The crisis of “throwing away” – pandemic, parks and prattish behaviour

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

I can’t remember if I shared the gleeful news as it happened, at the beginning of lock-down, when my son GAVE UP napping in his bed. Totally. Just refused to lie down and go the f**k to sleep. So since March, I’ve been roaming the streets of our estate for an hour every day (whatever the weather… lucky me), to get him to nap in his buggy. Whilst agonising if actually I should really be letting him drop his nap, but also agonising about the loss of the hour to myself, even if it’s no longer at home. I joined Audible (I got two months free on a special lock-down offer I think) and I’ve been listening to all sorts of erudite books, including this whopper of a romp through English history, and some great stuff by Dan Jones. I’m also slightly overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge available in The Great Courses series. I literally do not have enough time left to me on this planet to learn about all the things I want to learn about.

Anyway. Walking around the estate. So, where we live is a part of South East London which is not quite yet gentrified, I think it would be fair to say. We have an organic greengrocer but no decent coffee. So it’s far from being a place of universal middle-class privilege (I wrote about plastic-free choices, privilege and the pandemic a few weeks ago, here).

Like a lot of communities, there has been a major rubbish problem round here. Fly-tipping, over-flowing wheelie bins, litter in the streets, gloves and masks discarded on the pavement. And I’ve spent a lot of time walking past it and around it, and thinking about why it’s there and what we could do differently as a society.

First, the wheelie bins. They’re over-flowing because there have been a few weeks when waste collections have been missed (due, presumably, to staff shortages within the refuse collection teams). So, would that rubbish have been there anyway, and just taken away more promptly, or is there more of it during the pandemic, because people are at home? Is it only seen a problem because it’s now visible?

In normal times, maybe all that stuff would just have been transported to the waste management centre more promptly, so we wouldn’t see it. The unrecyclable stuff would still have been incinerated. The recyclable stuff would still have the carbon footprint of energy use during the recycling process, or end up not being recycled and being shipped overseas (this hasn’t gone away, folks). Is there more rubbish because we’re all at home more? But does it matter whether I’m buying M & S ready-made salads to eat at home, or having them out and about from Pret? (I don’t actually do either, much, but you get my point – a plastic tub still gets put into the waste stream, somewhere, as a result of someone’s lunch, wherever they have it). And there’s more litter on the streets because the bins are all full, so it blows around.

The fundamental point I’m trying to make here is that the rubbish is still a problem, whether it’s in the bin or on the pavement. Yes, maybe it’s more likely to be recycled if the bins aren’t over-flowing so that people can use the correct bins. But I have to say this now – our bins haven’t been overflowing at all during the lock-down and we’ve recycled as much as ever. So why don’t other people? Why did I see a rusty barbecue in someone’s food waste bin yesterday? Is the problem a lack of knowledge? Or people just don’t care? Or they’ve been so determined to declutter during lockdown and there’s no other exit route at the moment (or there wasn’t before the tip and the charity shops reopened) that they’ll put it anywhere to get rid of it. Are people SO devoted to Marie Kondo?

So what do we do? I am obviously perfect in every way. All my rubbish goes in the correct bins, all recycling is washed and dried, food waste bin is used appropriately, any stuff to be donated or taken to the tip is stored until we can get it out of the house responsibly. (OF COURSE I’m not perfect by the way. I bought three tubs of M and S salad yesterday as a treat when I could have just bought a lettuce, some tomatoes and some mayonnaise. Those tubs might end up in the sea. Nothing is simple). But how do we influence people who dispose of their rubbish irresponsibly?

Would you challenge someone who you saw dropping litter? I sure as hell wouldn’t, but I know people who would, and I have huge admiration for them. Would you knock on someone’s door and attempt to educate them, if you saw their bins full of the wrong stuff? (Things I’ve seen this week – a food/garden waste bin FULL of clothes, a recycling bin over-flowing with building waste, and another one with a birdcage in. We live in an eclectic area, for sure). I wouldn’t knock on someone’s door, but I think I am going to write to the Council and suggest that more education is needed about what bins to use. Last time I raised this with them, they said all the information was available on their website – this doesn’t seem to be enough. Should people be fined for using the wrong bins and dropping litter? Yes, sure, but do local authorities in Tory Britain have enough manpower for this…? Um, no.

On my latest to do list is to remind myself of the work of these fine people and see how I can get more involved – anyone remember that song from the 80s we used to sing in school about not dumping rubbish? Keep the countryside tidy, keep the countryside clean…. I can’t find it on YouTube and it’s annoying me! Is this stuff taught in schools anymore? I have no idea – except that my two year old knows how to throw his snack wrapper in a bin, and knows which one of our bins is for recycling.

