Episode 5: Not a Waste of Time

Welcome to 3 changes a week: your weekly update on how to save the planet!

What do we do with all our waste?

Whilst the focus of this article series is to restrict how much stuff you are putting in the bin as much as possible, of course, this is not really how things work out. We do have to eat, and with the limited availability of fill-your-own shops in Exeter, you are likely to still have glass, paper and (gasp!) plastic packaging, as well as compostable food scrap waste.

Unfortunately, things such as dry plastic packaging from pasta or rice do have to go in your black refuse bin, but there are plenty of things that you can recycle in Exeter. Whilst we do need to remember that recycling isn’t the end-game or a final solution, it is useful to be able to dispose of packaging more responsibly if you do end up with some. Therefore, making the most of your local recycling system is key.

However, what if it isn’t your waste? It might seem inconceivably gross for some, but for me, picking up litter is a big part of my environment-positive actions. Below, I’ll discuss how I think about picking up litter and the impact it makes.

Lastly, we can’t recycle everything in Exeter; most significantly, Exeter City Council doesn’t offer a scheme to collect compostable food waste for recycling. Sending food scraps to landfill creates tonnes of harmful methane. If you have the space, you can compost scraps yourself, and we can also encourage the council to separately collect food waste, as is widely available across the country (even as close as the rest of Devon).

 

1. RECYCLE LIKE THE WORLD DEPENDS ON IT

Ease: *****

Cost: £0

If you do end up – as most of us inevitably will – with some waste, you’ll probably be able to have a lot of it collected for recycling by the council. In Exeter we can recycle card and paper, plastic bottles and trays, tin cans (useful after a beer-fuelled uni night, perhaps) and more ‘at kerbside’ (i.e. this is collected). This is sent to various locations across the country and the world – although recycling exports is a whole other issue in itself.

You can also recycle clothing, glass and Tetrapack cartons at recycling banks across the city. Why not store up items destined for recycling banks and at the end of the term take them all in one go? – maybe even rope in parents when they come to pick you up, or a friend with a car, or make the whole house carry it over together.

Remember, you can also re-use things yourself before tossing them in the recycling. Use glass jam jars to house tealights to create a simple, pretty and cheap display, or use tin cans as edgy plant pots. Keep using things as long as you can!

Also, be aware that you might be able to get rid of your recycling straight from your bin, and not have to use plastic recycling bin bags – saving even more waste.

 

2. PICK UP LITTER

Ease: ****

Cost: £0

Germaphobes might struggle with this one, but picking up litter that others have carelessly dropped has a massive impact on the environment. Litter on the streets is that which can easily get washed into drains, into rivers, and into the sea. I like to think that every piece I pick up is a turtle saved. If you tend not to notice litter, set yourself a starting goal of picking up three pieces a day (have a look at the Take 3 for the Sea campaign) and you’ll soon start to spot litter.

I also tend to set myself rules – I won’t pick up anything really gross (someone’s snotty tissue? No thanks), and if I’ve picked up a few things, I’ll prioritise plastic over the more easily degradable paper or cardboard. I also keep a mental inventory of where bins are on routes that I walk regularly – such as my walk to campus – to work out how long I’ll be carrying that greasy polystyrene chip carton before I can ditch it. Washing your hands as soon as you can is also key, of course!

Another important element of this is how much it impacts others. If you keep picking up litter whilst walking with other people, I’ve found that they are likely to ask you about it, giving you a chance to discuss its importance, or perhaps your behaviour will rub off on them. Friends and family (or even strangers who notice you doing it in the street!) will be guilt-tripped into picking up the behaviour and therefore more and more turtles will be saved!

 

3. COMPOST OR CAMPAIGN

Ease: **

Cost: Compost bins from the council cost £16.30 including delivery, and it costs nothing but time to campaign for change!

Even if you’ve pretty much eliminated plastic waste from your life (well done, you!) you probably still have a lot of compostable food scraps – potato peelings, carrot tops, avocado stones – that need getting rid of. And you may have noticed that Exeter City Council does not take food waste from your house – it has to be thrown in your usual ‘landfill’ bin. Earlier this year, the council voted not to introduce a separate food waste collection, deeming it too expensive.

Post-consumer food scraps going to landfill might not seem so bad – it biodegrades, after all – but it is actually a very problematic issue. When the food biodegrades in landfill without oxygen, it produces large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more deadly than carbon dioxide (according to this Vision2020 campaign to stop food waste going to landfill altogether). It also makes landfill sites necessarily larger – wasting more land space – and wastes energy and nutrients which could be recycled into compost and used in farming.

One way to avoid this is to compost food at home, to use on your own garden or donate to neighbours. There are plenty of options for composting in your garden – Exeter City Council does actually offer reduced rates on home composters which you can have delivered, or indoor composting solutions are growing in popularity (although I struggled to find one easily available in the U.K.). However, this isn’t an option for everyone – I, for one, have a very small paved courtyard that would be completely unusable in summer if I stuck a great big stinking compost bin in there, as much as I would like to.

That is why pressure on the council is also an important course of action. Kerbside compost removal by the council is pretty common in the U.K., and it’s disappointing that it is not considered a necessity. Exeter City Council has an online form to allow citizens to make complaints or give feedback; we can use this to urge them to reconsider their stance on food waste collection, and use the nutrients in landfill rather than just allow it to rot uselessly – and harmfully – in landfill sites.

 

Made these changes or already doing them? Post a picture to Instagram or Twitter and tag it to #3changesaweek to spread the word!