Waste not, want not


Recyling is good, but precycling - cutting out packaging in the first place and buying only what you need - is better. Tanis Taylor tried it for a month





Every Tuesday, as a house, we put out two big green boxes of recycling. I say green because a) they literally are and b) the presumption is that by using them, so are we. But wouldn't it be greener not to put out the recycling - to generate so little waste that, come Tuesday, there is nothing to put in the green box? It is an idealistic notion, but is it practical? I decided to try it for a month to find out. And in doing so, I inadvertently discovered that I'd joined a movement.

Precycling is the practice of reducing waste by attempting to avoid accumulating it in the first place. Precyclers try to cut out as much packaging as possible and, to this end, they think ahead, shop locally, buy things loose and bring their own containers. The benefits are various; from saving money and creating less landfill to reducing food miles and conserving natural resources.

The term was coined in 1988 for a waste awareness campaign in Berkeley, California. Residents were encouraged to avoid single-use items and to buy in bulk. Affectionately known as "wombles", they refused junk mail, carried precycling "kits" (such as cloth sandwich bags and cutlery) and when the internet came, they did their reading online to cut down on pulp. Today, however, precycling is generating interest among the eco-aware. In its report in May, the US market research firm Intelligence Group found that half of all consumers thought about an item's reuse or resale cost before purchase, that 45% of US trendsetters and 14% of mainstream consumers have cut down on bottled water purchases and 49% and 16% respectively have cut down on the use of plastic bags. In the UK, financially concerned and environmentally aware consumers are turning to tap over bottled water and carrying canvas shopping bags; Sainsbury's is even reporting a 36% rise in its sales of lunchboxes.

UK households throw away 5.9m tonnes of packaging every year, 4.7m tonnes of which is food related. Recyling is a greener option - saving between 25% and 90% of the energy it would take to create new products - but there is still an environmental cost. Recycling a plastic bottle takes a lot of time and energy; washing it under the tap does not.

The key to being a good precycler is being prepared. This I learn on day one of my trial when I forget to bring my lunch to work and am reduced to eating fruit and ice-cream (the cone being the ultimate in edible packaging). The following day, I get organised: daily sandwiches (in a washable sandwich wrap), a travel mug, cloth shopping bags and a water bottle are on hand at all times. Gone are the impulse, convenience shopping sprees of old - to be replaced by an intentional, almost military approach to what I need to buy and from where.

I patronise local markets, fishmongers, butchers and bakers and rediscover the joys of having bottles of milk delivered to my doorstep (milk and orange juice bottles can be reused 20 times before they are recycled). There is a nostalgic, parochial pleasure that comes from asking bemused staff at Costa Coffee to fill up my china mug, of carrying apples in a paper bag and using a handkerchief to blow my nose. It speaks of gentler times, a greater custody of care, and thoughtful, less harried, consumption. It saves me money and encourages experimentation. I make bread and cook strange recipes in a kitchen clear of jostling brands.

However, convenience food is aptly named. Buying unpackaged is, initially, hugely inconvenient. Finding naked staples takes real tenacity, but they do exist. Shops such as Unpackaged in north London sell dried goods in open bins, beside loose toilet rolls and a small line in refillable juices and cosmetics - and give you a discount when you bring your own container. Rural and city farms are alive and well, and great for eggs and dairy, while farmers' markets and box schemes provide your five-a-day. For pulses and staples, ethnic high street stores such as Green Valley, off the Edgware Road in London, are bulk-buy havens - with sacks and spice bins of jarish and Lebanese thyme next to tubs of cashews, apricots, figs and dried sharon fruits. At the lower-budget end of the spectrum, Weigh & Save outlets can still be found on the outskirts of some towns, where you can stroll through aisles of ginger cake-mix, pearl barley and dried dog food, buying only as much as you need by the gram. Meanwhile, shopkeepers in smaller, artisan shops, such as the Monmouth Coffee Company, have witnessed a bring-your-own revival, with more customers bringing their own jars to be filled. "People are plumping for less packaging for a variety of reasons, economic and environmental," says Cath Conway of Unpackaged.

So how did I do? During my month, the green halo slipped often. I still bought my mayonnaise in bottles and tuna in cans and I never did find a solution to the wine issue. (It is hard to find decanted wine, and I couldn't face Wetherspoon's superchilled draught wine.) But by the end of the month, my black bin was hardly being used and we were putting out one green bin, a quarter full.

Eventually, says Nimish Shah, a 35-year-old precycler from London, it will be empty. Shah hasn't been to a supermarket for years. He shops at small stores and always brings his own bags. He cuts an eccentric figure at his local market, putting fish fillets in a cloth bag that he washes and reuses. "When I look at an item," he says, "the first thing I think is whether I could just do away with the packaging or, failing that, reuse it somehow. Recycling a product should be the last option really".


aptly - trafnie

bemused – ogłupiały, otumaniony

coin – ukuć, wymyślić

convenience (store) – sklep z podstawowymi produktami spożywczymi

custody – opieka, nadzór

cuts an eccentric figure – robić wrażenie ekscentryka

generate – generować, wytwarzać

in bulk - hurtowo

inadvertently – nieumyślnie, mimowolnie

jostle – przepychać się, konkurować; jostling - konkurujący

landfill – wysypisko śmieci

parochial – zaściankowy, prowincjonalny

precycler – osoba, która robiąc zakupy bierze pod uwagę ilość materiałów do ponownego przetworzenia

presumption – przypuszczenie, mniemanie

pulp – miazga, pulpa

pulses – rośliny strączkowe

sharon – persymona, śliwodaktyl

shopping spree – szał zakupów

staples – podstawowe składniki pożywienia

tenacity - wytrwałość

wombles – tu: anarchiści, antykapitaliści

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