Fundamentally, we’ve got a choice to make in this journey towards sustainability. Either we just focus on our own households, and try to ignore other people’s bad behaviour, or we think about ways to influence others to live in a way which is less damaging to the environment. Like, we could choose to sit in judgement over people for buying fast fashion, and queuing up outside Primark when it reopened (I’m going to come back to this for another post, cos I’m still cross about it), while being all smug about the organic cotton baby clothes we buy for our kids and our fabulous charity shop finds (which we are lucky enough to have time to hunt out). Or we can try to empathise about why some people are dependent on cheap clothing shops, and think creatively about how to make sustainable clothing more accessible to everyone.

But I draw the line somewhere. If you went to Bournemouth beach and left your own excrement there in a nappy bag for someone else to clear up, you’re a prat. If you’ve ever thrown your potentially contaminated mask and gloves on the pavement for someone else to pick up, you’re a prat.

And if you’re the person who’s responsible for this random pile of nonsense in my local park, you’re definitely a prat. I’d love to know how we can de-pratify the sections of society that think this is ok, but honestly, some days I don’t have much hope. If anyone has any brilliant litter-busting ideas to share, I would love to hear them!

Lockdown, day 19 – some reflections

Photo by Regina Calvo on Unsplash

Dear reader, it’s been nearly a month since my last post. And what a month it’s been.

I stopped writing, stopped even thinking about this blog – partly because the cognitive load of making sense of this crisis, plus the mental load of keeping a household fed, entertained and vaguely sane, has been more than sufficient to occupy my thoughts. But also, I kind of thought that no one would want to be reading about recycling and plastic-free switches and all that stuff, when what we are facing is so alien, so scary. And I didn’t want to write anymore about the pandemic itself, because let’s face it, there’s enough column inches/miles being generated every minute of the day to keep us all immersed in news and views 24 hours a day.

But. I woke up a couple of days ago and had this gut-wrenching feeling. What’s going on now is practice for the consequences of the climate crisis and the impact it’s going to have on humanity. Practice, and a warning. Bear with me on this.

We are seeing increasingly alarming numbers of excess deaths every day due to Covid-19 (I’m resisting the urge to get political here and talk about my views on the Government’s response and support to the NHS. Really resisting.) But we know that the climate crisis is already causing excess deaths. By excess deaths, what I mean is the number of deaths over and above those that would have happened anyway, within the normal expected mortality rate for that population. This is also known as mortality displacement. The World Health Organisation estimate that between 2030 and 2050, there will be an additional 250,000 more deaths per year due to climate change – heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea among the likely causes.

We’ve had 104,775 deaths so far from Covid-19 (by the time you click that link, it will be more). Let’s let that sink in. Two and half times as many deaths, every year, as we’ve had so far from Covid-19, due to climate change. At the very least.

People are already dying of heat stress in bush fire regions, and of heat stroke during heat waves in cities across the world. 900 people died in England alone due to heat waves in 2019. By 2100, 75% of people around the world will be exposed to heatwaves severe enough to cause death. 2100. Many of our kids will still be alive in 2100. Flooding causes disease to spread more easily, including diarrhea which can be particularly fatal among small children. Rising temperatures will lead to the expansion of mosquito habitat, increasing cases of malaria. Other species will move closer to domestic habitats, increasing the incidence in humans of other diseases such as Q fever which is spread by bats. This is already happening in Australia and the Pacific regions. And guess what, it’s hitting the poor and the vulnerable hardest (or first, maybe).

Maybe this seems scary, and far away, both geographically and chronologically. But there’s other elements of the Covid-19 crisis that should be getting us thinking.

We’ve become accustomed to being able to get whatever food we want, whenever we want. I had a tantrum last week because I wanted a specific Marks and Spencer ready meal as our weekend treat (pancetta carbonara, since you ask). Seriously. Not only is it wrapped in hard-to-recycle plastic, but it’s made of a load of imported or out-of-season ingredients including processed meat and dairy. A problematic “treat” indeed. But I’ve become accustomed to being able to have it whenever I want. Anyone been trying to get flour recently? I haven’t totally fact checked this, but apparently flour mills in the UK are still producing as normal, or on increased output, but can’t get enough packaging from China to meet the demand for package sizes suitable for domestic customers (as opposed to much bigger bags for catering companies, bakeries and other commercial customers). Our food chain is entirely dependent on global transport infrastructure and the enormous carbon footprint that entails.

The shortages have been annoying, anxiety-inducing, catastrophic for some. It’s going to be worse, much worse, in a few decades time. Studies have shown that the impact of climate change could cause a 35% drop in global fruit and vegetable yields and an 18% reduction in US corn production, as well as significantly impacting fisheries and meat production. Coupled with a predicted global population increase of 3.4 billion people by 2050, this spells a massive change in the way we live.

All this, without even going into the economic effects, impact on human rights, increasing gulf between rich and poor and likely social breakdown.

