After 40 years I am beginning to realise I can’t save the planet on my own. I have been really pleased to see ditching plastic and meat becoming more mainstream in the UK and I am glad that people are starting to talk more seriously about reducing flights and car use. But as we reach the climate change crisis and I continue on my personal struggle to be better at caring for the environment it is hard to feel content with how the world is progressing. Much of the current discussion has been about plastic pollution and the immediate negative impact this has on our wildlife and environment. Plastic also has a massive impact on climate change from the moment the fossil fuels are extracted, through production and recycling or disposal. With our current dependence on fossil fuels and plastic there seems little chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A lot needs to change but ditching single-use plastic would be a start. And yet movement in reducing supermarket packaging is painfully slow and although there are small changes most continue to use plastic to prevent food being damaged in transit and to keep it fresh. Zero-plastic shopping and avoiding throwing away colossal amounts of packaging after a shopping trip is now possible in specialist shops but this is not mainstream. This reminds me of the days when vegetarians had to shop in local health food shops for essentials. It wasn’t until supermarkets spotted this market that shopping got easier for vegetarians.
As a couple we are trying to be frugal as well as kind to the environment and we are in a losing battle. Short of going back to work, the frugality isn’t an option; we are living on our savings and can’t fritter them away. Much as I would like to support small zero-waste shops these are generally more expensive than supermarkets and not local and make staying on budget difficult. Just at the moment it feels impossible to be both frugal and environmentally friendly and I am trying to accept that we have made changes where we can and it will never be perfect.
In the UK the average person apparently accounts for 6.3 tonnes of CO2 per year all of which contribute to climate change. Despite my best efforts at small things, having a diesel-fuelled campervan means that my own environmental balance sheet is far from balanced.
Climate Change Wins
- Housing – We live in a small flat that is efficient to heat, we switch off lights, keep the temperature fairly low and put on jumpers when it is cold. We wash everything at 30C and dry most things naturally [although we use the shared on-site tumble drier for towels to stop the flat getting damp]. We take short showers that last about two minutes, switching the shower off while we lather up to save water and energy. [I used this carbon calculator to find out that our home has a carbon footprint of about 0.9 tonnes of CO2]. With energy and water use it is easy to match up our twin aims of frugality and saving the planet.
- Shopping – We buy soap and solid shampoo and use shaving cream and body lotion from Lush, not plastic free but they take the tubs back when you have five to return for recycling. We don’t buy any make up. Cotton handkerchiefs deal with our daily nose blowing rather than tissues. Our washing powder comes in a cardboard box, we buy loose tea for home, rather than teabags, but this is still packaged in plastic inside the cardboard and our favourite Linda McCartney vegetarian sausages are packaged in cardboard. We make our own hummus and bread and cook most things from scratch. A few of these purchases are more expensive options but they fit with our budget.
- Eating out – We eat out but never buy lunch-to-go sort of items or plastic bottles of water or pop and don’t buy coffee-to-go. These certainly save us money.
- Diet – We don’t eat meat but do eat dairy [a vegetarian diet emits around 1.7 tonnes of CO2 per year, much less than a meat-based diet] and we try and buy in season and local food as much as we can and a veggie diet is cheaper.
- Cleaning – We use scraps of old clothes and towels for mopping up in the kitchen and bathroom instead of paper towels and we buy toilet rolls from Cut The Crap which are wonderful and plastic-free. We use a bar of Sunlight soap for cleaning. On balance we probably save money here.
- Stuff – Being frugal we don’t buy lots of stuff, whether made from plastic or not. We mostly buy second-hand furniture and clothes, with the exception of technical gear and shoes. We don’t worry about being fashionable and make do and mend as much as we can.
- Getting around – Walking or cycling around Salford and Manchester is our default, whether going to the supermarket, the doctors or friends and this is free or cheap. If we have to go further across Manchester we take the tram or bus. We don’t fly long-haul and rarely fly anywhere at all [the last time we flew was to Milan in early 2017].
- Pets – Although we love cats, we don’t have a pet and instead I just watch them on social media and try and stroke any cat I meet, much cheaper options.
- Family – We had a child but only one [saving around 58.6 tonnes of CO2 a year].
Climate Change Fails
- Fruit and veg – Our fruit and vegetables come mostly from Aldi and we come home with lots of plastic but our finances stay on track! Our meals do focus heavily on things they don’t wrap in plastic but there are always items I want / need that come wrapped up.
- Milk – Although not vegan we prefer soya milk. This comes in tetra paks which are a mixture of plastic and paper and the small amount of cows milk we buy comes in plastic bottles [no milk deliveries to our flat]. The BBC told us that oat milk has the lowest impact on the environment and I did try making my own once!
- Food – Plenty of other food items we eat come in plastic; margarine, cheese, tofu, crisps, washing up liquid, nuts, pasta and rice and more and I have a weakness for Warburtons crumpets that come wrapped in plastic. We aim to spend less than £300 / month on food and drink in supermarkets, cycling across Greater Manchester to buy zero-plastic rice and couscous could be done but something else would have to give.
- Toothpaste – I have looked at toothpaste tablets and haven’t found one that contains potassium nitrate to ease my elderly sensitive teeth. There are ones with fluoride and the price is reasonable [£2.40 for 60 tablets] so I alternate tablets with tubes.
- Clothing – We remain fans of technical quick-drying and hard-wearing clothing and wouldn’t really want to go back to wool or cotton for our hill walking and outdoor lifestyle. We buy quality items that will last, only wash them when we must, mend them and wear them as long as we can but I am sure some of them probably contain micro-beads.
- Scouring – For stubborn cooked-on food we have a wooden pot brush but also buy cheap plastic scourers as we don’t have a dishwasher and need to get things clean by hand.
- Clingfilm – I admit that we have a roll of clingfilm! We have owned this particular roll for around 15 years. Occasionally this is useful but we might not buy anymore when it eventually runs out.
- Campervan – We drive a diesel campervan about 10,000 miles a year; after our flat this is the most expensive thing we own. We only drive it for long distances and it can sit around for a couple of weeks not moving in the winter. According to the carbon calculator this van accounts for around a massive 4 tonnes of CO2 a year.
Sell the campervan you say! Do I really need a campervan? Could I do without the fun of travelling to beautiful places and eating and sleeping in my own home? It is clear that owning a campervan has a massive impact on both our budget and the environment. It negates all the small wins, they are just tinkering around the edges. Until we get rid of our campervan we’ll always be part of the problem and buying loose courgettes or giving up Warburtons crumpets will not shift the balance in favour of the planet. And so for the moment I accept I am a failure.