Could you live a totally sustainable life for seven days? Charlotte Philby joins the new wave of eco-warriors using daily protests to push for lasting change
‘You need to begin by doing a bin audit, so have a rifle through to see where most of your waste comes from,’ says Bettina Maidment, aka @plasticfreehackney. And she should know. Part of a new movement of eco campaigners who are making a big impact with their ‘micro-level protests’, Maidment decided to go plastic-free 18 months ago. In the process, the east London-based mother-of-two has so profoundly reduced the amount of waste her family produces across the board that they only take their rubbish out once every three months. It’s a seriously impressive achievement and one that has inspired me to follow suit.
The ‘micro-protest’ favours personal and corporate responsibility on a daily basis over large-scale stunts. In the past, group actions like those of Greenpeace’s Kingsnorth Six – a group of eco-warriors who famously scaled the Kingsnorth Tower in Kent in 2007 to protest against coal-fired power (for which they were arrested and later acquitted) – relied on making a noise in order to propel change. In contrast, the latest (and more accessible) trend focusses on small-scale individuals to make manageable, easy to mirror changes, which they often record online to galvanise others. Think of Antoine Repessé’s four-year project in which he saved all his recyclable rubbish then photographed it in surreal ways to highlight issues around waste; or the Kin Project, which suggests one monthly change you can make – from planting a tree to eating less meat – and then invites you to discuss your experiences in a ‘safe space’, a closed Facebook group; or the group of mothers from north London who clubbed together a week’s worth of plastic and returned it en masse to their local supermarket.
If I’m going to spend a week living by the rules of three environmental micro-campaigners, thinking about what I most commonly throw out is the place to start. But given that between me, my husband and our three young children we can create as much as four bin bags’ worth of landfill, three compost bags of food waste and four bags of recycling each week, it’s a somewhat daunting task.
Before now I considered myself an engaged, relatively eco-minded person. But as a working mother, I am also busy. So, like many of us, my ethical shopping habits extend to having an organic veg box delivery, taking my own bags to the supermarket and buying recycled loo roll. My children know which bin to use to dispose of various materials and to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, and they relish homework projects on melting ice caps. Yet, as I find myself wading through the endless plastic punnets, cellophane wrappers and – most grim of all – soggy nappies, it’s startlingly clear that I am part of the problem rather than the solution.
For starters, I have three children. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden claim that having children is the most destructive thing a person can to do to the environment, with one fewer child per family saving ‘an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year’. As an only child, I like to think I have a gene quota to fill, and that I’m raising enlightened, impassioned kids who might go on to find the key to world peace. Yet the more I force myself to engage with the evidence around climate change, the less convinced I am by my own defence.
Micro-protesting: The rules
During my time as a micro-protester, I will ‘say no to plastic’ as Maidment dictates. As well as using only non-disposable water bottles, coffee cups, bags and straws – behaviours that have become much more commonplace in the wake of Blue Planet, which compellingly highlighted the effects of plastic pollution on our oceans – I’ll go a step further to emphasise my point. This involves removing any plastic packaging from the products I buy at the supermarket and leaving it at the till. This idea is increasingly popular, as it pushes the problem and cost of disposing of plastic back on to the retailers (supermarkets alone create more than 800,000 tons of plastic packaging waste each year), sending a clear message that consumers want change. The thinking is that if enough of us take matters into our own hands, creating such mini protests across the nation, then sooner or later, retailers will have to deal with it.
As we know, it’s not just plastic that poses a threat to the natural world, so much as the general rate of human consumption. In her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways To Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute explains that the current growth model, which relies on the rampant consumer model of capitalism, doesn’t work. Instead, she suggests that in order for our economic model to be financially and ecologically sustainable, money, markets, taxation and public investment must all focus on conserving and regenerating resources, rather than squandering them.
My own micro-protest, which will nod to these values, involves buying nothing new, apart from the absolute essentials (fresh food and loo roll). If I need something, I must trade for it, in accordance with the rules of the Buy Nothing Project (buynothingproject.org), an online network launched in 2013 that connects hyperlocal groups of like-minded people facilitating the ‘giving, receiving, sharing and lending through a web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbours’. Finally, as mass consumption of unsustainable palm oil continues to ravage the forests of Southeast Asia and chemicals pollute our ecosystem, I will follow part of the Say No To Palm Oil’s 28-day challenge (saynotopalmoil.com), making my own largely natural cleaning products. Many eco-conscious consumers may have worked hard to eradicate palm oil from their food cupboards. However, washing products are one of the main sources, which is refined to create soaps, washing powder and other cleaning (not so good) goods.
The plastic boycott
While the fact of my children is already a done deal, the week ahead is not. It is Friday. After dropping off the older kids at school, the two-year-old and I head to our local deli. It’s only as we reach the shop, empty-handed, that I remember Maidment’s words: ‘Bring a disposable cup, or do without.’ While forgoing my morning coffee in the name of being a better human isn’t a huge problem for me, the toddler is less pragmatic. Really, there’s no excuse for not having bought him a drink in one of our many sippy cups, but he’s now on the verge of a meltdown and I’m exhausted after a busy week at work. So, remembering the ‘no straw’ and ‘return all plastic wrapping’ rule, I tear off the offending articles and return it to the shopkeeper who looks at me like I might be in the throes of some sort of breakdown, while I mumble that straws are bad for the environment. I leave, silently chastising myself for my limp attempt at eco-warrior-ing while my toddler has an apoplectic fit at the absence of the straw.