Uplifting stuff. Sorry if I’ve added to your lockdown blues. But I feel like this message is critical. Especially if you’re feeling powerless at the moment. There’s not much we can do about the current crisis – except follow the advice to stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing when not possible (and think about who you’re going to vote for next time, folks – also how we can exert pressure on to expose this government’s criminal negligence, and maybe what kind of a massive protest we can pull off when it’s all over. Sorry, couldn’t resist after all).

Greta, for course, puts it better than me:

There is a lot of talk about returning to normal after Covid-19. But normal was a crisis.

https://twitter.com/gretathunberg/status/1243579208724557824?lang=en

So, with all this spare time we have (LOLZ – I know some people have loads, and are doing lots of nice jigsaws and yoga, but some are working, looking after children, trying not to starve, etc. Anyhow – there’s opportunity for us all to refocus…)

Let’s get back to the Everyday Radical mission – what can we do to fix this shit? Cos back to normal is not an option for humanity.

I just spent the last week’s nap times categorising 700+ articles, notes and ideas for blog posts. My paid work has disappeared. Let’s DO THIS.

P.S. It’s hot. Don’t forget to turn your central heating off.

Running low on loo roll, anyone?

Photo by Anna Franques on Unsplash

I’m not quite sure what the world is coming to, really and truly. I’m going to try not to write any more angsty stuff about Coronavirus (I published this on my other blog earlier in the week, just to get all the feels out). I actually feel weirdly calm and focussed today, I just wish “they” (or “them upstairs”, as we affectionately call the “powers that be” in this house, in remembrance of how the first team I ever managed used to refer to the faceless Execs on the top corridor) would make a decision about schools and nursery soon, so I don’t have to. What else can we do? A wise man in the queue at the greengrocers today advised me (from a respectful distance) to just “keep putting one foot in front of the other”.

Husband is on day 2 of working from home, and other than predictable issues with broadband speed (because half of London – the lucky half – is now working from home), it’s going ok. We haven’t killed each other yet and the toddler will get used to Daddy being here but not here, somehow, I’m sure. We are LUCKY. He has the kind of job where he can work from home easily and still get paid, and would get full sick pay if he got ill. We don’t have to go on the tube. We have a fair supply of food in the house (although I’m worried about the Mini Egg stocks).

But we are, like many others I suspect, running out of loo roll. Well, I say that, we have a few rolls left, but it won’t last long and there’s NONE in the shops round here. I’m not going to start using substitues like wipes or kitchen roll, because this is going to cause the sewerage system to break down, and we do NOT need that right now.

So to eke out our supply, I am experimenting with “family cloth”… this is a thing which I’ve been aware of for a while from the various eco-groups that I’m part of and I’ve always been kind of curious about it, but never actually took the plunge. It’s basically a reusable, washable alternative to toilet paper, tipped to be both a frugal and eco-conscious choice. And of COURSE, there are beautiful Instagrammable ones available on Etsy etc. There are also plenty of people out there who use flannels, old clothes cut up and hemmed, etc.

So I confess that in my naive days at the beginning of this blog, when I thought I could change the world, I bought a pack of Cheeky Wipes because I was planning on giving up baby wipes. Reader, I just unpacked the box yesterday. There’s a slightly drawn-out description of how to use family cloth here – basically, if you prefer to use them wet, it’s a bit more admin, and you have to have something sealed to put them in. I’m using the Cheeky Wipes mucky box with a bit of water and essential oils in. And I am only using them for number ones… so they’re not hideous, they’re going in the wash in a separate laundry bag which is what I also use for these, and I chuck them in a warm wash with towels or sheets or whatever.

Now, I have quite a low ick factor so this doesn’t bother me, but it reaalllly bothers some people (this is quite funny, also this – this is a topic which seems to polarise people, for sure). I’m actually more interested in whether it’s actually better for the environment.

This article argues that a bidet is the most environmentally friendly option, but it’s not a common feature in our UK plumbing set-ups. You can buy little squeezy bottle things, but honestly, what’s the carbon footprint of a plastic bottle vs. a year’s supply of recycled toilet paper? Is recycled paper actually better than paper from sustainable forests? I don’t know, in all honesty, and these are difficult things for normal, non-specialist people to make balanced decisions on. What I know for sure though is that the production of flowery, organic cotton family cloth with poppers and a pretty hamper to store them in must have the equivalent footprint of a LOT of bog roll.

So, folks, my advice if you’re running low is to use what you’ve already got – old flannels, tear up some old towels, t-shirts or muslins. Try it, start with number ones and work up to number twos as the apocalypse nears. Find a bucket with a lid or an ice cream tub or something like that to put the used ones in, you won’t die of it, I promise. And enjoy the feeling of smugness when you see people fighting in the aisles over the last pack of loo roll.

Don’t take the last pack of Mini Eggs in my local Co-op though. I’m watching you, you bastards.

(Hope that’s some light relief. Love to all in these weird days)