember Ben Elton's "things to do" sketch, where in his own inimatable style he emphasised the issue of the bigger the bin, the more you put in it and the bigger the problem of emptying it at the end. "Oh things to do, things to do!", he would say and would heave and pull, huff and puff and heave and pull again, highlighting the unmanageable situation that had developed.... and that was in the eighties, in the days when one bin, yes just one bin, was all there was to deal with. So you can imagine how it can be with four!

The number of times I have recreated the "Things to do" sketch in my own kitchen with my streamlined waste sorting system...oh, it's the kind of thing that could make a Waste Development Officer cry, where what looks like a well-thought out "thumbs up" plan, just crumbles before your very eyes.

Who really wants to empty the overflowing kitchen waste into the compost bin when it's pouring with rain? And as for emptying the recycling into the blue bin when it's blowing a gale...where the risk of having to chase the rubbish being blown down the street...that's enough for anyone to batten down the hatches and huddle indoors.

It's on days like this that even the best system can fall apart, where there's no room left in your sorting system....and there's the temptation of you succumb by dropping that odd banana skin into the waste bin that's destined for landfill...and while you're at it, the odd apple core won't harm, nor will that yoghurt pot that you can't be bothered to wash out!

So, if I am going to get anywhere with this Zero Waste business I have to use the tools properly and use the Weight Loss Toolkit as it is intended. Those who know me well, will understand the challenge ahead and will hopefully come to my rescue at the first sign of bad weather.

So keep crossing your fingers and wish me luck as I ponder buying a cape and sowester!

Useful resources:

The St Edmundsbury Borough Council Recycling Guide:

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Shopping with waste in mind

So this is Day 1 of my attempt to create Zero Waste and I decided that there was no better place to start than a morning at the supermarket, researching grocery options that will incur the minimum impact on my black bin.

Since signing up for the Zero Waste programme, I've spent some time pondering the whole residual waste issue, i.e. the waste that goes into the black bin after other alternatives such as recycling and composting have been exhausted.

What has become immediately apparent is the relationship between what we buy and what we waste. Generally, the terms of this relationship are simple. The more products we buy, the more packaging we have to manage, whether it's boxes, cartons, food bags or carrier bags. The problem is that not everything can be recycled and there belies a key contributor to residual waste.

So my first challenge was to take a look at my shopping habits and assess where changes could be made. Here are just some of the highlights.

1. Carrier Bags

I know this is an obvious start to a habit-changing blog but carrier bags are the bane of my life. Most won't biodegrade and can't be recycled and as I hate putting them in the black bin to lie in landfill for decades, they tend to pile up in a bag in a kitchen corner. I try to be good and use shopping bags and bags for life, but I am human and have my lazy days and sometimes forget. Having now signed up for Zero Waste Week, I promise to make a better effort and with that in mind I set off to the supermarket with my reusable bags, including some of those rescued from the kitchen corner.

2. Packaging

In our consumer-centric world where the standard is perfection, the suppliers in the food chain seek to create an end product with minimum opportunities for damage and fewer returns and complaints. Consequently, walking through the aisles of every supermarket the consumer is faced with over-packaged produce. I really believe that this is driven by supplier merchandising goals rather than consumer-led demands. Whatever the cause, a Zero Waste programme needs to consider the context of packaging and whether or not it can be recycled, re-used or preferably eliminated altogether.

Even though I am a proactive recycler I did my shopping today with a fresh eye. I spent some time looking at the packaging information and was surprised to see what could and what couldn't be recycled. I deliberately chose Waitrose as I am a regular customer and I believe the company is making great progress in the area of packaging and waste issues. The particular sections where I paid most attention today were fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy produce and fruit juice.

Fruit and vegetables ~ although you can't beat the regular market for products with minimum packaging, if you buy with care at Waitrose, I discovered it is possible to buy produce with very little packaging being destined for the black bin.

a) Where the produce is large enough to handle without damage, e.g. bananas, grapefruit or oranges, they can be placed into the trolley without packaging into separate bags.

b) If bags are required for smaller items e.g. tomatoes or mushrooms, Waitrose offer paper alternatives, which can be recycled or composted. This avoids having to use the flimsy plastic option, for which the only destination is landfill.

c) Where produce is prepackaged, it is worth looking at the packaging information to see if the packaging is biodegradable or can be recycled. It surprised me how many fresh products didn't have this kind of labelling and how I'd taken for granted that I could just put the packaging into the recycling bin.

It was encouraging to see how packaging technology has moved on in some areas, including the introduction of biodegradable plastics, which I found had been used to package the organic pears and apples that I'd bought. Okay, it isn't quite clear how long this kind of packaging will take to decompose but it should be quicker than normal packaging and it also looks like I can add it to my compost bin, so that's another tick in the box.

On the other hand, if it has been produced using an oil-based resource, according to Wikipedia if placed in a landfill, its degradation will contribute to global warming "through the release of carbon as a main end product". So be warned if you don't have a bin for compostable waste. If there are any experts reading this maybe you could provide further comment on the benefits of biodegradable plastics.