But, as the week goes on, rather than feeling hot-cheeked at my public environmental assertions, I feel buoyed by them. The more I read about the impact of everyday behaviours, the less able I feel to do things I can usually justify to myself on the grounds that I’m busy and life is short (buying a bottle of water at my local shop rather than waiting until I get home, getting a takeaway sandwich in a plastic container instead of making my own). By the end of the week, I’m fluctuating between despair that the world is imploding and determination that I’ll do my bit to claw back what resources we still have left.
The cleaning revolution
Undeterred, I return to the house with a renewed sense of purpose to check what we do and don’t have. My usual addled state of mind by the time I get round to our weekly shop, together with the ‘you never know when the apocalypse might strike’ mentality I inherited from my grandmother, means there are endless toiletries I don’t like or bought on offer, bags of panic-bought pulses no one eats, and three bottles of kitchen spray but no bathroom cleaner. According to the DIY bathroom cleaner recipe found at saynotopalmoil.com/Take_the_Challenge, I need baking soda, vinegar, a scrubbing brush and a plastic spray bottle. I don’t have the last item, which I’m also pretty sure is in contravention of my no-plastic rule anyway. But if a plastic product is already owned by someone else, surely it makes sense to use it rather than let it fester without purpose. It takes a flurry of WhatsApp messages to locate a friend who is willing to offload a plastic spray bottle later that day. She’s simultaneously bemused and delighted when I insist on a trade, which ties in neatly with my ‘buy nothing’ rule for the week. She settles on trading it for the cutting of a spider plant we inherited from an old lady who recently died, and we both depart grateful and uplifted, vowing to be more swap-minded in future.
I return home and attempt to clean the bathroom with my home-made concoction, which was as easy and quick to use as my usual chemical-based product (the shame). After some serious elbow grease, the results are not far off the same, and my bathroom smells of lemon (which I added for scent) rather than bleach.
Cutting my waste
The inside of our fridge is a sorry sight comprising several half-eaten cheeses, endless mushrooms and green peppers accumulated over the course of several veg box deliveries, which I’ve repeatedly forgotten to amend. Spurred into action, I fire off an email rectifying our order for future weeks – minus the veg nobody ever seems to eat – and feel instantly more in control of life. I even start flicking through recipe books to see what I could fashion from these leftovers, rather than following my usual ‘fish fingers or pesto pasta’ model of home cooking. The rest of the family don’t raise too much protest at the lentil soup I whip up from leftovers either, so it’s a win-win.
Reflecting on my habits
The more I think about my consumption over the next few days, the more I question my every behaviour. As one of the few of my friends not having already given up dairy (thanks to a couple of very powerful recent documentaries highlighting animal welfare and the impact of methane on the environment), by the time I make it to the supermarket I’m loathe to buy cow’s milk or eggs, as per my usual routine. I also find myself mooting the possibility of upping sticks to live a more sustainable life in rural Spain – until my husband helpfully points out that I’m worryingly impulsive and don’t have time to reliably remember to take out a reusable flask, let alone manage the logistics of moving abroad. Thankfully, as Maidment reminds me, meaningful changes can be made in manageable chunks. ‘It’s about individual responsibility, as well as corporate action,’ she says.
So, this time, once I’ve resisted endless requests for yogurts in plastic tubes and comics with plastic toys attached – not to mention my own magnetism towards the shampoos-on-offer aisle – I stand at the checkout unwrapping swathes of plastic and cellophane from avocados and fruit. I feel vindicated as I hand it back to the somewhat amused cashier, who confirms I’m the second person to have done so this week. It takes ages, and the people behind in the queue consider me like a foreign species until I explain what I’m doing and why, and they too seem to be on board (even if they’re not actually following suit themselves today).
Looking to the future
Despite the idea that living ethically is a luxury reserved for those who can afford it, I find I have saved cash by using up what we have and not buying new things that we don’t really need. For me, the real challenge is getting the foundations in place. I’m naturally disorganised and, like many people, I have a lot to think about. But there are things I definitely can do – like never buying plastic applicator tampons, disposable coffee pods or throwaway face wipes, and not succumbing to the lure of the ready meal. Because the unavoidable truth is, no matter how worthy it sounds, finding time to adjust the way I live might be tricky and awkward, but it’s also vital. Making small changes is the key, and thinking ahead is a massive part of that – because if we don’t, what sort of world are we looking ahead to?
What steps can you take?
Opt for lower-impact menstrual products. There are a wide range on the market from the mooncup to D by DAME (the world’s first reusable applicator), not to mention non-applicator tampons.
Stop using disposable face wipes. They might seem like a low-hassle option, but they are costing the earth. Go for a simple, quality cleanser and a flannel instead.
Don’t buy chemical cleaning products. Choose non-toxic versions or make your own (there are plenty of recipes at saynotopalmoil.com/Take_the_Challenge).
Avoid palm oil. Check the back of packets for unsustainable palm oil in food, which is causing mass deforestation.
Choose products with minimal plastic packaging – and return any plastic from items you buy to the retailer. You’ll pass the problem of disposal back to them while also making a statement that you demand change.