Dairy: This is an area to which I had not given much consideration previously. I have my milk delivered by our local milkman in reusable glass bottles, so milk packaging is not a problem. However looking at the other packaging in the dairy aisle highlighted a number of issues, including:

a) Cheese packaging, where the majority of prepackaged cheese uses waxed plastic and this cannot be recycled. This made me think twice about buying my usual products and as a result I selected cheese from the deli counter. Even though it was wrapped in a small plastic bag, at least it was much flimsier than the standard cheese packaging. It would be a big improvement if Waitrose used paper bags for this purpose and it is something I would like to suggest to them.

b) Yoghurts ~ where I normally buy yoghurt in packs of four small pots, I realised that even though the plastic tubs are recyclable, the lids are not. Consequently I have replaced my usual product with one single but larger tub of natural yoghurt to which we can add fresh fruit to enhance the flavour.

c) Butter packaging has proven to creep up on me with a big "Boo"! A few months ago I switched from buying butter in plastic tubs to blocks of butter wrapped in paper, in favour of using less packaging. However as the paper used for packaging butter has a special coating, this cannot be recycled. So if I want to reduce my residual waste it looks like I will have to go back to the plastic tubs which can be recycled.

Meat ~ Choosing prepackaged meat today, I was very encouraged to see that Waitrose products were generally packaged using recyclable materials. I have got into the habit over the last few years of putting the the plastic meat packaging into the black bin on the understanding that it couldn't be recycled. However, with my new-found knowledge I am happy that this is one area which will help me to slim my bin.

Fruit juice ~ Now here is a real juicy topic to get my teeth into. Apologies for the terrible pun here, but I couldn't resist. The problem that I have with fruit juice is this. It comes in those awful waxed cartons. Even though they can be taken to recycling points in St Edmundsbury they are also allowed to be put into the black bin. As a busy mother, you can probably guess which option is popular in our household...and yes, you're's the black bin (that's if they are not rescued beforehand for junk modelling projects)!

With Zero Waste in mind, there is the option of gearing up to take the waxed cartons down to the tip. However, I know they would just pile up in the corner, creating one big general annoyance, before I found the time to recycle them. So instead, I implemented some lateral thinking and decided to opt for buying fresh fruit, from which we can make fresh juice if needed. What better than a bowl of fresh grapefruit and oranges, which come neatly packaged in their own skins and can be composted after use!

3. Too much food

After the problems of packaging, the issue of food abundance is probably the most difficult area to tackle in my Zero Waste challenge. Cooking with fresh food is the norm in our house and as a result it is easy to let use-by dates fall by the wayside as well as the food with it. Planning meals is not a particular strength of mine and what I cook normally depends on how we feel and what other activities fill up the day. My usual strategy is to select two fresh fish\meat products and use these as the basis of two meals, which can be enjoyed over four days and supplemented by vegetarian meals for the remainder of the week. Although this issue was at the forefront of my mind whilst shopping, this subject is very much deserving of a post of its own, which I will address very soon.

So in conclusion, today's excursion to the supermarket was enlightening and worthwhile. It was a very useful exercise in reinforcing my existing knowledge as well as raising issues which I now need to tackle if I want to make Zero Waste a reality. I am confident that many of my choices today will contribute positively to the challenge. Of course, if anyone has any suggestions that are relevant to this topic, please feel free to send in your comments.

Further information:

Waste Online's Guide to Recycling Packaging Symbols

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Introducing Almost Mrs Average

Who am I, Why am I doing this and why am I blogging about it?

I am your almost average woman, bringing up my almost average family in an almost average household. We're average in most senses of the word, with two children and two cats living in a 3 bedroom house in Moreton Hall, Bury St Edmunds. We have two cars, which is probably the average number but only one TV and no microwave, which is probably less than average.

I decided to sign up for the Zero Waste Challenge because underneath I really don't like waste. I can't stand throwing anything away and I doubt that is good for the environment. Waste management is a pain in the neck, even on a small scale at home. It would be a relief to reduce the number of bins that clog up our tiny kitchen. We have a small one for kitchen waste, a middle-sized one for glass bottles and a large one for recyclables....but sitting next to our kitchen door is a huge 50Litre bin, which we feed with food waste and other nasties before Almost Mr Average and I silently fight over whose turn it is to empty it into the even bigger 240 litre black bin that lurks outside.

I'd love to reduce the amount of black bin waste, both for my convenience and for the environmental benefits it will bring. I know that reducing waste will mean reducing consumption and that should also save some money. I am hoping that the Zero Waste Challenge will help achieve this.

So, why have I set up a blog? I enjoy writing about things that are important to me as well as those that may be of interest to others. Also for me, Zero Waste Week is not about the week itself, but the effort over the next seven weeks to really try and reduce the amount of waste created by my family and stick to it thereafter. Therefore this will act as a very useful diary of our progress. Despite my enthusiasm, you won't find any holier than thou attitude on this blog. There are so many people out there who are much holier than me, which is why I am just your Mrs Average (well almost).

Addendum: Zero Waste Week ended on 17 March 2008. You have to read the rest of the story to see what we threw away, but what about the rubbish afterwards. Well, it's a case of so far so good. But keep watching, there's always a new challenge around the corner.

Monday, 21 January 2008

The Zero Waste Challenge

In January 2008, St Edmundsbury Borough Council challenged local residents to come forward to take part in Zero Waste Week, which will take place during 10th - 17th March.

This blog will track one family's attempts at discovering which nasties can be saved from the Black Bin as they prepare for Zero Waste Week. Is it really achievable? All that remains to be seen.


ADDENDUM: More information about our local Zero Waste Week can be found in Community Spirit, St Edmundsbury Borough Council's magazine.

Spring 2008 Issue
Summer 2008 Issue


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